Israel’s Netta Barzilai, celebrating ‘otherness’


Jerusalem. Tall and thin, like a ray of sun, and blonde as a fairy, Ivanka Trump descended from the plane that brought her to Israel along with her husband, Jared Kushner, and other prominent American dignitaries to realize the dream that for Israel becomes a reality: Jerusalem is now recognized by the United States as the capital of the state.

However, she isn’t the celebrity that currently captivates Israeli youth. That prestige goes to Netta Barzilai, a heavyset young woman, who draped in a brightly colored corset and kimono, beat out competition from 42 other countries on Saturday night to win, yes, win, the annual Eurovision Song Contest that this year took place in Lisbon, Portugal.

Her song, “Toy,” is the most feminist-inspired song you could imagine — an ultimate declaration of independence — “I am not your toy.”

Here’s a little more information about Netta: She’s a 25-year-old Israeli from the town of Hod Hasharon, just north of Tel Aviv, who spent four years in the Israeli military. She has a mesmerizing, charismatic personality and a musicality beyond dispute, with a raucous and piercing voice similar to Janis Joplin, who undoubtedly inspired her. Her undeniable physical unusualness pokes fun and taunts those who embrace conventional stereotypes of beauty and attracts those who, like her, feel “different.”

In fact, Netta’s victory was made possible first and foremost due to the votes of the public, plus those on the jury who would have preferred the competitor from Crete (a girl who is classically attractive). Upon winning, Netta said: “Thank you so much for choosing difference! Thank you so much for accepting differences between us! Thank you for celebrating diversity.”

Diversity? No, she is simply an expression of the plurality that permeates Israeli society, which so many find difficult to understand and therefore prefer to assign to it stereotypes that have long become outdated. For the thousands of young fans who flooded Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square waving Israeli flags and euphorically jumping into a public fountain, Netta isn’t different — she’s simply Israeli. She immediately said: “I love my country! I want to go home immediately, bring me a schnitzel because I want to eat my country’s food.” The little Israeli family was wholeheartedly with her, and when she arrived back to Israel at 3 in the morning the next day, youths waving Israeli flags again rushed out into the streets to celebrate.

Netta’s win at Eurovision comes 20 years after that of Dana International, the beautiful woman who was actually a transsexual, who triumphed with “Diva”—an equally revolutionary song—that exalted a very seductive femininity. It was a national turning point; the religious rebelled, the politicians mumbled, but Israel chose its path.

It is today the most liberal country in the world vis-à-vis the LGTB community. It sent a transsexual to an international song festival and won! And now, Netta, weighing more than 100 kilos, allows a freedom of expression that goes far beyond the usual protest found in pop music and that carries us into worlds of absolute freedom.

This is no small feat for a country accused of apartheid; for a country constantly under attack by the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement; for a country that receives an endless onslaught of condemnations from Europe and the United Nations for alleged human-rights violations as it simply attempts to defend itself.

Netta, with her exuberant “otherness,” led Israeli commentators to declare that Europe, at heart, doesn’t hate us; after all, it’s the public and not the jury of the singing competition who voted for Israel. In fact, the truth about Israeli democracy—namely, that it is a beacon of light and hope for the world—is something even Europe can’t repudiate. Perhaps one day, it will be able to grasp that Israel, which respects all religions, must defend itself. In Rabin Square, Israeli youths were shouting: “Iran, look at us, we’re here to stay!” What does that have to do with it? In essence, everything! There is no Netta without Israeli freedom.

According to the rules, Jerusalem will host the next Eurovision competition. The grand final always takes place on a Saturday—Shabbat—and general rehearsals are on Friday night, when Jews are forbidden by their religion to do anything apart from being quiet to reflect. Again, as with what happened with Dana International, the religious will fight the event. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was busy on Sunday preparing the festivities to celebrate the opening of U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, said the following at his cabinet meeting: “These days, Jerusalem is being blessed with many gifts. We received another one last night with Netta’s thrilling and suspenseful victory.”

And then he proceeded to lift his arms by imitating her signature chicken-like dance.

Fiamma Nirenstein, fellow at Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was a member of the Italian Parliament, served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. She has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009).