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Eurovision struggles to keep politics out as Israel controversy hits Malmö
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Eurovision struggles to keep politics out as Israel controversy hits Malmö

The official motto of the 68th edition of Eurovision is “united by music”, but as the continent’s beglittered and sequined masses descended on the Swedish city of Malmö for Saturday’s grand final, music’s ability to heal and bridge divides was looking in serious doubt.

In the run-up to the song contest’s main event, the Netherlands’ performer Joost Klein missed his slot in two dress rehearsals after being put under investigation by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) due to an unexplained “incident”.

“We are currently investigating an incident that was reported to us involving the Dutch artist. He will not be rehearsing until further notice,” the EBU said in the statement.

At a press conference on Thursday night, several performers, including Klein, had signalled their frustration that the debate around the inclusion of Israel – guaranteed after the singer Eden Golan qualified at the semi-finals – was likely to overshadow the world’s largest live music event.

Klein, who is due to perform just before Golan on Saturday night, was asked at a press conference if his gabber-infused pop anthem to free movement, Europapa, could live up to the competition’s unifying motto. He said pointedly: “I think that’s a good question for the EBU.”

Joost KleinView image in fullscreen

In March, the association of broadcasters ruled that Israel was allowed to compete as long as it changed the lyrics to its entry, then called October Rain, about the trauma of the Hamas massacre on 7 October.

The EBU has defended its decision by saying Eurovision is “a non-political music event” and “not a contest between governments”.

Golan, 21, had been ordered by Israel’s national security agency to stay in her hotel room between performances and was ushered to dress rehearsals in a convoy of cars. At the lineup of semi-finalists, she cut a forlorn figure near the stage exit, not least because the other participants did not appear willing to volunteer gestures of solidarity.

When a Polish journalist asked Golan if she had considered that her presence at the contest might be endangering the other acts and the attending fans, there were murmurs around the auditorium and the host intervened to say she did not have to answer the question if she did not want to. “Why not?” interjected Klein, who sat next to her, a Dutch flag draped over his head.

The Greek performer Marina Satti also appeared to mimic falling asleep when Golan was asked a question by Israeli press.

Bambi Thug, a non-binary singer representing Ireland at this year’s competition, said the debate around Israel’s inclusion had “completely overshadowed everything”.

“It goes against everything that Eurovision is meant to be,” they said.

The group of performers gathering at Eurovision was “a big, big community” and Israel’s contestant Golan “was never allowed to even meet us”, they added. “God forbid we have some conversations where minds might be changed.”

Bambi Thug, who before Thursday’s first semi-final was made to remove makeup from their body that spelled out the word “Ceasefire” in a medieval Celtic script, said they did not know exactly what happened at the incident for which Klein was being investigated. “But I am with anyone who is pro-Palestine.”

In the run-up to the song contest, pro-Palestinian activists had unsuccessfully urged participating artists to boycott the five-day event.

As fans from across Europe, dressed in colourful suits, sequined dresses and draped in national flags, made their way to the venue on Thursday, about 5,000 protesters gathered at Malmö’s Stortorget square with Palestinian flags, black-and-white keffiyeh scarves and banners reading “Boycott Israel”.

One of them was Christofer Kibbon, 19, who attended the protest as a member of Fridays for Future Sweden. “Israel is using the ESC to ‘pink-wash’ themselves,” he said. The fact that Israel was asked by the broadcasters’ union to modify its entry, he said, “shows they are trying to spread their message”.

In the city centre, many of the official posters and banners have been graffitied over to read “United by genocide”. More protests are expected on Saturday.

At a smaller rally in Malmö’s Davidshall neighbourhood on Thursday evening, heavily guarded by police, about 120 people waved Israeli and Swedish flags, sang Golan’s Hurricane and danced the horah to a previous Israeli Eurovision entry.

“Golan was coming to very hateful surroundings [in Malmö] and we absolutely did not like that,” said Jehoshua Kaufman, one of the gathering’s organisers. “We wanted to welcome her and have a tribute to the people murdered at the Nova festival on 7 October.

“There is such a fear of having different opinions in this city. You can probably walk around Malmö with a kippah, but not with an Israeli flag.”

Shortly before making his comments, a woman walked up to Kaufman’s congregation shouting “genocide” and “murderers”, before being escorted away by police.

France famously called Eurovision a “monument to drivel” when it declined to send an entry in 1982. Yet even drivel is rarely apolitical.

Originally conceived of as an experimental vehicle for new cross-border broadcasting techniques, the song contest’s ethos of European unity was “almost an unintended consequence of the political context in postwar Europe”, said Paul Jordan, a cultural historian who was part of the international jury for the French national selection for Eurovision in 2019.

The bridges that the contest is able to build are nonetheless real. There are not many events in Europe where Swiss non-binary singers make friends with Greek dancers, acerbic Estonians dance behind the stage with bubbly Armenians dressed in folk dresses, or where young Turkish fans cheer on Greece, its longstanding rival in the Aegean Sea.

The Greek singer Marina Satti welcomed her new fans with open arms on Thursday night: “We really love Turkey,” she said at the press conference after the second semi-final, while also commemorating the absence of Romania and Bulgaria and insisting that the musical traditions of the eastern Mediterranean region go deeper than the national boundaries of today.

Owing to Eurovision’s supposedly apolitical status, even simple messages are often articulated in a veiled way, which has given the proceedings around the contest a surreal air this year.

“We are the only country in the world that is in the shape of a butterfly,” said the Latvian singer Dons after progressing to the finals. “A butterfly symbolises hope and freedom because to be a butterfly, you have to fly and you have to be free. And every country in the world deserves to be free.”

Was he talking about Latvia and its fellow Baltic states in the post-Soviet space? Ukraine? Palestine? At a song contest as highly charged with political debates as this year’s, it’s unlikely to be the last talking point.

Source: theguardian.com