Israel and Eurovision

Like most other countries at Eurovision, Israel has produced a mixed bag of entries over the years.

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“She is just like me”- Shiri Maimon (left) and Noa Kirel (right), who was last year’s Israeli Eurovision entry and also performed well at the contest.

Israel’s strong performance in this year’s Eurovision, which primarily came down to the huge number of points the country received in the popular vote as opposed to the vote of national juries, prompted me to write on X that a “considerable amount of the passionate pro-Palestine sentiment on social media and in demonstrations is an echo chamber.” Since these remarks went viral and X is not the best platform for elaborating one’s thoughts, I decided it would be better to go into more depth here.

Predictably, I received a number of responses to what I wrote claiming that Israel’s performance was primarily due to a mass mobilisation of Jewish and/or supporters of Israel taking advantage of the voting system (which allows for each user to cast up to 20 votes). While there was encouragement by some Israelis and supporters of Israel for people to vote for Israel, and while I am sure some did vote for Israel for political reasons, there is no real statistical evidence to demonstrate the impact of that encouragement. Thus, explaining Israel’s success at Eurovision primarily in these terms strikes me as a conspiracy theory.

Instead, there is a far simpler explanation for Israel’s success that gets to the heart of what I meant: that is, large masses of people in Western countries simply do not have such strong feelings and opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that they view Israel at Eurovision through the lens of that conflict. Rather, they judge Israel at Eurovision primarily on the basis of the quality of the song and the on-stage performance, and this year, very many viewers and voters happened to like Israel’s entry, which had already enjoyed a favourable reception prior to the night of the final.

Like most other countries at Eurovision, Israel has produced a mixed bag of entries over the years. Views will vary according to aesthetic taste, but personally speaking, I did not at all like the last Israeli entry that won Eurovision (2018). I thought the entries this year and last year were good and worth voting for, but in my view the best Israeli entry during the past two decades came in 2005- which notably brought Israeli pop singer Shiri Maimon to international attention. She did well in the contest (placing fourth), and she has since attained virtual superstar status in Israel. In her concerts in Israel, she frequently performs her Eurovision entry, attesting to the song’s popularity in her home country.

The point behind all this is that even as someone who has followed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I do not feel an urge to judge Israel’s Eurovision entry on the basis of sentiment towards Israel and the Palestinian cause. If the circles of people you follow and interact with on social media constantly talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and if you observe the various pro-Palestinian rallies held on campuses and in various Western cities, and if you follow mainstream media outlets’ coverage of the conflict and the votes held at the United Nations, then it may be tempting to assume that the conflict is the main topic or a major topic of passionate discussion among most people or huge masses of people in Western countries. But such an assumption is an example of what Richard Landes would call cognitive egocentrism. If you are in a provincial town or village in Europe or the United States, consider this: when you go about your daily life, how many Palestinian or Israeli banners do you see? When you are at a restaurant, tavern, on public transport or in some public place, how many conversations do you overhear about the conflict? In truth, there are many other concerns on people’s minds besides the conflict: jobs, personal lives, relationships, gossip, popular entertainment, domestic politics, and the like. The world does not necessarily revolve around your primary interests and concerns.

Why do I speak of a considerable amount of pro-Palestinian sentiment on social media and in demonstrations as being in an echo chamber? Because while I cannot speak of exact proportions of differences in opinions within pro-Palestinian discourse and the activist movement, a considerable amount of pro-Palestinian sentiment on social media and in demonstrations is in fact opposed to Israel’s existence and wishes for a total boycott of Israel as part of a campaign to end its existence, and the Eurovision votes for Israel, among other things, show that large masses of people in Western countries are not going to be won over to such positions. While activists and demonstrators can speak of an ideal of ‘one state with equal rights for all’ and say that the slogan ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ is a simple call for freedom and justice, the actual practical outcome would be the end of Israel, whose name, national symbols and basic identity are all premised on the idea of a Jewish state that exists by virtue of a Jewish demographic majority that exercises sovereignty.

One does not have to suppose violent visions of massacres and deportations of Israeli Jews (although some do wish for the latter outcome). Rather, as I have noted before, the one-state concept with the right of return that would almost certainly come with it would simply lead to a Palestinian demographic majority, which would justifiably want the state’s identity to be Palestinian based on its majority. In other words, Israel’s existence ends and is replaced by Palestine. Not only is effectively trying to make Israel undo its own existence a non-starter for the political consensus within Israel, but it is also not a realistic cause to rouse the passions of large masses of people in the West, who will wonder what should make them feel so threatened and so enraged by Israel that they should wish for Israel’s existence to be done away with. Some of the activists in the pro-Palestinian movement realise this problem, and accordingly try to portray Israel as a ‘threat to humanity,’ though in a way that is hardly convincing. It is one thing to try to exert pressure to stop Israel’s military campaign in Gaza (something that many Israeli protestors are seeking to do by calling for an immediate ceasefire and hostage deal) or call for the establishment of a Palestinian state, quite another to wish that Israel will cease to exist, either by doing away with itself or through being dismantled by external forces.

Mutatis mutandis, similar remarks can be made in relation to the Syrian civil war and reception of musicians. Ten to twelve years ago, when the war was far more prominent on social media and in mainstream media coverage and was discussed far more in policy debates, it might have been tempting to assume that the conflict would come to dominate discussions among people in the region and on more worldwide scale for the foreseeable future, and that anything Syria-related would come to be perceived through the lens of the conflict. Yet this does not at all seem to be what has transpired.

Consider the case of Faia Younan, arguably one of the better known contemporary singers of Syrian origin. She has released a number of songs and has also given many concerts throughout the Arab world (including in Syria itself, TunisiaEgyptKuwait and Saudi Arabia). Many Syrian opposition activists and more passionate supporters of the original uprising against the Syrian government dislike her as they perceive her to be a supporter of Bashar al-Assad. While she is not exactly putting up posts proclaiming love for Syria’s president, it is not hard to see where the perception comes from when you see the photo of her below, and consider some of her connections and whom she takes seriously politically (her sister has worked for the pro-Hezbollah channel al-Mayadeen, for instance).

Whatever Faia’s perceived sympathies might be with regards to the Syrian conflict, there is little evidence that they have substantially impacted the good deal of favourable reception she has received both because of her vocal talents and (it has to be said) her looks. She also undoubtedly enhances her popular appeal in the Arab world in particular through vocal proclamation of support for the Palestinian cause to the point that it is clear that she wishes for the end of Israel’s existence- something that does not resonate in the West but does in the Arab world. None of this is to say that huge swaths of people in the (Sunni) Arab world are really just pro-Assad, but rather that they do not feel passionately enough about the Syrian conflict to decide that someone like Faia should be boycotted because of her perceived positions on the war in Syria.

In short, don’t fall for social media and protest bubbles, which can create false impressions of what is dominating people’s everyday discourse and thoughts.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is an independent analyst and a doctoral candidate at Swansea University, where he focuses on the role of historical narratives in Islamic State propaganda. His public media work focuses primarily on the Islamic State, Iraq, and Syria, and he has been cited in numerous outlets for his insights, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Agence France-Presse, and the Associated Press. His website is www.aymennjawad.org.

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