By PJ Cunningham
Major events in sports and entertainment have long been targeted as a means of getting political messages to a wider public.
Earlier this month as Ireland selected its Eurovision entry for next month in Tel Aviv, protestors called on 24-year-old Sarah McTernan who will sing her song 22, “to stand on the right side of history” and boycott the event.
Protestors handed in a petition with more than 16,500 signatures and said Ireland’s participation would be “unconscionable” considering Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
RTÉ replied that it had no intention of snubbing the contest, which, it stressed, represented “universality and inclusivity and a shared tradition of celebrating diversity through music.”
The protests started as soon as Israel was voted the winner in last year’s contest in Lisbon, Portugal.
Well-known broadcaster Mike Murphy was one of the first to make a case, saying that he was appalled by recent events in Gaza.
Singers Christy Moore and former Eurovision winner Charlie McGettitgan added their voices while Senator David Norris and fiddler Andy Irvine were also part of a big demonstration last summer supporting a boycott. The Musicians’ Union of Ireland took part in that protest.
But Tánaiste and Minister For Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney insisted that Ireland’s government would not countenance this move.
Such actions, he said, would only serve “to polarise things even further.”
A spokesman for Israel’s embassy in Dublin criticised those calling on Ireland to pull out of the event and said that they “exhibit the very antithesis of these values” of universality, inclusivity and diversity.
It went further and said that those people shouting slogans and carrying placards outside RTE were seeking to “promote a cynical, politicised hate campaign against the world’s only Jewish state.”
“Their motives are rooted in support for Palestinian terrorism in Gaza, and are part of the effort to delegitimise Israel as a state and disassociate the Jewish people from their history, heritage and birthplace,” said the statement.
Michael Kealy, the Irish Delegation Head Producer, said that no other European Broadcast Union (EBU) member was refusing to attend.
A spokesman for the campaign, Zoe Lawlor, dismissed the idea that the contest is apolitical: “Israel has made this year’s Eurovision explicitly militaristic and political in nature.
“This is especially so as the contestants will be expected to perform in front of 500 soldiers from the Israeli military.”
RTÉ Director-General Dee Forbes said the broadcaster would not sanction any of its employees who didn’t want to travel to the contest in Israel.
The Eurovision Song Contest has long been a target for protest – from musicians who felt it promoted mediocrity, to countries seeking to use it as a political platform to promote their causes.
Dana’s ‘All Kinds Of Everything’ was Ireland’s first winning song in 1970 but it, too, could just as easily have summed up the varieties of protests going back through the decades.
During the ‘60s era of The Beatles and Elvis Presley, it was Sweden which withdrew from the fledgeling competition for reasons of musical standards. It felt Eurovision promoted mediocrity rather than excellence.
The next protest arose out of disenchantment after four countries – the UK, Spain, France and the Netherlands – were declared joint winners in 1969, leaving the organisers red-faced as to who should host the following year.
These were small beer disagreements compared with what was to follow as Greece-Turkey tensions spilt over because of the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus Cypriot in 1974.
The two countries undertook a succession of tit-for-tat withdrawals until 1978 saw the neighbouring nations compete together for the first time in the Eurovision line-up.
In the 1980s, politics and entertainment stayed on parallel paths as far as the Eurovision was concerned.
Even the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of that decade, into the 1990s, did not bring about any major diplomatic incidents for Eurovision.
Only in more recent times, in the Putin era, has there been any problems with Russia and its former Soviet Union neighbours.
Georgia pulled out ten years ago because of a row over lyrics about the Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Israel made its first appearance in the song contest in 1973 and won in Paris in 1978 with A-Ba-Ni-Bi and again in 1979, in Jerusalem with Hallelujah.
It declined to host it the following year in 1980 due to financial reasons and because it clashed with Yom HaZikaron, the country’s cherished memorial date. The Netherlands hosted it – and Johnny Logan won with What’s Another Year, the first of a run of Irish successes.
Dana won for the third time for Israel with Diva in 1998 in Birmingham and last year, after a 20 year absence, Israel won in Lisbon with the #MeToo-themed song, Toy, by Netta Barzilai.
Editor’s note: For those who ask why Israel is competing in a ‘European’ song contest in the first place – which it has since 1973 – it is because the contest was originally established by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) to test and show off the possibilities of international broadcasting link-ups (including by satellite, with its then characteristic lag or delay). It’s why Australia is also able to compete.