Singer Leonard Cohen Performs in Israel, Against Backdrop of Criticism

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 25, 2009

RAMAT GAN, Israel, Sept. 24 -- 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 has been the target of a boycott campaign that aims to discourage artists, 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 amid accusations that he had betrayed his humanist and Buddhist principles. The concert was "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.

The proceeds of the show were intended for a Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation fund started by Cohen, but the singer also decided over the summer to balance the schedule with a 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.

At a reception before Thursday's 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," he added.

"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 Cohen set up was designed around his 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. But a scattered collection of grass-roots boycott efforts, organized here and abroad by Israelis, Palestinians and others, has scored enough recent successes that it has registered with Israeli businesses and politicians. Alongside a recent U.N. 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 their country's international standing.

In the aftermath of the Gaza war, a survey by the Israeli Manufacturers Association found that about 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 worth of stock in the 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 in the West Bank settlement of Ariel was kicked out of a solar-architecture competition in Spain.

Cohen was, going 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.

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. 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 meant to send a broader message.

"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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