Eurovision diplomacy: Israeli Arab-Jew duo hope to show that peace is possible – at least on a stage
Israel's image abroad is a bit tattered. Can Eurovision come to the rescue?
Dressed in black, Israel's entry in the annual Eurovision song contest struck a note of peacnik earnestness Tuesday night at the annual American Idol-style pageant that prizes kitschy pop and stage shows heavy with pyrotechnics.
"The most politically correct act of the contest," declared the television host, who announced the Arab-Jewish singing duo had advanced to the final round Saturday night.
That was the feat many Israelis were probably hoping for. President Shimon Peres, in fact, said the Nini-Awad duet would be a chance for good publicity, given its venue on a stage that attracts hundreds of millions of European viewers.
"The fact is that both of them are performing together and singing for peace," said President Peres, a Nobel laureate.
Ms. Nini, a Jew with striking Yemeni features, is known by her stage name "Noa." The singer-songwriter has toured with Sting and Sheryl Crow and has composed music to complement James Bond's derring-do on screen.
The lyrics on their coauthored song could be dismissed overly generic if divorced from the fact that they are Israel's first binational team to travel to Eurovision.
"Your eyes, sister / Say all that my heart desires," they sang in Hebrew at Tuesday's glitzy semi-finals, their deep voices blending in strong harmonies.
"We have a choice to continue this journey for as long as it takes, for there is no one address to sorrow," they continued in Arabic, ending with an English refrain: "There must be another way."
For many, however, the peaceniks' act strikes a note of dissonance at a time when the rest of the country has shifted to a harder line on peace talks.
Arabs attacked Awad for agreeing to represent Israel at a time the country was fighting Palestinians in Gaza. And while Awad represents a new generation of Israeli Arab artists who have won unprecedented acclaim among mainstream Israelis, her self-identification as a "Palestinian-Israeli" and her avoidance of state symbols have rankled right-wing Jews back home.
"It's not a problem if an Arab soccer player scores a goal for Israel's national team as long as he wears the state flag and sings the 'Ha'tikvah' with the rest of the players," Aryeh Eldad, a parliament member of the right-wing National Union party, said after Awad's selection was announced. "I can't stand an artist that represents Israel and uses a stage to spit into the well from where he drinks."
Eurovision as a stage for Israel to 'transmit messages'
The joint venture comes at a difficult juncture for Israel: Generals are being accused abroad of war crimes for attacks on Palestinians in Gaza, and the new conservative government is rethinking negotiations toward a Palestinian state.
Eurovision, which admittedly is better known for kitsch than its cachet in international affairs, has traditionally been seen as a big stage from which Israel can send a message to one of its most critical audiences: Europe.
For a country accustomed to international isolation on the world political stage, the annual contest – held in Moscow this year – has always been opportunity to cast itself in a different light at one of the continent's most-viewed events on TV. Through the decades, Israel has preferred optimistic songs of world peace to offset its military image.
"Israelis see the Eurovision as an international stage to transmit messages to Europe," says Nitzan Perry, an advertising executive and a Eurovision enthusiast. "We like to exploit every chance to show that we are OK. We're obsessed with it."
Israel has won the song competition three times. In the most recent victory, a decade ago, the country broke images of conservatism with a transgender singer who had no political allusions.
Yoav Ginai, who penned the 1998 winning song and headed the search committee this year, says Noa (Nini) was selected because she is well-known internationally, having played at jazz festivals abroad as well as for the pope. Noa asked to appear with Awad, an accomplished actress and singer, with whom she had previously collaborated on a cover of the Beatles, "We can work it out."
"I wanted to use this stage as a platform to communicate a message. That's central, and I'm saying it out loud," said Noa at a recent send-off party in Tel Aviv, which was sponsored by the pro-peace group, One Voice. "The music competition for me isn't important."
Although Eurovision's overriding theme is pop culture, politics inevitably winds its way into the spotlight.
This year's host, Russia, disqualified Georgia's act for poking fun at Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Two years ago, an Israeli pop band rankled sensibilities with a song that was seen as a taunt aimed at Iran.
Noa and Awad are all too familiar with politics, though, given the landscape back home in Israel.
"There is a complexity in this place," said Awad at the send-off party in Tel Aviv. "For a Palestinian that wants to be an Israeli, even if he really wants to, it's not clear how it will be accepted. There's more to solve."
With mocha skin and jet black curls, Noa looks more Middle Eastern compared with Awad's European features. It's a striking inversion of stereotypes about the Jews and Arabs as they sing: "Your eyes say / one day, the fear will be gone."
And even if they don't win, they're likely to continue performing abroad to support a new album collaboration.
"If anyone can be successful in turning the Eurovision song contest into something more serious, it's those two. They're strong, they're powerful," said Alon Olearchik, an Israeli musician at the send-off party. "They have a message. It's a strong message. Any song about peace could be perceived as kitschy.... I don't care if the message is kitschy."