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May 18, 2019

Israel’s “pinkwashing” Eurovision

The saccharine Eurovision has never seen such controversy. Following the victory of Israeli singer Netta Barzilai at the pop contest last year, an ongoing international uproar has sparked; and while the reaction is overwhelming, it is also understandable.

“Thank you so much for choosing different, thank you so much for accepting differences between us,” Barzilai said in her winning speech, “thank you for celebrating diversity. Thank you. I love my country.” Apparently, Barzilai couldn’t see the irony of her words. Here is a gay icon with a large LGBTQ fan base talking about ‘acceptance of the other’ and ‘celebrating diversity’, while at the same time reminding us how much she loves her country: the same country whose ruling right-wing government recently issued a modification of the so called Nation-State Law, which is widely contested for handing out privileges to the Jewish majority. One can say many positive things about the state of Israel; celebrating diversity is not one of them.

As much as Barzilai loves her country, her country loves her back.  The Israeli government saw Barzilai’s victory as a diplomatic triumph. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned her straight away to praise her as “the best ambassador for Israel.” That was the same Netanyahu who presided over the brutal repression of weekly protests by the Palestinians of Gaza, which began only weeks before the Eurovision last March. Since then, Israeli forces have killed over 200 Palestinians and injured approximately 18,000 people.

At the height of these clashes along the Gaza-Israel fence, Barzilai performed at a government-sponsored event in Tel Aviv’s main square, celebrating her Eurovision success. There she declared “we have a reason to be happy,” while on that very same day, 14 May 2018, the Israeli army had killed at least 58 Palestinians protesters.

And so the calls from the pro-Palestinian advocates of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) to boycott the Eurovision competition in Israel are understandable. This cultural war and the attempts to put pressure on artists to cut off all contact with Israel has been increasing for years and is generating extra heat as this year’s Eurovision approaches.

Reflecting the special position the competition holds in the affections of the gay community, Irish LGBTQIA luminaries including Ailbhe Smyth, David Norris, and Kieran Rose wrote an open letter in April to the Irish Eurovision entrant Sarah McTernan, calling on her to withdraw from the contest and decrying Israel for “pinkwashing” - which they defined as a “PR tactic used by Israel which cynically exploits support for LGBTQIA people to whitewash its oppression of the Palestinian people.”

Earlier in April, the British gay newspaper Pink News ran a headline: "LGBT performers to boycott Eurovision in Israel with online broadcast." The broadcast, known as Globalvision, was part of the BDS campaign. Referring to a letter which activists had written to pop star Madonna, Pink News published the following excerpt: " We feel we must write to you to express our deep concern at the political use of the Eurovision that is being made by Israel this year, and to highlight in particular the issue of 'Pinkwashing.”.

Israel is attempting to ingratiate itself with LGBT+ people in an attempt to distract from its "colonial and apartheid reality,” and the people who oppose the Eurovision taking place in Israel do have a point. While the comparisons to South Africa are wrong (Israel is still a multi-party democracy and it is, in most cases, very liberal towards its LGBTQ community) it is also an illegal occupier and brutal oppressor of Palestinian lands and people. And if Binyamin Netanyahu’s next government pursues his stated plans of annexing settlements in the Occupied Territories and restricting the powers of the Supreme Court, it will have taken a significant step towards justifying the apartheid comparison.

Israel’s spokespeople devalue the meaning of the word anti-Semitism when they apply it to every criticism of their government’s policy and they have done it again this time.  

Israel’s ambassador to Ireland, Ophir Kariv, was horrified that there should be calls from Irish pro-Palestinian supporters for a boycott of the Eurovision song contest in Tel Aviv. “As much as I am aware of the criticism in Ireland of Israel’s policies and criticism, when it is real criticism, it is quite legitimate. There is a very thin line between being pro-Palestinian and support of Palestinians and being anti-Israel. It is too easily and too often being crossed,” he said.

It is almost amusing to see how the Israeli government celebrates the Eurovision and its close association to gay culture associations. It is absurd to see it celebrated by people like Miri Regev, Israel’s minister of culture, who on the one hand cares so much for the LGBTQ rights or the anti-establishment Mizrahi Jews’ struggle for recognition (just causes), but at the same time had no problem in referring to the African refugees residing in Israel as "a cancer in our body" at protests against migrants that took place in Tel Aviv in May 2012.

Israel’s pinkwashing is a cynical attempt to normalise its abnormal regime in the Occupied Territories, a regime which discriminates against, dispossesses, and subordinates all Palestinians - queer and non-queer alike. While Israel wants to use the kitsch spectacle of Eurovision as cultural propaganda to show the world its “prettier face”, the opposition is growing stronger. For example, when Netta Barzilai played at the London gay club Heaven recently, her show was protested against with a strong LGBTQ-led demonstration.

When one opposes the oppression of a certain group, they must show solidarity in struggle, demanding liberation for all.   

Image credit: Breaking The Silence. 

Breaking The Silence is an Israel-based NGO of veteran combatants who served in the Israeli Defense Forces and take it upon themselves to reveal the every-day reality in the Occupied Territories to the Israeli public and generate debate about the issue.