Now that the dust has settled, the consensus is that the Eurovision Song Contest from Tel Aviv was a great success — apart from Britain coming last. Madonna turned up, the Dutch winner was a popular choice and Graham Norton was on top form.
Obviously, everyone’s worst fears were that there might be some kind of terrorist attack or violence. Nothing happened. Despite BBC News trying to pretend that a protest by a small crowd of about 20 was newsworthy, there were no significant protests either. There was a small fuss on social media about the flamboyant group from Iceland waving pro-Palestinian banners, but this was drowned out by the much larger number of tweets suggesting that they go and perform in Gaza in their camp costumes and make-up and see what happens to them there.
The real significance of Eurovision coming to Tel Aviv was twofold. First, it confirmed Israel’s place in European culture. Predictably, there was some grumbling about this, but if you can have the Europa League Final in Baku, and Australia taking part in the Eurovision Song Context, then presumably Israel can host it. After all, Israel has been taking part since 1973, longer than 33 other countries. Israel has won the competition four times. Only six countries have won it more often. And this was the third time Israel has hosted it, though the first time it came to Tel Aviv.
But secondly, and much more important, the Eurovision Song Contest confirmed that there’s a new, young Israel emerging — as if people hadn’t worked that out from Barzilai’s winning performance last year. Colourful, flamboyant, larger-than-life, she embodied the new Israel, part-Sephardi, part-Ashkenazi and FUN. Barzilai and Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) are a world away from Mea Shearim or Moshe Dayan.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Look at all the Israeli TV shows on Netflix and, above all, the American shows based on Israeli shows. You may not have heard of the Israeli show Prisoners of War (Hatufim) but you will have heard of the American spin-off, Homeland, a huge TV hit in America and in Britain, with Damian Lewis, Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin, now into its eighth season. It opened doors for shows like Fauda, When Heroes Fly and the super-niche Shtisel, a drama about an Orthodox Jewish family living in Jerusalem. They are all on Netflix now. Next up will be The Spy, with Sacha Baron Cohen as Eli Cohen, a real-life Israeli spy in the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s.
At a time of growing antisemitism on both sides of the Atlantic, a programme like Shtisel helps humanise Orthodox Jews. And when there is so much anti-Israel media bias, especially in the UK, they also humanise Israelis, not by demonising Arabs or Palestinians, but by bringing to life issues of love, family life and ordinary communal life.
There’s also been a sort of feminisation of Israeli culture with singers like Barzilai and stars like Gal Gadot. For years, Israeli literature was symbolised by male writers such as Amos Oz, David Grossman and AB Yehoshua. Now there is a new generation of young women writers: Judith Katzir, Ayelet Tsabari and best known of all, Ayelet Gundar Goshen, who took this year’s Jewish Book Week by storm with her fascinating talk about Philip Roth, and whose new novel, Liar, is her third success.
But the recent publishing sensation from Israel is not a novelist but a young academic, who teaches at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Yuval Noah Harari. His huge, ambitious trilogy — Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014), Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016) and 21 lessons for the 21st Century (2018) — have brought him international fame.
This is about soft culture. Novels, pop songs and TV dramas. But Israelis are also making an impact in hi-tech. There are countless examples, so here’s just one. Many drivers — and others — now use Waze GPS navigation, developed by the Israeli company Waze Mobile, bought by Google for almost a billion dollars.
Israelis are finding a new voice, and whether it is on Netflix and Eurovision, navigating your car or in your local bookshop, it’s here, now, enriching your life.