Singing in Europe’s last Middle Eastern colony

Why is Israel part of the Eurovision song contest?

Presenters Assi Azar and Lucy Ayoub show the card of Israel during the Eurovision Semi-Final allocation draw, in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel on January 28, 2019 [Corinna Kern/Reuters]

With less than two months to go till the song contest Eurovision kicks off in Tel Aviv, controversy surrounding the host country is bound to escalate. The event is a major opportunity for Israel to “art-wash” its crimes against the Palestinian population and pro-Palestinian activists are determined to challenge it with a boycott.

Celebrities like Roger Waters and Wolf Alice have already called for media organisations and artists to refuse to partcipate, while the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement has intensified its campaign against the event.

The provocative decision to hold the opening night of Eurovision on May 14 is particularly galling for Palestinians as it falls on the day Israel commemorates its 1948 declaration of independence. On the following day, as European singers compete in Tel Aviv, Palestine will be marking the 71st anniversary of what they call al-Nakba, the catastrophe, remembering the victims of the Israeli campaign of ethnic cleansing.

But beyond the obvious issue of Israel using yet another cultural event to whitewash its bloody reputation, the upcoming Eurovision event is also an opportunity to reflect on how European Israel really is. 

The question that few Europeans seem to be asking themselves is why a country situated in the Middle East (far away from the natural and imagined borders of Europe) has been participating since 1973 in a competition founded with the vision of culturally unifying Europe. This is a country that, by defining itself as a “Jewish state” built on the “promised land” and “the only democracy in the Middle East”, has claimed to have origin and roots firmly established in the Middle East.

Why do then Israeli artists sing in Eurovision? Why do Israeli football teams play in UEFA championships and compete with European teams for FIFA World Cup qualifications? Why are Israeli doctors members of the European Forum of Medical Associations, which is currently headed by an Israeli official?

The answer is simple: because Israel was founded as and continues to be a European settler colony.

A European colony in Palestine

Israel is one of the last remaining European colonies, along with places like French Guiana, New Caledonia, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. It managed to survive the wave of decolonisation in the 20th century by carefully crafting a foundational myth of exceptionalism using the Zionist ideological premise that Jews must return to the “promised land” and that they can only be “safe” within a Jewish-only state.

Despite using a Zionist reading of Judaic scripture to assert that Palestine was “originally” Jewish and the rightful “homeland” of all Jews and to claim historical territorial continuity to the pre-Christian Jewish state, Israel’s founding fathers (all European Jews and mostly Ashkenazi) embarked on a systematic campaign to Europeanise the spaces they were colonising.

They started building the new state based on the same premise that European colonialists used for centuries – that they were embarking on a civilisational mission. And while European empires crumbled, Israel flourished, solidifying its foundation myth as an “island of stability” in a turbulent region.

Zionist colonialists readily adopted the views European colonial projects had developed towards native populations. Shortly after the Balfour declaration was issued in 1917, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, for example, wrote in a letter to Lord Balfour that Arabs being “superficially clever and quick witted” and “treacherous” by nature would not be able to establish their own state in Palestine “because the fellah (peasant) is at least four centuries behind the times, and the effendi (member of the urban class) … is dishonest, uneducated, greedy, and as unpatriotic as he is inefficient.”

Like the Europeans, Israeli settler colonialists also undertook a combination of ethnic cleansing and subjugation to “clear” the land they were colonising of the “inferior” native population.

But the builders of the Israeli state faced a major ideological challenge with the Jewish population of the Middle East, who were encouraged to mass migrate to Palestine and used as cheap labour to build Zionist settlements. What the European colonisers found particularly “disturbing” about the Mizrahi Jews was their “Arab character”.

As Israel’s first female prime minister, Golda Meir, declared: “Every loyal Jew must speak Yiddish, for he who does not know Yiddish is not a Jew.”

That is, the only true Jewish identity was the one that the Ashkenazi elite had brought from Europe; the Jewishness of the Mizrahim (or Sephardim) was “impure”. Because of that, they were deemed susceptible to “Arab influence” and their loyalty questioned. Action had to be taken swiftly to control this “suspect” Jewish community which soon became half of the Israeli population.

During a 1951 Knesset debate on education, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was quite explicit: “A Yemenite Jew is first and foremost a Jew, and we want to turn him, as much as possible and as quickly as possible, from a Yemenite into a Jew.”

On a different occasion, he also stated: “We do not want the Israelis to become Arabs. It is incumbent upon us to struggle against the spirit of the Levant, which corrupts individuals and societies.”

Hence, the Israeli Ashkenazi elite embarked on an ambitious project to “civilise” – ie “Europeanise” – their Oriental brethren through re-education, ideological brain-washing and mass-scale kidnappings of children.

The result of this “civilisational campaign” is the continued systematic discrimination against the Mizrahi Jews – who still occupy the very bottom of Israeli society and – by extension, against anyone non-Jewish and non-white.

Israel’s racial hierarchy very much mirrors the one established in Europe, the US and Canada: the white elite and middle class at the top and the rest at the bottom.

European guilt and anti-Semitism 

The decolonisation movements that erupted across Asia, Africa and the Middle East forced Europe to gradually dismantle its colonial operations. Israel, however, was spared from this process. In time, part of the European intellectual elite started talking about “post-colonialism” despite the fact that one major European colony remained in its immediate neighbourhood.

In fact, to this day, European governments refuse to own up Israel as one of their colonial projects, which is way past its time.

Ironically, the guilt of the Holocaust has pushed European governments to support the Zionist project of sending Jewish settlers to colonise Palestine, despite the fact the idea that Jews – because of their Jewishness – should leave Europe for another homeland is intrinsically anti-Semitic.

Unconditional support for Israel’s continuing colonisation of Palestine and victimisation of its native population has often been justified (especially by countries like Germany and Austria) as atoning for past crimes.

But anti-Semitism is not a thing of the past in the West. It is frighteningly alive and well and is part of Western failure to address issues of racism, white supremacy and colonialism within its society and culture.

In this sense, European governments backing Israel in its persistent use of 20th-century European colonial subjugation practices against the native Palestinian population is a testament to the fact that they have never really had a proper reckoning with their own criminal colonial past and in fact have not fully rejected the ideas that enabled colonialism and anti-Semitism.

That is why European elites do not see a problem with European artists performing in Israel, European consumers enjoying goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements, European governments buying Israeli surveillance technology while Palestinians are being oppressed, expelled from their homes and land, maimed and massacred on a daily basis.

Any radical change in their stance can only come in parallel to full acknowledgement of, and atonement for colonial crimes, compensation for affected populations, decolonisation and deracialisation of structures of power and condemnation of white supremacy. Only then can Europeans (and by extension Americans) own up Israel as their colonial creation and admit to the historical shame of its foundation and growth.

Only then will the West be able to truly hold Israel accountable for its crimes.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.