In the three days since Netta’s Eurovision victory, government officials in Israel have made clear their intention to host the 2019 edition of the contest in Jerusalem. It’s a controversial choice — and one that will produce countless headlines in the weeks and months ahead. But beyond the question of where to host Eurovision, there’s now the controversial matter of when.
Jerusalem is the heart of Israel’s Orthodox Jewish population, who strictly observe their traditions and religious laws. According to Jewish religious law, Shabbat — the holy sabbath — is observed from just before sunset on Friday evening until Saturday night. The Saturday evening broadcast of the show, which will start at 22:00 local time, won’t conflict with this. However, the Friday evening jury show and Saturday afternoon rehearsals would.
Appeal by Haredi Minister Litzman
Yaakov Litzman — leader of the ultra-Orthodox party Agudat Yisrael, and Israel’s Deputy Minister of Health — made no delay in requesting that the contest’s coordinators plan carefully. On Monday, he drafted a letter to the Ministers of Tourism, Communications, and Culture and Sports, in which he demanded that the event not violate religious laws.
He wrote: “In the name of hundreds of thousands of citizens, Jews from all populations and sectors, for whom keeping the Sabbath is important to them, I am asking you at this early stage, before any production or other details of the event have been set, to make sure this doesn’t undercut the holiness of the Sabbath and to work in every way to prevent Sabbath desecration….”
Litzman has a valid point about the status quo of religious and state matters. Typically, Israeli government bodies do not engage in activities that violate the Sabbath, although some exceptions are granted. It is still unclear whether Eurovision will be one of these exceptions.
Preliminary response from the EBU
The EBU has so far been accommodating toward this issue of religious conflict. The Chairman of the EBU’s Eurovision committee, Dr. Frank-Dieter Freiling, is well aware of the tension, and has plans to address it when he arrives in Israel on Thursday.
Freiling’s only words of caution concern who is truly in charge of the contest and its logistics. In truth, no matter which country is hosting the event, the main logistical decisions must be made between the EBU and the local broadcasting corporation, not the government. Only Eurovision’s board of directors can officially approve changes to the standard schedule.
Previous editions in Jerusalem: how did they do it?
This religious conflict is not anything new, and echoes the last edition of the contest that was held in Jerusalem, back in 1999. What’s changed for the better is the ample time that Litzman has provided for preparation.
In 1999, when Jerusalem was hosting the contest following Dana International’s victory, ultra-Orthodox opposition to the designated schedule was sudden, and more importantly, too late. In the words of Araleh Goldfinger, a producer that year, the broadcasting corporation viewed the religious opposition as a “national crisis.”
In the end, that crisis was averted by having no rehearsals or backup footage filmed on the Friday night or Saturday day of the contest (although stage preparations still carried on).
With two semi-finals and nearly twice as many participating countries as in 1999, though, a similar solution would likely not work in 2019. The Friday and Saturday rehearsals and jury show might be considered too important to the contest’s success to forego them altogether.
A silver lining
Apart from the Friday night and Saturday day logistical conflicts, there is no question that the standard time for the Grand Final will be accepted.
Luckily, Israel is two time zones ahead of much of Europe, making it likely that the final will take place around 10:00 P.M. local time, long after the conclusion of the Sabbath. So we can at least still count on the next winner being crowned on a Saturday night.