Israel stirs Eurovision controversy


JERUSALEM (JTA) — It may be the ultimate in forgettable mass-communications kitsch, but the Eurovision Song Contest has special resonance for many Israelis. Founded just a few years after World War II, the annual competition is an opportunity for Europeans to flaunt an ever-changing array of pop songs that seem to serve as alternative national anthems — devoid of any overt nationalism — and then choose a winner through an elaborate phone-in vote.

That sense of dizzy continental togetherness is catnip for Israel, which was allowed into Eurovision in 1973 and treats the event as part of a perennial campaign for acceptance abroad.

But Israel’s entry for the 2007 songfest has triggered controversy for lyrics that seem to touch on the most combustible of current crises — Iran’s nuclear program.

Titled “Push the Button,” the song speaks of “crazy leaders in the world who are trying to trick us” and “rockets flying and landing on me.”

A line from the chorus becomes even more specific: “I wanna have a lot of fun, just sitting in the sun, but nevertheless, he’s gonna push the button.”

Contributors to a BBC chat room were quick to discern a reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map” and Holocaust denial have stirred international concern that there could be a cataclysmic war if his country attains the means to produce nuclear weapons.

In Finland, where this year’s Eurovision takes place in May, objections were directed at Israel and its band of choice, hip-hop cum urban-pop group Teapacks.

“It’s absolutely clear that this kind of message is not appropriate for the competition,” said Kjell Ekholm, a Eurovision organizer, adding that contest officials would convene to discuss whether to disqualify “Push the Button.”

Israelis remained defiant. The Israel Broadcast Authority, which selected the song last week, said it had submitted the lyrics to the European Broadcasting Association and encountered no problems.

Teapacks’ lead vocalist Kobi Oz, meanwhile, argued that “Push the Button,” which also contains lyrics about crime, should be appreciated for capturing the Israeli national mood.

“The song has a line that talks about ‘several crazy leaders.’ If and when the British read the song, they decided to draw the conclusion that it aimed at Iran,” Oz told Ma’ariv. “It turns out that the BBC thinks that Ahmadinejad is crazy. We didn’t mention names.

“The State of Israel has gone through enough so that it can laugh at terrorism. The Israelis chose the song because that is the best way: not to be afraid, but to laugh in their faces,” he said.

“Push the Button” is not the first time Israel has flirted with politics at Eurovision.

In 2000, the Israeli band Ping-Pong delivered “Be Happy,” which basically was a love song to Syria coming against the backdrop of failed U.S.-led efforts to broker peace between Jerusalem and Damascus. No one complained then.

Indeed, many Israelis are convinced that their fortunes at Eurovision depend on the state of their rapprochement efforts with Middle East neighbors.

The landmark Israeli-Egyptian peace talks of 1978-79 coincided with two successive victories by the Jewish state at Eurovision. The third and last victory was in 1998, the height of optimism at the prospects of the Israeli-Palestinian interim peace talks.

Israel had additional help in the form of its singer that year, the transsexual Dana International, whose vamping delighted liberal Europeans while stirring rancor among religious conservatives back home.

Even if “Push the Button” passes the political correctness test in Helsinki, it may be challenged on another front — originality.

Ma’ariv reported that the song, which is being performed in Hebrew, English and French, contains elements that recall a song from the 1936 Charlie Chaplin film “Modern Times.”

But the newspaper quoted Teapacks members as saying it was a matter of inspired homage rather than plagiarism.

“There is a resemblance, but it is extremely small,” one unnamed musician said. “We’re talking about a half-note exactly. The Eurovision rules are clear, and there will be no legal problem with the song.”

Recommended from JTA