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An Unlikely Inspiration

By winning the Eurovision Song Contest, a transsexual provides a healthy boost to Israel's image and sense of hope

by Larry Derfner

May 14, 1998 | 8:00 pm

Early Sunday morning, just before 1 a.m. Israelitime, a roar was heard coming out of living rooms across the country.Israel had just won the annual Eurovision Song Contest, held thisyear in Birmingham, England, and watched by as many as 100 million TVviewers in Europe and Asia. Wildest of all, Israel's representativeat the contest was singer Dana International, a tall, dark,thirtysomething transsexual who had grown up as a boy named YaronCohen.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Eurovision was a majorcultural event for Israelis. Along with the European Cup soccertournament, it was the only popular venue in which Israel could testitself against the big outside world. But in recent years, as Israelhas become less isolated culturally, economically and politically,and as most Israelis have realized that Eurovision songs are catchybut not very good, the contest has diminished in stature. But withDana carrying the national colors, 47 percent of Israeli TV viewersstayed up to watch.

After she was named the winner for her dance song,"Diva," a couple of thousand homosexuals, along with a smattering ofheterosexuals, took to Tel Aviv's Kikar Rabin and danced, drank andsplashed in the fountain until dawn. "We're on the map," yelled onemiddle-aged man, masked and costumed as if it were Carnaval time inRio de Janeiro, and waving the rainbow-colored flag of the gaynation.

Yet it wasn't only homosexuals who cheered Dana.Liberal Israelis saw her as the answer to the recent "Jubilee Bells"debacle in Jerusalem, where religious politicians forced the BatshevaDance Company to cancel its performance of a Passover song because itstrips down to shorts and body shirts. Dana's supporters thought thatshe gave a healthy jolt to the country's image. No longer wouldIsrael be personified to the world only by a hawkish prime ministerand a clutch of grimacing rabbis; now everyone would know that atranssexual singer could also represent the Jewish state.

"On the night of Eurovision, Dana became a symbolof a pluralistic world. She symbolized our potential for freedom,and, for a moment, we seemed once again like a country where dreamsare made, a country for rebels, a lost paradise of chaos andharmony," wrote columnist Sarit Fox in Ma'ariv.

Dana was the first good news to hit the countrysince Israelis finished with their bout of self-celebration duringthe Independence Day festivities. As soon as the "Jubilee Bells"concert rang down, the controversy over Batsheva got the bad bloodgoing again between the haredim and secular. This wascompounded by the annual State Comptroller's Report, which showedthat haredim had received more than $100 million in state aid thatthey weren't entitled to from overly friendly governmentministries.

There were accusations of a fix in the nationalsoccer championships, won by "Israel's Team," Betar Jerusalem. Thecharges weren't proven, but the bad taste lingered. It intensifiedwhen, amid the throngs of Betar fans whooping it up one night in thecapital, the chant of "Death to the Arabs" was heard loudly.

There was a spasm of violent crime. Dr. MosheZiegelbaum, head of rehabilitation for the country's prisons system,was blown up in his car. Suspicion fell on the violent Uzi Meshulamcult, which had threatened Ziegelbaum before, charging that he wasdenying Meshulam medical care in prison. (The Meshulam cult claimsthat an Israeli conspiracy is covering up the "kidnapping and sale"of thousands of Yemenite immigrant children during the first years ofstatehood.) A battle in an ongoing gangland war was fought at asidewalk cafe near Tel Aviv. The hit failed -- not only did thetarget survive his gunshot wounds, but a number of customers atadjacent tables were injured by flying bullets. Israeli police wereforced to admit that crime, especially organized crime, had grownwell beyond their meager means to cope with it.

And hanging above all these depressing events, ofcourse, was the widening breach between the Netanyahu and Clintonadministrations over Israel's planned withdrawal from the West Bank,and the fear that the peace process was about to finally stop idlingand shift roughly into reverse.

So Dana's victory was like water in the desert. Apoll by the Geocartography Institute found that 59 percent ofIsraelis were "proud" to have her represent them at Eurovision,against only 17 percent who weren't. Winning the contest, whichIsrael hadn't managed in 20 years, was a patriotic affair; it alsomeant that next year's contest would be held in Israel.

Predictably, a few haredim grumbled. Haim Miller,the deputy mayor of Jerusalem who first blew the whistle on Batsheva,said he would keep Eurovision out of the capital just as he had donewith the dance company. But Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmertcongratulated Dana and vowed that Jerusalem would host the 1999contest. Olmert spoke for many Israelis, religious and secular, incalling Miller a "blabbermouth."

For her part, Dana was too happy to be mad atanybody. "God is with me," she said. She had made her name as afemale impersonator in Tel Aviv nightclubs, then went the whole routewith a sex change three years ago. Army Radio named her singer of theyear in 1996. Standing onstage at Birmingham in a tight-fitting blackdress with feathers, waving her country's blue-and-white flag, shetold the cheering crowd, "See you next year in Israel."

The nation's second 50 years had begun.

 

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