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Thursday, April 17, 2014

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Cohen’s karma defeats boycotters

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In late September, nearly 50,000 Israelis massed into the National Stadium in Ramat Gan to hear the Canadian troubadour Leonard Cohen sing.

 Not only did the sponsors add an additional 1,000 seats at the last minute, but many in the crowd seemed quite familiar with Cohen’s oeuvre – and not just Hallelujah.

But perhaps most impressive, Cohen’s magic worked in the Middle East. After the concert, as thousands streamed into the overflowing parking lots, as people pulled out of their typically Israeli haphazard parking spots – it took us more than 45 minutes to leave the complex – a modern miracle occurred: I didn’t hear one shout, one sustained beep, one impatient “Nu kvar….” Cohen’s karma proved contagious.

Tragically, most of our Palestinian neighbours weren’t exposed to Cohen’s charms. The simple fact that he was willing to play a concert in Tel Aviv made Cohen persona non grata in the Palestinian Authority. He had offered to play in Ramallah, too. But as part of the hysterical, misanthropic BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – movement targeting Israel, Palestinians spurned his offer. Undeterred, Cohen donated the $2 million the concert generated to a special foundation he established, whose major beneficiary is the Parents Circle, a group of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the conflict. Cohen repeatedly praised this “holy, holy” group during his transfixing 3-1/4-hour-long concert, each time triggering sustained applause.

With the Palestinians’ ridiculous, impotent Cohen ban coming days after the failed attempt to ruin the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) because it dared to celebrate Tel Aviv’s 100th anniversary, the pro-Palestinian movement seems to be reaching new lows. Palestinians and their fellow travellers are trying to treat Israel as a country with cooties – the schoolyard phrase captures just how immature and self-destructive this move is. As a result, even peace-loving Zen Buddhist monks like Cohen or the many left-leaning, pro-Palestinian Israelis in the Tel Aviv film community are deemed radioactive, because they dare to interact with the Jewish state.

This is a cultural intifadah, an all-out war, not against “the occupation” or the “Gaza operation,” but against Israel itself. Just as Palestinian suicide bombers undermined their own propaganda yelling about “the settlements” by attacking Tel Aviv and Haifa, treating all of Israel as a “settlement,” these boycott bullies find everything or anyone Israeli repulsive, no matter where they stand politically. This blacklist approach treats potential allies as enemies, dooming any chance for peace. It’s hard to be open to compromise and reconciliation when your existence is threatened, when the very essence of who you are seems to trigger disgust in others.  

Fortunately, the most unlikely of celebrities demonstrated how to fight this hatred. After she joined in condemning TIFF, Jane Fonda had second thoughts. Responding to a letter against the boycott signed by Jerry Seinfeld, Sacha Baron Cohen and others, Fonda realized that this proposed boycott against the Jewish state would harm the peace process and was like the despicable Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s.

People in the pro-Israel community take note: comparing the boycott to the blacklist was a masterstroke. It showed that the best way to fight these affronts is to master the insider language of the community in question and demonstrate – what is often true – that the attack on Israel is an attack on core liberal values, in this case, freedom of expression and association.

Joining Fonda in resisting the hate was Cohen. He showed that the good people of the world cannot be cowed. Cohen ended his concert by raising his hands solemnly, reaching back into his personal and communal tradition as a Kohen, a priest, and reciting the priestly benediction.

Wouldn’t it have been grand to have thousands of Israelis and Palestinians together absorbing that blessing, with its moving final lines, “May the Lord lift up his face to you and grant you peace.”

Now, when you deprive yourself of these and other cultural opportunities, preferring to perpetuate hatred instead, we must ask, “Who is the loser?” – in both its meanings.

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