Sunday, May 25, 2003

Eurovision and the Jews

For Israelis who are convinced that anti-Semitism remains rampant, especially in Europe, there is no better proof than the Eurovision Song Competition.

Eurovision is an annual rite that most North American readers of this column are probably completely unaware of. It started in 1956 as a small song contest between a few Western European nations. Since then, it has expanded to encompass most of newly liberated Eastern Europe, as well as a few more far-flung countries such as Israel and Turkey.

Eurovision is a big deal in these parts. Big in ratings: it regularly attracts an audience in the hundreds of millions. And big in embarrassment. The gaudiness of the groups chosen to represent their respective countries is excelled only by the blandness and superficiality of the songs.

Of course, that defines much of pop music in general these days. But Eurovision takes its mission to new levels of kitsch.

To succeed in the world of Eurovision, you'd do best to imitate Abba, which won in 1975 with Waterloo. Now I know that Abba has a big hit Broadway musical and is all the rage these days, but suffering through 26 second rate Abba-clones in succession pretty much epitomizes the definition of middle-of-the-road.

The payoff for coming out on top, however, is that the winning country gets to host the next year’s show. This has proven to be an excellent opportunity for national promotion and is perhaps the reason the contest is supported so strongly on the governmental level. Between each song, the host country is allowed to air 30-second snippets displaying the country’s rich history and tourism opportunities. This year’s winner, Latvia, treated us to a series of picturesque travelogues from host city Riga.

Israel, remarkably, has won the competition three times now, back to back in 1978 and 1979, and most recently with notorious transsexual Dana International singing "Diva" in 1998.

But we followed Dana with a series of mediocre songs, the only one of which that was even half-memorable an upbeat ditty called Happy Birthday sung by Eden, a half-Ethiopian, half-Black Hebrew group (I guess someone figured that, other than another sex-change operation, the only way to distract the world from the fact it was still Israel performing was to throw in a bit of politically correct multi-culturalism).

Which brings us to the question of Eurovision and anti-Semitism. The fact that we have won three times admittedly deflects a little steam out of the argument made by our more paranoid pundits that Israel couldn’t possibly win because Europe hates the Jews.

Still, whenever Israel scores too low, those same pundits whine that it’s all political. That's when we hear sputtering like:

Look, Norway gave Israel only two votes. That must say something.

Or: What’s the deal the Netherlands?

Oh, we can always count on Germany to give us the guilt vote. And the Eastern European nations are usually friendly friendlier than so-called Old Europe.

But has anyone ever considered the possibility that maybe some of our songs just suck?

No, it couldn’t be as straightforward as that, the pundits cry. True, Dana won in 1998. But that wasn’t on the basis of musical talent. Rather, the world was still flush with feel-good Oslo-era sentiment, and we were simply being rewarded for our political flexibility. Right?

Give me a break, guys! It’s just a silly song contest. Sure, winning fills us with national pride, but reading into every little thing can make you stark-raving Euro-crazy.

I'm not denying the existence of anti-Semitism by any means. The number of incidents in metropolitan Paris alone should give anyone concerned about the future of the Jews in Europe serious thought for pause.

At the same time, I've got to ask: why are we in the Eurovision contest at all? We’re clearly not a part of the European continent.

Well, maybe this year’s entry from Israel explains it.

Words of Love” by Lior Narkis was sung not only in Hebrew but English, French and Italian by a Ricky Martin-wannabe surrounded by five Israeli babes with the letters L.O.V.E.U. emblazoned on their chests.

Is Israel's participation in Eurovision really about our desperate need for acceptance from Paris and Rome?

Despite the continuing absurdity and said bigger geo-political questions, Jody and I never miss the show. We wildly cheer on the Israelis and laugh at everyone else. This year, eleven-year-old Amir joined us. It’s become a regular family rite-of-passage in the Blum household.

And how did Israel do this year? Truth be told, ours was an acceptably Abba-esque entry and lead singer Narkis acquitted himself with Israeli bravado. I thought it had a real chance. Especially in contrast to Croatia’s blatant Britney Spears rip-off (oops they didn’t do it again) and Austria’s Alf Poier, a novelty act in which a hyperactive singer in a black beret crooned to cardboard cutouts of cows and other Alpen animals.

Maybe it made more sense in German.

In the final tally, Israel placed a disappointing 19 out of the 26 entries this year.

Still, we didn’t do as badly as Britain which failed to score even a single point. Soon after the contest ended, BBC commentator Terry Wogan claimed Britain was a clear victim of “the post-Iraqi backash,” being penalized for the U.K.’s staunch support for Gulf War 2.

Apparently, we’re not the only ones crying discrimination at Eurovision.

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