The results of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest and the reactions to it were as disturbing to foreign Israel-haters as they were to some of the nation’s most fervent domestic critics. At a time when supporters of the BDS movement and those most eager to treat the country’s 70th birthday as more of a commemoration of the Palestinian nakba (“catastrophe”), the victory of Netta Barzilai proved a puzzlement.
With the international community focused on criticizing the bloodshed along the border with Gaza and the America’s acknowledgement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—coupled with a rising tide of anti-Semitism sweeping through Europe—how could an Israeli pop star win an international competition by dint of viewer support throughout the continent? With so much of the world so determined to deny that the ancient capital of the Jewish people is part of Israel, how is it that an event watched by an estimated 300 million people all over the globe could end with the winner echoing the traditional refrain of “Next year in Jerusalem?”
It may be reading too much into a cheesy, made-for-TV show that has always been long on kitsch and short on just about anyone’s definition of culture to treat the victory of the Israeli singer as an earth-shattering event. But the Eurovision contest may explain about as well as anything else why, despite the seemingly overwhelming odds in their favor, the Palestinians and the BDS movement are losing and Israel is winning. Barzilai may not be exactly what the country’s founders would have imagined to be the stuff of a national symbol of the Jewish state. But her winning of the top prize singing a song about female empowerment (while doing a chicken dance) shows that Israel is more accepted abroad that its enemies imagine.
In a week when the anniversary of Israeli independence is routinely referred to more as the Palestinian national disaster day than one of celebration, someone who was not ashamed to call herself a proud Israeli could be celebrated by the world. Perhaps Barzilai’s song “Toy” was just too infectious and her kimono-clad performance too irresistible to be denied the approval of Eurovision’s audience that voted her to victory. Those who have done so much to demonize the Jewish state have to be scratching their heads about how easily Barzilai—who did her national service in the Israeli Navy—overcame the deluge of propaganda they’ve been selling the world about Israel being an apartheid state that must be isolated and shamed at every possible occasion.
In that sense, it’s no wonder that her triumph was treated as something of a national holiday by thousands of Israelis who celebrated over the weekend in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. It wasn’t the first time that an Israeli had won Eurovision, and the contest has always celebrated diversity. But the singer also talked about it being a plus for Israel’s image—a point that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made when he called her the country’s “best ambassador.”
Theodor Herzl longed for the Jewish state he envisioned to be a “normal” country. Given the historic baggage that Jewish identity carries for both the Jews and for anti-Semites, perhaps that was always the part of Zionism that seemed an impossible dream. But as Israelis cheered on Barzilai, it was hard not to see that the world’s acceptance of her extended to them as well.
Israel’s opponents continue to speak and act as if their ultimate victory is inevitable. Delusional as their actions may be, the Palestinians charging the border between Gaza and Israel seem to truly believe that “return”—which is shorthand for erasing the last 70 years of history and dispossessing the Jews of Israel—is realistic. Though Israel has developed a First World economy and is considered the “Startup Nation” known as a haven for high-tech, BDS supporters still speak as if they can bring it to its knees by badgering U.S. college cafeterias not to sell hummus or convincing rock bands not to perform in Israel. They fail to see that even though foreign-policy experts have been foretelling its doom for decades, Israel has grown in wealth, strength and spirit despite the challenge of a seemingly insoluble conflict with the Palestinians.
Winning a song contest doesn’t mark the final defeat of anti-Semitism or the century-old Arab war against Zionism. The vituperation against Barzilai on social media after her win—in which leftists accused her of being a saleswoman for oppression or guilty of cultural appropriation—showed that hate is still alive and well.
It doesn’t eliminate the numerous challenges facing the country on a number of domestic and foreign fronts. Nor does it absolve Israel’s friends of the need to defend the justice of its cause; after all, if the world ever does buy into the canard about apartheid, it won’t matter how much anyone likes Barzilai, Tel Aviv beaches or achievements in the technology industry.
But as insignificant as Eurovision may be in the big picture, it is a reminder to those of us who tend to focus only on the conflict that the Jewish state is not only alive and well, but also accepted by more of the world than perhaps we thought. To some who speak of their shame at the cost of Israel’s ability to defend itself against those who would destroy it, the celebration over Barzilai is particularly upsetting. They assume that international opinion agrees that there is nothing good about an Israel born in the original sin of the nakba. But, as they are about so much else, Zionism’s foes are wrong about that, too.
A world in which the spirit of Netta is more powerful than the nakba narrative is one in which its enemies have to know that Israel will never be defeated. Whatever you might think of her music or Eurovision, that’s why all of Israel’s friends should be celebrating her unlikely 70th birthday present.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.