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Eurovision’s Songs of Shame

The uproar resulting from Israel's participation in Eurovision has ensured tonight's event will only be remembered as a failed attempt to whitewash its Gaza genocide.

Israel's Eden Golan performs at the Eurovision Song Contest rehearsals.

Tonight’s Eurovision Song Contest has already descended into acrimony. All the focus is on the protests outside on the streets of Malmo and the turmoil between the contestants — an inevitable consequence of the decision to allow Israel’s participation, despite its ongoing genocide in Gaza. It was never going to be about anything else. 

Eurovision’s governing body, the European Broadcast Union had rejected demands to exclude Israel, arguing that it is a ‘non-political music competition’. One party that disagreed with the message was Israel. The EBU was forced to require Israel to change the lyrics of its entry, ‘Hurricane’ by Eden Golan — originally titled ‘October Rain’ in reference to last year’s Hamas attack — for breaking its rules on political neutrality. The revised ‘popaganda’ song was permitted.

Eurovision’s ‘non-political’ nature will surprise viewers of the previous two competitions, which abandoned its supposed non-political nature to ban Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Justifying the move, the EBU explained that Russia’s inclusion ‘would bring the competition into disrepute.’ Last year’s event functioned as an equal parts music competition and Ukraine solidarity event: Ukrainian landmarks were celebrated before each song, blue and yellow flags were everywhere, and constant messages of solidarity were broadcast to the programme’s 161 million viewers.

The selective rulings about when Eurovision is and isn’t political are, of course, highly political. When 10,000 civilians are killed in more than two years in Ukraine, Eurovision is political. When 40,000 are killed in Gaza in just 7 months, most of whom women and children, the competition is non-political. The message was clear: the murder of innocents only becomes political when they are killed by the West’s enemies. 

After Eurovision’s failure to ban Israel from the competition, campaigners began imploring artists to withdraw in protest. This push prompted deeply embarrassing excuses from those who refused, including the UK’s Olly Alexander. In a statement, Alexander explained he was ‘not comfortable being silent’ and ‘[stood] in solidarity with the oppressed’ — then made clear he still intended to perform because of the ‘unifying power of music’. Palestinians, meanwhile, have no such opportunity to use their art to unify, as Israel’s genocide extends to the annihilation of their culture

Of course, if the power of song could end wars and liberate the oppressed, it would have already done so. Musicians like Elton John and Paul Simon, who played Apartheid South Africa, ignoring the demands of its black majority and their allies, would have hastened the fall of that regime, but they did not; the anti-apartheid movement did. 

Statements prioritising the supposed unifying power of music carry a sense of self-importance and the self-serving nature of the artists making them — a subsequent interview with Alexander hinted as much: ‘exposure to hundreds of millions of people… does not come round very often.’ The calls for unity also smack of arrogance, purporting to know better than Palestinian civil society, which has unambiguously demanded the opposite: to isolate Israel through a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. 

Israel, for its part, has zero interest in unity with the Palestinians. Its participation in Eurovision only serves as a cover, allowing itself to be presented as an ordinary nation while it persecutes a merciless campaign of annihilation in Gaza. Tonight, as musicians perform on stage, Israeli bombs will kill men, women and children seeking refuge in Rafah, and thousands of Palestinians will be shackled and tortured in Israel’s prison system.

What is already apparent is that Eurovision’s attempt to accommodate Israel has corrupted the event. The anger evident in the protests on the streets has spilt into antagonism between contestants. The popular Dutch entry Joost Klein has been suspended for an altercation after Israeli media mocked the death of his parents — a despicable jib but one fitting from those delighting in the orphaning of Palestinian children. With a characteristic combination of thuggishness and self-pity, the Israeli contingent has been busy insulting and harassing candidates who have voiced support for Palestine, taking particular aim at the Greek and Irish entries. 

None of this should come as a surprise. We have seen in our politics and culture that attempting to accommodate genocide is untenable: political leaders dishonour themselves with lies and hypocrisy, the rule of law is made into a mockery, and society coarsens. The contradictions between ordinary life and extraordinary atrocities cannot hold, and individuals and institutions complicit degrade themselves. Eurovision is no exception. 

Events like tonight will be viewed in the full view of history in a similar vein to the 1936 Berlin Olympics or breaking the boycott on Apartheid South Africa, and the individuals complicit will bear that same shame — including those watching at home.