Israel's war on Gaza takes center stage at Eurovision 2024

Irish group Bambi-Thug perform their song “Doomsday Blue” on the first day of the Eurovision Semi-finals. The group is dressed in the fun, avant-garde getup characteristic of Eurovision performances. Image via Eurovision official YouTube.

While the annual Eurovision Song Contest is best known for its gaudy glitz and glamour, the over-the-top performances often veil regional political tensions and international conflict.

“The World’s Biggest Song Contest” will be held May 7–11, in Malmö, Sweden, and this year all eyes are on Israel — a longtime participant in the European song contest despite its geographical distance — as it participates despite the state’s ongoing genocide against Gaza.

While organizers insist the Eurovision Song Contest is a “non-political event” and even have rules barring participants from sharing political slogans or agendas, activism is nothing new to Eurovision. In previous years, the contest has been used to draw attention to Russia’s war against Ukraine, LGBTQ+ rights and freedoms, gender inequality, and more. Many contestants, voters, and fans alike have historically used the event as a platform to air their grievances and have hidden political messaging in their songs, outfits, or placcards. 

In the weeks leading up to the event, protestors steadfastly gathered outside the Malmö city hall, calling on organizers to condemn Israel's violence in Gaza and suspend them from the event.

Protestors gather outside the Malmö city hall in mid-April calling to boycott Israel. Screenshot via Reuters YouTube video.

Swedish organizers are ramping up security around the event in anticipation of protests related to the Israel-Gaza conflict. Ahead of the event, there were widespread calls for Eden Golan, 20, Israel’s contestant this year, to step down, as well as calls to boycott the event altogether if Golan participates. Golan staunchly refused to step down and in an interview with Reuters, said, “I come here to show my voice, to share my love, my gift from God and to hopefully make people feel something and leave a mark in their souls and to unite by music.” 

Golan was originally set to sing an original song titled “October Rain” which seemingly referenced the October 7 Hamas-led attack against Israeli settlements. The European Broadcasting Union took issue with the submission and the song has since been altered and renamed “ Hurricane.”

Meanwhile, some contestants are using the platform to voice their solidarity with Palestinians. Eric Saade, 33, Sweden’s 2024 contestant who has Palestinian roots, wore a Keffiyah (traditional Palestinian attire) around his wrist during his performance to protest Israel’s participation, earning praise from fans and criticism from the show’s producers. Eurovision Executive Producer Ebba Adielsson released a statement after, saying, “Eric Saade is well aware of the rules that apply when standing on the Eurovision Song Contest stage. We think it’s sad that he’s used his participation in this way.”

During the preliminary competition, Palestinian singer Bashar Murad was chosen to represent Iceland at the event, though he was eliminated before the finals. He used his time in the spotlight to raise awareness of the plight of Palestinians and quickly became a fan favorite. He also collaborated with previous Iceland competitor, the band Hatari, who were almost disqualified during the 2017 Eurovision contest for their political statements about Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Hatari has released numerous songs related to Palestinian liberation.

While Israel’s participation was green-lighted, Belarus hasn’t been allowed to participate in Eurovision contests since 2021 due to the state’s crackdown on protestors and record of human rights violations. Russia has been banned for the last two years since its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

When discussing Russia's ban in December 2022, Eurovision’s executive supervisor Martin Österdahl said the ban has been challenging but added, “When we say we are not political, what we always should stand up for are the basic and ultimate values of democracy.”

Ukrainian singer Alyona Alyona performs during Eurovision, with special effects reminiscent of bombs raining down above her. Image via Youtube Screenshot

Since the invasion began in 2022, Ukraine has used the Eurovision Contest to rally public support amidst its ongoing war with Russia. Ukraine won the competition in 2022 and the winning song, “Heart of Steel,” became something of an unofficial national anthem in the country. Last year's Ukrainian contestants chose a song describing the terror citizens have felt during the war, while this year's competitors, Alyona Alyona and Jerry Heil, used imagery and special effects clearly alluding to Russian missiles and dead Ukrainians.

Alyona Alyona and Jerry Heil perform over a video of reposing Ukrainians during their May 7, 2024, performance. Image via YouTube screenshot.

The so-called unequal application of suspensions has driven much of the controversy and calls to boycott this year's Eurovision. 

Find the full video of Eurovision semi-final performances in the video below.

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