Israel’s Eurovision Entrant Faces Down Her Critics

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Taking part in the Eurovision Song Contest is nerve-racking, even when the audience welcomes you to the stage.

For one singer at this year’s contest, it will likely be a particularly anxious experience. When Eden Golan, 20, performs representing Israel at the second semifinal on Thursday, a significant portion of the audience will not be cheering for her. In fact, many people don’t want her country to be at Eurovision at all.

For months, pro-Palestinian groups and some Eurovision fans have been trying in vain to get the contest’s organizers, the European Broadcasting Union, to ban Golan from taking part at this year’s event in Malmo, Sweden, because of Israel’s war in Gaza.

Those protests were particularly vocal after the title of Golan’s entry was announced in February: “October Rain,” an apparent reference to last year’s Hamas attacks, in which Israeli officials say about 1,200 people were killed and 240 taken hostage. The European Broadcasting Union objected that the title and some of the song’s lyrics were overly political, and asked Israel to change them. Golan tweaked the song, which is now called “Hurricane.”

Eurovision’s organizers have always insisted that the contest is no place for politics, and this year is clamping down on slogans and symbols that could stir up dissent. Bambie Thug, representing Ireland, said at a news conference on Tuesday that, after a dress rehearsal, officials had demanded that the singer remove pro-Palestinian slogans from an outfit.

Still, one subtle reference to Palestinians crept through into the show. Eric Saade, a Swedish singer of Palestinian heritage who is not competing, performed in a guest slot wearing a Palestinian kaffiyeh scarf tied around his wrist.

Malmo’s police force said it had approved two marches against Israel’s participation in Eurovision for Thursday and Saturday, just before the semifinal and the final.

Golan, 20, appeared calm and composed in a recent interview, and said that she wouldn’t let the uproar affect her. Representing Israel on the world stage “has such huge significance and meaning, because of what we’re going through,” she said. “I won’t let anything break me, or move me off track.”

“I am here to show the voice of an entire nation,” Golan said, “to show that we’re here, that we are strong, but emotional and broken.”

Since Israel’s invasion began, actors and singers have protested the country’s military action — which authorities in Gaza say has killed more than 34,000 people and displaced over 1.7 million — from the stages of major events including the Oscars and the Grammy Awards. Israeli artists have also spoken out to call for peace at international events, such as the Berlin Film Festival, and the Venice Biennale, where Israel’s representative refused to open her show until Israel and Hamas reach a cease-fire and hostage release deal.

In Israel, other artists, including the past Eurovision winners Dana International and Netta, have regularly used social media to draw attention to the plight of the Oct. 7 hostages. And Golan’s focus on Israeli trauma, rather than on the situation in Gaza, has been supported right at the top of the state. “It’s important for Israel to appear in Eurovision,” President Isaac Herzog said in February, according to Israeli media: “This is also a statement, because there are haters who try to drive us off every stage.”

Mohammad Ghannam, a spokesman for B.D.S. Sweden, an organization that is protesting at Eurovision this week, said in an email that Israel was using Eurovision as a “form of propaganda to whitewash” its invasion and occupation of Palestinian lands. After calls to bar Israel from the contest failed, pro-Palestinian protesters and musicians including former Eurovision contestants unsuccessfully petitioned competitors to pull out of the show.

Britain’s entry, Olly Alexander, came under strong pressure on social media. Alexander had signed an open letter that described Israel’s actions in Gaza as “a genocide,” although in a recent interview with The Times of London, he said he was rejecting calls for a Eurovision boycott because “it’s a good thing when people come together for entertainment.”

Jean Philip de Tender, the European Broadcasting Union’s deputy director, said that Eurovision was “a competition between national broadcasters, not nations or governments.”

Amid the furor, Golan has largely remained silent, granting few interviews to news media outside Israel and skipping Eurovision fan events. On Sunday, when Eurovision held an official opening event in Malmo, Golan stayed away, instead attending a Holocaust Memorial Day event organized by the city’s Jewish community.

Her performance at Malmo is the culmination of years of work. When she was 5, Golan said, she moved from Israel to Moscow after her father secured a job there. She said she entered “The Voice Kids,” a Russian talent competition, and joined a Russian-language girl group. She even entered a contest to represent Russia at a junior version of Eurovision.

But Golan said that she never felt at home in Russia. Music industry figures told her that she would need to change her name to something more Russian-sounding if she wanted to succeed, she said: “No one accepted me as one of their own.”

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Golan’s family returned to Israel and she started trying to build a new career singing in English. Last year, she entered “Rising Star,” a TV talent show whose winner becomes Israel’s Eurovision entrant.

Golan said she chose many of the covers she performed on “Rising Star” long before the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, but, when the show broadcast last winter, some of her choices gained new meanings. The inspirational lyrics of Andra Day’s “Rise Up,” for instance, seemed to give Israelis a “moment of hope and light” at a time when they were otherwise filled with fear and grief, Golan said.

After winning “Rising Star” Israel’s public broadcaster, KAN, chose a song for Golan to perform at Eurovision. Golan said she offered several of her own compositions, but KAN selected a demo that is now “Hurricane.”

There has been widespread speculation about how directly “Hurricane” refers to the Oct. 7 attacks and their fallout. Keren Peles, one of the song’s writers, said that she finished its original lyrics just hours after visiting a friend’s burned-out home in Kibbutz Be’eri, a village where more than 100 residents were killed.

But Peles insisted that the song was also influenced by other events, including her own divorce. Anyone could connect with the song’s message about the importance of strength in tough moments, she said. Although the Hamas attacks were on her mind when she wrote “Hurricane,” Peles said, she had “tried to be very elegant and sophisticated, and not to be specific, or pornographic, about it.”

After the European Broadcasting Union raised objections, Peles said she happily changed the words to make the song comply with the rules. If she had refused, Israel wouldn’t have been able to go to Eurovision, Peles said — which would have been like letting Hamas win. “Terror is making us not sing,” she added.

Golan said her focus had long moved on from debates around what her track means, or whether she should be at Eurovision. Instead, she said, she had spent weeks incessantly rehearsing “Hurricane” — sometimes into the early hours of the morning — to ensure her three-minute Eurovision performance would be perfect.

“What’s under my control is to give the best performance ever,” Golan said: “to touch people’s souls, to make them feel something.”

“I know I’m not in this alone,” she added. “Maybe I’m the one standing onstage performing and singing, but I have our entire country behind me and with me and I’m going to represent us.”

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