Music

Making your mind up: The long history of Eurovision, politics and Israel, explained

Controversy over this year's contest is nothing new. Eurovision has rarely been apolitical

Israeli technicians prepare the scoreboard for the Eurovision Song Contest in Jerusalem, 1979

Israeli technicians prepare the scoreboard for the Eurovision Song Contest in Jerusalem, 1979. Image: Imagno/Getty Images

Israel is still, at time of writing, expected to compete at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. There had been some suggestion that Eden Golan’s entry October Rain was, with its references to the 7 October terror attacks, in breach of the contest’s rules on political neutrality – an odd reason, it must be said, for a potential ban. In March, though, the song was rewritten and renamed Hurricane: now, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) says, the entry will go ahead.

This may not be enough to silence the critics. Artists and fans across Europe have attacked Eurovision for allowing Israeli participation as it continues its assault on Gaza. “Just like Russia has been excluded from Eurovision following its invasion of Ukraine,” said Belgian culture minister Bénédicte Linard, “Israel should be excluded until it puts an end to its flagrant violations of international law.” Israeli officials have, in return, accused their critics of “anti-Israel bias”. 

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It’s hardly the first time Israel’s contributions to the song contest have been the focus of what one might diplomatically term “discourse”. In 1998, Dana International became one of the first internationally famous trans women, after winning the contest with her song Diva. In 1978, the authorities in Jordan refused to broadcast the entry from the Jewish state, and instead showed some flowers.

When it became clear Israel was going to win, they cut the broadcast altogether, and unilaterally awarded the prize to second-placed Belgium. In keeping with Lebanese law prohibiting mention of Israel, Lebanon’s national broadcaster Télé Liban planned to ignore the Israeli entry in 2005, resulting in a stern ticking off from Eurovision and Lebanon withdrawing from the contest altogether.

It’s easy to forget, in all the back and forth about prejudice and international law and colonialism and terrorism and Israel’s right to defend itself, that there’s another, less contentious reason to wonder whether Israel perhaps shouldn’t actually be in the Eurovision Song Contest – to whit, it is obviously not Europe. Neither, come to that, is Lebanon – or Armenia, or Morocco, or Australia, all of which are taking part. 

Oddly enough, though, with one exception (made because of Eurovision’s huge Aussie fanbase), all of those countries are in Europe. It just isn’t the version of Europe we’re all familiar with.

The Eurovision Song Contest arose from the same post-war peace movements that gave us the European Coal and Steel Community, and ultimately the EU. Where those other bodies would defend the continent from conflict by deepening its economic and political links, the European Broadcasting Union would do it through an alliance of public service TV and radio stations. Live broadcasts it coordinated in its early years included the coronation of Elizabeth II and a tour of the Vatican, complete with apostolic blessing by Pope Pius XII.

Such events tended to lack tension though – however the coronation went, there was very little doubt who’d be crowned at its end – so in May 1956 the EBU borrowed an idea from Italy’s Sanremo Music Festival, and held the first ever Grand Prix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne in Lugano. It lasted a relatively merciful one hour and 40 minutes and, after 14 songs from seven countries, the host nation Switzerland won. 

In the decades since, growing international enthusiasm, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the sheer growth of the number of countries in Europe have all contributed to making Eurovision both bigger and longer than that. The largest contests have featured up to 43 entries, necessitating the introduction of semi-finals; to date, a total of 52 countries have entered, 51 of them still extant. (The other was Yugoslavia.) This is, on the face of it, odd, as there aren’t 51 countries in Europe. 

The European Broadcasting Area
The European Broadcasting Area

To participate in Eurovision, though, a country doesn’t need to be in Europe, in the sense that we’d commonly understand the word. It merely needs to be in the European Broadcasting Union. That’s something theoretically open to any country with territory within the European Broadcasting Area, which is defined by a long and complicated set of rules that boil down to the bit between the mid-Atlantic, the meridian of 40° east (just the far side of Moscow) and the parallel 30° north (just the far side of Cairo), with a sticky out bit in the south east added to make sure it includes the Caucasus.

This bizarre set of boundaries has its origins in the extent of the 19th century European telegraphy network, but it isn’t quite as weird as it first looks. In the south, ancient empires and the modern aviation sector alike have tended to bung North Africa in with Europe, because the Mediterranean is less hostile than the Sahara. In the east, Europe has no natural border – it’s not really a continent at all, merely a peninsula in the far west of Asia, which we pretend is a continent in its own right thanks to a mixture of culture, religion, self-importance and the self-centred worldview of some Ancient Greeks two-and-a-half millennia ago. In a very real sense, Europe does not exist. 

All this means that a bunch of countries in North Africa or the Middle East are technically able to join the EBU and thus, should they fancy, participate in Eurovision. Lebanon and Tunisia both considered it before withdrawing (in both cases, their hostility to Israel was the barrier). Morocco actually did it, with Samira Bensaïd’s Bitaqat Hub in 1980, the only entry to the contest ever to be sung in Arabic. (It placed second to last and the Moroccan authorities were so incensed they vowed never to return.) A whole bunch of other countries – Egypt, Syria, Iraq, even Saudi Arabia – would technically be eligible to apply, even if they seem unlikely to join in practice. The same applies to the Vatican, which has never entered either. This seems, given its talent for costuming, a shame. 

Eurovision has rarely been entirely apolitical. The songs have on occasion obliquely highlighted some historical atrocity or another, while the voting is frequently not just about the music, but about linguistic or cultural affinity or even just who hates who. Then again, its origins as a mechanism to bind a war-shattered continent a little closer together suggest that, despite the claims of its organisers today, the contest was never really meant to be apolitical at all. 

Perhaps accepting that Eurovision can and does play a political role, even for countries that are not, in fact, in Europe, would be no bad thing. There are worse ways of settling national differences than a song contest. 

A History of the World in 47 Borders by John Elledge

 A History of the World in 47 Borders by Jonn Elledge is out now (Headline, £25). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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