1979 was a great year for me. Not only was it the first time I had seen Arsenal win anything — beating Manchester United in the FA Cup Final — it was the first time I’d seen Israel win anything, performing Hallelujah at the Eurovision Song Contest.
Israel had won it the year before too, yet somehow that passed me by. But 1979 was different. I remember the sense of excitement leading up to it, and the sheer delirium in the Jewish community afterwards, when Israel emerged victorious again.
As a ten-year old, watching it was a transformative experience. Going into it, I felt a natural allegiance to the UK, that was confirmed as the UK did quite well for a while as the votes came in. But as Israel surged ahead and it became evident that the UK was out of the running, I started to root for Israel. Something happened that night — I’d never even been to Israel at the time, but I discovered I had a visceral connection with it nonetheless.
Of course, in those days, everyone seemed to love Israel. It was still riding high on the waves of the military victories of 1967 and 1973, not to mention the sheer audacity of the Entebbe operation in 1976. Then Maccabi Tel Aviv won the European Basketball Championships in 1977, Israel won its first Eurovision in 1978, and Sadat and Begin signed the Camp David Accords. Israel seemed to be able to do anything. Hallelujah captured the prevailing mood across the Jewish world perfectly.
Moreover, juxtaposed with the Holocaust — still quite recent history at the time — Israel’s achievements were amplified a hundredfold. Even among non-Jews, the extraordinary pluckiness of this young, small country, this people that had been through such horrors, couldn’t but engender admiration.
But Israel’s image has been significantly tarnished since then. Forty years on, it’s a very different place. Israel’s total population was only 3.8 million at the time; today it stands at 9 million, with Jews comprising 6.7 million, three-quarters of the whole, and the largest Jewish population in the world.
And it’s not just the numbers that have changed; the nature of that Jewish population has been transformed too. The huge wave of aliyah from the Former Soviet Union, as well as from Ethiopia, created a much more ethnically diverse Jewish population, with different cultural backgrounds, different political assumptions. Mizrachi Jews fully entered the mainstream too, lessening the influence of the European Ashkenazi culture that long dominated Israel socially and politically.
Israel changed religiously too. While Israel was winning Eurovision 1979, Menachem Begin was responding positively to Charedi demands for a fourfold increase in child allowances and threefold increase in subsidies for yeshivot. Israel’s Charedi population subsequently increased tremendously; today, it comprises 12 percent of the whole – over a million people – and is growing at 4.2 percent per annum, largely due to Israeli Charedi women having about seven children, on average. In 40 years from now, Charedim are projected to comprise over a quarter of Israel’s population, and about a third of all Israeli Jews.
But for now, secular Israel still dominates — it remains the single largest denominational group within Israel’s Jewish population at over 40 percent. So it’s contemporary secular Israel, and its common desire for normalisation, that is reflected in Israel’s most recent Eurovision wins: Dana International in 1998 and Netta Barzilai last year. And as much as their victories brought joy to Israel and the Jewish world, their personae and music didn’t quite do what Hallelujah did in 1979 — neither captured the particular Jewish spirit of the moment. They seemed to reflect much more universalist ideas. With Dana International, it was the courage of her embracing her transgender identity that resonated across the world; with Netta Barzilai, her refrain “I’m not your toy, you stupid boy” captured the Me Too movement.
But perhaps Kobi Marimi’s song for Israel this year, aptly entitled Home, represents something of a return to that 1979 spirit. His words “I am standing tall not giving in, ‘cause I am someone, I am someone,” speak both to the current Jewish moment and the essence of what Zionism is about, whilst containing a universal message too. The contrasting pulls of normalisation and Charedi-isation don’t do that. I really hope Marimi’s song helps transform the Jewish identities of ten-year old diaspora Jews, like Hallelujah did for me 40 years ago. No pressure Kobi, but we need it to.
Jonathan Boyd is executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR)