Tel Aviv — Tens of thousands of flag-waving Israelis packed Rabin Square here on Monday night; behind them, the façade of City Hall was lit to resemble a heart.
But they didn’t come out to celebrate the official inauguration of the U.S. Embassy in Israel’s capital in Jerusalem, which was feted just hours earlier by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
And they didn’t come out to demonstrate against the worst day of bloodshed in four years on the Gaza border, where dozens of Palestinians were killed and hundreds wounded by Israeli army live fire at a sometimes violent demonstration of tens of thousands Gazans.
Instead, the masses gathered in the square to pay tribute to and hear Netta Barzilai, Israel’s newly crowned winner of the Eurovision song contest. It was just past midnight on Saturday night when Barzilai’s quirky performance of the song “Toy” won the most votes of Eurovision viewers, marking Israel’s fourth win in the annual competition and the first since 1998. Some 200 million people worldwide watched the contest.
The win, a blow struck against the Israel boycotters, triggered a nationwide outburst of jubilation, diverting attention from the Jerusalem embassy opening and from the escalating mayhem in Gaza. From the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem to the fountain in Rabin Square, thousands of Israelis held spontaneous street celebrations into the early morning hours on Monday.
“It was ecstatic,” said Ron Hubari, a 31-year-old hairdresser, who jumped in a cab early Sunday morning with friends to come out to the square. On Monday night, he was back, waving an Israeli flag and wearing a bumper sticker with a Hebrew slang expression used by Barzilai, “Kapara Alekha,” you’re sweet.
“We have such a bad name in Israel. Everyone is always so against us, and doesn’t understand us. I would like people to see Israel the way I see Israel: a place that accepts everyone, at the end of the day.
“Now that we’ve won Eurovision,” Hubari continued, “they’ll look at our art, and who we really are — a little bit beyond politics, and not from the news and wars. It’s given us a reason to be happy.”
When asked if he thought there would be some mention of the embassy moving to Jerusalem, he said, “I hope not. This is an event of love, music and art. Not of politics. Not of Bibi [Netanyahu]. The embassy is not relevant. Or, who has more power. It doesn’t interest anyone. We don’t care if Bibi or Trump wins. Just let us be happy.”
So, instead they danced jigs and arranged their hair in little twin buns like the ones Barzilai, dressed in a kimono and black corset, wore during her Eurovision performance in Lisbon.
Run by the European Broadcasting Union, the Eurovision has been held for 62 years, and has become known as an annual stage for bubble-gum pop music and over-the-top stage orchestration. The competition launched the careers of Swedish group ABBA and Swiss singer Celine Dion.
Israel, which has participated in the contest since 1973, first won in 1978 with “A-bani-bi” by Izhar Cohen and Alphabeta, and then again in 1979 with the song “Hallelujah” by Gali Atari and Milk and Honey.
Barzilai, a 25-year-old reality show song contest winner, now joins the canon with “Toy,” a song of female empowerment that many have called a sign of the #MeToo movement times.
For Israelis, winning Eurovision means feeling connected to and embraced by the rest of the world, said Eran Zinger, a veteran Israeli journalist and Eurovision fan. In a country accustomed to being bashed by the international community for its policies toward the Palestinians, it was significant that Barzilai came in first in the popular vote, which valuted Israel from third place to first.
“We want to be acknowledged. We care what everyone thinks about us — which is something you don’t see as much with the war in Gaza when dozens of Palestinians are getting killed,” said Zinger.
He continued: “[The victory] took place at a time when Israel is so divided between left and right, between secular and religious, and Jew and Arab. So, we haven’t had a good reason to celebrate for a very long time.”
Israel’s government spent most of the day celebrating the history making dedication of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem — a controversial move making good on a campaign promise by President Trump.
“Remember this moment. This is history. President Trump, by recognizing history, you have made history,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the ceremony; it took place at the consulate-turned-embassy building, located in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood and close to the old border dividing the city with Jordan before 1967.
“Peace can only be made based on truth,” the prime minister said. “And the truth is that Jerusalem has been and will always be the capital of the Jewish people.”
Critics of Trump’s decision warned that moving the embassy and American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital undermines the U.S. role as a mediator in future peace talks and has alienated Palestinians from the peace process. In reality, very little will change, except that U.S. Ambassador David Friedman will split time between the new Jerusalem location and the old embassy building in central Tel Aviv.
“Trump missed a big opportunity to cast [the moves] in the broader context of a plan for two states, in which Palestinians could also achieve their goals, including a capital in east Jerusalem,” wrote former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro in a tweet. “Such elements would have made it easier for the Palestinians to absorb the move. Trump still hasn’t done it, contributing to the total breakdown of contacts with the Palestinians. (Abbas also bears responsibility).”
Both celebrations — in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — were marred, however, by the bloodshed on the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, as tens of thousands of Palestinians demonstrated near the fence. The Israeli military’s use of live bullets left at least 60 dead and more than a thousand wounded, drawing howls of international protest alleging that Israel had used unnecessary force to combat mostly unarmed demonstrators.
The demonstrations come after Gaza has been under a decade-long Israeli blockade and four years after a war that eviscerated the economy and spurred multiple human crises.
The Israeli army said the demonstrations were used as a cover for terrorists to infiltrate the border fence.
Eyal Rosen, a former senior officer in the IDF Southern Command, said that unrest at the fence has been whipped up by Hamas — which rules Gaza — out of desperation after Israel has succeeded in destroying the Islamic groups cross-border tunnels. In a worst-case scenario, he said, the army fears Gazans will breach the fence, enter nearby kibbutzim, and attack soldiers and residents.
“Hamas is using the population of Gaza in order to do something against Israel,” said Rosen, in a conference call with reporters. “When you have a massive amount of people running to the fence, trying to breach the fence and trying to get into the sovereign Israel, sometimes you don’t have any other choice” but to use live fire.
Israeli human rights organizations said the army should have done a better job at preparing itself to deal with the demonstrations with non-lethal force. B’tselem said the live fire showed “appalling indifference toward human life.” Gisha, which focuses on Palestinian access to the Gaza Strip, also criticized the use of live fire and called on Israel to open up an additional commercial crossing.
In addition to the international protest, Turkey recalled its ambassador to Israel and expelled the Israeli ambassador.
Amid the mayhem, liberal Israeli commentators berated celebrants in Rabin Square for engaging in denial and failing to protest against the government’s policy. (Peace Now called for a demonstration on Tuesday evening.) At the celebration, the lyricist who co-wrote “Toy,” the song in Barzilai’s winning performance, countered that too many times Israeli celebrations have been cancelled by tragedy.
“We aren’t conceding our victory in the Eurovision,” said Doron Medalie. “We aren’t ashamed to be happy. Because there’s a message of love going out from here.”
Hadass Tesher, an Israeli-American communications consultant who brought her daughters to the celebration, tried to explain the mixed sentiment of many Israelis both disturbed by the bloodshed and inspired by the Eurovision.
“It’s a split screen of life in Israel taken to the extreme. The ultimate Jewish celebration, which always mixes in with sorrow,” she said.
“[The Eurovision celebration] gives you a glimmer of how things could be if we had a normal country,” Tesher continued. “It was people coming out to celebrate an unconventional woman with a unconventional message. That’s not just denial.”