I guess it seems churlish to post this now the show has happened and some 55,000 people have gone home happy, and some good may have been done. But a principle’s a principle and I still think today’s Tel Aviv concert by Leonard Cohen was wrong.
This is how it started. Some months ago I had an email from an old friend expressing her dismay that Cohen, of whom we are both longtime fans, was to play a show in Israel as part of his enormously successful world tour. I hadn’t really given much thought to cultural boycotts before but I agreed that it did seem questionable judgment on Cohen’s behalf to play a show in a country that only months before had launched a devastating attack on the West Bank, causing the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians.
My friend wrote a letter to Cohen, emailing it to his manager Robert Kory, and set up an online petition calling for Cohen to reconsider his decision or at least offer to play a show on the West Bank in addition to the Israel concert, or to donate the proceeds to a charitable organisation working for peace on both sides. A second friend became involved and the three of us became the first signatories to the petition. We called ourselves the Leonard Cohen Boycott Israel Coalition (and then the Campaign), I set up a blog to host our letter and various links, and also a Twitter feed and a Facebook group. We put something of a disclaimer on the blog saying “We take no pleasure is asking Leonard and his management to deprive Israeli fans of their long awaited moment to see him live, but feel that with circumstances as they are in the Palestinian territories and Gaza in particular, the priority must be to appeal to them to refrain from giving credibility to the Israeli state by playing there.”
This didn’t seem unreasonable to me, even though it felt fundamentally weird to be opposing anything Leonard Cohen was doing. My love for the man and his work is profound; I first discovered him in the late 1980s during a pretty bad period in my life; someone lent me his Greatest Hits and his first novel The Favourite Game, and they turned me around. I wouldn’t necessarily be so grandiose as to say they saved my life but they did make me a different person. Nonetheless, we all make mistakes, and I felt Leonard – especially being Jewish – could have made more of an impact on the situation in Israel by refusing to play there given its politicians’ horrendous foreign policy.
To be honest though I was pretty surprised at what happened next. My first friend had thought the petition might receive one or two thousand signatures; although we got a reassuring 30 in the first few days, to date the total still stands at less than 100. I circulated the details to selected friends on Facebook and by email, and although I would describe all my friends as liberal, only two of them actually signed the petition. One friend, who also happened to be Jewish, rang me up within hours of receiving the email to express his own dismay at the idea of such a boycott, saying that whatever you think of Israeli foreign policy, it was impossible to separate Israel from Jewishness, and thus our campaign seemed anti-semitic. He went on to quote an article in that day’s Times by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks repeating this weary and depressing argument.
I have to say I was disappointed by the silence and staggered by the response of my Jewish friend; such thoughts couldn’t have been further from my mind or those of my campaign colleagues. When the campaign was later attacked by commenters on the blog for targetting Cohen, rather than the more “obvious” (and also, coincidentally, gentile) artists who have also played Israel recently such as Madonna or Depeche Mode, I began to realise how much hypocrisy and bullshit there is in all of this – and also how much fear. The possibility of being called an anti-semite is too much of a risk for most people to bear, and this is precisely why Israel gets away with flouting international law and bombing the crap out of Arab schoolchildren.
While further friends maintained an awkward silence, someone else also declined to sign the petition, saying, “I think, morally, at least, [Cohen] is more than entitled to [play the show]; his own humanity, I think, speaks more than eloquently about any predispositions it encounters along the way… and if people still don’t get it, then LC not playing won’t make a scrap of difference; positively, therefore, he may just channel a thought or two in the right direction.” I admit I agreed with that. But I also hoped Leonard would come to his senses. I didn’t think he would, but I hoped so.
I stuck with it, and as the months progressed other groups from around the world joined in the opposition (even though probably hardly any had heard of our campaign). The Facebook group rose steadily despite a few stupid comments from both extremes (one person who joined had a swastika as his profile picture) but topped out at around 130 members. (A Swedish version which predated mine scored several hundred though.) The Israel show appeared on Cohen’s official tour schedule, then inexplicably dropped off it; nobody was really sure whether the pressure groups had won or not. We didn’t get a reply from Cohen’s manager, but didn’t really expect one, especially as he’s on record in various places criticising the boycotters. Then it was announced that the show would go on and Cohen would also be playing a small gig in Ramallah after the Tel Aviv show; this seemed positive, but the Palestinians arguably shot themselves in the foot by withdrawing their support for the gig as long as Cohen insisted on also playing Tel Aviv. Various charities were mooted to receive donations from proceeds of the show, and this was denied. Amnesty International was reported as supporting the show, and it then pulled out, saying it never took a side in boycotts. The tickets for Ramat Gan stadium went on sale and sold out within minutes; protesters demonstrated in New York and Montreal. Academics wrote letters and Alexei Sayle recorded an embarrassing video of himself singing a comedy song poking fun at his own Jewish heritage with parody lyrics.
So anyway, here we are today and the show has passed without incident. Leonard greeted the audience in Hebrew, sang his great songs (including Famous Blue Raincot, apparently – grr, wish I’d been there), people Twittered about it, and The Parents Circle is set to receive a large donation. So maybe some good has come of it. But as my friend whose idea the whole LCBI campaign was said today in her post, “there can be no real and lasting peace for everyone and justice for the Palestinians until all the walls, real and metaphorical, are torn down and the Palestinians can be assured of their place alongside the Israelis with all their lands restored to them. Therefore a continuing international boycott of Israel is unfortunately necessary.”
The only thing left for me to say is that I regret not blogging earlier about this. I hope nobody has gone away thinking I’m a hypocrite or disingenuous for not owning up to my involvement from the start. It’s true that I and my two friends didn’t exactly splash our names across the LCBI blog, although we did use our real names when we signed the petition and all my Facebook friends knew I supported the cause.
I’m not bitter, though; a principle’s a principle and I think this was a damn good one.