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Eurovision Is Plunged Into Crisis as Deep Political Divisions Intensify

There are two halves of this street. Friisgatan, in the center of Malmö — the coastal Swedish town that is hosting the 2024 Eurovision Song Contest — has been designated as the “Eurovision street.” It’s pedestrianized, with bars and restaurants spilling out onto the street and numerous “selfie spots” for attendees to strike a pose. Yellow and pink bunting fly overhead. Most places are decked out with flags of the countries who, on Saturday night, will sing for a place in Eurovision history. But on this day, hours before the second semi-final, the street is filled with protesters waving flags of their own: Palestinian flags. The protesters bang on drums and chant in unison, calling for a ceasefire and an end to the Israeli government’s military offensive in Gaza.

“We can’t treat Israel as a normal state,” a young woman with a knitted Palestinian flag draped across her shoulders tells me. “By letting them compete at Eurovision, we are treating them like any other country. The whole idea of Eurovision is political. And being silent during a genocide is taking a side.” Earlier in the afternoon, 12,000 protesters — including Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg — marched up Malmö Arena in the center of the city. More protesters are expected as the final approaches.

The Eurovision Song Contest is a glittery, eccentric spectacle that showcases the best (and most bizarre) music that the wider European continent has to offer. This year, acts include Nebulossa — a sultry Spanish queen flanked by shirtless male dancers in sparkly corsets and knee-high boots — and Baby Lasagna — Croatia’s bonkers techno banger with pirate costumes, which encapsulates Eurovision to a tee. Around 180 million people watch the grand final live on TV — more than the Super Bowl — with a global reach of around 400m, including social and digital platforms.

This year, the contest and its host city have become a microcosm of wider geopolitical tensions. The run-up to the contest has been dominated by debate about Israel’s inclusion amid protester accusations of war crimes. On the streets of Malmö, protesters brandish posters that rebrand Eurovision as the “Genocide Song Contest.” And they’re not alone in voicing their concerns: Fans, musicians and campaigners across Europe have called for Israel to be banned from the contest, citing Eurovision as an example of the Israeli government trying to “pinkwash” and “artwash” its image. This year’s performers have come under intense pressure to boycott the contest entirely, while others advocate for a moment of unity. 

“United by Music” is the official slogan of Eurovision. It was first used by last year’s host: Liverpool, England, who hosted the contest on behalf of 2022’s victors, Ukraine. It was a remarkable display of unity — one that underlined the contest as a serious cultural and political force. But this year, it’s difficult to find the same unity among the Eurovision fandom, participating artists, and nations. 

Twelve months ago, when Swedish music superstar Loreen triumphed to bring the show to her home city — a contest that serendipitously coincides with the 50th anniversary of ABBA winning with “Waterloo” — Eurovision felt unstoppable. But now, the contest’s handling of political divisions has seen it plunged into crisis. With Israel tipped to place highly this year — or even win — there is real tension in the air. And On “Eurovision Street,” where diners eat small plates on one side while protesters chant and beat drums on the other, the clash of different realities couldn’t be clearer.

The first ever Eurovision Song Contest was held in 1956. At the time, such a broadcast across Europe was a huge technical feat. (The host nation, Switzerland, was chosen because of its central location.) Seven nations competed: the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Swiss hosts. The contest has gone ahead every year since — apart from 2020, which was called off because of COVID. In the 68 years since its inception, Eurovision has expanded to include further afield nations like Serbia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. Since 2015, Australia — a country where Eurovision has a large following — has competed in a special broadcasting deal. In Malmö, 37 countries will compete over a week of competition, including two semi-finals before the grand final.

There is a popular narrative that Eurovision has become more political in recent years. In 2009, the voting system was updated to include a jury vote amid complaints that the public voting was becoming too political and gave the “Eastern bloc” of countries an unfair advantage. But according to Chris West, author of Eurovision! A History of Modern Europe Through the World’s Greatest Song Contest, politics has always been at the heart of things. “The whole idea for creating a European Song Contest was very much about bringing people together around a common culture and identity after WW2,” he tells Rolling Stone, explaining that including countries like Israel, Russia and Ukraine was really about bringing them into the “Western European cultural umbrella.”

Many of Eurovision’s most inspirational stories are political ones. The 1974 contest in Brighton is remembered as ABBA’s breakthrough year, but it’s also the year that Portugal’s entry, “E Depois do Adeus,” became a rallying cry of the revolution that overthrew the authoritarian government and started Portugal’s transition to democracy. Drag performer Conchita Wurst’s 2014 win — including points from Russia, where Putin was implementing an anti-gay crackdown at the time — was a landmark moment for LGBTQ+ representation. Ukraine was victorious in 2016 with Jamala’s “1944” — a song that featured lyrics in Crimean Tatar language, which was thought to be a nod to Russia’s 2014 annexation of the region. In 2022, Ukraine won again with the resilience anthem “Stefania.” 

Conchita Wurst of Austria wins the Eurovision Song Contest 2014 on May 10, 2014 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Ragnar Singsaas/Getty Images

Despite all this, maintaining a public facade of political neutrality has been central to Eurovision’s longevity. The contest is organized by the European Broadcasting Union — a body of public service broadcasters from across the European continent. Each year, the EBU carefully scrutinizes the lyrics and planned performances of each act to ensure that overtly political statements don’t make it onto the stage. The official line is that Eurovision is a music competition between broadcasters, not governments. However, the EBU’s insistence on political neutrality rapidly changed in 2022. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Eurovision followed the lead of other sporting and cultural events by removing Russia. 

In breaking with decades of precedent, the EBU has created a difficult situation for itself — and for the artists taking part in this year’s contest. Russia’s exclusion is the catalyst for media commentary around this year’s contest, particularly among those who believe Israel should receive the same treatment. Writing in The Guardian, Jeffrey Ingold argued that Israel’s participation exposes “the double standards and glaring hypocrisy embedded in the EBU’s opaque processes for defining what counts as ‘political.’” The contest has always been “governed by political division and questions of inclusion and exclusion,” he writes. “Nowhere has that been clearer than in the incredibly moving shows and songs of support and solidarity for Ukraine over the past two years.”

In response to these accusations, the EBU has claimed that these are “completely different” situations and insisted that Eurovision is “not the arena” to solve the middle east conflict. On the topic of Russia, Daniel Rosney — a reporter who has specialized in covering Eurovision for years, most recently for the BBC — tells Rolling Stone that the EBU’s official line is now that Russian public service broadcasters had their EBU membership suspended “due to consistent breaches of membership obligations,” whereas Israeli broadcaster, Kan, remains in good standing. Rosney says the EBU has failed to effectively communicate precisely why Russia was suspended.

The newfound focus on Russia’s broadcaster might seem like semantics — or a convenient rewriting of the story. In 2022, Eurovision didn’t discourage the perception that it was making a political statement by excluding Russia. The decision announcement simply said that Russia’s participation would “bring the competition into disrepute.” And Eurovision’s executive supervisor Martin Österdahl later said that the decision was about the contest standing up for “the basic and ultimate values of democracy.” 

In Malmö, protesters are asking: Why are Eurovision’s “values of democracy” not being applied to Palestinians? “It’s hypocrisy, it’s double standards. We keep seeing western institutions falling down and treating international law like a joke,” says Kamal El Salim, a protester and activist waving a giant Palestinian flag. “People seem to care about Ukrainians but not Palestinians. Systemic racism must be the reason why international law is applied to some, but not others.” Emma, another protester who traveled from Gothenburg,  says that “we are sick of the hypocrisy and being silenced. This is such an important occasion and we will be heard.”

Such focus on a TV music contest — particularly one as eccentric as Eurovision — might seem overblown. But Eurovision is one of the biggest cultural platforms in the world. And Israel has politicized its own inclusion in the contest this year, too: Its song, “October Rain,” had to be altered to remove lyrics that were judged to be overtly political. (The song has now been renamed “Hurricane.”)  West suspected that the EBU was calling Israel’s bluff and perhaps hoped they would refuse to change the lyrics. “That way,” he explains, “they could exclude them based on the rules and this whole controversy would disappear.” (In 2021, Belarus was banned over political song lyrics.) But in February, Israel’s president Isaac Herzog stressed the importance of Israel appearing at Eurovision, because “there are haters” who are trying to drive them out. This high-level intervention proves that, on both sides, 2024’s contest is about as political as it gets.

EACH YEAR, EUROVISION brings together more casual viewers with the show’s hardcore fans. (The latter contingent approaches the contest with the same level of enthusiasm as comic book or horror movie fans, obsessing over the tiniest details of its lore.) There is a long tradition of LGBTQ+ people being over-represented in both categories. In Malmö, there are rainbow Pride flags draped from buildings and windows. (Inside the arena, these are the only non-competing flags allowed.)

But queer fans, artists and activist groups have also been at the forefront of the 2024 boycott calls. In the U.K., a host of historic LGBTQ+ venues have canceled planned screenings of the grand final. Britain’s entry Olly Alexander — former frontman of Years & Years and star of award-winning queer TV drama It’s a Sin — has come under considerable pressure to withdraw from the contest. Over 450 queer artists, activists and organizations signed an open letter by Queers for Palestine calling on Alexander to boycott the event. 

Olly Alexander onstage during the London Eurovision Party 2024 at Outernet London on April 07, 2024 in London, England.

Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

In the BBC documentary, Olly Alexander’s Road To Eurovision ‘24, the British singer became tearful when discussing the backlash he has received. He describes being on the receiving end of what he calls “extreme” comments, such as accusations he is “complicit in a genocide.” Despite signing an open letter in October 2023, before he was announced as the U.K.’s Eurovision entry — one that accused Israel’s “apartheid regime” of “genocide” — he now describes himself as “not qualified” to speak on the “complex” situation. Alexander has learned the hard way that queer joy and unity — messages he has advocated for throughout his career, including a famously rousing speech at 2019’s Glastonbury festival — are in themselves divisive against a backdrop of war crimes allegations.

The controversy over Israel’s participation is the big story of Eurovision 2024 — one that neither contestants or the contest have been able to shake. Is it turning into a PR crisis? “I would certainly say that Eurovision is in a bit of a crisis,” says Scott Bryan, who reports on Eurovision for British TV and radio. “Compared to where we were a year ago, it couldn’t feel any more different. It’s gone from being a really strong year in Liverpool, where it almost felt invincible, to a situation where there are very loud calls for boycotts.” 

Still, this is not the first time that Israel’s participation has caused divisions. Israel won the contest in 2018 — just days before violence erupted when former president Trump controversially moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The following year, there were campaigns to boycott the 2019 contest, citing Israel’s human rights record and illegal settlements in the West Bank. But despite the contest not being held in Israel this year, the campaign has gathered more momentum — perhaps as a testament to the strength of feeling.

If Eurovision really does hold up a political mirror to Europe, then the reality is that the contest and continent are both divided over the Middle East — and Eurovision’s place in it all. Thousands of artists from Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Sweden have signed letters calling on Israel to be expelled, but there is no shortage of public figures, fans and politicians speaking out in favor of Israel’s participation, too. In the U.K., Alexander has faced backlash on the pro-Palestine front, but there were also calls to remove him from Eurovision because of his prior condemnations of Israel. 

Just like in 2019, this year’s boycott calls have failed to convince nations not to participate in the contest. Not even Ireland — a country that has become known for pro-Palestinian activism, where over 400 artists signed a letter calling for a boycott, and whose entrant, Bambie Thug, recently said in an interview: “If I wasn’t in the competition, I would also be boycotting.” Iceland, too, looked like a possible holdout, but confirmed its participation on the final day of the deadline.

Whatever the EBU claims, West thinks that the lack of countries threatening to boycott this year is the “big difference” between the treatment of Russia and Israel. The decision to ban Russia wasn’t instant. After the EBU put out a statement saying Russia would still be allowed to compete, several nations — including Iceland, Norway and Finland — publicly pledged to boycott the contest. Russia was banned the following day. The lack of nations threatening to boycott reflects the geopolitical reality that many of Eurovision’s competing countries are much closer allies of Israel than Russia, including the “Big Five” — France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K. — who make the largest financial contributions each year and get an automatic pass to the final. (In fact, if Israel were to be removed, there is also the possibility that some of these countries might threaten to boycott in response.) 

Ingold, the freelance journalist, is unperturbed by the failure to convince artists to pull out. In fact, with participating countries like Germany cracking down on pro-Palestinian activism, he thinks protest is still essential. “The fact that the governments of many of the participating countries are supportive of Israel makes Eurovision an even more important site of protest,” he says. “We have to make our voices heard — even if it doesn’t change anything — because it’s raising awareness of the complicity of so many governments in this human catastrophe.”

IN MALMÖ, IT’S IMPOSSIBLE to ignore the low hum of helicopters flying overhead. Police stand on every street corner. Security has been ramped up heavily here, but also in Copenhagen, the Danish capital, where a third of the 100,000 visitors will be staying. In Malmö, the organization Stoppa Israel – För fred och ett fritt Palestina (Stop Israel – For peace and a free Palestine) plans to hold more big protests as the contest nears, where an estimated 40,000 protestors are expected — a large number for a city of modest size. On Saturday night, Falastinvision — an event that bills itself as the “genocide-free song contest” — will offer a musical alternative to the grand final, with 15 finalists competing.

The atmosphere is peaceful, but undeniably tense. Days before my arrival in Malmö, a protester burned the Quran while waving the Israeli flag — an act that was condemned by Israel’s ambassador to Sweden. There are Palestinian flags stuck on most lampposts, with many posters for the contest defaced. Locals tell me they are spooked — and embarrassed — by the heavy police presence.

Rosney, the freelance reporter, says that while Israel’s participation is undeniably the story of Eurovision 2024 so far, it’s mostly among people in the “hardcore” fan contingent. “Others I’ve spoken to have been unaware of the controversy,” he says. “Often those who are boycotting tend to be people who are most active in those circles.” The EBU’s fear will be that the conflict will make its way to the stage — bringing it out into the open to the “average fan” in a way that transcends street protests or social media posts. 

This is already happening. In Tuesday night’s first semi-final, Eric Saade, Sweden’s 2011 Eurovision winner, performed in the halftime slot with a Palestinian keffiyeh wrapped around his wrist. Saade, who is half-Palestinian, had previously slammed the EBU’s decision to ban Palestinian flags from the arena, alongside the flags of non-competing nations. “It is more crucial than ever for me to be present on THAT STAGE,” he wrote on Instagram ahead of the performance. “You may take our symbols, but you cannot take away my presence.” In response, the EBU said it regretted that Saade had chosen to “compromise the non-political nature” of the event. Sadde denies that the garment was a political statement, but merely a symbol of his identity. 

Eric Saade and Eden Golan

Jessica Gow/TT/TT News Agency/AFP/Getty Images; Jens Büttner/picture alliance/Getty Images

After qualifying for Saturday’s grand final, Ireland’s Bambie Thug claimed that they were asked to remove an Irish inscription from their costume, which translated to “ceasefire” and “freedom for Palestine.” Eurovision has a history of reprimanding pro-Palestinian sentiment: In 2019, Iceland’s broadcaster was fined after its act, Hatari, waved a Palestinian flag during the ceremony in Tel Aviv. (The moment was also censored from future broadcasts.) At a protest, I meet Samuel Nordangard, who is wearing a placard that reads: Act as Eric Saande, show Gaza love inside stadium. “If 2022 was about Ukraine, then 2024 should be for Palestine,” he tells me. But given the clampdown on expressions of solidarity, it is hardly surprising that some have decided that a total boycott is the best way to do so.

Saade’s decision to perform at the semi-final, amid boycott calls, is a timely example that neither side of this conflict is a monolith. Looking to the future, managing these political tensions looks set to be a part of Eurovision’s future. Despite an unsuccessful U.S. contest being canned, Bryan tells me that Eurovision has ambitions to become a global brand, with plans to expand into Canada and Asia. “There is a fantasy of having these contests that stretch across borders, but when you accompany that with the real-world political context, it quickly becomes incredibly complicated,” he says, “because the world is not harmonious.”

During the jury performance on Wednesday, which was not televised, Israel’s performance was loudly booed. In interviews, the EBU’s executive supervisor has refused to say what will happen if Israel’s entry is booed onstage during or after its performance. (In 2015, “anti-boo technology” was deployed in the stadium after Russia’s 2014 entry was loudly heckled.) 

On Thursday night, Israel qualified for the grand final via the public vote. Controversy immediately followed when an Italian broadcaster, Rai, accidentally aired the country’s percentage results — usually a tightly guarded secret until the contest is over. According to the mistaken broadcast, Israel received 40 percent of the vote in the second semi-final. In a statement, Rai claimed the data was “incomplete,” but if it is anywhere near accurate, and replicated elsewhere, then Israel could well be crowned victorious. Friday’s dress rehearsal brought more unexpected twists, with the representative from the Netherlands, Joost Klein, dramatically pulled from rehearsal. (The EBU provided no details except that an “incident” was being investigated.)

Whatever the final result, it seems likely that politics will make it to the grand final stage somehow — especially given the contest’s long history of stage invasions and stunts. “It’s Eurovision,” Bryan says. “We never know how it’s going to pan out.” 

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For a contest that once felt “invincible,” the difference in vibe this year is stark. While there is every chance that Eurovision will rebound next year, there is noticeable frustration — and hurt — among some fans, many of whom look to the contest as a moment of joy, but now feel like watching it makes them complicit in the suffering of Palestinians. For many of Eurovision’s most hardcore fans — the ones who have kept the contest going for so long — their favorite yearly tradition has lost its sparkle.

Some artists, who have spent their lives working toward this moment only to have it overshadowed by the EBU’s inconsistent and badly communicated decisions, share that sentiment. During his tearful interview, Olly Alexander said something few would disagree with: “Eurovision is meant to be an apolitical contest, but that’s a fantasy.” The tumultuous 2024 contest has asked the question : Who does that fantasy really serve?

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