On Saturday night, the Eurovision Song Contest—an televised evening of chansons, costumes, and camp—returns to Stockholm, scene of an infamous disaster for Israel in this musical extravaganza.
In 2000, two years after singer Dana International won Eurovision for Israel, the Israel Broadcasting Authority selected the band PingPong to represent the country in Stockholm. Led by Guy Assif and Roy ‘Chicky’ Arad, the Tel Aviv quartet had released only one album that did not sell well. And yet, out of the 83 songs considered by the IBA, PingPong’s entry “Sameach” (Be Happy) was deemed the best of a bad bunch. (Even Arad thought the song was rubbish.)
Having only entered as a joke, things between PingPong and the IBA got off to a rocky start with the music video for “Sameach.” Directed by Eytan Fox, it contained scenes of men kissing and women making suggestive gestures with cucumbers. But things really blew up in Stockholm.
In a time when Israel was withdrawing from Lebanon and negotiating with Syria over the Golan, “Sameach” contained a verse about a friend in Damascus who was dating an Israeli girl. In the dress rehearsal—held on Yom Ha’atzmaut—PingPong brandished Israeli and Syrian flags at the end of their performance, supposedly in a gesture of peace.
Responding to outrage back home, the IBA demanded PingPong not repeat this move in the final; there would be no politicization of Eurovision. When the group refused to back down, the IBA disavowed their own act. On the night of the final, PingPong performed first and brought out the Syrian flags as planned. Arad and Assif would also exchange a brief kiss mid-song.
PingPong was seen as symbolic of a new, young, and peaceful Israel, but, as Alon Weinstock’s 2006 documentary Sipur Sameach shows, it did not sit well with many people: hundreds of Israelis called into Channel 1 to complain, religious Members of Knesset denounced the band, and the IBA said they created “antagonism throughout the world.”
PingPong wound up finishing in 22nd place (out of 24 acts) with just seven points—a showing deemed as disgraceful by the Israeli press. The turn of the millennium marked a new low for Israel in Eurovision, beginning a fallow period during which its acts would fail to impress the voting public. Israel, a three-time Eurovision winner, would fail to qualify between 2011 and 2014.
The light and shade of PingPong’s ordeal is captured in Weinstock’s documentary, which shows how the band bungled a visit to an Assyrian community center in Stockholm, somehow believing it to a home for Syrians. As the IBA turned the screws on PingPong after the dress rehearsal, the lead singer Ahal Eden is pictured in tears, fearing repercussions upon her return to Israel. Yet the band remained resolute. After the performance, Arad said, “The Syrian flags are the proudest thing I’ve ever done.”