Why Israel’s Eurovision contestant became a target for BDS

Netta Barzilai is an impressive performer with an impressive act that Israelis can be proud to be represented by. But that’s not all she represents.

Netta Barzilai performs in Israeli television competition ‘The Next Star of Eurovision.’ (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Netta Barzilai performs in Israeli television competition ‘The Next Star of Eurovision.’ (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel is buzzing with excitement over the country’s contestant in this year’s Eurovision, and for good reason. Netta Barzilai is talented, has an awesome vibe, and is a strong female character who bucks all of the traits we have become used to seeing in a female performer. If you are a left-wing, Jewish feminist, and even if you’re not, it’s hard not to fall in love with her.

So it wasn’t surprising that a campaign by Israeli boycott activists asking European viewers not to vote for Barzilai managed to rile so many people, including in various left-wing Israeli circles — and no small number of my friends.

Part of the outrage has to do with the fact that the boycott call singles out Barlzilai herself, not just as a representative of Israel the occupying power, but personally, as someone who was part of the Israeli Navy’s band during the 2014 war on Gaza. Barzilai, according to the boycott call, performed for Israeli soldiers right before they participated in the shelling of Gaza that summer.

I don’t know anything about Barzilai’s political views but I don’t get the impression that she has any special affinity for militarism or that she likes anything about the killing of innocent people. My impression was actually the opposite, and that’s the point.

One of the fundamental truths with which the boycott movement attempts to confront Israeli society is that all of us, even the humanists and human rights lovers among us, are responsible for the crimes of the occupation, whether we participate in them directly or indirectly.

That may sound absurd and baseless to the average Israeli, even those of us who are outspokenly outraged by images of soldiers abusing Palestinians at checkpoints or videos of snipers shooting protesters in Gaza.

What does Barzilai have to do with any of that? She wasn’t a combatant. She never shot anyone.

And that is exactly the point the boycott campaign is trying to make: one way or another, we are all accomplices.

Israel has fabricated complex social, legal, and social structures over the years in an attempt to foster our cooperation with the injustices of the occupation and to preempt any critical thoughts we might have about it. From having our kindergartners prepare care packages for soldiers to mandatory conscription a few years later to the constant refrain that every soldier is “our” son, Israel has quite deliberately done away with the space in which an effective civil society can and must operate.

To the average Israeli, Netta Barzilai was just a cute girl with a ponytail in the military band — the least militaristic thing in the world. In the eyes of the oppressed and the occupied, however, she was a uniformed soldier singing to other uniformed soldiers moments before they set out to bomb the people of Gaza. We Israelis were and remain a part of that system. We must all come to terms with that truth. As unpleasant as that may be, it is a moral obligation for each and every one of us, Jewish citizens of Israel.

And yet it is important to distinguish that the boycott activists are not targeting Barzilai because she served in the military band. They are targeting her because she is the official representative of a country that for more than half a century has denied millions of people basic rights under a brutal military occupation. Such a country and its representatives, they are saying, cannot be given the legitimacy to stand upon respectable world stages as if everything is normal. Israel invests millions of dollars each year to improve its image in the world, and the Eurovision competition is yet another stage on which it seeks that normalization for which it so longs.

Netta Barzilai is a means for Israel to show the world that we are normal and pretty and creative, and that we send stunning representatives to compete in the Eurovision. In a way, that’s not a false representation of reality. Indeed, we live our lives like any other people trying to make it in the world, and we have a real culture and real musicians to be proud of — like Netta Barzilai. And while it is true that we Israelis do not live the occupation as part and parcel of our daily lives, the occupation is a part of us and who we and our society are and have become. That we have succeeded in creating a conscious separation between our lives and the occupation is our tragedy. The boycott movement is simply trying to stop the rest of the world from making the same mistake.

A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.