Eurovision Song Contest 2024: Not all that apolitical

It’s a question that has arisen time and again: Is the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) political?

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) , which organizes the competition, has repeatedly insisted that the ESC is only a cultural event with no place for politics. Its rules clearly state that political statements or even slogans aren’t allowed at the competition.

A woman wearing a multi-colored striped outfit, holds up a crystal trophy in the shape of a vintage microphone.
Netta from Israel won in 2018 with a clearly feminist songImage: Vyacheslav Prokofyev/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

This rule might be especially difficult to enforce this year.

Following the Hamas terror attacks in October 2023 and the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, Israel has been criticized for its military campaign’s impact on the civilian population in Gaza.

Israel has been participating in the ESC for 51 years, so it’s not the first time the Middle East conflict has come into the spotlight at the event.

In 1973, singer Ilanit was the first artist to perform for Israel under stringent security measures. A year earlier, Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village in Munich. Ilanit is said to have worn a protective vest, the audience had to remain seated during her performance and photographers had to take pictures of the ceiling to prove that their cameras were not camouflaged firearms.

Title of Israel’s 2024 entry changed

This year’s Israeli candidate, 20-year-old Eden Golan, will also perform under special protection.

At the beginning of the year, several participating countries had already asked the EBU to exclude Israel from the competition amid the war.

It almost happened, but not as a direct reaction to the boycott calls. According to the EBU, the original title of the Israeli entry, “October Rain,” was too reminiscent of the October 7 attacks.

The title was changed, and Golan was admitted.

Picture of a dark-haired girl wearing a white outfit standing against a background of stars.
Israel’s Eurovision 2024 participant Eden Golan has been allowed to take part in this year’s competitionImage: Oleg Krasavin/Wikipedia

However, the protests haven’t died down.

“The Broadcasting Union recognizes the strong feelings and opinions that this year’s ESC — against the backdrop of a terrible war in the Middle East — has evoked,” the EBU said in a statement

The EBU added that it was solely responsible for Israel’s admission to the competition “and not the artist.” Golan is traveling to Malmo, Sweden, “to share her music, her culture and the universal message of unity through the language of music.”

Eurovision was hardly ever apolitical 

The first ESC competition took place in Lugano, Switzerland in 1956. At the time, it was still called the “Gran Premio Eurovisione Della Canzone Europea” or “Grand Prix” for short in French. The aim of the event was international understanding, bringing World War II enemy countries together in a friendly competition. Seven countries took part, including Germany.

Picture of a woman sitting in front of a microphone, strumming a white guitar and singing.
In 1982, Nicole won for Germany with her song ‘Ein bisschen Frieden’ (‘A little bit of peace’)Image: Martin Athenstädt/picture alliance/dpa

The competition grew from year to year, with 17 countries taking part in 1968. That year, there was clear, politically motivated dissent: the Spanish candidate wanted to sing in Catalan, a language repressed by Francisco Franco’s fascist regime. Another singer was sent instead to perform a Spanish-English version of the song, titled “La La La.”

After the division of Cyprus in 1974, Greece and Turkey became enemies. In 1975, Greece boycotted the ESC. Turkey followed suit in 1976 but nevertheless broadcast the show on television. The show was interrupted when the Greek entry came on, and a nationalist Turkish song was broadcast instead.

Israel’s victory omitted from Jordan’s broadcast

When it became clear that Izhar Cohen of Israel would win the 1978 ESC in Paris, Israel’s neighboring Arab country, Jordan, ended the broadcast.

At the height of the Cold War in Europe, young German singer Nicole took to the stage with a white guitar, sang a message of peace and won the competition in 1982. The question arose: is the ESC allowed to be political if the message is positive?

Musicians stand on a stage, above them the spotlights shine in the Ukrainian flag colors, blue and yellow.
The Kalush Orchestra from Ukraine won Eurovision 2022 in Turin, ItalyImage: Yara Nardi/REUTERS

Is it still about the music?

The fact that even the EBU hasn’t always managed to stay apolitical was demonstrated by the exclusion of Georgia in 2009. The reason: an anti-Russian play on words in the title of the song “We Don’t Wanna Put In.”

Belarus was kicked out in 2021 because of its obvious support for President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been the subject of sanctions for human rights violations.

Russia’s exclusion from the ESC in 2022 was a reaction to the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. Regardless of their political stance, Russian artists and their music suddenly no longer played a role.

Political allies among national juries

From the very beginning, national juries have often made no secret of which participating country they were chummy with or which they openly disliked — even though this had nothing to do with the song’s quality.

It certainly wasn’t about music when the Russian national jury responded to drag queen Conchita Wurst‘s performance with zero points in 2014. However, the Russian audience voted the Austrian entry into third place and Conchita went on to win the ESC by a landslide.

A woman dressed in a dark suit holds a mike onstage with the Ukrainian flag draped over her left arm.
Jamala won the 2016 competition in StockholmImage: Britta Pedersen/dpa-POOL/picture alliance

In 2016, Russia objected to the performance of “1944” by Ukrainian participant Jamala, a song evocative of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars under Josef Stalin. The EBU argued back then that the song wasn’t about politics but family history. Jamala, herself a Crimean Tatar, took home the ESC trophy.

Fine for the Palestinian flag

Clear demands and slogans from the audience or artists have also occurred repeatedly and have also been penalized.

In Tel Aviv in 2019, the Icelandic band Hatari displayed the Palestinian flag during the scoring portion of the evening. As a result, the Icelandic broadcaster had to pay a fine to the EBU.

Madonna’s performance that same evening had already caused a stir: one of her dancers was carrying a Palestinian flag, another an Israeli one.

Picture of people celebrating in front of a stage with one person holding up an Israeli flag.
Images like this from Liverpool in 2023 should not happen again, according to Swedish policeImage: Jessica Gow /TT NYHETSBYRÅNpicture alliance

However, Malmo has said it is prepared for the ESC to take place without any serious incidents. There will be no outdoor fan zone, and police presence has been increased. 

Two large demonstrations against Israel have been announced for the ESC week, which begins on May 5 and ends six days later with the grand finale.

With Swedish authorities expecting the worst, they have banned Israeli ESC fans from walking around with their national flag. The Israeli delegation has been asked to leave their hotel rooms only for rehearsals and performances.

This article was originally written in German.