Thursday, September 24, 2009

Singer Leonard Cohen Caught Up in Israeli-Palestinian Rift


By Howard Schneider, Washington Post Foreign Service, September 24, 2009

Singer-poet Leonard Cohen's first concerts for Israelis weren't in Israel. They were for troops in the then-occupied Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, part of a morale-boosting tour that the Montreal native gave during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Thirty-six years later, for what has been billed as the Concert for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace, the 75-year-old grandfather of angst-pop is again embroiled in the Arab-Israeli conflict. This time he is the target of a boycott campaign that aims to discourage artists, singers, writers and others from performing or touring in Israel.

As he went onstage Thursday night in a 45,000-seat soccer stadium near Tel Aviv, it was to accusations that he had betrayed his humanist and Buddhist principles to "a kind of validation" of Israel's occupation of the West Bank, said Shir Hever, an economist and activist with the Alternative Information Center, a group opposed to Israel's policies toward Palestinians.

Though proceeds of the show already were intended for a Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation fund started for the occasion by Cohen, the singer also decided over the summer to balance the schedule with a much smaller companion concert in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "He was mindful of the conflict" when he decided to perform here after a long absence, said manager Roger Kory. The Ramallah concert came under fire as a "pity performance" and was canceled.

"Idiotic" said Ron Pundak, an Israeli negotiator at the Oslo peace talks in the 1990s and a board member of the fund Cohen established. At a reception before the concert, members of the mainstream Israeli peace movement criticized what they regard as fringe groups trying to undercut cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.

But it was Cohen who "missed the point," Hever said. "Palestinians don't want appeasement, they want recognition of their rights." Israelis "point out the willingness of people like Madonna and Leonard Cohen to give shows as a sign that Israel is normal, like a European country. It evades responsibility."

"I had no idea it would be so difficult to do something simple and good," Kory said on the eve of the concert. The charity benefiting from the show was designed around Cohen's desire to help Palestinians and Israelis who have lost family members in the conflict and are working toward reconciliation -- the type of "transcendence," Kory said, that Cohen often talks about in his songs and poetry.

Boycotts are nothing new in Israel. The Arab League has had one in place for decades and even countries such as Egypt and Jordan, which have made peace with their neighbor, have been reluctant partners. The absence of war on those borders has not translated into the type of "normalization" that President Obama is trying to advocate for the region.

But a scattered collection of grass-roots boycott efforts, organized here and abroad by Israelis, Palestinians and others, have scored enough recent successes that it has registered with Israeli businesses and politicians. Those activists, for example, have pushed Europeans to enforce restrictions against supporting West Bank settlements. Alongside a recent United Nations Human Rights Council report on last winter's war in the Gaza Strip, Israeli officials have stepped up diplomatic and other efforts to push back against what they see as a challenge to the country's standing around the world.

In the aftermath of the Gaza War, a survey by the Manufacturers Association of Israel found that some 20 percent of its members said their business had been affected by overseas efforts to boycott Israeli products. Norway recently ordered a government-held investment fund to sell about $5 million of stock in Israeli high-tech company Elbit Systems because the firm has supplied surveillance equipment for the security barrier running around and through the West Bank. A college located in the West Bank city of Ariel was kicked out of a solar architecture competition in Spain.

Cohen was, by the standards of such things, a significant target. A Jew but not an Israeli, his body of work is more deeply philosophical and his outlook more universalist than that of, say, Madonna, who blithely wrapped herself in the Star of David flag during her recent concerts here, dined with top Israeli politicians, and kept the profits as well. Her shows over the summer, along with recent appearances by artists including Depeche Mode and Lady Gaga have added to the sense that Israel has become a more regular part of the world concert scene.

But Cohen has a special place, and Kory said the politics surrounding his show here registered deeply and almost forced a cancellation.

The singer is a bit of a national obsession. The counterculture favorite "First We Take Manhattan" and renditions of the anthemic "Hallelujah" are radio staples. Despite the controversy, Cohen's concert Thursday, which was part of an extensive world tour, sold out quickly.

There is no doubt, Kory said, that Cohen's Jewish heritage and connection with Israel have influenced his work, but his decision to perform is meant to send a broader message of its own.

"How can you boycott a good heart like Leonard Cohen?" said Ali Abu Awwad, a West Bank resident whose brother was killed by Israeli forces and who now works on reconciliation efforts. "We have loss and pain but still believe in peace and reconciliation. We come without labels to talk in one voice. It's not our destiny to keep dying."

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