Noa Kirel, Israel and Eurovision: What’s the big deal?

To be “a country like any other” is all Israel has ever wanted. But wait, what does that have to do with…Eurovision?

As pop star Noa Kirel — AKA “the Israeli Britney Spears” — represents the Jewish state as one of 37 countries at Eurovision, that thought has been stuck in my head, kind of like Kirel’s song, “Unicorn”:

But, for Kirel and many Israelis, Eurovision is about so much more than a music contest: 

“You have no idea what a huge honor it is for me to represent our country. To represent our people with my song and stand on the Eurovision stage in front of the whole world…I’ll try my best to make you proud of me,” she said before boarding the plane to Liverpool for the contest.

So, why is Eurovision important for Israel?

Israel has participated in Eurovision 46 times since first entering the contest in 1973. Of those, it’s won four of them, most recently in 2018.

But wait, last I checked, Israel wasn’t even in Europe, so how can it participate in Eurovision? For that, we have to look at the fine print of the rule book. 

For a country to be eligible, it has to be a member of the European Broadcasting Union, the organizer of the event. Israel’s public broadcaster Kan is part of the Union, so Israel is in. See how it works?

Several other non-European countries have also competed over the years, including Cyprus, Armenia, Morocco, Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Australia, which is so far away from Europe.

In 2011, the Guardian newspaper even sought readers’ opinions on Israel’s participation in the contest. One person, Benjy Arnold, a resident of London, responded:

“The real question is ‘Why does Israel want to enter the Eurovision Song Contest?’ But to be serious, Israel does ‘compete’ in a number of European events (such as soccer and basketball). I think the main reason for this is that its Middle-East neighbors might not be too happy about competing with them.”

It’s a good point, though I think Israel’s decision to participate all these years is a little more complex than that, and I want to share three takeaways about why.

Israel at Eurovision through the years

But first, get to know Israel at Eurovision by watching some of our team’s favorite performances through the years:

“A-Ba-Ni-Bi” by Izhar Cohen and the Alphabeta (1978), Eurovision winner:

“Hallelujah” by Milk & Honey (1979), Eurovision winner:

“Chai” by Ofra Haza (1983), Eurovision winner:

“Diva” by Dana International (1998), Eurovision winner:

“Toy” by Netta Barzilai (2018), Eurovision winner:

“Feker Libi” by Eden Alene (2020):

The diversity of Israel at Eurovision

Eden Alene’s submission song in 2020 — “Feker Libi,” which means “My beloved” in Amharic — has lyrics in Amharic, Arabic, English and Hebrew. Alene, who is of Ethiopian descent, explained: “It’s a song that represents the whole country.”

Noa Kirel had a similar message this year, telling i24 News:

“I’m working on really bringing my culture to my music, globally. I’m half Moroccan, I’m half Austrian, Israelis are so mixed. I want to bring that Israeli hutzpah and who I am to my music.”

In a recent meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and his wife, Michal, she added: “The song ‘Unicorn’ is about being who we are, accepting ourselves, loving ourselves, being proud to be Jewish in the face of the world. It’s a song that calls for diversity and acceptance.”

3 takeaways: Israel’s obsession with Eurovision

When Israel last won Eurovision in 2018, it was a huge deal. It dominated Israeli social media and the front pages of newspapers. Prime Minister Netanyahu even did the chicken dance with the star to celebrate her win. 

But it’s important to note that not everyone takes Eurovision seriously.

Dr. Shayna Weiss, associate director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, notes that “Cynics criticize the festival as a cheesy competition with bad music and outrageous costumes and mock its naïve sentimentality.”

But for Israel, Eurovision holds a special significance and here’s why.

1. For Israel, Eurovision reflects the Zionist dream of being “a country like any other.”

Israelis want to feel accepted. There have always been three main goals for a Jewish state: 

  1. To be normal, just like every other country
  2. To be exceptional, a “light” unto the nations
  3. To be a safe haven from all the antisemitism in the world.

Eurovision, while cheesy and funny, fits into the first category of Israel’s desire to be a normal state.

Israeli-American author Yossi Klein Halevi explained: “Zionism had promised to cure antisemitism by demythologizing the Jews, transforming them into a nation like all the other nations…demystified. Normal.”

It reminds me of my favorite quote by former Israeli basketball star Tal Brody. In 1977, after leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Euroleague championship against Moscow, Brody declared: “We are on the map! And we are staying on the map — not only in sports, but in everything.”

This captured a deep sentiment within Israeli culture. Israel’s participation in Eurovision — and its four wins — makes Israelis feel they are “on the map” just like any other country.

2. Many Israelis feel a deep-seated desire to be loved and accepted by Europeans. 

Now, you’ve got to stick with me on this one. Even though most Israelis are not of European descent, and even though most Israelis would be way too proud to admit, I think that many still feel a kinship and affinity toward European culture.

One of my friends explained it to me like this: The uniqueness of Eurovision is that, unlike in sports where you win or lose, in Eurovision, winning requires millions of people voting for you, saying “We like you!”

Part of having self-confidence and security as an individual or as a nation is feeling accepted by others, and that’s what Eurovision is about for many. 

Competing in the Olympics, the Euroleague and Eurovision, and being a member in the U.N., all of these moments add up to Israel being “on the map.”

The Jewish state doesn’t seek dominance, hegemony over others, or an empire — that’s never been the Jewish way. It just wants to have a state, to be accepted and not to feel like “the Jew among the nations.”

3. Eurovision brings together people from all walks of life.

Noa Kirel recently told i24 News: “I’m an artist…We are here to connect people through music. That’s what is amazing about Eurovision — to put politics aside for one night and connect people through music.”

In a country as diverse as Israel, music is a powerful connector. 

Whether it was Ofra Haza singing “Chai,” Eden Alene singing “Feker Libi” in Amharic, Dana International, a trans artist, performing “Diva,” or Netta Barzilai giving voice to the #MeToo movement with her song “Toy,” Israel’s representatives at Eurovision each bring their unique identities and cultures to their music.

So, what do you think? Can Israel ever be a country like others or will Israelis feel apart? Whether or not it can be, well, that’s up to the rest of the world. Whether or not it should be, that’s a clear yes from me.

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