The Scars of Eurovision 2024

Our explorer Jonathan Casewell has been following the Eurovision Song contest for years. He was was present at the Jury rehearsal this year and writes about the politics of this festival. 'Underneath the sleekness and dazzle, an awkwardness was beginning to grow.'

Jury rehearsal at semi-finals.

Jonathan Casewell

On Wednesday 8th May, I had the privilege of being in attendance for the Jury rehearsal of the second semi-final of the Eurovision Song Contest 2024. It was a marvellous occasion, with the Swedish production team putting on an amazing visual spectacle. Next to me sat someone who travelled from Australia, celebrating their first ever visit to Europe with a trip to a rehearsal for the semi-final of a television singing contest. Eurovision’s strength and draw on full display.

Yet underneath the sleekness and dazzle, an awkwardness was beginning to grow. Before the show the event’s producer came on-stage to read a prepared statement encouraging support for the artists and a focus on peace and understanding from those gathered. The reason for this awkwardness and call for unity appeared on stage around 90 minutes later in the shape of Eden Golan, 20 years of age, representing Israel with her song, Hurricane. First there were boos. Then, from elsewhere, cheers. People began walking out, in the standing section people turned their backs or sat down, and a wave of tension crashed over the 9,000 or so people there.

Audience walking away from Eden Golans performance.

Jonathan Casewell

The reaction in the arena had been building for months; the calls to expel Israel from the contest had started almost as soon as the attacks in October had begun. Artists themselves from other participating countries had signed a statement in opposition to Israeli participation, fan media outlets had refused to cover their participation; and as the shocking extent to which Netenyahu’s Israel asserted its sovereignty over Palestine became clearer, the disgust at allowing them to represent themselves on stage at Eurovision grew, along with calls to boycott.

Calls for boycots at Malmös city center.

Jonathan Casewell

Parallels with the expulsions of Russia and Belarus from the contest were drawn. In 2022 Russia had wrought indiscriminate horrors on Ukraine and almost immediately been barred amidst threats from other broadcasters to withdraw, Israel was bombing hospitals and the contests’ organisers never questioned their participation. Belarus was expelled in 2021, for undue political intervention into their Eurovision selection, the presence of the Israeli Defence Force, the nation’s military, loomed large over Israel’s national selection, and no response from the organisers. The song selected to represent was to be called ‘October Rain’, a ballad about the October 7th Hamas attacks, a terrible attack that has been weaponized by parts of Israeli hierarchy to justify the violent colonisation taking place across Palestine. Eurovision deemed it too political, and it looked like Israel was to be removed. But then, the lyrics were changed and the green light was given.

So amidst calls for fans and artists to boycott, petitions, and open letters, Israel took to the stage, into an atmosphere best described as awkward and tense. Few people clapped, few people booed their first appearance on stage, most people just sat looking at their feet, not knowing how to react. Under the rules of the competition it could be argued, they were there legally - but no-one seemed to be too excited. Following their inevitable qualification for the final, voting percentages from Italy demonstrating a huge popular mobilisation for Israel leaked, and one of the artists most outspoken against Israel, Dutch entry and fan favourite Joost Klein, was disqualified, on grounds argued by his national broadcaster to be disproportionate. By the time the final arrived on Saturday, anger at the contest had reached its zenith, and was expressed notably by sustained booing directed towards Martin Österdahl, the Executive Producer of the competition.

This is the briefest of summaries of the controversy, a more comprehensive and informed analysis can be found here. Within his role, Österdahl bears the brunt of this anger. But his actions cannot be separated from the wider context of what Eurovision is and how it welcomes Israel.

Eurovision’s relationship to Europe is a particular one. It was established in the 1950s within the same spirit of the grander European project, providing a cultural avenue for a Europe recovering from the bloodshed of war to unite itself. As a result, it has always been tied to a particular conception of Europeanness, one that focuses on democracy, peace, cultural understanding and celebration of diversity. It is notable that only three non-European states have been included - Australia, a nation with a high amount of recent European migration, Morocco, for one contest only, and Israel, a Middle Eastern nation who has participated in the contest 45 times, and enjoys a unique political relationship with Europe. Kazakhstan has also been involved in the Eurovision-adjacent Junior ESC, but never been deemed capable of appearing at the main contest itself. The Israeli state has commonly been held up as a bastion of democracy and liberalism in a volatile Middle East, to the extent that a common criticism of pro-Palestine LGBTQ+ activists is the fact that in Israel they would be welcomed, whereas in Palestine they would not (despite the incumbent government’s policies creating insecurity for Israel’s gay community). This surface-level liberalism has allowed Europe and the US to remain outwardly consistent in their support for democracy and liberalism, and their support for Israel’s self-defence. But now Israel seems to have taken it too far, and the hypocrisy of supporting a government propping up an apartheid state that treats borders as inconveniences and international law as a hindrance is creating a cultural battle within the West. It is played out on university campuses, in parliaments, and, for the last few months, in Eurovision.

One of the most frustrating things for Eurovision fans was the constant chiding by the organisers encouraging us to choose the path of acceptance and goodwill, seemingly blind to the lack of it being shown by Israel itself, in particular its Eurovision delegation. The show’s manifesto is to provide a pan-European space to promote peace, love, and understanding through song, and to be idealistic in its Europeanness. Its commitment to this has been parodied, held up as a gold standard, and permeated the essence of the contest itself. As fans, we associate Eurovision with this, and have found community in its progressive values. And so the fans fought back, the artists fought back, and the town holding the contest fought back. But, frozen into inaction, the organisers retreated even further into the discursive hole into which they dug themselves, unable to bar Israel, and with no response to the criticisms levelled at them. The parallels with the wider situation become clear: Europe’s politics, played out on stage in visceral terms.

Call for boycot at a Malmö busstop.

Jonathan Casewell

In the end however, it seemed like a glorious occasion. Eurovision had its first non-binary winner, and Israel won neither the jury vote nor the public vote, allowing Eurovision to stumble along for another year without an obvious source of controversy. But now this vision of Europe is scarred. Will other artists, politically engaged like Switzerland’s Nemo and Ireland’s Bambie Thug from this year, consider it morally acceptable to align themselves with a contest that acts like this? Without action to put out the fire Eurovision’s relationship with Israel has caused, what potential for uniting across borders does the contest have? Will enough justice be delivered to allow for real peace? And will Europe see the parallels that the contest has with its own politics, and will the hypocrisy ever become too much to bear?