Israel's Highly Unorthodox Pop Sensation
In the Holy Land, a Transsexual Diva's Contest Victory Ruffles Feathers
May 11, 1998
JERUSALEM, May 10 -- Israelis, who have spent the last few weeks marking the country's 50th anniversary by screaming at each other about everything under the sun, have found a new topic of contention: a leggy transsexual pop star with a passable voice and a fondness for feathered dresses.
Dana International, an Israeli who began life as Yaron Cohen, a male, edged out contestants from Malta and England on Saturday night to win the Eurovision Song Contest, a kind of Super Bowl of pop whose annual televised gala draws tens of millions of viewers.
No sooner had she won with a catchy, kitschy disco number in Hebrew called "Diva" than religious and secular Israelis took sides to debate whether International's triumph represented a victory for Israel or a blow to national pride.
"I thought the song was excellent," said Shulamit Vakian, 22, a student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "The fact she was chosen [as Israel's entry] shows the world that [transsexuality] is acceptable and puts forward a liberal image for the country."
"She shamed the country," said Oliver Ines, 25, an indignant businessman. "She's shamed it from a moral point of view. It doesn't have anything to do with religion."
Zvi Cohen, 48, a warehouse manager, said International had performed well but he was chagrined nonetheless at her success. "If you look at it from the point of view of Judaism and us being a Jewish country and the chosen people, the fact that Israel chose a transsexual is proof we're losing our Jewish morals."
In Tel-Aviv, where secular Jews heavily outnumber the devout, Dana International's fans gathered in downtown Rabin Square to celebrate her victory, the first by an Israeli singer in the contest since 1979. A considerable number of them were gay, which further provoked cultural conservatives.
"I'd send them to a psychiatrist to have their heads checked," said Shlomo Benizri, an Orthodox rabbi. "This legitimizes homosexuals and other perverts in society. She is -- he is -- a pervert."
This evening, hundreds of fans awaited the singer's arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport, eager to lay eyes on an instant symbol of cultural freedom and protest against the influence of Israel's ultra-Orthodox minority, who have gained political strength in recent years despite their modest numbers.
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said the city would host Eurovision next year, which it has the right to do by dint of International's victory. The event, which was held in Britain this year, would cost about $10 million and almost certainly be a money loser for state television, but some city officials saw side benefits in tourism and public relations.
But Deputy Mayor Haim Miller, who is ultra-Orthodox, vowed to kill the idea. "It's a shame and an embarrassment," he said. "I can promise you Eurovision won't take place in Jerusalem. I don't care if it's not in the Holy Land at all. Let it stay in the land of the goys," or gentiles.
Meanwhile, Dana International, who has been a sensation in Israel since she changed her gender and name four years ago, has become an object of unending fascination for the mainstream media. The popular tabloid Yediot Ahronot devoted coverage not only to her victory but also to her travails over attire. It seems International at first settled on a body-hugging feather dress designed for her by Jean-Paul Gaultier, the French couturier, only to change her mind at the last minute and switch to a looser creation by an Israeli designer.
On television she was asked, inevitably, about her love life -- or rather, her lack of one. "I cannot combine a career and love," she said, "because when I'm in love, that's all I see."
by Lee Hockstader, Washington Post Foreign Service
with contributions by Ramit Plushnick of the Jerusalem bureau