Netanyahu Applauds Israel's Transsexual Diva
May 11, 1998
JERUSALEM, May 11 (Reuters) -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, shrugging off opposition from ultra-Orthodox Jews, vowed on Monday that Israel would host the Eurovision annual song contest next year in Jerusalem.
Israeli singer Dana International, who was a man until a sex change operation in 1993, won the contest in Britain on Saturday night, defeating performers from 24 other countries and re-igniting a row with religious Jews who said she defied God.
The next Eurovision is a year away but, like most issues in Israel, it was fair game for politicians always quick to quarrel. The winning country in the celebrated mix of music and kitsch traditionally hosts the event the following year.
Asked if he supported Eurovision taking place in Jerusalem in 1999, Netanyahu said: "Certainly -- and it will be."
The singer's self-proclaimed gift to Israel on its 50th birthday -- she won for a catchy dance tune named Diva -- fanned the flames of a battle raging between an overwhelmingly secular majority and a small but powerful ultra-Orthodox minority.
Radio talk-show hosts had speculated, only half-jokingly, that Netanyahu risked the collapse of his government, which includes ultra-Orthodox political parties, if he congratulated the winner, a leggy brunette previously known as Yaron Cohen.
"I congratulated her and all those who took part in the effort," Netanyahu told reporters when asked his views of the transsexual's triumph. "This appears to me to be deserving of congratulations. It's definitely an honorable achievement."
Interviewed later by Israel's Channel Two Television, Netanyahu acknowledged not having personally called Dana International but the Israeli leader said he hadn't ruled out inviting her to his office to thank her officially.
Asked if he was having a hard time coping with the controversy, Netanyahu said: "Why? I listened and hummed like the rest of the public."
Haim Miller, the ultra-Orthodox deputy mayor of Jerusalem, pledged on Sunday to do everything in his power to bar the contest from the holy city next year.
"What Haim Miller says at most represents only himself, and even that I am not sure about. This municipality is against censorship in matters of culture and art," Israel's Mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, shot back.
Israel last hosted the Eurovision in Jerusalem in 1979. Since that time, the numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the holy city and their political clout have soared.
The religious-secular row last flared over the right of a troupe of modern dancers to strip down to their underwear during the country's main 50th anniversary show last month. The troupe boycotted rather than appear in tights, as had been proposed.
Secular Israelis, most of whom serve in the army, assail the tens of thousands of military exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews who nonetheless receive huge government sums for their schools and religious institutions.
The ultra-Orthodox say they are engaged in religious studies that have preserved Judaism through the ages.
While Israeli politicians took the Eurovision issue seriously, some critics voiced another view. Despite the large television audience the event draws, they see the more than 40-year-old event as an anachronism and a monument to bad taste.
by Howard Goller, Reuters