IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Politics gets in the way of pop as Israel’s war in Gaza overshadows Eurovision Song Contest

The organizers long strived to keep politics aside, but global tensions have often imposed themselves on the contest, and things are no different this year.
Get more newsLiveon

MALMÖ, Sweden — Behind the music, color and high camp, geopolitics has never been far from the surface at the Eurovision Song Contest, be it through subtly political lyrics, boycotts or the outright ban on Russia after it invaded Ukraine two years ago. 

This year’s competition in the Swedish city of Malmö is no different, with Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip at the forefront of the conversation among performers and fans alike. 

And as thousands of people flock to the coastal city for the event, large protests are taking place over Israel’s participation in the competition, including on Thursday, ahead of Israeli representative Eden Golan's semifinal performance. 

“They are allowed to throw glitter and sing with one hand and throw bombs with another hand,” Pia Jacobsen, an organizer with Swedish campaign group Stop Israel for Peace and a Free Palestine, said in a phone interview Wednesday.

On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered the fray with a message on X, telling Golan that he wished her success and that "You already made it!" by representing Israel and because she is facing her detractors, which he characterized as "an ugly wave of anti-Semitism."

"Know that when you are booed at, we shout to you ‘Hooray / Bravo!’” Netanyahu added.

Eden Golan smiles during a press conference
Eden Golan, Israel's representative at the Eurovision Song Contest, in Tel Aviv this year. Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

The decision by the contest’s organizer, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), to ban Russia after it invaded Ukraine was something she agreed with, she said, adding that she thought it was hypocritical to let Israel compete while it waged war in Gaza.  

Security in Malmö is high and officers from neighboring Denmark and Norway have been drafted in to help, Jimmy Modin, a spokesperson for Malmö’s police, said in an interview last week. While they would be prepared for anything, he said they were not expecting the protests to get violent. 

Several petitions have also demanded Israel be excluded from the contest it has been taking part in since 1973, although it is not technically in Europe. 

The EBU has long strived to keep pop and politics apart — banning overtly political symbols and lyrics — but global tensions have often imposed themselves on the contest and things are no different this year.

Ahead of Tuesday’s semifinal, nonbinary Irish contestant Bambie Thug, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, was ordered to remove makeup from their face and legs that featured the words “cease-fire” and “freedom for Palestine” written in a medieval Irish alphabet. The EBU said it contravened rules “designed to protect the non-political nature of the event.”

It also rebuked Eric Saade, a former Swedish Eurovision contestant of Palestinian descent, for wearing a keffiyeh, the black-and-white checkered scarf that is synonymous with Palestinian nationalism, on his wrist during a guest performance.

A week of Eurovision Song Contest festivities kicked off Saturday, on May 4, in the southern Swedish town of Malmo, with 37 countries taking part.
The competition organizer rebuked Swedish singer Eric Saade after he wore a keffiyeh during his performance Tuesday. Jessica Gow / AFP - Getty Images

While they did not demand a ban for Israel, artists from the U.K., Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Lithuania, Norway, Portugal, San Marino and Switzerland signed a joint statement calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, where almost 35,000 people have been killed since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.     

“We do not feel comfortable being silent,” the statement said. “It is important to us to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and communicate our heartfelt wish for peace, an immediate and lasting cease-fire, and the safe return of all hostages.”

Swiss singer Nemo, another nonbinary performer who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said in a video call last week that they added their name because they “just felt like I needed to use my voice.” They added that the artists spent a long time working on the wording until “we all felt like we could actually have a positive impact.” 

Lithuanian singer Silvester Belt, a fellow signatory, said he didn’t want to ignore “the elephant in the room.”

Another of the letter’s signatories, British entrant Olly Alexander, also faced a call to boycott the competition because of Israel’s participation in an open letter from Queers for Palestine, a group of more than 450 artists, individuals and organizations in his homeland, including several well-known actors and playwrights.

Alexander said in a statement posted to Instagram that he understood the call, but after deliberating and speaking to other contestants, “we’ve decided that by taking part we can use our platform to come together and call for peace.” 

Israel performs at the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmo, Sweden.
Eden Golan of Israel performs during dress rehearsals in Malmö on Wednesday. Martin Meissner / AP

Meanwhile, Israel’s representative, Eden Golan, was only allowed to compete after changing the lyrics to her song. Her original ballad called “October Rain” was widely thought to reference Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on her homeland, which left 1,200 dead and saw more than 240 people taken hostage.

Having initially balked at the idea, Israeli public broadcaster Kan, which manages the country’s entry, eventually amended the song, now called “Hurricane,” following an intervention from President Isaac Herzog.

Kan also complained after some members of the crowd booed and shouted “free Palestine,” during Golan’s rehearsal Wednesday. In a statement it said that it hoped the EBU would “work to prevent a repeat of instances like this” during Thursday's semifinal.

Gad Yair, a sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said Israel took the competition very seriously. Like many small countries, Israel, he said, viewed competing in the contest as a “necessity.” 

“We want to win. We want to be part of Europe. This is our identity,” said Yair, who has been studying Eurovision since the mid-1990s.

In years gone by, Yair said, Russia had been the target of some subtle and some more obvious protests until it was kicked out of the contest after its invasion of Ukraine in 2022. 

In 2016, two years after Russia annexed Crimea, Ukraine won with a song called “1944” about the forced expulsion of some of the Muslim-minority Tatar community by the Soviet Union. 

“Eurovision is a kind of seismograph that allows you to even see conflicts before they erupt,” Yair said. Ukraine’s entries before 2014 spoke to what would happen between the two nations in the future, he said. “Ukraine was under pressure and the performances by Ukraine alleged allegiance to the West and criticized [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Russia,” he added.

The visit by Ship to Gaza and the demonstration in connection with it are part of the protests against Israel's participation in the 68th edition of Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) at Malmö Arena.
Demonstrators wave Palestinian flags as the "Ship to Gaza" boat Handala arrives in Malmö, Sweden, on Wednesday during protests against Israel's participation at Eurovision.Johan Nilsson / TT News Agency via AP

Countries at war have also shared the stage. Armenia and Azerbaijan, long locked in a conflict over the ethnic Armenian enclave Nagorno-Karabakh, have both fielded entries largely without incident, though Armenia did not participate when the contest was held in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. 

Yair said some artists had tried to skirt the ban on overtly political statements by using more subtle elements in staging or costume, and he said he expected Israel would try in some way to commemorate Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on the country

Whatever happens, Yair said people would be watching the contest, which dominates TV ratings in several countries. In Nordic nations like Sweden, Finland and Norway more than 80% of all viewers tuned in when Eurovision was on last year while in Iceland, it had 98.7% of the viewing share.

“I think no one expected that bizarre thing to become so popular, enamoring the public,” he said, adding that it was an “important day” for Europeans. 

“Whether they make fun of it like in London or whether they are taking it seriously, as in Tel Aviv, but we are watching,” he said.