To compete in Eurovision, Israel had to change its song. Some say it should still be banned

Eden Golan, Israel's representative at the Eurovision Song Contest, reacts during a media conference following the official unveiling of Israel's song submission, in Tel Aviv earlier this month. The country was forced to change its song following a decision by contest organizers that the original was too political. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters - image credit)

Israel has unveiled its Eurovision entry — for a second time — even as calls persist for a boycott of the popular song contest if the country is allowed to compete as the war in Gaza continues.

Eurovision organizers announced in February that they were reviewing October Rain, the initial submission by Israel's representative Eden Golan. It included lines like, "And I promise you that never again/I'm still wet from this October rain."

Some, including Eurovision organizers, saw the lyrics as referring to the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, which killed around 1,200 people and saw some 250 people taken hostage. Israel's resulting military action in Gaza has killed more than 31,000 people, according to Palestinian health authorities. There have been calls to exclude Israel from the competition completely over the ongoing war.

In the annual contest which takes place from May 7-11 this year, representatives of participating countries perform elaborate, costumed musical numbers. Viewers vote for their favourite, and a winner is chosen by a mix of jury scores and popularity.

Billed as a non-political event, Eurovision's rules specify that it "shall in no case be politicized and/or instrumentalized." Contestants seen to be breaking those rules can be disqualified.

KAN, Israel's public broadcaster in charge of selecting a representative for the contest, said Eurovision organizers had decided the country's song would be rejected on those grounds.

Israel initially refused to change the submission, but then Israeli President Isaac Herzog stepped in late last month.

"The president emphasized that at this time in particular, when those who hate us seek to push aside and boycott the state of Israel from every stage, Israel must sound its voice with pride," KAN said on March 3, of its decision to revise the entry.

The song was renamed Hurricane and the lyrics were rewritten, with the line mentioned above changed to, "Baby, promise me you'll hold me again/I'm still broken from this hurricane."

But that has not ended calls to ban the country from the competition.

Fredrik Persson/TT News Agency/Reuters
Fredrik Persson/TT News Agency/Reuters

Calls for a boycott

Thousands of artists in Sweden, Finland and Iceland have signed letters and petitions calling for Israel to be banned, and an Irish petition demanding the same thing has more than 16,000 signatures.

On March 7, two Belgian ministers said Israel should be excluded from Eurovision, with one comparing the situation to Russia being banned in 2022, following its invasion of Ukraine.

Boycott, Divest and Sanction, a Palestinian-led movement, has asked supporters not to watch Eurovision this year and has called for broadcasters and competitors to withdraw.

Earlier this week in Malmo, Sweden, this year's host city, media reported the Eurovision display there had been vandalized with red paint and a "Free Gaza" slogan. Across social media, including on Eurovision's official Facebook page, fans are arguing about whether Israel should be allowed to compete.

KAN did not respond to a request for comment.

Corinna Kern/Reuters
Corinna Kern/Reuters

Political division over the war in Gaza has disrupted other cultural events. Dozens of musicians and panellists at Texas festival SXSW have pulled out in protest of sponsorships by the U.S. military and weapons manufacturers.

And Israel isn't the only country people want to see banned from Eurovision. Some fans say Azerbaijan shouldn't be allowed to take part due to its expulsion of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh.

But calls for Azerbaijan's exclusion are less prevalent online. And while SXSW claims about 300,000 attendees, Eurovision says 162 million people watched the contest last year.

It's also not the first time Israel's involvement has resulted in protests; there were calls for a boycott in 2019. That year, Tel Aviv hosted the contest that took place just over a week after a ceasefire ended what was, at the time, the most serious flare-up of violence between the two sides since the 2014 war in Gaza.

WATCH | A look back at the controversy surrounding Eurovision in 2019:

Comparing wars, conflicts 'complex and difficult'

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), an association of public broadcasters in Europe and beyond, runs the competition every year.

In a statement provided to CBC News on Monday, EBU director general Noel Curran said organizers are aware of calls to exclude Israel in the same way it excluded Russia in 2022.

"Comparisons between wars and conflicts are complex and difficult and, as a non-political media organization, not ours to make," the statement read.

In Russia's case, EBU said it suspended the country's broadcasters, whose relationship with the government was fundamentally different than the one between KAN and the Israeli government.

The EBU wrote that Israel's inclusion aligned the broadcasting union with other international bodies. It said it wants to ensure that Eurovision remains a "non-political" event.

Politics 'always' impacts Eurovision

But Dean Vuletic, an academic and author whose work focuses on Eurovision, says despite the intentions of the EBU, "Politics always comes into the contest."

Vuletic said that at the first Eurovision in 1956, West Germany sent Walter Andreas Schwarz as its representative. Schwarz was a Jewish Holocaust survivor.

"From the very first edition of Eurovision, political messages were being sent by the countries that were participating," he said.

Giorgio Perottino/Getty Images
Giorgio Perottino/Getty Images

Vuletic described other political rows, like Greece's 1975 boycott over Turkey's invasion of Cyprus, and Turkey's 1976 boycott over Greece submitting a song protesting the war. Yugoslavia became the first country ever banned in the 1990s following UN sanctions — something Vuletic says is a pattern.

"We really need a bigger context of international sanctions for the EBU to act," he said.

Catherine Baker, a researcher with the University of Hull who has examined the cultural politics of Eurovision, agrees.

"The EBU is a rule taker, not a rule maker," she said. "It's not going to be the first to exclude a particular state ... all the more so when the international climate is as contentious as it is."

LISTEN | When politics sweep onto Eurovision's stage:

Though many see the situation with Israel as a double standard considering Russia's ban, Baker pointed out that the country wasn't excluded immediately after invading Ukraine.

"The initial response from the EBU was that a Russian entry could still participate," she said. "The climate then changed very quickly."

Baker says Baltic and Nordic broadcasters went on record to say they'd pull out if Russia participated. Pressure continued to mount on the EBU, and when international sanctions against Russia began to roll in, the broadcasting association reversed its initial decision.

Vuletic says Eurovision needs to have rules against politicization as a control.

"Some politics are good in the eyes of the European Broadcasting Union, the rights of sexual minorities, for example, European integration," he said. "But then, of course, we have bad politics, the type of politics that offend, the type of politics that reflects some sort of conflict between countries."

Baker says that doesn't necessarily mean Eurovision is non-political, with questions often arising over which countries can participate in the first place.

"Clearly, that's going to get political."