Why This Year's Eurovision Has Been So Contentious And Controversial

Israel's presence in the contest has led to backlash and even calls for a boycott from some fans.
The outside of Malmö Arena, where this year's Eurovision Song Contest is due to take place
The outside of Malmö Arena, where this year's Eurovision Song Contest is due to take place
JOHAN NILSSON via Getty Images

If you asked most people what they associate with the Eurovision Song Contest, the chances are they’ll tell you it’s a night of fun songs, occasionally outlandish production numbers and, above all, some joyous escapism.

However, this year’s competition is a somewhat different story.

The Eurovision final is due to take place in Malmö on Saturday night, set against a backdrop of controversy and even calls for a boycott due to Israel’s continued presence in the contest, amid the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

For those who need a refresher on exactly why this year’s Eurovision has proved to be so divisive, here’s the story so far…

Calls for Israel to be removed from the 2024 Eurovision Song Contest began last year

As the conflict in the Middle East has continued, many fans have been putting pressure on the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), who help produce Eurovision ever year, to rescind Israel’s invitation.

The Association of Composers and Lyricists of Iceland urged its own country’s national broadcaster RÚV to pull out of Eurovision if Israel remained, while Ireland’s national broadcaster RTÉ also reportedly received hundreds of messages, urging those in charge to “immediately withdraw support and participation in the contest next year, if Israel is permitted to compete”.

However, an EBU spokesperson insisted in December that the organisation would not be changing their mind about Israel’s place in the contest.

Preparations being made outside Malmö Arena earlier this month
Preparations being made outside Malmö Arena earlier this month
JOHAN NILSSON/TT via Getty Images

“The Eurovision Song Contest is a competition for public service broadcasters from across Europe and the Middle East,” they said. “It is a competition for broadcasters – not governments – and the Israeli public broadcaster has participated in the Contest for 50 years.”

Their statement continued: “The Eurovision Song Contest remains a non-political event that unites audiences worldwide through music.”

However, it’s worth noting that controversy around Israel’s participation in Eurovision is nothing new.

Following Israeli singer Netta’s victory in 2018, the following year’s competition was held in Tel Aviv, which also led to calls for a boycott in solidarity with Palestine.

During the live final, Icelandic band Hatari flashed Palestinian flags on camera, for which they were later fined.

Madonna’s guest performance on the night also included a call for peace in the Middle East, in which dancers adorned with the Israeli and Palestinian flags were seen walking arm-in-arm.

At one point, it did look like Israel would not be taking part in Eurovision 2024

Israeli singer Eden Golan performing in Malmö
Israeli singer Eden Golan performing in Malmö
picture alliance via Getty Images

Shortly after Eden Golan was selected as Israel’s Eurovision representative, reports emerged in February claiming that organisers were unhappy with the lyrical content of the country’s submitted song (supposedly titled October Rain) due to its apparent “political content”.

The national Israeli broadcaster Kan initially claimed they would not be editing their submitted song “even at the cost of Israel not participating in Eurovision this year”. It was subsequently reported that a second song had also been rejected by the EBU.

“The EBU is currently in the process of scrutinising the lyrics, a process which is confidential between the EBU and the broadcaster until a final decision has been taken,” an EBU spokesperson told HuffPost UK at the time.

However, in the end Israel relented and made the necessary changes to the song

Eden Golan pictured on stage during Eurovision rehearsals
Eden Golan pictured on stage during Eurovision rehearsals
picture alliance via Getty Images

In March – mere days before the deadline – the EBU confirmed that Eden Golan would be representing Israel at this year’s contest, with a reworked version of her original song, now titled Hurricane.

“The Contest’s Reference Group, its governing board, made the decision to accept the song Hurricane for the upcoming competition after careful scrutiny of the lyrics,” the EBU declared.

“It was agreed that Hurricane met the necessary criteria for participation in accordance with the rules of the competition.”

Once Israel’s place in the competition was confirmed, calls for a Eurovision boycott became even louder

Most notably, the Palestine-led BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement has explicitly called for an official boycott of the Eurovision Song Contest, while the campaign group Queers For Palestine published an open letter to UK representative Olly Alexander – co-signed by more than 100 signatories including public figures and fellow entertainers – urging him to withdraw from the competition.

“By refusing to expel Israel from the competition, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) is providing cultural cover and endorsement for the catastrophic violence that Israel has unleashed on Palestinians,” the letter read.

“At a time when accountability is so urgently needed, Israel’s inclusion in Eurovision would enable and cover up its war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“We share the vision of queer joy and abundance you’ve offered through your music, and share your belief in collective liberation for all. In this spirit, we ask you to heed the Palestinian call to withdraw from Eurovision.”

Days later, UK representative Olly Alexander and a host of other Eurovision acts issued a response to calls for them to pull out of the competition

In March, Olly and the acts representing Ireland, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Switzerland, Denmark, Lithuania and Finland spoke out in response to calls for them to pull out of the competition in solidarity with Palestine, due to Israel’s involvement.

The group said in a joint statement: “In light of the current situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and particularly in Gaza, and in Israel, we do not feel comfortable being silent.

“It is important to us to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and communicate our heartfelt wish for peace, an immediate and lasting ceasefire, and the safe return of all hostages. We stand united against all forms of hate, including antisemitism and Islamophobia.

“We firmly believe in the unifying power of music, enabling people to transcend differences and foster meaningful conversations and connections. We feel that it is our duty to create and uphold this space, with a strong hope that it will inspire greater compassion and empathy.”

Olly also shared an individual statement of his own, which read: “I wholeheartedly support action being taken to demand an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza, the return of all hostages and the safety and security of all civilians in Palestine and Israel.

“I know some people will choose to boycott this year’s Eurovision and I understand and respect their decision. As a participant I’ve taken a lot of time to deliberate over what to do and the options available to me. It is my current belief that removing myself from the contest wouldn’t bring us any closer to our shared goal.

“Instead, I’ve been speaking with some of the other [Eurovision] contestants and we’ve decided that by taking part we can use our platform to come together and call for peace. I hope and pray that our calls are answered and there is an end to the atrocities we are seeing taking place in Gaza.”

Olly Alexander on stage in Malmö during the first Eurovision semi-final
Olly Alexander on stage in Malmö during the first Eurovision semi-final
picture alliance via Getty Images

He concluded: “I’d like to thank the many signatories of this letter whose work I deeply admire and respect and hope that we can continue to work together in creating a better world for all of us.”

More recently, a tearful Olly opened up about how the backlash had affected him on a personal level in a BBC documentary following his journey to the Eurovision stage.

In the lead-up to the competition, the Eurovision website was updated to include an FAQ section specifically about Israel’s involvement

Explaining why Israel was still in the competition while Russia was excluded, the EBU said: “As a non-political organisation, the EBU’s role is to support public service broadcasters throughout Europe and the Middle East.

“The Israel public service broadcaster has been a member of the EBU for over 60 years. The Russian public service broadcasters had their EBU membership suspended in 2022 due to consistent breaches of membership obligations and the violation of public service media values.”

On the subject of security and potential protests, the EBU said: “We take the safety of attendees and staff at the Eurovision Song Contest very seriously. We continue to work closely with SVT, the City of Malmö, Malmö Arena, the local Police and other law enforcement agencies and feel confident in being able to create a safe event for all participants and visitors in May.”

Police patrol the area outside the Malmö Arena, where Eurovision is taking place in 2024
Police patrol the area outside the Malmö Arena, where Eurovision is taking place in 2024
JOHAN NILSSON via Getty Images

“The EBU is a firm advocate for freedom of speech and the right for people to express their deeply held views and opinions,” they continued. “We understand that people may wish to make their voices heard and support the right of those who wish to demonstrate peacefully.”

In response to calls for a boycott, they added: “We understand the concerns and deeply held views around the current conflict in the Middle East but the Eurovision Song Contest’s values of universality, inclusivity and celebrating diversity through music have never been more important.

“Hundreds of millions around the world share those values and engaged with the event on television and online in 2023.”

A pro-Palestine protest took place in Malmö on the day of the second semi-final
A pro-Palestine protest took place in Malmö on the day of the second semi-final
JOHAN NILSSON via Getty Images

And the semi-finals haven’t been without incident, either

What more casual Eurovision fans might not realise is that the real contest actually lasts around a week, with two semi-finals on the Tuesday and Thursday before the live final on Saturday evening.

The first semi-final of 2024 began in Malmö with a performance from several Eurovision favourites, including former Swedish entrant Eric Saade, who is of Palestinian descent.

During his performance of his hit Popular, Eric was seen sporting a traditional Palestinian garment, the keffiyeh, wrapped around his wrist, for which he was later rebuked by organisers.

Swedish singer Eric Saade helped open this year's Eurovision Song Contest
Swedish singer Eric Saade helped open this year's Eurovision Song Contest
JESSICA GOW/TT via Getty Images

“The Eurovision Song Contest is a live TV show,” a Eurovision spokesperson said.

“All performers are made aware of the rules of the contest, and we regret that Eric Saade chose to compromise the non-political nature of the event.”

Eric later told Swedish broadcaster SVT: “I got this [keffiyeh] from my father as a little boy, to never forget where our family is from. Back then I didn’t know that it would one day be called a ‘political symbol’.”

He added: “I just wanted to be inclusive and wear something that felt real to me – but the EBU seem to think that my ethnicity is controversial. It says nothing about me, but everything about them. I say like this year’s ESC-slogan: United by music.”

During rehearsals, Irish entrant Bambie Thug had been seen wearing stage makeup with subtle messages of solidarity with Palestine – including “freedom for Palestine” and “ceasefire”, written in the ancient Celtic alphabet Ogham – on their body.

Irish performer Bambie Thug
Irish performer Bambie Thug
JESSICA GOW via Getty Images

After making it through the first semi-final, they claimed they’d been made to change this by the EBU, who responded: “The writing seen on Bambie Thug’s body during dress rehearsals contravened contest rules that are designed to protect the non-political nature of the event.

“After discussions with the Irish delegation, they agreed to change the text for the live show.”

Before semi-final two, Israeli act Eden Golan was also loudly booed by Eurovision attendees while rehearsing for her first performance of the contest.

At the following day’s performance, this could not be heard, prompting speculation among some fans that Eurovision bosses were censoring any booing during Eden’s performance, which they denied.

“Just like in all major TV productions with an audience, [Swedish broadcaster SVT] work on the broadcast sound to even out the levels for TV viewers,” they told HuffPost UK. “This is solely to achieve as balanced a sound mix as possible for the audience; and SVT do not censor sound from the arena audience.

“The same principle applies to all competing performances and opening and interval acts.”

Israeli singer Eden Golan performing with her dancers
Israeli singer Eden Golan performing with her dancers
picture alliance via Getty Images

Eden is now through to the Eurovision final, with several news outlets and Eurovision fansites reporting that Italy’s broadcaster inadvertently disclosed the results of their televoting earlier than they should have, revealing that almost 40% of Italian fans voted for Israel.

Per BBC News, Eden’s team has said she has been “confined to her hotel room after a series of threats against the Israeli delegation” while not performing or taking part in specific Eurovision commitments.

Meanwhile, on Friday afternoon it was reported that Dutch performer Joost would “not be rehearsing until further notice”, following an undisclosed “incident” that the EBU said they were looking into.

Finally... how come Israel is part of Eurovision at all? Isn’t the contest just for European countries?

Netta is the most Eurovision contestant to win on behalf of Israel
Netta is the most Eurovision contestant to win on behalf of Israel
Pedro Gomes via Getty Images

Actually, no. In fact, Eurovision is open to all member countries of the EBU, of which Israel’s Kan has been since 1957.

Since then, Israel has won Eurovision on four separate occasions, including back-to-back wins in 1978 and 1979 (with Alphabeta’s A-Ba-Ni-Bi and Milk And Honey’s Hallelujah), Dana International’s historic victory in 1998 and, most recently, Netta’s Toy coming out on top in 2018.

Of these four wins, three led to Eurovision being hosted in Israel, with 1979 and 1999 taking place in Jerusalem and 2019 in Tel Aviv.


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