ESC 2010 Reviews: Israel
(Just to warn you all, this is going to be a long one…)
When I speak to people about Eurovision for the first time, and mention that one of the most consistently strong entrants to the competition is Israel, I generally hear a variation of the same reaction.
“Israel? That’s not even in Europe!”
Well, geographically speaking, that’s true. However, entry to the ESC is not actually based on location, but rather whether a nation is a part of the European Broadcasting Union. Morocco has participated in the past under this rule, and Lebanon nearly participated in the 2005 competition. However, Israel has been the only “non-European” nation to have a continued presence in Eurovision, with some major successes and some equally major controversies.
Israel made its debut in 1973, with “Ey Sham (Somewhere)” sung by Ilanit. Sounding like it could have been taken from the catalog of Carole King or Carly Simon, Ilanit took her country to 4th place during a highly-competitive year that saw ESC classics from Luxembourg, Spain, and the UK, among others. It didn’t take long for Israel to reach victory; in 1978 Itzar Cohen and the AlphaBeta took home the crown with “A-Ba-Ni-Bi“, a song whose chorus was basically in the Hebrew version of Pig Latin. The next year, Israel scored a rare second consecutive win with “Hallelujah” by Gali Atari featuring Milk and Honey, a song that I distinctly remember hearing back in Hebrew School while training for my Bat Mitzvah.
Since “Hallelujah”, Israel has racked up some pretty strong results, generally with either uptempo numbers often referring to the nation itself (such as 1982’s “Hora“, 1983’s “Chai (Alive)“, and 1991’s “Kan (Here)“) or big-voiced ballads (like 1990’s “Shara Barchovot (Singing in the Streets)“, 2005’s stunning Hasheket Shenishar (The Silence that Remains)”, or 2008’s “The Fire in Your Eyes“).
Granted, broadcaster IBA’s sent some pretty crazy entries, as well. Check out 1987’s “Shir Habatlanim“…also known as “The Lazy Bum’s Song”. When in doubt, try channeling the Blues Brothers, I guess. Supposedly, the Israeli Minister of Culture was so disgusted by the song that he threatened to resign if the network went through with sending the Bums to the ESC. I suppose a respectable 8th-place finish put him in his place, as there’s no record of him leaving his post.
Even beyond the little tiff between the IBA and the humorless Minister of Culture, Israel is no stranger to Eurovision-based controversy. As I’ve mentioned before, many nations throughout the Middle East and North Africa are entitled to enter the ESC if they so choose. However, as many nations refuse to acknowledge Israel as an independent nation, and even go so far as to edit out the Israeli songs, many possible participants have refused to enter just on the grounds that Israel’s there. In fact, when it became evident that Israel had won the 1978 contest (before voting had concluded, as it was a decisive victory), a Jordanian station showing the contest cut to an extended commercial break and eventually announced runners-up Belgium as the winner.
The topic of peace in the Middle East (and the lack thereof) has come up often in Israel’s entries. In 2007, the entry “Push The Button” by Teapacks was nearly disqualified for alluding to the growing nuclear capabilities of Iran (sample lyric: “There are some crazy rulers/they hide and try to fool us/with demonic technologic/willingness to harm/They’re gonna push the button”). Last year, IBA decided to approach the theme from a different direction, bringing Yemeni-Israeli singer Noa and Bulgarian-Arabic-Palestinian singer Mira Awad together to sing “There Must Be Another Way“. For the first time, Arabic was sung alongside Hebrew and English in an Israeli entry, and the song had the unique ability to inspire some listeners and completely enrage others. On one hand, you had two wonderful performers from two different faiths, ethnicities, languages, and cultures singing a song of hope and empathy together. However, many hardliners on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict saw Noa and Mira as traitors, or at least overly optimistic during times of war. I personally was one of those inspired by the two women, and I wholeheartedly appreciated their efforts (and their song).
You can’t mention the words “Eurovision”, “Israel”, and “controversy” in the same breath without mentioning Dana International, however. She took the 1998 ESC by storm with her disco-anthem “Diva“, winning the first Eurovision decided by a public televote. She gave Israel its third victory, and sealed her own international notoriety. So, why all the fuss?
Dana was actually born male. Conservatives all over Israel and the rest of Europe were gobsmacked, but Europe embraced Dana, and the victory of “Diva” is considered one of the seminal moments of the Eurovision Song Contest.
So, after all of that, who’s carrying the Magen David to Oslo?
This year, the honor goes to “Milim (Words)”, performed 28-year-old Harel Skaat. A small preselection followed his internal selection by IBA, where Skaat sang 4 songs written specifically for the occasion (my personal favorite of the four, “Le’an (Away)“, came in as runner up).
In a year full of ballads, “Milim” truly stands head and shoulders above the rest. Harel’s incredibly talented, both in vocal ability and presentation. There are rumors that he might perform the song with a verse in either English or French, which may take away from some of the impact of using Hebrew, but it may also make the song more accesible to a non-Hebrew-speaking audience (which is, of course, the vast majority of ESC-viewers). However, Israel’s 3 previous victories were sung entirely in Hebrew, so you never know. I can almost guarantee that this will not only qualify for the final, but it may be in the running for the win. I can’t wait to see what Harel brings to the Eurovision stage in a few weeks!