Like the Olympics, the Eurovision Song Contest has attempted to create national harmony through head-to-head competition on the basis of national demarcations. While singing or running around a track are vastly preferable expressions of nationalism than killing one another, it is nationalistic rivalry nevertheless and this automatically means that such an event is political, in spite of droning claims to the contrary.
But while recent years have seen the increasingly dated Song Contest become ever more controversial, this year’s events in Tel Aviv represented a watershed moment in public opinion. Multiple artists, activists, philosophers, politicians and even erstwhile apolitical people tried to persuade the Eurovision organisers to relocate the event to a more politically neutral place. No matter what one’s view on Palestine, Israel is more politically polarising than Switzerland and it would be difficult to find anyone who could honestly disagree. In this sense, the real Eurovision Political Contest was one between Israel and Palestine.
The fact that the contest went ahead does represent an initial victory for Israel against the Palestinian civil society activists who encouraged a relocation to a politically neutral place. While the official viewing figures are not yet in for this year’s event, these numbers will eventually offer insight into which side has ultimately won the battle for public opinion. If in fact the viewing figures are significantly down vis-a-vis 2018, this could indicate that the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) call for a television boycott may have had some success.
But even before the numbers are out, several things are apparent. Public perceptions of Palestine have reached a critical turning point in the western world. It is no longer fashionable to ignore the cause of Palestine. Whilst even ten years ago, many apolitical people in the west tended to automatically associate Palestine with “terrorism” while associating Israel with the opposite, at nearly 20 years since the turn of the century, today it is Palestine that is considered “fashionably victimised” while Israel is considered cold, unjust and reactionary.
It goes without saying that it is crude and vulgar to reduce the decades long suffering of Palestine to a “fashion statement”. As such, true supporters of the Palestinian people would never do so. However, one must be honest enough to realise that all political causes in an increasingly fickle western public square are eventually diluted to fashion statements once they reach a critical mass.
True believers in the Palestinian cause should therefore not be put off by the fact that while support for Palestine isn’t growing because thousands of otherwise apolitical westerners have discovered the speeches of George Habash, it is growing nevertheless – this necessary critical mass in public opinion has just about been reached.
In the vulgar world of politics or geopolitics, any form of positive attention is good for one’s cause and the fact of the matter is that from the debating halls of Washington and Westminster, to pop music stages throughout the western world, to social media, art galleries and “hip and cool” public gatherings, it is becoming close to impossible to hold political views that are socially fashionable whilst simultaneously favouring Israel over Palestine. In other words if one wants to be “woke” one has to be woke to Palestine.
This means that while the old paradigm for public figures involved a choice between supporting Israel and supporting Palestine, today’s question for public figures is one of favouring Palestine without reservation (Roger Waters, for example) versus showing solidarity with Palestine while calling for Israel to have its proverbial “F. W. de Klerk moment” whereby the old reactionary regime grudgingly embraces inclusivity.
Some long time Palestine supporters might find this latter view to be naive. That being said, the fact that even the less overtly pro-Palestinian option for western public figures who wish to remain fashionable is still at least somewhat pro-Palestine and in some cases is rhetorically very pro-Palestine, is indicative of the fact that the nature of the Palestine argument for westerners has changed. Palestine is no longer a symbol of “terror” in the eyes of the middle of the road westerner. Palestine is now symbolic of injustice and this is even the case among those whose demographic positions within western societies would have in the past indicated unequivocal acceptance if not support for the Israeli status quo. Beyond this, as western politics itself becomes more polarised between the haves and have-nots, it is becoming all the more natural for westerners to sympathise with those abroad who have not even their own land.
This was reflected in two ways during last night’s Eurovision Final. First of all, those actively boycotting the event had a strong presence on social media, one so strong that hardline Israel supporters were generally on the defensive. This represents a major shift from previous decades when Palestinian supporters had to be on the defence against allegations of “apologising for terrorism”. Now, among trendy westerners it is supporters of Israel who are on the defensive – having to justify their whitewashing of oppression against a people increasingly seen as the victims of supreme injustice.
Secondly, even some of those who defied the proverbial BDS picket line and performed in Tel Aviv felt sufficiently guilty about having done so. Such people ended up showing their support for Palestine while the international cameras were rolling. Most notably, the Icelandic performers held up large banners reading “PALESTINE”, complete with Palestinian flags right in front of the cameras. Then, in a reportedly unauthorised move, Madonna whose performance was the most controversial of the evening had some of her backup dancers wear both Israeli and Palestinian flags. Whilst Madonna’s move will be viewed as a cop-out by many pro-Palestine activists (rightly so from an ethical point of view), the fact that she felt the need to include Palestinian imagery at all is symptomatic of an opportunist trying to have it both ways.
Yet even this opportunistic act is indicative of the fact that supporting Palestine now presents as many opportunities for public figures as it does challenges. Compared to recent years, this is one major step in the right direction as at the turn of the 21st century, trying to do anything positive for Palestine earned one undiluted excoriation from mainstream western society. This is no longer the case.
Thus, the final verdict is this: unlike mid-1980s South Africa, it is still possible for western pop starts to perform in Israel without their careers being ruined by verdicts passed in the court of public opinion. But on the other side of the coin, it is now possible and at times even practically advisable for such pop stars to support Palestine and this of course means supporting BDS.
In the battle of public opinion, Israel is still able to mobilise its troops, but through persistence and by building a genuinely big tent of support, Palestine is now forcing many in the west to side with the victims rather than the oppressors. In this sense, the true winner of last night’s Eurovision Song Contest were the silenced voices of Palestinians whose echos are reverberating ever louder among otherwise aloof people who are becoming slowly acquainted with their conscience.