Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

Culture-chief MEP defends Israel against any Eurovision ban

  • Israeli singer Noah Kirel reached the Eurovision finals in the UK in 2023 with her song 'Unicorn' (Photo: kan.org.il)
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The MEP who chairs the European Parliament's culture committee has attacked mounting calls to ban Israel from the Eurovision Song Contest, as TV chiefs play wait-and-see on the Gaza war.

The prospect of an Israeli act singing and dancing in Europe's yearly pop-music festival despite Israel's destruction of Gaza has appalled some artists in Nordic countries.

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  • Sabine Verheyen, a German MEP with the centre-right European People's Party, who chairs the culture committee (Photo: European Parliament)

Over 1,400 Finnish singers and music-industry workers signed a petition last week calling on Finnish broadcaster Yle to either exclude Israel or to boycott the competition, which culminates in a final in Malmö, in neighbouring Sweden, over two nights in May.

The Association of Composers and Lyricists of Iceland, the Icelandic Society of Authors and Composers, and the Icelandic Eurovision fan-club have also called for Icelandic broadcaster RÚV to boycott Israel.

Members of the Irish public have sent hundreds of emails to Irish broadcaster RTÉ urging a ban.

Individual activists, such as Norwegian human-rights campaigner Ida Helene Benonisen, and musicians, such as French singer Fatima-Zahra Hafdi, have urged the same.

And Eurovoix, a pan-European fan-club, said it would "substantially restrict" its coverage of Israel's pre-final heats, called HaKokhav HaBa (meaning "the next star" in Hebrew), due to pro-war propaganda.

It did so because Kan, the Israeli public broadcaster, included tributes to Israeli soldiers, jurors in military uniforms, and footage of mobilised Israeli troops in its pre-Eurovision show.

The pro-boycott surge comes after Israel killed over 24,000 Palestinians in the past 100 days, most of them children and women, prompting a legal case for "genocide" at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.

Israel's attack was in reaction to a raid by Palestinian group Hamas on 7 October, which killed around 1,200 Israelis and kidnapped some 200 others.

But self-defence aside, Kan and other Israeli TV stations have given a prime-time platform to rightwing Israeli politicians and commentators calling for Gaza to be wiped out in revenge — in flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions, let alone European broadcasting standards.

And the suffering in Gaza is likely to get worse before the Malmö finals in May, as aid-workers warn of mass starvation and disease.

For its part, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in Geneva, Switzerland, which runs Eurovision, has said Israel can take part — for now.

"Israeli public broadcaster Kan meets all the competition rules," it told EUobserver by email on 11 January.

"The EBU is aligned with other international organisations, including sports unions and federations and other international bodies, that have similarly maintained their inclusive stance towards Israeli participants in major competitions at this time," it added.

Yle, the Finnish broadcaster, followed suit.

"We are monitoring the situation closely. ESC [the Eurovision Song Contest] is still four months away. The situation in the Middle East is very sad, but we hope for a swift return to peace," Yle's head of communications, Jere Nurminen, said.

Camilla Hagert, the Swedish broadcaster's spokeswoman, said: "SVT will follow the EBU's decision on this matter."

The EBU is an intergovernmental body that is legally and financially independent of the EU.

The European Commission and European Parliament in Brussels do oversee compliance with EU media laws and values in the 27 EU member states more broadly speaking and can also exert informal influence, for instance by making high-level statements.

But EU officials remained agnostic on the Eurovision controversy.

"The European Broadcasting Union is an independent organisation and the commission does not comment on their plans and programming," a commission spokesperson told EUobserver.

And the German centre-right MEP who chairs the parliament's culture committee attacked the Israel-boycott calls, in a sign of the mood in the EU bubble.

"Israeli citizens have the right to live free from terror, fear, and violence," Sabine Verheyen told EUobserver when asked about Eurovision.

"According to their internationally-recognised right to self-defence, the state of Israel strictly adheres to and highly respects international humanitarian law. Unfortunately, the cowardly tactics of Hamas lead to a high number of civilian casualties," she said.

Niklas Nienaß, a German green MEP, who also sits on the culture committee, said: "I agree with the stance of the EBU".

Russia precedent

The Finnish and Icelandic petitions noted that the EBU excluded Russia after it invaded Ukraine in 2022 and warned of double standards if Israel was allowed to compete.

The EBU did so due to Russia's "repeated violations of membership obligations and violation of the values of the public media", the Geneva-based club said in an earlier statement.

It declined to answer EUobserver's questions on whether Israeli broadcaster Kan respected EBU "values".

There is no consensus for EU sanctions on Israel as there was on Russia, even though the EU foreign service recently proposed visa-bans on violent Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

But the EU commission noted that even its Russia sanctions regime doesn't stretch to cultural boycotts.

"Our sanctions against Russia do not affect cultural or sporting events (as long as they do not involve sanctioned entities or persons), but all our bilateral programs and cooperation with Russia in this field were of course suspended as a result of the aggression against Ukraine," it said.

And the German MEPs rejected any Israel-Russia comparison in strident terms.

"In light of the unjustified and strongly condemned offensive war led by Russia against Ukraine, comparing the exclusion of Russia by the EBU with a potential exclusion of Israel is therefore not justified," said Verheyen.

Nienaß said: "Russia has violated international law and illegally invaded a country. Israel has the right to self-defence and is currently not in violation of international law".

But those MEPs' statements amounted to living in an "alternative reality" for human-rights campaigners, such as Youssef Kobo, a writer and speaker on Belgian politics in Brussels.

"While the rest of the world is watching live as Israel perpetrates outrageous war crimes in Gaza — women shot by snipers, countless atrocities, images of dying children, over 100 journalists killed, record numbers of UN workers killed — there's a warped reality in mainstream Western and Israeli media, where many pundits speak of [the Hamas attack on] 7 October as the only thing that's happened," he said.

Meanwhile, Eurovision was watched by 162 million people in Europe last year.

It is not a big deal in Palestine, where few people have heard of it, Kobo said.

But "people in the Arab community in Europe don't understand how Israel can be included in this contest when Russia is kicked out," he added.

Nienaß, the German green MEP, also said: "A lot of Israelis disagree with the course of the current government and are able to voice their opposition and act accordingly".

Euro-optimism

"The ESC could well be a place for the cultural sector of Israel to take a stance on the current conflict, even one that diverges from the position of the government. I believe we should not keep the Israeli cultural sector from expressing their view by excluding the state," he added.

But if Verheyen and Nienaß' views on the legality of Israel's Gaza war were "warped", then any Eurovision optimism was also magical thinking, Kobo said.

"No matter what happens at Eurovision, or with Fifa [the world football body], or even the ICJ hearings, I don't think it will have an impact," he said.

"No matter how high the Palestinian death toll climbs by May [the Eurovision final in Malmö] — 30,000 or 50,000 — we've already seen it doesn't have a significant impact on public opinion or government policy in most EU member states," he said.

The Israeli EU embassy didn't reply to EUobserver.

But its EU ambassador, Haim Regev, previously said his job was to stop erosion in support for Israel among Europe's political elite, rather than to worry about popular protests.

"There is a huge Muslim community [in Europe], leftists, young people, who really don't understand what's going on," he told this website in December.

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