The European Broadcasting Union’s refusal to allow the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest to take place in Jerusalem shone a light on the gap that remains between Israel and Europe, despite their natural affinity.
Despite the fact that Israel has won the contest four times and hosted the competition in Jerusalem twice (in 1979 and 1999), Europe decided that this year it would not tolerate Jerusalem hosting the contest. Israel won Eurovision last year, and according to the event’s protocol, the winning country’s capital hosts the contest the following year. No matter: Israel’s claim was rejected.
Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city, the European Union has led global opposition to Israeli sovereignty over the city. Israel is an associated state of the European Union, yet its capital—alone among the capitals of all other countries—has never been acknowledged by Europe or, indeed, by most of the world’s states.
In 2001, a well-organized anti-Israel campaign was launched at the first Durban Conference—an event whose stance, ironically, was to “strongly oppose racism.”
This year’s Eurovision has generated a clash for Israel not only with the European Union, but also with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Ever since 2005, Israel has been systematically demonized, delegitimized and boycotted by BDS, a non-governmental movement founded for the express purpose of fighting Israel.
The BDS movement is a well-organized global campaign that exists primarily online. It spreads its message via peer-to-peer networks. By organizing and endorsing the wholesale boycott of Israeli culture, it aims to reduce Israel’s legitimacy as a state.
This tactic is by no means new. It has been in place at least since 1945, when the Arab League adopted an official boycott barring any economic relations between Arab states and the Jews of Palestine, later Israel. A half-century later, in 2001, a well-organized anti-Israel campaign was launched at the first Durban Conference—an event whose stance, ironically, was to “strongly oppose racism.”
Ever since then, there has been a major, ongoing campaign to boycott significant cultural projects in or connected to Israel, including visits by famous singers to Israel, arts festivals in Israel, and so on. Israeli cultural events outside Israel are also targeted by BDS activists.
Nor is the boycott activity restricted to artistic events—it also encompasses academia. In April 2004, an academic boycott of Israel was launched by a group of Palestinian academics and intellectuals in Ramallah—the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, or PACBI.
Any “mega” cultural event that might be good for Israel will be targeted by BDS activists. They explain their thinking this way: When international artists perform at Israeli cultural venues and institutions, they create the impression that Israel is a country like any other. To BDS campaigners, however, Israel is uniquely abnormal.
Eurovision 2019 is, of course, a “mega” event, and as such provides a window of opportunity for BDS activists. Iceland’s techno band Hatari, for example, allegedly intends to use its time onstage to criticize Israeli settlement policy and express support for the Palestinians. An Israeli organization has asked the government to bar the group from the country.
In advance of the event, the BDS movement attacked Eurovision 2019 in several ways:
- It initiated “No to Eurovision pinkwashing,” a campaign in which more than 60 LGBTQ groups from all over the world called for Eurovision in Israel to be boycotted.
- The PLO called on Eurovision organizers not to broadcast the contest in Israel’s “illegal settlements.”
- Netta Barzilai, last year’s winner, was derided as “cultural ambassador for Israel’s regime of occupation and apartheid.”
The Eurovision Song Contest, which has a budget of 28.5 million euros, is among the most watched television events in the world. It has the potential to significantly enhance the global and cultural prestige of the host country and offers huge profit potential through tourism. It boosts the national brand, which can attract economic cooperation and foreign investment.
After a decade of worldwide boycotts against Israel, its victory at last year’s Eurovision improved its soft power standing and boosted both its culture and its diplomatic maneuverability around the world. The cultural component of diplomacy is crucial in terms of influence on foreign audiences and can have a major effect on PR.
The EBU, which organizes Eurovision, said its decision to override Jerusalem’s right to the event in favor of Tel Aviv—Israel’s cultural and commercial capital—was taken simply because of Tel Aviv’s “creative and compelling bid.”
“All the bids were exemplary, but in the end, we decided that Tel Aviv provides the best overall setup for the world’s largest live music event,” said EBU executive supervisor Jon Ola.
The EBU’s sidestepping of the Jerusalem problem did not placate the BDS movement, which has continued to demand the boycott of Eurovision 2019 and is putting heavy pressure on delegates not to show up.
While Israel’s ability to win and then host Eurovision indicates that it does have some degree of soft power, its failure to prevail in the Jerusalem debate shows that this power still has some serious cracks.
Many Eurovision contests were not held in the official capitals of the winning countries. In the case of Israel, however, the siting of the event in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem is a loss, as it represents a victory for the BDS movement. Now that this dent has been made in Israel’s perceived international legitimacy, the BDS movement might be emboldened to try to score more points. Israel would be well-advised to view Eurovision 2019 as a perilous event at which the groundwork may be laid for new diplomatic fights.
The sidestepping of the Jerusalem problem did not placate the BDS movement, which is putting heavy pressure on delegates not to show up.
Because Israel is not a part of Europe, it wasn’t supposed to participate in Eurovision. But Israel’s desire to get closer to Europe, coupled with Europe’s regional interest in Israel, made it possible. Israel, as the only genuine democracy in the Middle East, is an important market for Europe and vice versa. Despite its location, it is a Western country with Western values, which largely explains the mutual attraction between it and the European Union.
By winning last year’s competition, Israel added luster to the strategic financial relationship between itself and Europe. A strongly positive trend in exports to European Union countries that began in the fourth quarter of 2016 continued throughout 2017, with overall exports rising that year by 20 percent year-over-year. In the first half of 2018, Israeli exports to the European Union totaled $8.1 billion, or 33 percent of total exports. This makes Europe the biggest market for Israel’s oversea exports.
Israel also participates in Horizon 2020 (the European Framework Program). This is the largest publicly funded program in the world, with nearly 80 billion euros of funding available for research and innovation over a seven-year period (2014 to 2020). This is a pure soft power game for both sides, mainly for Israel.
In the diplomatic battle over the story of Jerusalem, the BDS movement has scored a victory. It claims that “Israeli forces captured the eastern part of Jerusalem from Jordanian troops in 1967” and insists that thus Jerusalem’s status is under dispute—a premise that has been accepted by the Eurovision song contest’s organizers. This BDS victory provides grist for the Palestinians, who demand eastern Jerusalem as their future capital. BDS has achieved dangerous momentum in its diplomatic war against Israel.
Shay Attias was the founding head (2009-13) of the Public Diplomacy Department at the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and is a doctoral candidate in international relations at Bar-Ilan University.