The Eurovision Effect
By Barbara Sofer
June 7, 2019
We landed in London on the afternoon after Duncan Laurence of the Netherlands won the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest with the song "Arcade." When my two 12-year-old granddaughters and I arrived in the Trafalgar Square hotel, replays of the Saturday night Eurovision Grand Final were on the lobby television. We were in London, but here was Tel Aviv!
The broadcast wasn't an expression of national British pride after all, England took last place among the 26 finalists. It was our first indication of just how popular Eurovision is. The official viewer tally was that 182 million across 40 markets all around Europe tuned in to the broadcast from Tel Aviv. In addition, there were 40 million unique viewers from 225 territories via YouTube on the Internet. The vast majority of viewers were under 35. That's what you call positive media impact!
All of those viewers had their eyes turned to Tel Aviv ever since the artists began arriving in early May, with countless reports from the scene. There was our "city that never sleeps" in its vibrant best for a five-day festival of music, Middle Eastern food, and fun that drew tens of thousands of locals and tourists. Images of Herzl's Altneuland, the old/new "Hill of Spring," hi-tech Silicon Wadi and the White City celebrating 100 years of Bauhaus architecture were everywhere. There was Tel Aviv: the magnificent Hebrew-speaking creation from sand dunes on screens large and small.
The Eurovision artists were filmed in magnificent "postcards" around the country, 50-second clips that preceded each of the performances. Instead of just walking, the performers were challenged to dance, and they embellished their promos with Israeli gymnasts and ballerinas, showing off sites ranging from the Old City in Jerusalem to Eilat; from archaeology in Beit She'an to the Ashalim solar power station. How thrilling to see these young Europeans happily twirling with Israelis around our sunny country.
The two semifinals and the show itself required top-tier technology. The backing LED screen, 36 meters high, was reputedly the highest resolution screen ever used. The pyrotechnics were over the top with 48 stage flames, 20 fire fountains, 18 smoke jets, 10 fog machines, eight fans and a fire waterfall to heat up the performances, and two wind machines.
Nice to be counting fire fountains when we think that hundreds of rockets murdering four Israelis were falling on Israel the week before the Eurovision. And let us remember that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement had been urging cancellation of Eurovision 2019 and targeting artists to convince them not to come to Israel. All 41 delegations showed up.
In London, our initial impression of the great vibes created by Tel Aviv Eurovision was confirmed every time a friendly employee at the many tourist sites we visited asked us where we were from.
That's always a tricky moment for me when I'm abroad. Depending on any perceived threat, I answer "Israel" or "America." After decades in Israel, I can still masquerade as an American from Connecticut. I'm always alert. One bearded taxi driver had decorations in Arabic hanging from his mirror and was listening to a program about the fate of foreign volunteers to ISIS. I didn't discuss the Eurovision with him. Instead, I quietly turned on Waze on my phone to make sure we were headed to our requested destination and not taking my granddaughters and me to a hideaway. Of course, I didn't mention my concern to the girls, but I did caution them not to wear T-shirts or backpacks with Hebrew writing.
Still, denying our true homeland when asked at the Churchill War Rooms (there's an audio guide in Hebrew!) or the Tower of London would be a negative message to the preteen Sabras on their first London excursion.
"We're from Israel," we began answering.
Instead of derision, we garnered compliments and questions about the Eurovision. Soon we were almost bragging about coming from Israel. "Hey, did you see the Eurovision?"
Wrapped into the continued praise was admiration for unforgettable 2018 winner Netta Barzilai, who still seems to hold a warm place in the hearts of women everywhere. This year's winning song, "Arcade," may be a charming, melancholy ballad, but how can you compare its refrain, "Loving you is a losing game," to Barzilai's defiant "I'm not your toy?"
THE USUALLY unsympathetic British press was favorable.
Here's Rob Holley of The Independent: "This feels like a watershed moment for Eurovision. Every single one of those performances was exceptional, and every single song will chart across the continent.... Anyone that calls Eurovision naff or irrelevant really hasn't been paying attention tonight. The quality of the songs is now consistently high across the board, so much so that a cameo from Madonna actually felt like a needless bump in proceedings.... And it's rare that long-suffering Eurovision fans get to escape the Nordic nations and enjoy sunshine and a beach. There's a lot of sunburnt foreheads on display.... One of the best Eurovision Song Contests in recent memory."
And speaking of Madonna, why did she have her dancers wear Israeli and Palestinian flags on a night that flew above the conflict? The other political jab came from Iceland. Its contestant, Hatari, in violation of European Broadcasting Union rules against politicizing Eurovision, showed Palestinian flags in its dressing room. Hatari, a BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism and masochism) group, earned a slap from BDS for a "fig-leaf" gesture. In the meantime, 98.4% of Icelanders the largest viewing share of any market were tuned in to beautiful Israel.
We have plunged so quickly into our next national political predicament that we may not have taken the moment to reflect happily on our success at pulling off Eurovision 2019.
It didn't even matter that our own 2019 song finished just a few slots above England's. Anyone watching the pre-Eurovision reality competition knew that Israel had fallen in love with the Shalva Band, and no one else would do for us this year.
The British Telegraph, reviewing the Thursday semifinal, said: "The noncompetitive highlight of the night was a beautiful interval act from Shalva, a group of eight musicians from Israel who all have disabilities, performing "A Million Dreams" from The Greatest Showman. It was all very in keeping with this year's Eurovision theme, 'Dare to Dream.'"
"Dare to Dream" is, by the way, the most famous quote of Henrietta Szold. The full quote: "Dare to dream; and when you dream, dream big."
Big it was.