The excitement was palpable in the balmy Israeli air as the debut of Madonna’s 2012 world tour neared
. Her songs were on the radio, her visage on the billboards, the paparazzi shots of her Kaballah center visit were all over the newspapers, and the aura of her fame engulfed the suddenly fortress-like Ramat Gan stadium.
If a visit from the Queen of Pop felt more like a visit from the Queen of England, in many ways it was. In a small country still struggling for recognition, in which many musicians cancel performances as political protest, Madonna’s decision to open her tour in Tel Aviv offered an immense sense of validation. The Jewish State puffed up with pride at receiving official recognition from the United States of Madonna, gushing over the special bipartisan relationship the two had formed (even without the help of a Madonna Israel Public Affairs Committee).
But for all Israel’s self-congratulations for attracting Madonna as a world ambassador for its cause, the fact of the matter is that the 80’s icon has espoused very different motivation for coming to Israel. Far from acting to endorse Zionism or legitimate the Israeli government, Madge is on a mission tied to her spiritual world view.
Ever the enthusiast of new age Jewish mysticism, Madonna has called Israel the "energy center of the world." That, in case you were wondering, is why there’s so much conflict here, and why she thinks it’s an important place to visit. Whether there were a Jewish state, a Muslim state, a European state or America’s 51st state in this geo-spiritual area wouldn’t really change anything for her. Far from subscribing to Israel’s public diplomacy agenda or hoping to lend it any particular political support, Madonna’s agenda in Israel is beholden to her Hollywood spirituality.
When she arrived for her first visit to Israel in a decade on the heels of her 2004 Re-Invention Tour, (documented in the tour documentary “I’m Going to Tell You a Secret”) Madonna reacted to a welcome letter she received applauding her “solidarity” with the state during the Jewish high holidays. “That’s not why I’m here,” she automatically responded as she read the letter out loud. “I am here as a student of Kaballah,” she later explained at a gala for “Spirituality for Kids,” an organization touting Kabbalistic values for children (a concept that would mortify serious Kaballah followers). When it comes to making peace, she asked, “What are you waiting for?”
On her latest visit, she further elucidated the mission that keeps her coming back to Israel.
“I chose to start my world tour in Israel for a very specific and important reason,” she told the audience on the opening night
of her MDNA tour. “If we can all rise above our egos and our titles and the names of our countries and our religions. If we can rise above all of that and treat everyone around us every human being with dignity and respect than we are on the road to peace.”
The words fell flat; hearing a simplistic lecture on respect and ego from Madonna felt beyond inappropriate for people who live the realities of the conflict each day, regardless of their deep desire for peace.
The first time I saw Madonna perform live, during her 2004 Re-Invention Tour in Washington, DC, I found myself sitting next to an Israeli couple. As she made references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, still raging violently as the second Intifada was winding down, I couldn’t help wonder what was going through their heads. The references were innocuous enough: during her rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a Jewish boy and an Arab boy held hands and stroll down a dirt road together. In “Holiday,” the show’s closer, the video displays cycled through flags from around the world, finally arriving on an Israeli and Palestinian flag side-by-side as the star performer left the stage.
When we got up, I heard the Israeli man tell his wife, “Well, she’s an entertainer. That’s her role.”
It is the artist’s job to promote ideals, he was saying, not deal with the sticky realities that actually drive conflict. Let them express their views in their own way, no matter how self-serving or simplistic they can sometimes be.
The fact that Israelis look beyond the realities of Madonna’s spirituality-for-all agenda and simply bask in the warmth of her spotlight is just as fittingly self-serving.