Netta Barzilai sings her way to victory in TV’s longest-running annual international song competition
With hundreds of millions of people tuning in, Israel’s Netta Barzilai won the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest with her hit song “Toy,” beating out other original submissions from dozens of countries.
Overall, the Israeli contestant earned a combined 529 points from a popular vote and an expert jury, Cyprus’ entry “Fuego” came in second with 436 points and Austria placed third with 342 points.
As the winner of Eurovision, Israel will get to host the massively popular competition in 2019 for the first time in two decades.
Though less well-known in the United States, the competition has come to represent European unity (or division, depending upon whom you ask) and is also a symbol of the LGBT movement.
“Eurovision is one of the most popular television shows in Europe,” said Dr. Dean Vuletic, who first saw the song contest while he was studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1999.
Dr. Vuletic is the author of “Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest” (London: Bloomsbury, 2018) and a professor of history at the University of Vienna, Austria. The book, which was published earlier this year, provides an extensive look at the origins of the live competition and how it evolved in parallel to developments in international relations.
“[Eurovision] has been very popular since its inception in 1956, and since then it has been held every year without fail,” he explained to The Media Line. “It has also reflected social and political changes in Europe.”
Barzilai’s triumph marks the fourth time that Israel has taken home the crown, the last win by Dana International coming in 1998.
This year, the contest was held in Lisbon, Portugal, and took place during a political climate marked by heightened tensions in the Middle East following U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw Washington from the Iran nuclear deal. When President Trump announced the move, he specifically cited Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s presentation two weeks ago which showed that Tehran had not come clean about its atomic activities.
Concurrently, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement ramped up efforts to influence Europeans to vote against Israel. But with Barzilai’s highly creative song “Toy” already a hit across Europe, the Israeli pop star overcame opposition to rise to the top.
Many, especially in Israel, were concerned these developments could hamper her chances at winning.
“A lot of people watching are not interested in the music,” said Moshe Morad, an ethnomusicologist and director of Israel’s public service music radio station 88FM. Morad previously served as the head of the Israeli delegation to the Eurovision.
“Last year I went as a guest of the Israeli delegation to Kiev,” he recalled to The Media Line. “Just after [then-Israeli contender Imri Ziv] made it through to the finals, many people in Europe were bombarded by messages from the BDS…and it happened again this year as well.”
Whereas some feared that BDS campaigners would influence voting—and indeed there were documented attempts to hack into voting apps and block votes for Israel—others downplayed the role of politics in what many consider to be the highlight of the European cultural calendar.
“The BDS was here, is here and it will always be here,” said Amnon Szpektor, Head of Press for the Israeli delegation at this year’s Eurovision. “If it were not Netta, [they would be going after] someone else,” he contended to The Media Line.
When asked whether he believed politics could influence the final outcome, Szpektor was adamant it would not. “Positive politics are involved [in the Eurovision]. People do vote for the countries they feel closest to, culturally speaking. It’s not surprising that countries with a similar language, and who have existed side by side for hundreds of years, would vote for each other.
“But there is no hate,” he concluded, noting that those in Israel convinced that people would vote against the Jewish State for political reasons were “mistaken.”
Dr. Vuletic agrees, telling The Media Line that while “nationalism is still essential to the contest,” the political aspects have been exaggerated and the impact of the voting blocs “has been minimized since 2009 with the reforms and the introduction of an expert jury.
“The situation [with the Iran deal and Israel] is still not severe enough for it to have an impact,” he added, going so far to suggest that “if Israel were to be attacked, that could [even have influenced] a sympathy vote for Israel.”
Historically, Dr. Vuletic conveyed, Israeli entries have won “in a climate of peace,” pointing to past winners Dana International and Izhar Cohen, both of whom won the contest in times of relative quiet.
Days before Barzilai sang and clucked her way to victory, she was surpassed in the rankings by Cyprus’ Eleni Foureira, who stole the show during the first round of semi-finals Tuesday night.
At the time, Szpektor was unsurprised, noting Foureira’s appearance and performance were more in line with conventional standards of beauty.
“Netta doesn’t sound like anybody else and loves herself,” the public relations manager affirmed.
“It’s 2018, we deserve someone like her.”