Posted Under: Israel/Palestine,Music
Leonard On Tour
You may know that a campaign has been gathering pace to prevent Leonard Cohen performing in Israel. Across the world there have been gatherings, petitions, facebook groups and indeed protests outside concerts calling on Leonard not to play in Israel. Initially the tone of the campaign was friendly if forthright. Activists addressed Leonard as fans who didn’t want to be disssapointed in him. Yet as his determination to press ahead with schedule has become clear the tone has become decidedly more forceful, with people pledging to boycott Cohen for his failure to boycott Israel.
So why am I not up for this? As a teenager, some of my first political activity was with the Palestine Solidarity movement. Indeed I was active in pushing the boycott of goods during the second intifada and still don’t buy from Israel.
I must admit that my immediate, negative, reaction to the demand that Leonard stays out of Israel was in part emotional. Its not only that that I have seen Leonard twice on his current tour and hope others will have the opportunity to experience his brilliance. It’s also that several years ago – when rumours of Cohen’s first tour in over a decade first started to surface – I was hanging around with equally obsessive Cohenites on The Leonard Cohen forum. Many of us by this point had resigned ourselves to the idea that we were born too late to ever see him live. I remember the hope expressed by fellow Cohenites in Israel that he would return for them to see him. And i remember the dissapointment when initial itineries were published without Israel on them. Quite simply Cohen is a cultural treasure, and I would feel churlish in denying anybody the opportunity to see him play.
Perhaps more importantly this particular manifestation of the ‘cultural boycott’ seems to be a slightly different ball game from the economic boycott. The latter has a clear and demonstrable connection to what we are fighting against. What Israel sells abroad ultimately helps fund the occupation and the military machine. There is no such comparable connection here and as such the calls to boycott Israel have, to some extent, fallen back upon the langauge of collective punishment, with loose talk about leonard playing for the ‘tormentors’ of the palestinians. On the major facebook group pushing the boycott it was stated that ‘When many of his Israeli fans are let down by his boycott they will remember it next time they enter the ballot box.’ Clearly this will work.
I felt some sympathy with a left wing Israeli who made the following intervention.
“no, this totaly sucks! when will ppl learn to distinguish the people from the action of their state?? we suffer enough as left wing israelis living in this fascist state, and now u wanna take away our the bit of culture we get in this little secluded island? u realy think it will affect anyone thats in high position?”
He was met by a response from one Pamela Hardyment who told him to ‘get off the land you stole’ and that ‘the more we isolate you, the more you will let go of your fascist principles, maybe not you personally but the country you call your own’. Clearly the distinction hardly matters. Now we know from elsewhere that Pamela Hardyment is a bona fide anti-Semite – and as such, I would hasten to add, is untypical of most of the boycott campaigners. Yet her comments met with no admonition from the other 650 members of the group.
The waters are made even murkier by the fact that Leonard has promised to give the proceeds from the concert to Israelies and Palestinians working towards peace. Now obviously, I would prefer the money went to some radical anti-occupation activists, but thats by-the-by. This gesture represents a substantial recognition that Tel Aviv is not just another point on the itinerary. The response of the boycott campaign is to attack any organisations that appear to be co-operating with this apparently tainted fund.
The real question for me is what would this achieve? If we want to deny Israelies who may or may not support the occupation access to this great cultural treasure that is Leonard Cohen, surely doing so must carry some serious benefit. And I cannot see that it will. Interestingly this is not the first time that Leonard has played in a territory governed by a dubious and reviled regime (and im not just talk about the UK here.) Back in the 1980s he performed in Poland – where his fan base was curiously huge – in the period of martial law. Opposition activists urged him to make a statement. In his concert he managed to use the word ‘solidarity’, provoking cheers from the crowd. Yet perhaps because of pressure from the government, or because he did not feel comfortable charging into a conflict that was alien to him he did not take sides in the full blooded sense. Yet did make clear his sympathy towards those who were currently struggling and suffering, as shown (along with a brilliant rendition of If it Be Your Will) in this must watch video below.
I would love it if Leonard got up on stage and flew the Palestinian flag. He won’t. But when he gets up on stage, and offers thousands of ordinary people to see him in the flesh and to hear his poetry, and – by donating money to peacenicks on both sides – gestures, in his own way, his sympathy with those who are suffering, I will not complain.