(JTA) — Roma and Jewish groups in Hungary celebrated as a Roma singer’s song about oppressed minorities advanced to the finals of the Eurovision song contest.
Joci Pápai, 35, is the first Roma to represent Hungary in the continental song competition among 42 countries. He made the cut in the semi-finals Thursday night in Kiev, along with performers representing Israel and 25 additional countries, including Belarus, Azerbaijan and Austria.
“If he wins that contest, and because of this Hungary would be the host of the next contest, then it would be really something,” Adam Schonberger, a Hungarian Jew who runs Aurora, an organization that encourages dialogue and cooperation between Roma and Jews, told JTA Friday.
Schonberger noted, however, that deep-seated anti-Roma prejudice among segments of the political right in Hungary would likely make it difficult for many Hungarians to rally around Pápai if he wins in the finals Saturday.
After Imre Kertesz, a Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivor, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002, “the right wing reacted by saying that Kertesz was not Hungarian,” Schonberger said. Similar comments were heard last year when the Hungarian film “Son of Saul,” which deals with the Holocaust, won the Oscar for best foreign language film.
Pápai told reporters in Kiev: “I am so proud that, in the history of Eurovision, as a gypsy I managed to get to the final.” He sang “Origo” (“Origin”) for everyone from a minority “who has ever felt oppressed. I left a piece of my heart here in Kiev,” he said.
The right-wing government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has faced international criticism for what Amnesty International and other human rights groups claim is a systemic policy of discrimination against Roma.
Representing Israel at the Grand Final Saturday will be 25-year-old Imri Ziv, who qualified in the semi-finals with his song “I Feel Alive.” Israel, which has competed in the song competition 39 times and has won three times, most recently in 1998, is currently working out a bureaucratic change which may affect its ability to participate in the future.
Israel was able to take part in the European competition because its singers performed under the aegis of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, itself a member of the European Broadcasting Union. However, starting this week, the IBA was shut down and will be replaced by Kan, a broadcasting corporation, as part of a controversial government reform program.
Kan will sponsor entries and apply for membership in the EBU, Israeli officials told the Jerusalem Post, although its eligibility is not a given.
In 2016, some 204 million people saw at least one of the three shows that make up the annual contest, according to the European Broacasting Union.