last update: May 15, 2019, 8:59 a.m.
TEL AVIV — The regulars at Tel Aviv’s Banana Beach had a clear view of the pyrotechnics when Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system fired at many incoming rockets in the dusk sky.
The port city of Ashdod, barely 20 miles down the coast, was under attack by militant groups in Gaza. The Banana Beach crowd was unfazed.
“We listened to the news then started packing up to go home, only because it was getting dark anyway,” said Giora Shmueli, 59, who had been kicking a ball around with friends in the sand.
Though Tel Aviv is easily within range of longer-range rockets from Gaza, Mr. Shmueli added, “We feel safe here.”
By luck or design, that brief but deadly round of fighting was wrapped up by May 6, in time for Israel to play host to the Eurovision Song Contest, an international pop music festival that begins with a first round of semifinals on Tuesday and ends with Saturday’s grand finale.
With one of the largest television audiences in the world for a live cultural event, Eurovision is a rare opportunity for Israel to try to rebrand itself as a tourist destination rather than a country defined by its conflict with the Palestinians and perennially on the brink of the next war.
As the winner last year, Israel earned the right to host the contest. Enter Tel Aviv, the city with the nonstop party vibe on the Mediterranean shore.
Dubbed the “State of Tel Aviv,” the gay-friendly commercial and entertainment hub is viewed by many Israelis as a hedonistic bubble of secular liberalism, somewhat disconnected from the rest of the country.
Still, controversy has followed the festival, along with concerns about possible disruption.
Tuesday is the first anniversary of the United States Embassy’s move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and also of a bloody mass protest along the Gaza boundary fence, when scores of Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire. Israel said it was defending its border.
Wednesday is Nakba Day, when Palestinians commemorate the flight and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees during the hostilities surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948.
Activists note that the seafront Eurovision Village built by Tel Aviv’s City Hall — a 15-acre open-air compound abutting Banana Beach featuring 85 gourmet street food stalls and 100 yards of bar space, stages and giant screens for broadcasting Eurovision — lies on the ruins of a mostly Arab, pre-1948 neighborhood of Jaffa called Al-Manshiyya.
Palestinians and their supporters in the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which opposes Israel’s policies, have accused Israel of using Eurovision to whitewash the occupation, and of “pink-washing,” since Eurovision is also a highlight of the gay glam culture calendar.
Dozens of L.G.B.T. groups are boycotting the event. Some have canceled their Eurovision parties abroad and protests are planned. An Israeli anti-occupation group, Breaking the Silence, put up a large banner along the route from the airport offering visitors political tours of the West Bank, prompting an uproar.
Despite heavy pressure from B.D.S. activists, no contestants have dropped out so far, though Hatari, a leather-clad, bondage-inspired punk band from Iceland, has used the Eurovision spotlight to voice criticism of Israel.
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox politicians, important coalition allies for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are also down on Eurovision. Last Friday’s ultra-Orthodox newspapers published anguished headlines protesting the mass violation of the Sabbath to be caused by the grand finale in Tel Aviv, with the government’s sanction.
For a time, it seemed as if Jerusalem could have hosted Eurovision.
Netta Barzilai, the flamboyant Israeli singer who won the 2018 event in Lisbon, spontaneously declared from the stage that the holy city would be the next venue, and was enthusiastically echoed by Mr. Netanyahu.
That would have proved awkward, since most European countries do not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the Palestinians demand the city’s Israeli-annexed, eastern part as the capital of a future state.
Jerusalem has played host to Eurovision twice in the past, but both the city and the political climate have changed.
“I’m not disappointed, I’m indifferent,” Ms. Barzilai recently told reporters in Jerusalem. “I was brought up in the Israeli education and they teach you that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, so I went up on stage and said it,” she said. “I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about — Tel Aviv is 30 minutes away.”
KAN, the national broadcasting company and local Eurovision broadcaster, had planned to air a comedy mini-series about a fictional, gay French-Algerian singer, who becomes entangled in an Islamic State plot while representing France in an international song contest in Tel Aviv.
Reality caught up with the broadcaster when the actual French contestant turned out to be Bilal Hassani, 19, a gay Muslim of French-Moroccan heritage. KAN postponed airing the series until after Eurovision to avoid any further offense.
Yet the ecosystem of Eurovision is bizarrely sequestered.
As the rockets began flying and Israel pounded targets in Gaza last week, the first rehearsals were underway in the arena at a Tel Aviv conference center.
At the “meet and greet” news conferences with contestants, questions from Eurovision aficionados have mostly focused on more urgent issues like the performers’ technical difficulties and backing vocalists.
“No matter where the contest goes it brings that kind of bubble with it,” said Keith Mills, 60, an Irish fan who had just flown in from Dublin and said he had blogged from most of the Eurovision Song Contests since 1997.
He noted that Ireland had been host to Eurovision several times during the years of conflict over Northern Ireland known as the Troubles.
Mr. Mills said the Irish contestant had come under strong pressure from pro-Palestinian boycott activists to cancel her participation.
“But the Irish team stood their ground,” he said, adding that historically Eurovision has been about unity, not division.
It’s hard to know if the politics or the volatile security situation are to blame — perhaps Israel is just too expensive for many Eurovision fans — but ticket sales for events other than the finale have been slow, and Tel Aviv has hotel rooms to spare.
A few months ago, there was talk of tent cities and floating dorms on ships to accommodate the expected influx.
In the fraught atmosphere outside the bubble, even an edgy, self-deprecating promotional video for the show, produced by KAN and replete with “insider” Israeli humor, backfired.
Critics called it anti-Semitic for one of its lines — “most of us are Jews but only some of us are greedy” — and misogynistic because of a subtitle that replaced “beaches” with a vulgar word, in what was presumably meant to be a joke about Israeli-accented English. The Palestinian Foreign Ministry demanded that all promotional material filmed in Jerusalem be removed.
And in a sign of the times, with Gaza’s militant groups explicitly threatening to spoil the festivities if Israel does not meet their demands, Elia, the singing male protagonist in the video, sports a T-shirt for the Tel Aviv segments bearing the legend: “I love Iron Dome.”