Check out this video, featuring Israel's entry in the 2009 Eurovision contest. Try to figure out who is the Arab and who is the Jew?
Of course, to engage in such an exercise is to conjure with problematic racial stereotypes. Nonetheless, in this instance it's worthwhile. Noa, the Israeli singer, looks more stereotypically Arab. That's because she is of Yemeni background. Mira Awad, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, is 'whiter' and looks more European. That's because her father is a Palestinian Arab and her mother is Bulgarian.
What does it mean when Israel decides to enter a duo representing Israeli minorities, a Mizrahi and a Palestinian, to represent the Israeli nation in the Eurovision contest? Is it a clever ploy to give Israel a positive image, at a time of growing demands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, in the wake of the Gaza outrage?
According to a recent article in The Guardian,
When the announcement of their Eurovision entry was made, Israel's military was deep into its devastating three-week war in Gaza. Suddenly, Nini and Awad found themselves facing a bout of criticism from the left. Several Arab artists – some Israeli, some Palestinian – published an open letter asking the pair to withdraw.
"The Israeli government is sending the two of you to Moscow as part of its propaganda machine that is trying to create the appearance of Jewish-Arab 'coexistence' under which it carries out the daily massacre of Palestinian civilians," the letter said. "Israeli artists, authors and intellectuals that take part in this propaganda machine, instead of working for justice, equality and the upholding of human and civil rights, not to mention international law, are partners to the crime."
On the other hand, does the choice of Noa and Mira Awad represent, in a sense, the success of struggles of Mizrahim and Palestinian citizens of Israel, to change Israel's Eurocentric, Ashkenazi, and exclusively Jewish character?
A cautious yes.
Noa, according to The Guardian, "has taken part in several joint projects with Arab artists, publicly backs a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and refuses to perform in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank."
Noa recorded a cover of John Lennon's "Imagine" together with rai artist Khaled, which was released on the European version of Khaled's 1999 album Kenza. It was not included on the US release of Kenza, from Ark 21.
The Guardian goes on to say that Noa "faces occasional anti-Israel demonstrations during her tours abroad, once in London and most recently during a tour of Spain last month, and has been very critical of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement, in Gaza."
As for Awad, "She works in an Arabic-Hebrew theatre in Jaffa and made a breakthrough appearance in an Israeli television sitcom, Arab Labour. She has sung with Nini for the last eight years and has previously competed to represent Israel at Eurovision, despite objections from the Arab community."
As far as I can determine, the Israeli sitcom, Arab Labor ("Avoda Aravit"), seems to be a sign of Arab inroads into mainstream Israeli culture.
So while I'm sympathetic to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, I regard the Noa/Mira Awad collaboration as a complicated matter.
But whatever you think about the politics, there is no way that this song should win the Eurovision contest. It's sappy and dreadful.
(I saw Noa perform at the Fez Festival of Sacred Music in Morocco in summer 1999, and did not care for her music at all. And the duet with Khaled, "Imagine," is awful as well.)
On the other hand, Dana International, Israel's Eurovision entry in 1998, truly deserved to win. Even if she has been shilling for Tzipi Livni of late.