Having grown up in the US, I wasn’t aware of Eurovision’s existence until I moved to Israel in early adulthood. Given most of what happened on stage in Tel Aviv over the last few days, ignorance may have been bliss, but there was one highlight worth noting.
I am referring, of course, to the Shalva Band, comprised of individuals with a range of disabilities, who performed at an intermission on Thursday night. The fact that they were awesome was no surprise to anyone who has encountered them via the Israeli version of Rising Star or through their nationally televised performance on Israel Independence Day.
While Shalva’s performance may have been the musical highlight of the competition, it was also noteworthy for at least two additional reasons. First, it was the equivalent of Israel saying, “this is the best of us”, to the 200 million viewers around Europe and the world. The second noteworthy aspect of their performance was finished before they even started singing – the way in which they were introduced.
To put Thursday night in context, we must go back to the performance that thrust Shalva into the limelight – their first appearance on the aforementioned Rising Star. While that performance was fantastic, the way in which they were introduced was less so. As they, people with physical, psychiatric and developmental disabilities, entered the theater, the hosts of the reality show smiled and talked about them as if they weren’t there. “He’s so cute.” “They’re so sweet.” “He’s such a rock star.” The judges’ infantilizing language was disappointing, but not shocking. Not knowing how to interact with people with disabilities (the same way you interact with everyone else…), some people tend to treat them like young children. While I loved seeing Shalva on stage even then, that introduction served to turn the band into an “other” – they are like us, but not really.
I don’t know who wrote the script for Thursday night but I applaud them, for it was a reparative experience. As the band was introduced, the MC explained that Shalva is one of the most beloved musical acts in Israel “…not because they inspire us to think differently about challenges and acceptance, not even because they represent everything we love about the human spirit. We love them for one simple reason. They make damn good music.”
This is the goal. Not putting them on stage because they’re different, but putting them on stage because they’re talented. If we can look past difference and disability and appreciate people for who they are, then we’re moving in the right direction.