A very futile boycott attempt

In targeting Leonard Cohen, the Israel shunners have truly boobed

By Jonathan Freedland, April 30, 2009

Tricky business, boycotts. Take the case of Omar Barghouti. In 2004, the graduate of Columbia in New York helped found the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel campaign, urging scholars and researchers around the world to cut ties with Israel’s universities. But, as reported in last week’s JC, Barghouti is studying for a doctorate at… Tel Aviv University.

Asked to explain this apparent inconsistency between words and deeds, he told Maariv: “My studies at Tel Aviv University are a personal matter…” That’s quite a shift from Barghouti’s previous position which held that academic studies were not a personal matter but highly political — at least if the academic in question happened to be Israeli.

After that blow to their credibility, the boycott campaigners are now suffering an even more wrenching fate. One of their heroes is set to defy their call — and head to Israel.

The hero in question is the Canadian singer, songwriter and poet, Leonard Cohen. “Your songs have been part of the soundtrack of our lives — like breathing, some of them,” begins an open letter to Cohen sent last week by Professors Haim Bresheeth, Hilary Rose and Jonathan Rosenhead of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine. “But we can’t make sense of why you’ve decided to perform in Israel in September this year.”

You can understand their heartbreak. This is not Girls Aloud we’re talking about. Not even Paul McCartney (who played in Israel last year, despite pressure on him to cancel). This is Leonard Cohen, a sublime artist who, now in his mid-70s, seems only to improve with age.

And yet, in the very next paragraph of their letter, the boycotters make a fascinating mistake. They appeal to Cohen not as a Jew but as a disciple of Buddhism, “your practice of which is public knowledge.”

But while Cohen did indeed retreat to a Buddhist monastery, he never disavowed the faith in which he had been raised. “I’m not looking for a new religion,” he said. “I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism.”

If the learned professors didn’t know of that quotation, they could have simply listened to Cohen’s songs. For he is surely the most Jewish musical artist at work in the world today. (Indeed, with the possible exception of Philip Roth, Howard Jacobson and a few Israeli novelists, he is probably the most Jewish artist in any medium.)

Start with Who by Fire, the darkly insistent song unashamedly inspired by the Unetanah tokef prayer incanted every Yom Kippur which plaintively asks, “who shall live and who shall die?” Or consider Hallelujah, the song that introduced Cohen to a new generation, thanks to its selection as the victory anthem on The X-Factor. Its opening line reverberates with the sound of the psalms: “I heard there was a secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord…”

There’s more at work here than mere liturgical name-dropping. In Anthem, Cohen voices what sounds like a distinctly Jewish belief, one that does not seek immaculate perfection but embraces humanity as it truly is. “Forget your perfect offering,” he sings, “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” To my ear, that is a profoundly Jewish observation, arguing that it is our very flaws that make us vessels for the divine.

So Cohen is not just a Jewish artist because his grandfather was a rabbi or because, when he retreated to live on a Greek island, he kept Shabbat, lighting candles and saying prayers. He is Jewish because when he needed a title for his second book of poems, he chose The Spice-Box of Earth, drawing inspiration from the havdalah ritual. He is Jewish because his poems seem to address God, sometimes with devotion, sometimes with fury — an alternating dialogue which has been the Jewish way since Abraham.

Which means the boycotters should have addressed Cohen not as a Buddhist, but as a Jew. Even then, I suspect their attempt would have been doomed. For it is surely futile to try to keep Cohen out of the Jewish homeland — if only because the people of Israel, perhaps more than anyone else, need to hear the cry of a Jewish soul like his.

Last updated: 9:22am, June 24 2009