'Gay Olympics': Eurovision brings Israel's record on LGBT+ rights to the forefront

'Gay Olympics': Eurovision brings Israel's record on LGBT+ rights to the forefront
If Israel is as tolerant as it purports to be, the question is for whom? Certainly, not LGBT+ Palestinians nor LGBT+ African asylum seekers it deported to Rwanda and Uganda.
7 min read
17 May, 2019
France's Bilal Hassani during rehearsals [Getty]
For a globally televised song contest, Eurovision has always been inclusive and celebratory of queerness, even when it wasn't the mainstream conversation.

This year's event is a perfect storm of race and sexuality against the ultimate hot button setting – the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. 

Dubbed the 'Gay World Cup', drag queens, a lesbian kiss and a transgender champion all form part of its unique history. Europe's musical extravaganza is full to bursting with drama, kitsch and spectacle. But it's also infamous for giving an insight into geopolitical alliances. Aspects like these have kept pop lovers; diplomats and political junkies glued to their television sets. 

But how does the annual competition negotiate being hosted in countries that do not have liberal attitudes towards all LGBT+ people.

This year the competition is being held in Tel Aviv, Israel. The conservative country brought Eurovision out of the closet with Dana International in 1998. With her winning song Diva, the transgender singer cut a dazzling figure as she explicitly cemented Eurovision as a celebratory space for LGBT+ people.

In the days before Drag Race and Laverne Cox, Dana's representation of her country created a furor among Israel's Orthodox Jewish community.

"I don't care what they say about me […] I believe in God, in freedom, that everyone has a right to live how they choose."

Since the win 20 years ago, Israel has rebranded itself as a liberal safe haven. But if it is as tolerant as it purports to be, the question is for whom? Certainly, not LGBT+ Palestinians nor the LGBT+ African asylum seekers it sought to deport to Rwanda and Uganda.

Popstars as political 'toys'

This year Israel is hosting the contest again, with the greatest gay icon ever known performing, Madonna. Having won last year with Netta Barzilai, a plus-sized singer of a colourful ditty called Toy, the song was a deliciously relevant pop package "I'm not your toy… the Barbie got something to say" and inspired by the global #MeToo movement.   

So delicious that a cynic might see a sophisticated propaganda tool, market researched to tap a 'woke', millennial audience. Her song celebrated diversity, while rejecting female objectification and body shaming. Netta stressed the "important message of the song." Not unlike a manifesto, she called it the "awakening of female empowerment and social justice."

But at the same time, the 25-year-old has brushed aside calls for social justice in forms of boycott, "boycotting light spreads darkness."

But during the jubilations at the "politically neutral" event, Netta declared, "I love my country! Next time in Jerusalem!"

Read also: 'Next time in Jerusalem': Israel's Eurovision win sparks backlash

The event has and always was taking place in Tel Aviv. Control over Jerusalem is hotly contested because of the city's religious significance. It's home to major Jewish, Muslim and Christian landmarks. Days after the announcement President Trump had controversially moved the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. 

Read also: After Jerusalem, Trump will have Palestinian blood on his hands within days

Prime Minister Netanyahu was among the first to congratulate Netta by calling her on stage but the win didn't go down so well with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yidrim. He said it was fixed and designed to "spark a religious war" by having the event in Jerusalem.

France's entry causes controversy

Israel's liberal newspaper Haaretz reported the French submission to the contest with the headline: "France Sends Barrier-Breaking Provocateur to Israel's Eurovision." It referred to a 19-year-old Parisian called Bilal Hassani; born to French-Moroccan Muslim parents. In the lead up to his selection, critics dismissed him as an "Arab in a wig". Even Hassani was cognizant of his own politicisation, "There are people trying to make this event political, but I'm not for that. The stage is a sacred place."

Sacred it may be, but art can also be a powerful political tool. French advocacy groups say that since the announcement, he has received more than 1,500 "insulting, discriminatory or threatening tweets linked to his sexual orientation and/or appearance".

Georges Azzi is the co-founder of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality. He says associating Israel with gay rights can be harmful for queer people and activists in Arab countries, "The Arab LGBT+ movement has always understood the danger of pink washing Israel, and despite the political diversity of the MENA movement, there is a consensus that LGBT+ rights should not be put in opposition to other human rights. They should not be used as a cover to other human rights violations."

He also acknowledges Arab LGBT+ rights are stuck between a rock and a hard place, also from the Arab authorities "the Conservative [Arab] movement who are opposing LGBT+ rights always try to discredit us by linking us to Israel. Any attempt to link our movement to Israel is untrue and serves the conservative agenda against us." 

Many LGBT+ Palestinians (and Arabs) say they are voiceless in a situation, where one side seeks to silence them, and the other weaponises them to justify the occupation

France had threatened to boycott the contest in protest over an Israeli television series that portrays France's entry as a terrorist in February. The three-part miniseries called Douze Points was due to air the same week as Eurovision.  The show's protagonist (a gay Muslim French-Moroccan) is remarkably similar to France entrant, Hassani.

Not all competitors are backing away from Israel's political plays. Iceland's entry this year is Hatari (Icelandic for "hater"). The "anti-capitalist techno BDSM" band had originally planned to wave Palestinian flags on stage but Eurovision rules require performers to stay "politically-neutral". They say they are using their entry as a political statement.

They told The Independent: "We felt that the politics not only in Israel but in Europe, America, and the rest of the world, currently fall very much within the purview of Hatari – a dystopian theatre piece reflecting violence, hatred and repression."

Professor Phillip Ayoub, a political scientist who studies social movements, says that Eurovision is all about identities, "It's never been politically neutral," he adds.

"Boycotts are a politically expedient way to voice grievances, in this case, ones that have long-standing academic backing around Israeli human rights violations. It's valid to question the celebration of bringing nations together – a founding principle of Eurovision – in the shadow of occupation."

Every year the contest passes the hosting duties to the previous year's winner. That means it's sometimes hosted by countries that don't relish its gay appeal such as Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan.

The contest also inherits each host country's geopolitical alliances. In 2017, Russian MPs and musical artists had been among those urging a boycott of Eurovision over its perceived politicisation.

The year before, Ukraine's Eurovision entry took aim at Russian oppression by choosing a Crimean Tatar singer whose song '1944' was about the mass deportation of Tatars under Josef Stalin.

Israel actively promotes its gay-friendly image abroad – it's a positive PR message that many say distracts attention away from its conflict with the Palestinians. The pink washing movement accuses Israel of instrumentalising "queer rights and a liberal gay lifestyle" as a key plank in a sophisticated propaganda campaign.

In the lead up to last year's contest, the country had purchased advertising space on the gay dating app Grindr. Styled like a recession-era Bjork meets Beth Ditto singing Aqua's Barbie Girl, Barzilai took the prize with a quirky chicken dance and innocuous clucking noises. Clucking that sounded unnervingly similar to Grindr notification sounds. 

Not all LGBT+ people welcome Israel's rebranding. Some resent being used to promote a country whose other policies they disapprove of.  

Many LGBT+ Palestinians (and Arabs) say they are voiceless in a situation, where one side seeks to silence them, and the other weaponises them to justify the occupation.

On the face of it, Israel protects LGBT+ rights and prides itself on having an army that is gay-friendly. But can there be a truly diverse atmosphere, where laws such as the Jewish nation state law, render Palestinians second-class citizens? Or is it this just an example of a country leaning left to cover up its existing human rights atrocities to Palestinian people who live on the same land.

Jad Salfiti is a British-Palestinian culture and politics journalist.

Follow him on Twitter: @JadSalfiti