Malmö Arena entrance: it was ordinary pop fans who were doing the booing

Israel’s nightmare

Rewritten lyrics, canned applause and media spin could not hide the almost universal revulsion against the pending genocide in Gaza. Paul Demarty looks at the politics behind the songs

It may seem, on the face of it, strange for the Eurovision Song Contest to get swept up in global controversy.

As readers will probably be aware, the sticking point this year was - what else? - the participation of Israel, which offered a propaganda song about its suffering at the hands of Hamas. It was so guileless in its original form (title: ‘October rain’) that it was rejected by the Eurovision powers that be, and - after a tense standoff and the intervention of Israeli president Isaac Herzog - was rewritten to be less inflammatory (new title: ‘Hurricane’).

That result was not satisfactory, to put it mildly, to the thousands of Swedes who protested on Saturday night in Malmö, where the contest was held. They made such an almighty ruckus that word spread in the international media that the situation was getting out of control. Boos were drowned out in the venue itself, reportedly by canned applause that the organisers have taken to using for such purposes in true late-Soviet style (in earlier stages of the contest they were heard). It was a tough old road for Eden Golan, the Israeli entrant, to her eventual fifth place finish, the poor dear. The bigger crisis on the night was the last-minute disqualification of Dutchman Joost Klein, for some utterly artificial crisis over a backstage interaction with a journalist; he had previously made statements apparently against Israel’s participation. The Dutch broadcasters - this is all, remember, a lash-up of broadcasters - declined to vote, in protest.

The recriminations continued: Israeli voices were incandescent with rage when Ukraine offered Golan nul points - and gave 10 to Ireland, whose at least verbal protest against Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza has been a minor bright spot in a generally bleak western political scene for all those in solidarity with the Palestinians. (The Irish contestant, Bambie Thug, has also made some lukewarm statements supporting Israel’s exclusion.) Were not both Ukraine and Israel defending “western civilisation” from various Asiatic hordes? Where was the solidarity?

Political subplot

The politics has long been a fun sub-plot of this event. Towards the end of his life, Terry Wogan - who compered Eurovision for the BBC for many years - became notoriously sulky at the way that, for example, the Balkan countries tended to vote for each other. (Some wondered, acerbically, whether Wogan would prefer that the Balkan countries revert to their previous levels of diplomatic relations.) Russia has been effectively excluded from participation since its invasion of Ukraine.

What, exactly, is worth fighting for here? Whatever else it is, Eurovision has never been mistaken for a titanic contest between great artists (something Wagner might make an opera about). The first edition I have any great memory of is that of 1996, when the British entry was by the (Australian) singer Gina G, a cheerful Euro-dance number typical of mid-90s chart trash, which I was convinced was going to win, because I was a rather Whiggish nine-year-old and I thought its use of computers and synths simply made it more advanced than the competition. The voters disagreed, and chose an Austrian piano-playing soul singer by the name of George Nussbaumer. As far as I am aware, Nussbaumer’s subsequent career never took him to the stratosphere, still less outside the German-speaking areas of central Europe. (Gina G had a few hit singles in Britain, and is now an also-ran on the 90s nostalgia circuit.)

This is oddly typical. We have gotten used, in our time, to the format of competitive reality TV shows that produce stars, in the form of the X-factor, Pop idol/American idol, and so on. For a time, the winners of these contests were nailed on to top the charts the next week (usually timed, in this country, to be the last count before Christmas). Exasperation with this phenomenon created the counter-cultural Christmas number one, when in 2009 people managed to get Rage Against The Machine’s sweary leftist rap-metal anthem, ‘Killing in the name’, to the top. Yet no such viral grassroots campaign has ever been necessary to preserve us from Eurovision chart-toppers. It lives in its own, weird, parallel universe, which is visited from time to time by ‘legitimate’ pop stars, but never for long.

Culture and fun

Eurovision is a product of the European Broadcasting Union - one of the many minor lash-ups in particular industries that cropped up between the European Coal and Steel Community and then the European Economic Community. It brings together various public service broadcasters and, because it predates the formalisation of European federalism in the EEC and later the European Union, it is not limited to the countries in formal union. Israel has been a member of the EBU, but so in fact are many countries in the Middle East and central Asia, including Turkey and Azerbaijan, which have offered Eurovision songs many times, and Lebanon (which did so briefly once, until its broadcaster was told it could not censor the Israeli performance).


Golan was not stepping outside the usual bounds of Eurovision content: nationalist bugbears (sanded down well enough to pass muster, according to the strictly ‘apolitical’ self-image of the EBU mandarins) have long had a place in these songs. Yet really what is produced is the spectacle of the big night itself. This is perhaps the only chance that, say, a random Bulgarian chanteuse has of impressing anyone outside her home country; but she does so in the context of a grand display of irrepressible camp. (I suspect that, if you took the names of everyone in Britain holding a Eurovision party at their house, on the one hand, and everyone who has watched more than 10 episodes of RuPaul’s drag race, on the other, you would have essentially the same list of names twice.)

In the classic black comedy film In Bruges, one of the Irish hitman protagonists reluctantly agrees to allow the other to lead the next day’s tourist activities: “I suppose it’ll be all culture and that”, he sulks. “Oh,” the other replies, “I think we will strike a balance between culture and fun.” That is the Eurovision way: hardcore nationalism (culture) meets glitter, glitz and fluff (fun).

The politics is always combustible, of course: a pain in the arse for those merely trying to keep the show on the road. The fact that there is an Israeli entrant and not a Palestinian one is hardly surprising: Palestine is not a state, never mind one with a broadcaster in the EBU. The effect of wars within Europe proper - in the Balkans and more recently Ukraine - is badly destabilising. Yet it is not something like the Olympics, where we really do expect to see the world’s greatest athletes competing, and so there is the possibility of the relevant bureaucracies tut-tutting about the ‘politicisation of sport’. If we really were, per impossibile, looking at a Europe-wide equivalent of the contest in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, perhaps a similar anti-politics argument would make an impact. But Eurovision is candyfloss - that is the whole point. Precisely because it is itself unserious, it invites the incursions of the serious. Genocide rather kills the vibe.

It is clear, then, what states are fighting for when they politick over this avowedly lightweight event. At stake is the ability to be normal - to participate in a frivolous event just as frivolous people. It is Israel that is on the inside of this circle, and the supposed ‘hateful Palestinian terrorists’ on the outside. (Given the camp aspect of things, it also plays into Israel’s disingenuous pinkwashing.)

Good night out

On balance, I think we can say that the Palestinian movement had a good night out in Malmö. It is true that, contrary to our hopes, nobody pulled out in protest, and that - in the end - the thing came off without serious interruption. Nevertheless, the mere fact of a mass protest in the area tended to dominate coverage - whether by progressive types who welcomed it or rightwingers who got into a hysterical lather about ‘hateful mobs’. Insofar as these events are remembered, on this occasion it will be for the failure to take politics off the table; for the way this most frivolous of occasions for once bore the highest possible stakes.

It goes, together with the wider protest movement, against the immolation of Gaza, of course, and even the willingness of states at the United Nations to vote in favour of Palestine in various contexts - most recently a General Assembly vote to welcome Palestine into the UN - and of the drift of world opinion, including in the heartlands of Israel’s firmest backers, against what is going on. It is not a very great comfort, given the horrors being inflicted, to win the moral victory. Still, it matters: it restricts the room for manoeuvre of the wretched accomplices we have for rulers.

That goes for Eurovision and similar affairs as well. It was entirely reasonable for Isaac Herzog to get involved in the lyrical minutiae of Israel’s entry. For him and his ilk, at stake was the ability to project Israel as a victim of aggression, rather than a tyrant in its own right: a brave nation of the Zelensky type, as opposed to a Putin. He justly failed.

Our view is simple: there will be no ‘good, clean fun’, so long as the world’s hands are dirty with Palestinian blood.