Leonard Cohen performed Thursday night in Israel for the first time in over two decades despite an intense pro-Palestinian campaign to stop the performance.
The Canadian singer songwriter’s path to Israel has been rocky.
First pro-Palestinian groups promoting an international boycott of Israel publicly called on Cohen to cancel his plans to perform in Israel.
Cohen, a Jew who sees himself as supportive of Israeli and Palestinian coexistence, responded by offering to perform in Ramallah. But when Palestinian groups protested, the Ramallah venue caved in and cancelled the gig.
Amnesty International then agreed to help Cohen distribute the concert’s expected $1.5 – $2 million profits to various Palestinian and Israeli civil society organizations. But when it was revealed that Cohen’s concert had been sponsored by Israel’s Discount Bank, which many Palestinians see as a symbol of Jewish settlement in Palestinian territories, a campaign was launched against Amnesty International and the group withdrew its support of the Cohen concert.
Then earlier this week the 75-year-old artist fainted on stage in Valencia, Spain after suffering a bought of food poisoning.
Cohen is incredibly popular in Israel and performed in the country’s largest stadium.
"On the one extreme you have musicians who are basically poets like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, on the other extreme you have musicians like Madonna who provide sheer entertainment,” Nissim Calderon, an Israeli cultural critic and professor at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, told The Media Line. "In both extremes you will have large audiences in Israel."
Billing the performance as “A Concert for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace”, Cohen has now set up a new charity run by a board of Palestinians and Israelis to distribute the concert’s profits to coexistence groups.
But that has not stopped what has become arguably the most substantial campaign in support of a cultural boycott of an Israeli event to date.
"This concert was put together with a lot of manipulation," said Issam Aruri, a member of the steering committees of both the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions National Committee and the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations’ Network, which led the campaign against Amnesty Internationals role in the Cohen gig.
"As long as Israel continues to occupy Palestinian territory, creating an apartheid situation for Palestinians in the West Bank, we are against any concert by any international artist coming to Israel," he told The Media Line.
Even organizations generally opposed to boycotts of Israel joined the call for Cohen to cancel the performance.
"We respect Leonard Cohen, we support peace between Palestinians and Israelis and we would have loved to have seen him perform in Ramallah," said Raed Hadar, the Palestinian coordinator Combatants for Peace, a joint Palestinian Israeli group which refused to accept funds from the Cohen concert.
"Initially he was going to perform in Ramallah, some of the proceeds were going to Palestinian prisoner organizations and we decided to participate in his project," Hadar told The Media Line.
"But in the end we realized that the concert was being sponsored by Discount Bank, which is directly involved in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Of course we can’t participate in something like that so for us this was the main reason we decided to pull out."
Roni Segoly, the Israeli coordinator of Combatants for Peace, said Israelis in the group decided to support the Palestinians’ call to boycott the event.
"We are against any boycott against Israel or Palestine, but we do not support the settlement project," he told The Media Line. "Since all Palestinian organizations decided to object to his performance in Israel, we decided to stand by them."
"What Mr. Cohen did was out of his good will," Segoly said. "But it wasn’t planned well and became a big political mess. If indeed he wants to promote peace, then he should do it in a way that allows us to support him. Discount Bank, a sponsor of his performance, is the symbol of the settlement project for Palestinians."
Critics of the Cohen boycott point out that Madonna, Lady Gaga and the Pet Shop Boys, all of whom recently put on for-profit concerts in Israel, faced almost no opposition to their performances, despite Madonna wrapping herself in an Israeli flag at the conclusion of her concert earlier this month.
"Leonard Cohen was an easy target and fell right into the trap," Dr Gerald Steinberg, chairman of NGO Monitor and head of the Political Science Department at Bar Ilan University told The Media Line. "These organizations, like other political organizations, pick their targets based on which will get their cause the best publicity. Leonard Cohen opened the door by having the pretence of trying to link a music concert with grand political gestures. When he brought in the organizations he brought in the boycott movement."
"Madonna," he added, "never had the pretence of being political."
Issam Aruri argued that pro-Palestinian activists held Cohen to a higher standard than artists like Madonna.
"What was different with Cohen," Aruri said, "was that he introduced himself as someone who supports peace and equality for the Palestinians so we expected Cohen to be more aware than Madonna or anyone else uninvolved in politics."
Dr Ze’ev Maghen, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center and senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said Palestinian boycott movements had evolved over the years.
"It certainly sounds a bit ridiculous to boycott the guy for a mistake like that but they’ve been waking up to this kind of tactic over the last 10 years or so because the more you turn Israel into a pariah the more you throw Israel into a corner and delegitimize it," he told The Media Line.
"As an individual I don’t have a problem with using boycotts to make a point and achieve a specific goal as long as the means or the goal are not violent in nature," Dr Maghen stressed. "I was raised on the lure of the bus boycott in Alabama, boycotts against the war in Vietnam and all kinds of things I was raised to believe were good causes."
"But this is just another instance of Palestinians going the whole nine yards and completely freeing themselves of any connection to the State of Israel," he said. "Cultural boycotts certainly don’t do much for mutual understanding and make it impossible for people in the Muslim world to listen to Jewish counterpoints because they are cut off."
Officials at Israel’s Ministry of Culture and Sport were unavailable for comment.