Who needs Eliezer ben Yehudah? We had Eurovision!

It’s become something of a truism that The Eurovision Song Contest is as much a political event as a music competition. Almost since its inception in 1956, politics has played more than a small part in the proceedings.

Take voting patterns, for example. Greece and Cyprus have noticeably favoured each other’s entries for decades, invariably giving each other three times as many points as any other country. Similarly, since Belarus entered the competition, it has given more than twice as many points to Russia, with a sizeable proportion of the excess going to Ukraine. In short, it’s not really about the songs, it’s about geopolitics.

Indeed, politics enters the Eurovision arena long before the sequin-clad backing dancers take to the stage. Israel’s inclusion in the competition in 1973 caused a stir from the start. In 1978 Jordanian TV suspended the broadcast during Israel’s entry, and even announced the winner as Belgium, when in fact Izhar Cohen’s Abanibi was victorious that night. And years before the efforts of Roger Waters and others, there were many who have sought to boycott the competition because of Israel’s inclusion; Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon have all refused to participate, despite being eligible to do so, because they won’t share a stage with Israeli entrants.

On a more positive note, the politics involved in Eurovision can also be a force for good. I’m not the first to comment on the fact that Dana International’s performance, as the first transgender winner, was a milestone in the slow march towards gender-diversity acceptance.

Those of us raised in the UK will have been introduced to Eurovision via the sardonic sarcasm of Terry Wogan, who brought a combination of charming naivete and voyeuristic horror to the world of Euro-camp. But by 2008 even he could take it no longer, famously bailing out of his role as off-air pundit, calling the show ‘ridiculous’ and claiming it was no longer about the music.

But for us Jewish Brits watching at home in the UK, it was about the music. Or, more accurately, it was about the lyrics. Because, quite possibly unbeknownst to the Jewish Agency or the Academy of the Hebrew Language, Eurovision played a significant part in our Ivrit education. There is an entire generation of English schoolkids who were raised on Hallelujah! and Oleh Oleh! There wasn’t a school concert that didn’t involve, at some point in the evening, a rendition of Ofra Haza’s Chai. Each year, we would watch the Israeli entry with a dual hope; we wanted it to win, sure. But more importantly, we wanted it to be an easy song to sing, because we knew we’d be performing it in front of our parents and peers before the term was up.

And these weren’t just songs for singing. They became part of our Ivrit curriculum. We were taught to translate them, with the same attention to grammatical detail that the French teachers were devoting to Le Tartuffe or Candide. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I had to take a ‘Language Competencies’ test to support my university application, which involved, I kid you not, 20 lines of Virgil’s Aeneid for my Latin teacher, followed by a translation of the Duo Datz classic Kan for my Ivrit teacher.

I wasn’t raised in Israel, and I still live in the UK today. So I don’t know very much about the Israeli ‘pop’ scene. But I can still recite a word perfect rendition of Shir HaBatlanim, complete with a breakdown of the shoresh and binyan for all the verbs used.

Which brings me back to politics. Because, of course, the Israeli entry was, for the duration of my childhood at least, a very political animal. There we were, British kids, raised in British homes, educated at British, albeit Jewish, schools, belting out, at the tops of our lungs ‘Kan noladeti! Kan baniti et beiti!’ – ‘I was born here! I built my home here!’. Months of Bicom meetings and Hasbara planning couldn’t come close to pulling off a coup like that.

It’s many years since I left school and I’m no longer directly involved in Ivrit education, so I don’t know whether Netta’s Toy, with its accompanying chicken clucking, has found its way into the latest edition of the ‘Ivrit Min-Ha’hatchalah’ text book. But for those of us of a certain age, Eurovision served a crucial purpose. It introduced us to the world of Ivrit rhyme and word-play, it gave us a corpus of vocabulary that we learnt with ease, and it gave us a glimpse into the use of Ivrit as a real, modern, living language that, pre-internet, we didn’t otherwise have much access to. And for that, I give it douze points.

About the Author
Rina Wolfson lives and works in London, UK. She is a popular Jewish educator and writer.