As Israel ramps up the PR machine in the run-up to Eurovision, Sara O’Rourke explains why this years’ programme isn’t just a song contest, but a dangerous propaganda opportunity for Netanyahu’s government which should be boycotted.
While Palestinians dream of returning to their homes, and fight for Palestine free of Israeli oppression, ‘Dare to Dream’ is ironically the theme of this years Eurovision song contest being held in Israel.
The poet Mahmoud Darwish lyrically describes life for Palestinians:
“We are captives, even if our wheat grows over the fences,
and swallows rise from our broken chains.
We are captives of what we love, what we desire, and what we are.”
Gaza, the biggest open air prison in the world, has been under blockade for 12 years now, with its 2 million inhabitants captive, living without proper access to water and electricity, and deprived of the most basic commodities. A UN report in 2012 claimed that Gaza would become ‘unlivable’ by 2020.
The West bank is another kind of prison where people are denied basic freedom of movement and suffer daily harassment from the Israeli army. An estimated 500-700 Palestinian children are arrested, detained and prosecuted in the Israeli court system each year.
The Right to Return
In the last year, since the Great March of Return protests began in Gaza, over 240 Palestinians have been killed and over 23,000 people have been wounded. The protests are calling for Palestinian refugees to be allowed to return to birthplace their families were ethnically cleansed from in 1948. There are 7.54 million Palestinian refugees in the world as well as 720,000 internally displaced.
The Right of Return for refugees is universally recognised and it is illegal under international law to deny refugees of a particular race, color, national or ethnic origin the right to return to their homes. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, their case is not universally recognised and the right of return for Palestinians has become a political position, with Israel’s blatant crimes against the Palestinians generally ignored by the international community.
Around the world, thanks in part to social media and to the BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) movement, there has been a growing awareness that Israel is a terror state. The role of artists and musicians in this has been vital, with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd throwing his weight behind the Palestinians and the BDS movement while Nick Cave’s decision to break the boycott and defended Israel was met with derision and condemned by many.
Waters recorded verses of Darwish with Palestinian band Joubran, as a rebuke to President Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by moving the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv. “After the relics are gone/ Where, oh white master, are you taking my people … and yours?”
In May this year the Eurovision song contest will be held in Tel Aviv and calls have gone out from Palestine to boycott the event, in the spirit of the boycott of Apartheid South Africa.
For those of us growing up in Ireland in the late 80s and 90s Eurovision night was a night for staying up past normal bedtime, at the edge of one’s seat as Europe in all it’s finery was beamed into our sitting rooms. Ireland won the Eurovision song contest 7 times including 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1996.
Each win saw the competition being held here and those moments were a source of great national pride, allowing us the opportunity to invite Europe into our tiny nation, to showcase our talents and for one night only be centre stage of the European project. Riverdance was the interval performance in 1994, launching a multi-million euro international phenomenon. It was an opportunity to project a particular national image on a grand scale.
It offers Israel the same opportunity now. To showcase Tel Aviv as a vibrant, modern city, comparable with European capital cities and Israel as a benevolent state comparable with other states. When Netta Barzilai won the Eurovision last year in Lisbon, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called her ‘Israel’s greatest ambassador’, illustrating how important what many will say is just a song contest, in projecting a national image.
Many of us know that Israel is not comparable with most countries. It is a militarised state, an inherently racist state, run with a Zionist ideology that views Palestinians as a lesser form of human, interns 2 million people in an open air prison, bulldozes homes and olive farms, regularly murders civilians and commits violence against children. A normal state does not build an apartheid wall, that is over 400 miles long and 26 ft high, that cuts villages and farms in half, to keep one section of its population separate from another.
Noam Chomsky goes as far as to say that what Israel is doing is worse than Apartheid South Africa.
LGBT+ join the boycott
In the intervening 20 years since Ireland’s Eurovision heyday, things have changed. Ireland hasn’t won since the 90’s and it is now more often called ‘Gay Christmas’. A celebratory date in the LGBTQ+ community calendar, Dublin bars such as Pantibar and The George hold Eurovision parties hosted by celebrity drag queens.
Already this year more than 60 LGBT+ organisations from across the world, including Ireland, have signed a petition organised by Queer groups in Palestine, calling for a boycott of the contest in Tel Aviv.
The petition calls:
“on members of the European Broadcasting Union, our public broadcasters, to withdraw from the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest hosted by Israel, to avoid being complicit in Israel’s ongoing violations of Palestinian human rights.”
“LGBTQIA communities are refusing to allow queer and trans liberation to be used by the Israeli regime of oppression as a progressive smoke screen to conceal its violent oppression of Palestinians. They are saying, ‘Our rights are indivisible from the rights of all oppressed communities.’
“Joining and promoting the call to boycott Eurovision 2019 in Israel and Tel Aviv Pride help expose the Israeli government’s reprehensible co-opting of queer rights as a public relations tool to hide its crimes against Palestinians. They strike a blow to its shameful pinkwashing strategy to maintain its apartheid regime and its decades-old colonization and occupation of Palestine.”
A national campaign from The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC), Palfest Ireland and Trade Union Friends of Palestine (TUFP) was formed in June and in September RTÉ was presented with a petition with over 11,000 signatures (now almost 15,000) calling on our national broadcaster and prospective participants to heed the call for boycott coming from Palestine and not to take part in the contest this year.
Irish Eurovision figures have endorsed the boycott call, including former broadcaster and commentator Mike Murphy, 1994 contest winner Charlie McGettigan, Riverdance set designer Robert Ballagh, and former Eurovision presenters Carrie Crowley and Doireann Ní Bhriain. In Britain celebrities such as Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, musician Peter Gabriel, film directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach and designer Vivienne Westwood have called on the BBC to boycott the event. London punk-pop band The Tuts refused to enter the competition because it is being held in Israel.
In recent weeks, significantly, the NUJ’s (National Unions of Journalists) Dublin Broadcasting Branch has pledged to support any member who chooses to exercise a conscientious objection towards involvement in the contest:
‘The Dublin Broadcasting Branch condemns Israel’s continued attacks on journalists and on freedom of expression and notes that since last April its forces have shot and killed two journalists reporting from Gaza’s border and injured with live rounds at least 20 more.
The branch welcomes the statement by RTE’s Director General Dee Forbes that RTÉ will not sanction any staff member who declines to travel to Israel to cover the forthcoming Eurovision Song Contest on conscientious grounds.’
While all these moves are positive, it is also the case that the Israeli state is intensifying its PR campaign. Rumours on social media that pop superstar Madonna will be the interval act at the contest indicates that they will try to pull in the biggest and best acts in the world to bolster their image in the face of the growing boycott movement. A 2005 statement from the Israeli foreign ministry stated, “We see culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank, and…do not differentiate between propaganda and culture.” Musician and producer Brian Eno’s recent Guardian article makes the point well; that restrictions on the movement of Palestinians will mean most of them will in fact be excluded from Eurovision events and demands that “Israel must not be allowed to use Eurovision as a propaganda tool”.
The growing global BDS movement plays an enormous role in undermining Israel’s position and exposing its crimes. We must therefore intensify our own efforts to put pressure on RTE, the national broadcaster, and the musicians who may be intending to play in Israel.
An impressive 641 artists, musicians and cultural workers in Ireland have signed the boycott pledge to date but many people who are fans of Eurovision may not even know about the BDS campaign and if they do, may yet need to be convinced of the importance of the boycott.
Anti-Zionism Not Anti-Semitism
Opponents of the boycott say it is anti-Semitic but being anti-Zionist is not the same as being anti-Jewish. It is not anti-Jewish to protest the mass imprisonment of Gazans or the violence of the Israeli army against women, children and even people with disabilities – 56 children were killed just last year alone.
Jewish Voices for Peace, one of the most important activist groups in America, said:
“…we have come to see that Zionism was a false and failed answer to the desperately real question many of our ancestors faced of how to protect Jewish lives from murderous antisemitism in Europe.
While it had many strains historically, the Zionism that took hold and stands today is a settler-colonial movement, establishing an apartheid state where Jews have more rights than others. Our own history teaches us how dangerous this can be.” 1
“Would the Eurovision have held the contest in apartheid South Africa?” a statement, signed by the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate and network of Palestinian cultural organisations, asks.
The greatest act of solidarity that we can extend to the people of Palestine in the months ahead is to spread the message of boycott, and ensure that Eurovision is not a PR success for the Zionist state.