By BEN JACOBSON
When the Toronto International Film Festival recently announced plans to include a series of movies about Tel Aviv as part of its "City to City" feature, movie stars including Danny Glover and Jane Fonda signed a letter refusing to "become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine." As the backlash against the letter became too much to bear, Fonda backtracked and apologized.
And when Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters visited Jerusalem's Sam Spiegel Film School this past June to express solidarity with a Palestinian cultural initiative, he was highly vocal about his feelings that the security fence should be torn down, that all checkpoints be removed and that Jerusalem should split into a capital for two states. When he was asked by The Jerusalem Post how he saw these views as fitting into the context of Israel's rejected final status peace offer at Camp David in 2000, Waters was stumped.
Who cares what professional entertainers have to say about local politics? When it comes to Leonard Cohen, who is scheduled to play to a sold-out crowd at Ramat Gan Stadium on Thursday, the answer is that many people do - especially politicians and activists. Thankfully, though, the singer-songwriter-poet-novelist-monk's apolitical platform is marked by enough mystique and individualism to keep him from having to wave any specific flag, perhaps even allowing the show to serve as a true "Concert for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace," as it has been billed.
Rumors circulated for well over a year that Cohen, now in his mid-seventies and on tour since May of 2008, would make a Tel Aviv concert appearance. But when word got out early this past summer that a September 2009 concert was in the works, Palestinian activists were up in arms, demanding that the iconic Canadian singer cancel his performance in Israel. A group of academics under the mantle of the "British Committee for the Universities of Palestine" even issued a plea to Cohen, brazenly stating, "You will perform in a state whose propaganda services will extract every ounce of mileage from your presence."
Cohen's camp responded with the announcement that he'd be playing a show in Ramallah two days after the September 24 Ramat Gan concert, but this move was also not to the liking of Palestinian activists, with the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel announcing that "Ramallah will not receive Cohen as long as he is intent on whitewashing Israel's colonial apartheid regime by performing in Israel."
Once talk of a Ramallah concert fizzled out, Israeli Tourism Ministry Director-General Noaz Bar Nir, together with Nazareth Mayor Ramiz Jaraisy, appealed to Cohen to perform instead in Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab city, which would have allowed the performer to play to an Arab audience in a less politically loaded venue.
Why is everyone so up in arms over a folk singer from the '60s entertaining some civilians with large wallets? Perhaps Cohen's appearance in Israel was taken to be a potentially partisan threat because of the perception that he is "one of ours," having grown up in the upscale Montreal neighborhood of Westmount, where he attended Herzliah High School and Camp Mishmar in his teens and played in the Hillel Band at McGill University.
Later, he would be known for having played impromptu sets for IDF troops during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
BUT COHEN'S world view is hardly oriented towards taking sides in any given conflict - it is, rather, strictly a vehicle for expressing his artistic ideas. Cohen's oft-uniformed "Field Commander Cohen" persona, which has informed several works and inspired the title of a 1979 concert tour, grew out of his posturing as a guerrilla of verse, a rogue revolutionary who champions the cause of the underdog.
Not necessarily as conceptually developed as other artists' alter egos, such as Bono's "The Fly" or David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust," "Field Commander Cohen" made his first appearance when Cohen visited Havana as a young man in 1961, sporting faux fatigues and a beard and reveling in all-nighters alongside the international bohemian set that remained in town after Castro's takeover. "I had this mythology of this famous civil war in my mind," he later said of the stint. Cohen ultimately ended up encountering considerable difficulty escaping Cuba when the country's diplomatic relations with the West crumbled during his visit.
In his 1966 novel Beautiful Losers, Cohen's own militant Quebecois nationalism temporarily came to the fore, although primarily as a poetic device in the context of the work, which was concerned mostly with personal relationships, exemplified by lengthy odes to St. Catherine Tekakwitha.
"Field Commander Cohen" only came into his own in the fall of 1973, when Cohen, facing crises in his career and family life, dropped everything to participate in the Yom Kippur War. Arriving in Tel Aviv from his habitual haven in Hydra, he announced to the press that he had come "to make my atonement" - and to entertain the troops. He also noted that while he had once advocated an unconditional return to the 1967 borders, recent events had inspired a change of heart. Cohen joined a group of local musicians that included Ilana Rovina and Matti Caspi on an informal performance tour of bases close to the front in Sinai, at one point even pocketing a firearm so that he could feel like he was ready to participate in the battles.
In his unpublished memoir, The Final Revision of My Life in Art, Cohen reflected on having shared a bottle of cognac with General Ariel Sharon at a makeshift desert wilderness fort. "I want his job," he wrote of the 1973 meeting, in a sentiment more significant for its self-conscious romanticism of military strength than for its political alignment. After all, the trip to Israel was possibly more about personal redemption for the artist than anything else. In Cohen's mind, Israel was "a place where you may begin again," he would write. To this end, he was determined to perform a pilgrimage from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on foot before his return to Hydra; he ended up wandering back to the cafes of Dizengoff Square after a few hours, of course.
ELEVEN YEARS later, Cohen's public Middle Eastern anti-politics surfaced once again, this time in the context of his compilation of personal psalm-like essays, The Book of Mercy. The work includes several references to the nation of "Ishmael," and in one passage, Cohen tears down all of the region's constructs of alignment: "Israel, and you who call yourself Israel, the Church that calls itself Israel, and the revolt that calls itself Israel, and every nation chosen to be a nation - none of these lands is yours, all of you are thieves of holiness, all of you at war with Mercy... Therefore the lands belong to none of you, the borders do not hold, the Law will never serve the lawless."
So when it came time to satisfy all of the activists and politicians hoping to latch on to Cohen's on-stage message of love this week in Ramat Gan, concert tour planners were charged with doing it outside the box. "Leonard had a very simple thought," Cohen's manager Robert Kory explained to The Jerusalem Post's David Brinn in July. "He said, 'I'd like to play, but I just can't take any money out. I want it to stay there.' It wasn't any more complicated than that."
As a result, both Cohen and AEG Live, the corporate entity behind the tour, will be donating all of their profits from the concert to a new, dedicated charity fund. "We didn't want it to be identified as a Palestinian or Israeli charity," Kory said.
The new fund will consequently be donating proceeds to little-known but groundbreaking grassroots initiatives like the Parents Circle - Family Forum, the Peres Center for Peace Children's Medical Program, Combatants for Peace and Ramallah's Palestinian Happy Child Center. What about those who will argue that some of these causes are themselves biased? "So be it," said Kory. "Leonard's an artist, not a politician, and he doesn't want this to be seen as a political act."
For the perpetual Canadian-American-Jewish-Zen-Greek exile, traditional trappings of nationalism and alignments are to be scoffed at and simply employed as tools for conveying one's own artistic statements.
As Cohen wrote in "Democracy," a 1993 song, which, based on recent set-lists, he's likely to perform on Thursday, "I love the country but I can't stand the scene / And I'm neither left or right / I'm just staying home tonight / getting lost in that hopeless little screen."
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