Eurovision Song Contest: In Tune with What’s Right

Eurovision 2012 will take place in Baku, Ajerbaijan later this month. Photo credit: Vlad Gerasimov

The year is 1978. You are sitting in your home in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan watching the Eurovision Song Contest on television. Suddenly the broadcast is suspended, and an image of flowers appears on your TV screen.Later you are told that the winning song was performed by singers from Belgium.

In fact, the Eurovision winner that year was Israel.

The Eurovision Song Contest was conceived in 1956, as a way to bring Europeans together after World War II. Entry is open to all countries that participate in the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Israel has taken part since 1973, winning in 1978, 1979 and 1998. Israeli superstars Sarit Hadad and Rita are just two Eurovision performers that have gone on to stellar careers (click here for a delightful video recap of Israeli entries over the past twenty years).

In 1978, when it became apparent that Israel would win, Jordan cut its broadcast, announcing later that second-place Belgium had won top honors. Looking back at this sorry tale, one might reasonably argue that this took place a generation ago, that Israel and Jordan have honored a peace treaty since 1994 (this week protesters in Jordan call for an end to that treaty), and that attitudes in the Arab world have matured.

If only.

As recently as 2005, Lebanon, about to enter the contest for the first time, withdrew rather than adhere to rules which require every competing country to air the entire broadcast, including the Israeli entry. To this day, many Arab countries that are eligible to enter choose not to.

Granted, Arab countries have significant, longstanding differences with Israel. Yet, their inability to tolerate even the mild level of cross cultural exposure and cooperation involved in the Eurovision Song Contest reveals a pathetic level of dysfunction and immaturity.

Try to imagine something comparable in Israel. Recall, for example, just a few months ago when both Israeli and Iranian films were among those competing for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Yes, Iran. Not exactly what you’d call a friend to Israel. Did Israel withdraw from the Oscar contest rather than compete with- and lose to- Iran? Guess who won the Oscar? (and it was not Israel)

If it were only Arab countries that carried on this way it would be bad enough but the boycott mentality is spreading. A well organized movement called “BDS” (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) has taken hold in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. Likening Israel to apartheid South Africa, BDS calls for a boycott of Israeli culture and educational institutions, among other things. How does this play out? Examples abound. Popular performers like Elvis Costello and the Pixies have canceled their scheduled concerts in Israel. Likewise for jazz musician Cassandra Wilson and Grammy winner Carlos Santana, due to pressure from Palestinian activists. When Israeli artists travel abroad they are often met with hostility and aggressive efforts to cancel their performances.

Israeli athletes have been subject to boycott as well. As noted on the website of the organization “Stand With Us”, “Israeli athletes have either been excluded from international competitions or forced to play their final matches without fans present because of “security concerns,” as happened during the Davis Cup finals in Sweden last year.”

The boycott not only extends to universities, it is in these very institutions, supposedly dedicated to the free exchange of ideas, that BDS finds some of its most ardent support. Academics that purport to teach critical thinking and analysis lay the entire blame for a decades-long political conflict squarely on Israel. In the absence of similar actions against some of the world most repressive regimes- China, Syria, Zimbabwe, and North Korea come to mind- the whole exercise against Israel reeks of hypocrisy and bad faith. Ironically, some of those boycotted Israeli academics are deeply sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, scholars and teachers committed to reaching a fair resolution to the conflict.

Other tactics of the movement include economic boycotts- urging companies to stop doing business with Israel, lobbying retailers to stop carrying Israeli goods, or pushing for retirement funds to divest of their financial holdings in Israel. On the local scene, a lawsuit that called for the state of Minnesota to sell the $18 million in Israeli bonds held in the state’s portfolio was, thankfully, just dismissed.

The bottom line question that must be asked is this:

Is BDS a tool of reconciliation or a tool that will actually prolong the conflict?

Israeli-Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh answers this question in a strongly worded essay that cuts through the hypocrisy of the BDS crowd. Challenging them to work toward the kind of reforms so badly needed in Palestinian society, Abu Toameh says:

If anyone is entitled to be called “pro-Palestinian,” it is those who are publicly campaigning against financial corruption and abuse of human rights by Fatah and Hamas. Those who are trying to change the system from within belong to the real “pro-Palestinian” camp….

He continues, citing examples of work that can actually make a difference, unlike some of the feel-good theatrics that pass for “activism”:

Instead of investing money and efforts in organizing Israel Apartheid Week, for example, the self-described “pro-Palestinians” could dispatch a delegation of teachers to Palestinian villages and refugee camps to teach young Palestinians English. Or they could send another delegation to the Gaza Strip to monitor human rights violations by the Hamas authorities and help Palestinian women confront Muslim fundamentalists who are trying to limit their role to cooking, raising children and looking after the needs of their husbands…..

The “pro-Palestinian” activists in the West clearly do not care about reforms and good government in the Palestinian territories. As far as these activists are concerned, delegitimizing Israel and inciting against “Zionists” are much more important that pushing for an end to financial corruption and violence in Palestinian society.….If the “pro-Palestinian” camp in the West were investing a similar amount of its anti-Israel efforts in promoting moderation and civil society among Palestinians, it would be doing them a great service.

Fortunately, there are scholars with the moral courage to oppose the boycott, as demonstrated by thirty-seven Nobel laureates who signed a petition in 2010 supporting Israeli academia and denouncing the boycott. Columbia University president Lee Bollinger has been particularly outspoken in opposing the boycott, authoring a 2007 anti-boycott statement signed by three hundred university presidents.

That brings us back to the Eurovision Song Contest and the moral courage they have demonstrated. Eurovision 2012 will take place in Baku, Azerbaijan later this month. Singers from forty-three countries will come together- for the joy of music, the challenge of competition, the beauty of cultural exchange. Eurovision’s rules of fair play will prevail – if your country participates, you must broadcast the songs of every participating country.

Imagine, for a moment, a world where everyone was singing that tune!