Eurovision suggests both sides on Israel-Palestine need to invest in some public diplomacy

13 May 2024, 1522 EDT

Last year I was on a sabbatical in Edinburgh, and my family and I watched Eurovision for the first time. We loved the out-there electro-pop versions of local folk music, got bored by the slow ballads, and generally bought into the hype. This year, we were excited to discover it was streaming for US audiences on Peacock, and watched again.

I assumed there would be some tensions over Israel’s participation, and was right. There were protests both outside and inside the concert hall against Israel’s contestant. I thought this might lead Israel to do badly in the contest. Surprisingly, I was wrong: Israel came in fifth overall.

This suggests the protests did not represent general opinion or priorities. But official Israeli responses also indicate they were not ready to capitalize on public support. Both of these highlight the limits of public diplomacy on either side of the Israel-Palestine dispute.

Eurovision, for those who have not experienced it

Eurovision is a song contest organized by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), and has been held annually since 1956 (except for 2020). The contest is open to countries that are part of the EBU, which includes several countries technically outside of Europe. Australia was also invited to participate in recent years.

Most Americans know of Eurovision from the goofy Will Ferrell movie, Eurovision Song Contest. Many may be aware of its impact through crossover hits such as Abba (the Swedish group that won in 1974) or Maneskin (the Italian rock group that won in 2021).

Given the seeming widespread rejection of Israel’s participation, I expected Israel’s contestant to do badly in the votes. That is not what happened.

The process is a bit complicated, although familiar to fans of American Idol. It is spread out across three days–two semi-finals and one finals. The voting for each is split between professional juries in participating countries and public votes; countries cannot vote for their own performer.

It’s fun. The performances are over the top, the crowd is giddy. The finals stretch on forever–especially since it involves the exact same performances we watched a few days ago–but the end, when they’re waiting for votes to come in, is great drama.

The controversy over Israel’s participation

This year was controversial for a few reasons. Joost Klein, the Dutch contestant and a favorite to win, was disqualified from the finals due to a vague “incident” involving a female member of the production crew. We don’t know much more than that, although it has generated some anger. Some were upset that the contest banned the display of European Union flags in the event.

But the biggest controversy had to do with Israel. Eden Golan represented Israel, singing “Hurricane,” a ballad inspired by the October 7th attack by Hamas; she had to change the title and some of the lyrics to fit with contest rules against political content. Her participation led to protests outside the concert hall, and Golan was confined to her hotel room because of safety concerns. Irish participant Bambie Thug said they cried when Golan made it to the finals. Joost Klein also protested being placed next to Golan during a press conference. And there were audible boos during Golan’s performances and when Israel presented its votes in the final.

Some have accused the EBU of hypocrisy for not banning Israel. The group banned both Russia and Belarus from participating due to the invasion of Ukraine.

Given this controversy and the seeming widespread rejection of Israel’s participation, I expected Golan to do badly in the votes. That is not what happened.

People oppose Israel’s actions, but they do not support anti-Israel voices’ proposed solutions: boycott, divest and sanction.

Golan made it through the semi-finals easily. And while she did not receive many votes from the professional juries, she received the second highest number of popular votes (falling behind only Croatia’s Baby Lasagna). Golan ended up in fifth place, behind the Switzerland (whose Nemo won with a great operatic drum-and-bass song), Croatia (my favorite), Ukraine (a stirring entry) and France (with a forgettable ballad).

What the results, and Israel’s response, suggest

I was honestly surprised. I expected the protests against Israel to affect its standing. Others seem to be upset about this; Bambie Thug expressed anger at Golan placing above them.

There are a few possible explanations.

Maybe people just really liked the song. That’s possible (although I found it kind of generic). Even so, that would suggest the protesters do not represent their broader societies.

There was some talk of an anti-Israel protest against voting. So it’s possible that the only people who voted were those who supported Israel or were not motivated by the conflict. This would suggest such protests backfire.

But it is also possible this was a counter-protest. I don’t necessarily think there is a large pro-Israel silent majority; the most recent polling data I could find–from Morning Consult–indicates a rise in negative views of Israel in many of the countries that would be voting. However, popular voters may have sympathized with Golan even if they oppose her government’s action. The idea of a young woman having to hide in her hotel room and endure jeers while performing may have led many to vote for her in reaction.

Whichever of these you buy, it doesn’t bode well for the anti-Israel protests. They have clearly not mobilized the public in favor of a broad boycott against Israel–such as keeping an Israeli contestant out of Eurovision. Some of this may be due to frustration with the disruptive tactics these protesters adopt. Some may be due to their expansive goals, as I discussed recently. Or it may be because most people are not paying attention to this issue, as US polling has suggested.

Anti-Israel protesters have succeeded in effecting change among academic societies and at the UN, but they have not made much progress with Western publics. This may seem to clash with my above point on a drop in support for Israel. But what this really shows is that people oppose Israel’s actions, but they do not support anti-Israel voices’ proposed solutions: boycott, divest and sanction.

The protesters really need to think about how they will speak to the people who disapprove of Israel but cheered Golan. Repeatedly lecturing them on BDS isn’t going to work. As I’ve argued, shifting their focus towards steps that will actually achieve peace would broaden their impact.

Israel’s response also highlights issues for that state, however. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Golan for competing in the face of an “ugly wave of antisemitism.” After her performance, he defiantly pointed to her score despite the boos.

There are legitimate debates over whether the protests she faced are due to antisemitism. But Netanyahu is doing little to capitalize on her popularity with his tone. He could have called for unity as part of the contest. He could have thanked the voters for separating concerns with Israeli policy from their views of Israelis themselves. He could have talked about the history of Israel’s cultural ties with Europe.

Just as with the anti-Israel protesters, then, Israel also needs some public diplomacy. Lecturing people for not supporting Israel will not lead them to change their views. If anything, it risks souring them further on the country. And the Eurovision organizers may decide this controversy is not worth it and ban Israel from participating next year.

This represents a meta-issue in the Israel-Palestine dispute. Most discuss the conflict as an entrenched, intractable one, and that is true. But we have reached a point where conversation about the dispute has also become entrenched. You are, as Jeremy says in Peep Show, either for Israel or for Palestine. Each side tries to mobilize their own, rather than convincing the broader public–which is less engaged–to join them. Until this changes, there is no chance of on the ground conflict resolution.