My identity as an Israeli expat is always a fraught thing, but this year, it’s felt particularly heavy — with the recent political upheaval and mass protests against Israel’s current right-wing government and the recent fighting in Gaza Strip. Sometimes, I’m searching for just a little bit of joy to feel connected to my homeland. Enter: the Israeli Eurovision entry of 2023.
I’ve previously written an ode to Noa Kirel’s 2023 Eurovision song, “Unicorn.” It’s a perfect Eurovision song — just camp and dynamic enough, with an empowering rallying cry for every age group (my toddler would love to have the power of a unicorn). I love this song so much, my fellow Israeli colleague Grace and I sang it during the karaoke portion of our work retreat last weekend (we hope the good vibes helped, Noa!).
Kirel, at just 22, is one of the greatest Israeli pop-stars of all time, and she truly proved it on that Liverpool stage this past Saturday.
On stage, Noa gave one of the most exciting performances of the night (if not the most, but you know, I’m biased), incorporating the stage-shifting heavily featured in the performance of Swedish winner Loreen’s “Tattoo” with her highly infectious chorus, beautiful singing, and TikTok-worthy “Unicorn move.” After a rallying prompt for the crowd, asking, “Do you want to see me dance?” she then showed up with one of the best dances seen on stage that night (and also amazing outfit changes). Powerful, limber, badass — this performance truly had it all.
There was also something moving in hearing Kirel sing, “History caught in a loop, don’t you want to change it?” at a time when Israel is caught in yet another military operation, and when Israelis are hoping to change the face of their nation. In Hebrew, she chanted “an’lo kmo kulam, mul kol ha’olam” meaning, “I’m not like everyone else, against the whole world.”
It’s hard to explain Eurovision to people who did not grow up with Europe’s most popular televised events (though I did try to explain it all in 2018, when Israel last won!). Beyond the degrees of camp exhibited, it is an impossibly wholesome night of reprieve for every country watching. For Israel, which, earlier that week, spent its days in shelters (my own family’s WhatsApp groups were filled of tales of people lying down on the side of the road by their parked cars as sirens were blaring), that reprieve was much needed. Schmaltzy pop and metal exist side by side, nations in conflict join together in the same room. The love of music, of performance, of grandiosity unite us all and we agree to suspend our disbelief about everything that divides us (until the results come in, at least).
In fact, the night started off with a beautiful moment of unity and reprieve, as the Ukrainian 2022 winner, Kalush Orchestra, were joined by runner-up UK’s best talents, singing their 2022 song “Stefania,” a hip-hop folk song coming directly from the war-torn nation, that may have left me with slightly wet eyes.
This year’s competition brought with it peak Eurovision energy — it had a girlband swinging gigantic braids across the stage, an Austrian duo singing about being possessed by the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe (relatable), a woman in a gigantic dress, a man laying in a huge white rose with robot animations looming over him, a metal song from Germany called “Blood and Glitter” (it’s everything you would imagine) and a Finnish metal song called “Cha Cha Cha” sung by a man with a jet-black bowl cut, wearing neon green puffed sleeves and performing a human centipede-like dance. (It was, by far, the crowd’s favorite. Justice for Finland!)
UK’s Mae Muller, another Jewish participant, gave us a catchy tune in “I Wrote a Song” and won second-best nails of the night, after winner Loreen (it’s an honor awarded by me; congratulations, Mae!).
Eurovision 2023 was one of the best ones I’ve seen in a while, and Israel really came out looking particularly fierce.
Noa came in at number three that night — higher than anyone predicted. She was right behind crowd favorite, Finland’s Käärijä, and second time Eurovision winner Loreen (who made history as the first openly bisexual woman to win the Eurovision, and the first woman to win the contest twice!). “Unicorn” was a particular favorite of those voting from nonparticipating country, who gave Kirel douze points, 12 points, the highest ranking.
Watching TikToks and videos from behind the scenes, it was delightful to see the way Noa danced with so many different participants (including one of my personal favorites, Norway’s Alessandra, who gave us a delightful song filled “Wonder Woman” and sea shanty energy called “Queen of the Kings” — and who made it to fifth place).
This year marks Israel’s 50th year in the Eurovision, which Ilanit, the first Israeli to perform in the Eurovision in 1973, reminded us as she presented the votes of the Jewish nation’s Eurovision committee. The country has a legacy of some really great, and some really odd, songs.
Israel has won the Eurovision four times. The first was in 1978 with “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” by Yizhar Cohen. It then won again in 1979 with “Hallelujah” by Gali Atari and Milk and Honey, which was later brought to the U.S. by amazing Jewish duo Steve and Eydie. It’s a song that fills me with such hopefulness every time I listen to it — a song that aspires to the kind of idyllic unity and acceptance that’s at the heart of the Eurovision.
At a time when trans rights are under attack, I am also reminded of how, in 1998, Israeli singer Dana International became the first trans woman to win the Eurovision with the truly excellent “Diva,” a song about the legacies of strong women, sang by an incredible woman who changed Eurovision and Israeli history forever. This year, a documentary series from Yes Studios (the makers of “Fauda” and “Shtisel”), “Dana Kama,” cemented International as one of Israel’s biggest media darlings, with the singer bringing such open candor and vulnerability to the screen, along with a lot of sassiness and laughs.
Then, of course, there was Israeli pop star Netta’s 2018 song “Toy,” a one of a kind feminist anthem by a unique, gorgeous talent — truly the role model we all needed growing up.
Israel might not have changed Eurovision history this past weekend, but it certainly gave us an excellent, rousing song, a wholesome moment of respite and Jewish pride, and a reminder that, even in the darkest time, there’s still sparkly, shiny unicorns.