A (Euro)vision for the future
By Eitan Fischberger
Netta Barzilai’s well-deserved victory in the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) not only cemented Israel’s position as a cultural force to be reckoned with, but also brought with it enormous potential for good old-fashioned image-building when the Eurovision hits Tel Aviv in May 2019. While Israel’s recent breakthroughs into the Gulf states and Muslim states have been noteworthy diplomatic successes, Israel’s greatest triumph in the realm of international relations has been its image-building through public diplomacy. This image building is not accomplished through traditional Track One diplomacy between government officials but rather conducted via grassroots, civil society organizations, and individuals. Traditionally, when Israel establishes its prowess in a given field, the government capitalizes on Israel’s reputation in that field and uses it to bolster its relations with other countries.
The most obvious examples of this trend are Israel’s image as a Startup Nation that leads the world in communication technology and artificial intelligence, and its agricultural sector, led by non-profits like Innovation: Africa, which has helped provide desperately needed clean drinking water and renewable energy to millions of Africans. Other examples include Israel’s image as a reliable contributor to disaster relief, medical research and development, sports cooperation, and of course, counterterrorism. The Israeli government takes full advantage of its citizens’ expertise in these fields, as it should, to show the world that Israel is a country worthy of engaging with.
The Portrayal of Israel by International Artists
Unfortunately, Israel has not enjoyed similar levels of successful image-building through culture as it has in other areas of life. True, Israel is world-renowned for its dance productions, classical music, and television shows, which are frequently adapted into American versions. Yet, the lack of cultural image building is abundantly clear when observing Israel’s complicated relationship with the international film and contemporary music industry. Israel is undeniably filled with a bevy of talented artists, many of whom have received accolades abroad. It is the way that Israel is portrayed by others in the field, however, which proves harmful to Israel’s cultural image. It is difficult for a country to improve its cultural image when they are routinely demonized by other prominent figures in the industry.
For example, the international film industry has a longstanding tradition of awarding coveted prizes to films that promulgate a distorted anti-Israel reality. This is the case with award-winning films like “Jenin, Jenin,” “5 Broken Cameras,” “Gaza, a Look into the Eyes of Barbarism,” and “Miral,” which was heavily politicized when it was screened in the UN General Assembly hall in 2011. This is not to say that Israel has gone unrecognized in the film industry. Israeli actress Gal Gadot is one of Hollywood’s fastest rising stars, and just a few short weeks ago, Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv won an Academy Award for best live action short film for his film “Skins,” which deals with racism in America. However, films that deal with the issue of racism in America tend to fare abnormally well during awards season, and Nattiv’s Oscar is the first won by an Israeli in over 40 years. In the music industry, one need not look further than the Roger Waters-led push to pressure performers into canceling shows in Israel, as has occurred with acclaimed artists like Elvis Costello, Lorde, and numerous others.
This brings us back to the Eurovision, and Israel’s forthcoming golden opportunity. The Eurovision will bring with it an audience that, up until this point, has had limited exposure to Israeli life that is unrelated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The 2018 contest in Portugal was viewed by over 180 million people, once again cementing its place as the world’s largest live music event. Additionally, the competition’s audience in 42 televised markets was roughly four times higher than the broadcast channels average ratings in both the 4-15-years old and 15-24 years-old demographics.
Not Just Television Viewers
Who are the tourists who fly to the host countries to attend the live performances? According to research conducted by Julius Arnegger and Marc Her published in the Journal of Destination Marketing & Management, the ESC audience is composed primarily of young, cosmopolitan individuals. For example, the 2012 ESC hosted in Azerbaijan attracted a crowd of 7,000 international tourists whose average age was 34.2 years, with a median age of 33. This was by far the largest group of one-time visitors to have graced the Azerbaijani capital until that point. In comparison, Azerbaijan received almost double the number of tourists the year it hosted the ESC than the previous year, a clear demonstration of the ESC’s effect on tourism.
Arnegger and Her also cite studies that explain that a country’s image is formed through an interpretation of various attributes, associations, beliefs, perceptions, impressions, and intentions, of the said country. In the case of Azerbaijan, its image improved significantly among the aforementioned young, cosmopolitan population, and the improvement was even more pronounced among those who visited the country to attend the contest, many of whom are considered trend-setters and opinion-shapers.
The 2019 contest is expected to draw a crowd of roughly 20,000 international tourists to the sandy beaches and bustling nightlife of Tel Aviv. These tourists belong mostly to the “millennial” generation, which views Israel less positively than other demographics, according to the Best Countries Index published by the U.S. News & World Report. The report, which surveyed 20,000 people from around the globe, found that Israel ranked 29th out of 80 countries in 2019, up one spot from the year before. However, when solely measuring the millennials’ opinions in 2018, Israel’s rank fell to number 49. There is no other country in the index with such a drastic gap in perception among differing generations.
In the report, a set of 65 attributes were presented to the participants, who then assessed how closely they associated each attribute with each state. When specifically measuring cultural influence on a scale of 0-10, the index showed that among those surveyed, Israel scored a 0.4 for “happy culture,” 0.4 for “cultural significance in terms of entertainment,” 0.3 for “trendiness,” and 0.2 for “fashionable.” In other words, Israel is hardly perceived as a country with a robust culture. Israel is in dire need of a cultural diplomacy “blitz,” especially among millennials if it wants to reverse this gloomy perception.
Therefore, beside the obvious benefits to the tourism industry (Lisbon saw a 37 percent increase in tourists visiting the city during the 2018 ESC, compared to the amount recorded during the same period the year before), Israel can benefit from hosting the ESC by exposing these tourists to the diversity and inclusiveness of Israeli culture. By showcasing its vibrant culture to millennials who will one day lead the public sector, Israel can, in a way, invest in its future by nurturing a future generation of world leaders who will harbor more positive sentiments toward it.
Course of Action
Israel should strive to achieve this with minimal intervention from the national government, given its toxic image among Europeans, which has deteriorated during the last decade. Instead, the Tel Aviv municipality should focus on facilitating local projects to flaunt its music, film, culinary, and fashion scene. One welcome initiative is the guided Eurovision bus tour, which will travel around Tel Aviv and give tourists a chance to see the city in all its glory.
More projects of this nature are necessary and should come from civil society as well. For example, Israeli bands who wish to contribute to the cause should play on street corners, city squares, parks, and beaches. Local fashion designers and artists should set up booths all around the city. Universities should consider sending students to the city to give tours. Commercials displaying Israel’s culture should be sprinkled throughout commercial breaks. The streets and beaches of Tel Aviv should be flooded with nightly parties. Israel is one of the few countries participating in the ESC that is not situated in Continental Europe, and its unique blend of Western, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern atmosphere could fascinate the tourists. Some may see this idea as shameless self-promotion, but so what? Israel has much to offer in the cultural sphere, and it should demonstrate that to the world once and for all.
Some claim that Israel is exploiting the ESC to redirect focus from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and manipulate the international community into seeing Israel as a cultural hub in the Middle East, while, in fact, it is an evil regime bent on the oppression and domination of Palestinians. Famed musician and producer Brian Eno said as much in an article published by The Guardian on February 18, 2019, in which he labeled Israel an “apartheid-like” state that aims to use the ESC as its own propaganda tool.
Ignoring the facts about Israel (Arabs serve in the highest echelons of the Israeli government, court system, police force, and military), Mr. Eno seems to conflate propaganda with the promotion of culture, at least in the Israeli case. If by propaganda, Mr. Eno means showing off local talent, then the implication is that any state (or “powerful state,” in his words) that promotes its artistic scene is engaging in the promotion of propaganda. If so, then Israel, along with most other “powerful states” in the world, is indeed engaging in propaganda. If he is referring exclusively to Israel (which he claims he is not), then this becomes quite the double standard and veers dangerously close to the definition of anti-Semitism put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The assertion that promoting local culture is akin to propaganda is wrong, and Israel should be held by Mr. Eno and those who call for its boycott to the same standard as all other ESC hosts.
Israel should emphasize that the ESC rules state that the contest is a non-political event; it is about culture, not conflict. According to the official Eurovision rules: “No messages promoting any organization, institution, political cause or other, company, brand, products or services shall be allowed in the Shows and within any official ESC premises and/or event.” The rules further state that: “A breach of this rule may result in disqualification.” The ESC must abide by its own rules and punish anyone who transgresses them, for the sake of the purity of art. Unfortunately, due to boycott activists like Mr. Eno and Mr. Waters, the ESC has already been politicized. This politicization goes against the very heart and soul of the ESC and should be condemned, or at the very least ignored.
It should be noted that as of the time of this publication, only the Ukraine has boycotted the contest, and for reasons unrelated to Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No country with Muslim and Arab representatives has boycotted the contest as of yet. For the sake of the integrity of the ESC, it will hopefully remain this way.
Israel has been awarded an opportunity it has not experienced since it last hosted the Eurovision in 1999 – an opportunity to improve its cultural image through cultural diplomacy. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself recognized this potential, evident when he called Netta Barzilai “the best ambassador for Israel.” If Israel can utilize this opportunity to penetrate the cultural barrier that seems to separate it from the international community and lead to closer cultural links, it would be one of the greatest international relations accomplishments that Israel has seen in decades.
Eitan Fischberger, an intern at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is currently a student at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC). Previously, he interned at the Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations in New York.