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Israel's Eurovision contestant qualifies for the final, braces for protests

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tonight are the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest, an event that is wildly popular on the continent and beyond. This year, though, the event has been caught up in the war in Gaza. There have been protests over the participation of Israel and the song that will be performed. But in Israel, it's a point of pride. NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HURRICANE")

EDEN GOLAN: (Singing) I'm still broken from this hurricane, this hurricane.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Twenty-year-old Eden Golan took to the stage Thursday night for the semifinals of the Eurovision contest held this year in Malmo, Sweden. Her song was a haunting ballot called "Hurricane."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HURRICANE")

GOLAN: (Singing) Ecstasy. Everything is meant to be. We shall pass...

NORTHAM: The song was originally called "October Rain," but there were widespread protests from pro-Palestinian groups and Eurovision fans who felt the title referred to the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas militants. Eurovision is supposed to be a nonpolitical event. In the end, the song's name and some lyrics were changed, but that didn't stop the protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

NORTHAM: Just hours before Golan took the stage, thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the Eurovision venue, one of several protests against Golan throughout the week. There was a heavy police presence. Golan has been booed by audiences during rehearsals and has spent most of her time in Sweden locked in her hotel room with security outside the door. When she ventures out, like for this recent press conference, she couldn't escape controversy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Have you ever thought that by being here, you bring risk and danger for other participants and public?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Go away.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You don't have to answer that question if you want - don't want to.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Why not?

NORTHAM: But Golan wanted to answer the question. She said it was all about the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOLAN: I think we're all here for one reason and one reason only.

NORTHAM: None of this seems to affect Golan's performance. She made it to the finals. Yigal Ravid is a cultural correspondent with KAN News, Israel's public broadcasting system. He says Golan has helped lift Israel's spirits.

YIGAL RAVID: There was a sense of a feeling here that everybody hates us. Israel is condemned, is being boycotted throughout the whole world. So after such a long time of only painful news on a daily basis, we got up to the amazing news.

NORTHAM: Liana Halpern (ph) says it's sad that the war in Gaza has to affect a song contest. Speaking outside a restaurant on a beach promenade in Tel Aviv, the 33-year-old says she's glad Golan has advanced this far.

LIANA HALPERN: I think, all in all, it's important that we're there and that we're representing our country. I don't know if they can allow themselves as an organization to let Israel win - let's put it this way.

NORTHAM: Either way, extra security precautions are in place for tonight's finals of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'IMPERATRICE'S "ODYSSEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.