first published in Mondoweiss May 16, 2018
The May 13, 2018 New York Times article, “‘Next Year in Jerusalem!’ In Israel, Eurovision Win Is Seen as a Diplomatic Victory, Too,” has enough accuracy to sound credible, but reeks of the kind of bias and double speak that infects much of the main stream media. Isabel Kershner recounts Netta Barzilai’s stunning victory in the Eurovision Song Contest with her brash, glittery performance of “Toy.” It is inspiring that a larger than your average waif of an actress/singer belts out a song inspired by the Me Too movement and wins an international contest. Kershner does not mention that Barzilai is Mizrachi, but that is a victory of sorts too (of the Obama winning the White House variety) for a society that is struggling with Ashkenazi dominance and institutional racism towards Jews of color.
We should note, of course, that this was a Eurovision Song Contest and that Israel is somehow an honorary member (since 1973) along with Australia, perhaps a nod to other (white) settler colonial states born of European imperialism and colonialism. Kershner dually notes that this outburst of Israeli pride is happening while the US Embassy is opening in Jerusalem, there is “drama” around “stolen Iranian nuclear archives,” Israel is bombing Iranian targets in Syria, and (not mentioned in the initial list but acknowledged later in the piece) dozens of unarmed Gazans have been shot and thousands injured at the border during weeks of mostly nonviolent protest focusing on the Nakba and the decades long refugee crisis.
Kershner understands that having an Israeli star win big on the world stage makes anxious Israelis feel better, particularly with that powerful cultural boycott movement creating havoc: “…many Israelis hailed it as a diplomatic victory and national vindication.” On the other hand, it is important to remember that this is about an Israeli woman singing and winning a contest, not negotiating peace or ending the occupation. It is also a perfect distraction for Netanyahu and his growing legal troubles and corruption scandals.
Not surprisingly, the idea that next year’s Eurovision contest will now be held in (contested) Jerusalem made Netanyahu positively plotz with excitement. “‘Next year in Jerusalem!'” he chirped on Facebook. Kershner acknowledges that the phrase is traditionally sung at the end of the Yom Kippur fast and the Passover seder, but we all know that Israelis have a long tradition of using religion to advance nationalistic motives, starting with the birth of Zionism. This is reported without what I would consider the appropriate level of reflection or dismay.
But then things get even more complicated. When Kershner reports, “The country is bracing for mass Palestinian marches with the potential for bloodshed along the Gaza border and in other areas on Monday to protest the embassy move, among other issues,” she washes over a critical reality. When you have a massive amount of military hardware and sharpshooters lined up facing thousands of unarmed Gazan families and some increasingly angry young men, the “potential” for bloodshed is 100%. Plus the “other issues” really need to be clearly stated. A devasting siege and a flaunting of the international right of return are substantive topics that ground the Palestinian protests in the decades of historical injustices and suffering. Acknowledging this would take us beyond the Israeli Hamas terrorists invading Israel narrative.
Kershner notes, “…some Israelis said the victory helped bolster, even momentarily, a sense of belonging to a small but plucky country that punches above its weight and has outsize influence in the world.” This feeling is threatened by “international grumbling about the 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories and the policies of Israel’s current government, including its campaign to expel African asylum seekers.” The word “grumbling” just stopped me in my tracks. How about major international criticism and concern over the egregious occupation and siege, serious human rights violations, abominable treatment of asylum seekers, detention and imprisonment of Palestinian children, torture in Israeli prisons, lack of drinkable water in Gaza, not to mention basic medications and supplies. “Grumbling” felt like an attempt to minimize what is a dire reality just a few miles from the plucky people celebrating in Tel Aviv.
Kershner also gives a nod to the trauma to Jewish Israelis created by Natalie Portman “taking a stand against ‘violence, corruption, inequality and abuse of power.’” Kershner writes of the “bruised feelings” that may be “soothed,” without any commentary about Portman’s actual critique of Israeli society and foreign policy.
Kershner again falls short when she writes that “hundreds of actors, musicians and artists critical of Israeli’s actions against Palestinians have endorsed the so-called B.D.S. movement.” What’s with the “so-called”? The B.D.S. campaign actually is a growing international movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel until some basic things change around the issues of civil and human rights and international law. The “so-called” feels like a way to discredit the movement without actually saying anything nasty. Perhaps Kershner should check out https://bdsmovement.net/ if she has further doubts.
I was happy to see her note that 28 member states in the EU have criticized the US decision on the Israeli embassy move to Jerusalem. To be entirely accurate, part of the embassy will actually be on land in the No-man’s-land between East and West Jerusalem. And of course there are the whole unmentioned topics of international law, occupied territory, Palestinian aspirations. Doing this move the day before the commemoration of the Nakba is really another middle finger to Palestinians everywhere, but this is not revealed in the feel good moment of Eurovision.
I understand that, much like the US, it is hard for the average man, woman, or screaming teenager on the Israeli street to remember all of this and the Likud party is “soaring in the polls.” With the death of the Iran deal and the move to Jerusalem in the same month, the hawks in Israel are reveling in their long-sought victories. A week ago, Netanyahu spent ten hours celebrating with his pal, Vladimir Putin. The fact that the world is now a more dangerous and unstable place is not even alluded to.
So what is a good journalist to do? Kershner is clearly trying to be “unbiased” but her choice of language and her unwillingness to poke below the surface on many issues is painfully revealing. I suggest that sometimes the right thing to do is to call out and report on the injustices and blindness, or as Portman said, the violence, corruption, inequality and abuse of power in Israel, particularly when it is staring you in the face.