Eurovision Semifinalist Eden Alene Is the Israel You Don’t Know About (Guest Column)

17 May 2021, Netherlands, Rotterdam: Eden
Soeren Stache/picture-alliance/d

I’m an Israeli father of two young boys here in Tel Aviv. I love them to bits. I know that across the border in Gaza there’s a Palestinian father with kids who feels the same way about his. I know we both want to protect them more than anything. Like me, I’m sure he tells them this awful conflict will be over one day, with today’s ceasefire being a welcome first step in that direction.

The rockets have been flying — thousands hurled at Israel by Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist group hell-bent on our destruction which has masterfully managed to garner sympathy from around the world. We view it as a hijacking of the Palestinians who most of us here see as innocent victims of a terror group. A people with whom, we personally have nothing against and would love to live with in peace, were it not for Hamas.

The world watches transfixed, with shocked shares and tweets further fueling the conflict.

It’s all-consuming.

It’s violent.

It’s exhausting and sad.

Unless you look beyond the conflict and see people. The youth are the future of this region and the generational keepers of its traumatic past. And as the sirens wailed across this tiny area of land, there is one 21-year-old giving us hope in the midst of the chaos.

Her name is Eden Alene, and she’s representing Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest, currently taking place in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

As the 2020 Will Ferrell movie “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” brilliantly illustrated, Eurovision is the largest international song competition in the world organized annually by the European Broadcasting Union which features participants representing primarily European countries. Israel has competed since 1973 and won four times, most recently in 2018. Eden made it through the semi-finals and the finale takes place this Saturday, May 22.

Eden is not how one might picture a typical young Israeli. She’s a woman of color — Black and beautiful — whose otherworldly five-octave voice made her a musical sensation in the country she calls home. At the same time, anyone would recognize instantly that she’s representing Israel by looking at the bodyguards surrounding her — ones she didn’t ask for but has to accept due to death threats against her by anti-Israel activists.

This is her story. The highlights, at least.

Born to Ethiopian-Jewish immigrants, she was raised in Katamon, Jerusalem which is a culturally diverse neighborhood in the city that’s home to a multitude of religions and holy sites. She participated in her school choir and studied ballet for 11 years but also grew up as a fan of soul music and pop artists like Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson and Chris Brown. As comes through in her vocal style, she found inspiration in many different genres, ranging from Arabic folk music to gospel to opera.

Eden served, as is mandatory, in the Israeli Defense Forces and participated in the military band, cultivating her singing in Hebrew, English and Ahmharic. She also competed and won the Israeli version of “The X-Factor” in 2018 before going on to first place on “Rising Star,” another televised singing competition, in 2019, which earned her a spot to represent Israel in Eurovision.

The coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 edition of Eurovision. The song Eden was meant to sing was called, “Feker Libi,” which means “I love you” in Ahmharic, and the song’s chorus, as well as its accompanying video visuals, showcased that sentiment in Arabic, Hebrew, English and Ahmharic. It made all Israelis, from every religion and walk of life, proud to be Israeli.

This is the third time a Black act has represented Israel in the competition. In 1998, it was a group (ironically) called Eden, and in 2006, it was Eddie Butler. In addition, Dana International, a trans woman of Yemenite-Jewish descent, represented Israel and won the competition back in 1998. Coming from Tel Aviv, which is regarded the world over as a welcoming hub for the LGBTQ community, she helped pave the way for trans talents to loudly and proudly express their true selves.

Eden is an inspiration. To everyone here.

But her background is also a pretty common one in Israel. Here is a child of immigrants — Jewish parents for whom freedoms were restricted in their birth country of Ethiopia — embraced by society at large, nurtured to learn and encouraged to develop her talents. At Eurovision, which delights in outlandish costuming, hair and makeup, she wears a veritable throne atop her head — proudly, because in Israel it doesn’t matter what you look or dress like; It doesn’t matter where you come from; It doesn’t matter your sexual orientation; your political views; your gender or ethnicity. It’s one of the most noble facets of Israeli democracy and it’s what makes our society great.

Sure, I understand that those reading this might perceive Israel solely as a military powerhouse. Or — wrongly — that it doesn’t extend equal rights to Arabs living within its borders. Arabs make up 20 percent of our population and are cherished doctors, teachers, mechanics, farmers, lawyers, IDF commanders, and even sit on our supreme court. This is another aspect of Israeli society that I love because they, too, can aspire and achieve.

It’s all of us together that have made Israel a world leader in medicine, agriculture and sustainability technology, not to mention disaster relief aid, gay rights, social entrepreneurship, informal education, cuisine, Judo and even windsurfing.

Eden, too, has already broken records: for hitting the highest note in Eurovision history — a B6 whistle — during her performance of “Set Me Free” on May 17.

It’s in Eden that I see everything that is beautiful and true about Israel. We strived to reach the high notes of humanity in building this nation, and my hope is that we live long enough to see it through.

From where we sit, I can’t help but wonder how many Edens there are in Gaza and whether their voices and high notes will be heard one day without the sound of rocket fire as an underlying beat.

It’s my profound wish that one day we all get to see and hear their Edens, too.

Because I’ll be right in the front row cheering them on.

Eitan Chitayat is the founder and Creative Director of Natie Branding Agency based in Tel Aviv. He created the viral video “I’m That Jew” and gave a TED talk on the genesis of the project. He also co-created “She’s that Woman,” a celebration of all women, and hosts the I’M THAT podcast. Eitan is happily married with two wonderful children and is doing his best to try and make the world a better place.