Aug. 4, 2009

Palestinians cancel Leonard Cohen's Ramallah concert in protest against Israel

by Gil Zohar


International music legend Leonard Cohen, famous for his trademark songs of despair, doom and failed love, has a new cause for angst: the final concert of his year-long global tour, slated to take place here September 26 in the capital of the West Bank, was cancelled July 14 after the Canadian songwriter musician became embroiled in a campaign to boycott Israel.

Cohen, 74, decided to perform in Ramallah two days after his upcoming performance at the Ramat Gan Stadium near Tel Aviv in response to protests from the Palestine Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) National Committee - which had urged the singer to cancel his Israeli show - which was scheduled to conclude his world tour. (All 47,000 tickets to the Ramat Gan concert sold out in 19 hours.)

The decision to cancel Cohen's West Bank concert followed claims that the planned gig was a hollow attempt to "balance" performances.

"Ramallah will not receive Cohen as long as he is intent on whitewashing Israel's colonial apartheid regime by performing in Israel," the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) said in a statement.

"PACBI has always rejected any attempt to "balance" concerts or other artistic events in Israel--conscious acts of complicity in Israel's violation of international law and human rights--with token events in the occupied Palestinian territory. Such attempts at "parity" not only immorally equate the oppressor with the oppressed, taking a neutral position on the oppression (thereby siding with the oppressor, as Desmond Tutu famously said); they also are an insult to the Palestinian people, as they assume that we are naive enough to accept such token shows of "solidarity" that are solely intended to cover up grave acts of collusion in whitewashing Israel's crimes. Those sincerely interested in defending Palestinian rights and taking a moral and courageous stance against the Israeli occupation and apartheid should not play Israel, period. "

The campaign was launched in Ramallah in 2004 and calls for an international academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

Cohen, who is not believed to have a large fan base in the West Bank, was scheduled to play at the 736-seat Ramallah Cultural Palace, two days after appearing at the 55,000 capacity Ramat Gan stadium, near Tel Aviv. The Ramallah event was to be hosted by the Palestinian prisoners' club and attended by families of some of the 11,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails of detention centers.

The cancellation came as a disappointment to some dual-passport holding Israeli fans who planned to attend the Ramallah concert notwithstanding that is illegal for Israeli citizens to enter Area A parts of the West Bank - including Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jericho.

Some campaigners have expressed criticism at the cancellation of the West Bank gig, describing it as a "missed opportunity" for the high-profile singer to bring awareness to the Palestinian cause.

But one poster to an internet discussion described the cancellation as good news for Palestine because Cohen's music is "dreary and dreadful".

In October 2007 PACBI played a role in getting Canadian rock 'n roll star Bryan Adams to cancel plans for back-to-back concerts in Jericho and Tel Aviv. Organized by the New York-based One Million Voices, the concerts were intended to promote a two-state solution to resolve the festering Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In 2006, Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, responding to pressure from campaigners, moved a performance from Tel Aviv to the Arab-Jewish peace village, Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam. Before the concert Waters painted graffiti on the security wall near Bethlehem in protest against the barrier.

A few weeks ago, documentary filmmakers, the Yes Men, pulled their latest release from the Jerusalem film festival, "in solidarity with the boycott".

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Buddhist monk, Jewish poet, famed philanderer, 2008 inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and now the subject of political protest, Cohen is on his first major tour in 15 years. The elusive Canadian folk-rock legend is on a global, year-long circuit hitting venues as diverse as New York, Moscow, Berlin, London, and Melbourne, Australia. His 30-concert European tour begins July 1 in Cologne and concludes September 21 in Barcelona. The Ramat Gan and Ramallah shows will wrap up Cohen's world tour.

His May 17 concert at New York's Radio City Music Hall drew some three dozen pro-Palestinian and radical left-wing Jewish protesters calling on the singer to cancel his Tel Aviv performance. The demonstrators spent 90 minutes singing improvised songs addressed to Cohen. A typical song, "Don't Play Israel, Leonard Cohen," was sung to the tune of "Hava Nagila."

Protests against the Tel Aviv concert were begun in April by a group called the British Committee for Universities of Palestine which has been advocating boycotts of Israel by artists and academics for several years. Open letters to Cohen were issued by PACBI and by a group of 110 Israeli intellectuals.

The three groups' statements cited a poem titled "Questions for Shomrim" that Cohen is said to have penned in the 1970s. The pseudopigraphic poem, beginning with the words, "And will my people build a new Dachau / And call it love." has been circulating on the Internet for two years, provoking furious debate about its authorship.

The British pro-boycott group claimed Cohen wrote the poem in the 1970s and that the word "Shomrim" referred to the Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth group, which "supported a bi-national state in Palestine / Israel when I was close to them." Cohen's spokeswoman Tiffany Shipp disputed that the Canadian author had written the poem.

A glance at his biography suggests that the idea of him canceling an Israel appearance, much less comparing Israel to Nazi Germany in a poem, is absurd. In the early 1970s, when he was said to have written "Questions for Shomrim," he was repeatedly visiting Israel. He volunteered at an IDF army base during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, at a time when his career was soaring. He has visited Israel several times since then, and performed here twice in the 1980s. In an undated interview, apparently from the mid 1980s, posted on an unofficial Cohen fan site, he called Israel "probably the most democratic country in the world."

Born and raised in Montreal, Quebec where he attended Orthodox day schools through high school, Cohen is one of a trio of iconic figures in the city's intensely ethnic Jewish culture, along with late novelist Mordecai Richler and poet Irving Layton. All three became towering figures in Canada's general culture through writings that were deeply suffused with their Jewish experience, in much the same way as American writers such as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Unlike the Americans, however, the three Canadians remained deeply engaged with Judaism and the Jewish community throughout their lives.

The religious-cultural engagement was never uncomplicated for any of them. Cohen himself has led a famously un-pious life, including a series of affairs with wives of friends, which he chronicled intimately in songs like "Suzanne" and "So Long Marianne". He was ordained as a Buddhist monk in the 1990s and spent five years at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center, a Buddhist monastery near Los Angeles. Throughout, he has been described in repeated media profiles as a religious Jew who observes the Sabbath. He told The New York Times in an interview last February that he saw no contradiction between his Buddhism and his Judaism, because Buddhism did not involve prayer to a deity.

His current tour's playlist, reportedly identical in every appearance, is a live psychodrama of his psycho-religious career. His love songs, mostly laments, repeatedly allude to the romantic trials of the biblical King David and Samson. One of his best-known songs, the much-recorded "Hallelujah," is framed as a confessional by King David. As well as the Bible, several of his songs draw on the prayer book. One of his most durable favorites, performed early in the current concerts, is a play on the Unetaneh Tokef prayer on Yom Kippur: "Who by fire, who by water, who by ordeal, who by common trial.. And who should I say is calling?"

The concert's closing song, "Whither Thou Goest," is lifted word for word from the Book of Ruth. It ends with evocative words that easily could have been his response to the protesters outside: "Thy people shall be my people."

It's a message the Palestinians, less than beautiful losers, may not be keen to hear.