T* Dana Wins Eurovision Contest
All of Europe is shouting "mazal tov" for Israel's transsexual diva, but not a few "oy vays" can be heard
May 11, 1998
With a song called "Diva," Israeli Dana International became the first transsexual ever to win the Eurovision Song Contest on May 9 in Birmingham, England. She called the victory a present to her country on its 50th anniversary -- but while it was cheered by a crowd of 40,000 in Tel-Aviv, and by hundreds who later greeted the singer at Ben-Gurion Airport, it was a gift not welcomed by Israel's politically powerful conservative rabbis, who had opposed her representing the nation in the first place. By giving Israel its first Eurovision victory since 1979, Dana has also brought the nation the chore of hosting next year's event, and a new conflict is already brewing, spearheaded on the one hand by Jerusalem's mayor, who believes it will pay back a pricetag of up to $10-million in publicity and tourism, and by its deputy mayor, who swears it won't happen in his city.
Eurovision: Eurovision is a major media phenomenon, and the 43rd edition drew an international television audience variously estimated from tens of millions to 600 million; the Israeli audience was estimated at 2 million. It's a competition among representatives of 25 countries (including Estonia, Israel and Turkey in its broad definition of "Europe"). The best known past winners are Sweden's ABBA (1974) and C?ine Dion (1988, representing Switzerland, even though she is Canadian). But in some circles the competition is something of a laughingstock for featuring such lightweight titles as "Oui, Oui, Oui, Oui," "Boom Bang-A-Bang," "Diggi-Loo and Diggi-Ley," "Hallo, Hallo," and "La La La" (repeated 138 times).
This year for the first time, the winner was picked by viewer phone-ins rather than by regional juries, and the outcome was in doubt to the very end. Although there were rumors that gay and lesbian lobbying had shifted the voting in Dana's favor, she noted that while the gay-friendly Netherlands gave her only five points, the former Soviet countries of Eastern Europe voted heavily for her. Other rumors had fans of the German camp idol Guildo crossing national boundaries in order to cast their votes, but he ended up number seven with his "Piep, Piep, Piep, Guildo Loves You."
Dana: Dana performed "Diva" with four backup singers chosen to represent a variety of female vocal styles ranging from opera to traditional Middle Eastern. She performed in a dress by an Israeli designer, delaying receipt of her prize as she changed into a dress Jean-Paul Gaultier had asked to design for her which she'd judged too fragile for the vigorous performance of her disco hit. "People judged the song and my performance, not my sexuality and I am glad for it," she said. "Now I want Europe to get to know me. This [disco] is not actually my type of music. Now Europe will hear what Dana is really like. We chose this song for the Eurovision Song Contest, but we have so many more good songs." Dana has recorded a very eclectic mix of music in several different languages, including folk songs from several traditions.
She told Israel TV, "This just goes to show the world is open-minded and liberated. We are all equal." In another interview, she said, "I did it for us to live freely in this world without hate. I want us to live in one world. We don't need borders. We need to be free from hate, otherwise we will vanish." Responding to her religious opponents in an interview with Britain's Press Association, she said, "I forgive everyone. My victory has proved that God is with me. I want to send them a message of forgiveness and say to them, 'try to accept me, and try to understand my kind of life, and my kind of choice.' What I am does not mean I do not believe in God, and that I am not really part of the Jewish people." She told another interview asking about her opponents, "Listen, they are not exactly my audience."
Supporters: Yair Keidar, editor of the gay monthly "Hazman Havarod," said, "This has raised our spirits to new heights. It is the best thing to happen to the gay community here in 50 years. Dana got where she got without forgetting where she came from." To those who suggested that Dana won because of being transsexual, Keidar said, "Dana did not win because of who she is, but despite who she is."
Israeli President Ezer Weizman said simply, "I believe that it's very nice the state of Israel won first prize."
On behalf of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain, Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Romain said, "Dana International's sexuality is totally irrelevant to her ability to sing well or perform on behalf of her country, just as anybody else's sexuality should have no bearing on their professional life unless it interferes with their work. Disturbed by the trans-phobia among his co-religionists, Romain said they should seek to understand the misery transgenders experience and to appreciate the surgical procedures that relive it.
Opponents: Shas Party deputy health minister Rabbi Shlomo Benizri, who had been the most vocal opponent of the selection of Dana to represent the country, said after the victory, "In order to win the Eurovision after 20 years, we had to send a gimmick. It's a sign of the bankruptcy of Israeli song. God is against this phenomenon. It's a sickness you must cure and not give legitimacy." But he also lightened up enough to say, "For those who are happy and feel pride today, they should have a mazal tov."
National Religious Party Member of the Knesset Nissan Slomiansky said, "I feel pride at the song, but think we could have found somebody better suited to represent us." [The song was written specifically for Dana.]
Next Year in Jerusalem? Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert is planning on taking up the challenge of raising the money to host Eurovision in his city in 1999. But Jerusalem's deputy mayor Haim Miller said, "It's a shame and an embarrassment. 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 [gentiles]."
The Israel Broadcasting Authority withstood serious political pressure in defending its choice of Dana as by far the best candidate of 33 submissions to represent the country at Eurovision. Its director Uri Porat seems equally determined to raise the money to put on a technically flawless show next year, viewing anything less as an embarrassment to the country. Ireland found the costly production burdensome when four of its seven victories came in consecutive years.