Jerusalem backlash casts shadow over Eurovision contest

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In this May 12, 2018 file photo, Netta Barzilai from Israel celebrates after winning the Eurovision song contest in Lisbon, Portugal. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)
In this May 12, 2018 file photo, Netta Barzilai from Israel celebrates after winning the Eurovision song contest in Lisbon, Portugal. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Jerusalem (AP) — When the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Israelis hoped other countries would follow suit. Instead, the move has created a backlash. The latest setback threatens the contested city’s hopes of hosting the 2019 Eurovision song contest — an affair that has become something of a national obsession.

“There is a greater concern this year than any other year I can remember about the political backdrop surrounding Eurovision,” said William Lee Adams, who runs a popular Eurovision blog. “Many Eurovision fans build their whole year around a trip to Eurovision, and just given the nature of what’s going on their ideal has been tarnished.”

Israel won Eurovision in May with a flashy pop tune called “Toy” by the charismatic, previously unknown singer Netta Barzilai, who dazzled viewers with her feminist lyrics, unconventional appearance and signature chicken dance. Her victory won Israel the right to host next year’s Eurovision contest.

But the celebrations were tempered by continued bloodshed along the Gaza border, as well as the controversial move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem two days later.

More than 120 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since weekly protests began in the Gaza Strip in March. Some 60 people were killed on May 14, marking a jarring contrast to the Israeli jubilation over the embassy move and the Eurovision victory.

The so-called BDS group — for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions — has called on the European Broadcasting Union, the contest’s sponsor, to boycott the Eurovision contest in Israel next year.

“This contest must be boycotted to avoid complicity and business-as-usual with this regime and to avoid irreversibly tarnishing the Eurovision brand with Israel’s egregious human rights record,” the group said.

Activists had targeted Barzilai and her song ahead of this year’s contest with a campaign calling on voters to award her zero points. But win she did.

The winning country traditionally hosts the contest the following year. But exactly where the show will be held remains an open question.

In Europe, capital cities have usually played host. But the city Israel considers its capital — Jerusalem — is not recognized as such by most of the international community. Just two countries, Guatemala and Paraguay, have followed the U.S. and moved their embassies to Jerusalem.

Hosting the competition in Jerusalem could present a predicament for the public broadcasters that make up the European Broadcasting Union, sparking criticism that they are taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel is expected to present four cities as potential hosts, including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Israel held the Eurovision contest in Jerusalem following its previous victories, most recently in 1999, without incident.

Israel’s outspoken culture and sports minister, Miri Regev told Kan Bet radio, “the state of Israel has the right to decide where Eurovision will be held. I will recommend to the government and to the prime minister that it won’t be right to host Eurovision if it will not be held in Jerusalem.”