Leonard Cohen sings of love and peace
The singer's Tel Aviv concert illustrates the need for constructive engagement, not boycotts, to build Israeli-Palestinian peace
Three days before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when everything comes to a halt in Israel, Leonard Cohen sang:
Repent, Repent … I'm the little Jew who wrote the Bible, I've seen the nations rise and fall, I've heard their stories, heard them all, but love's the only engine of survival.
The national football stadium in the Ramat Gan suburb of Tel Aviv has been the scene of many agonising defeats in recent times, but Cohen's performance, with a background of signs saying Shalom, Salaam, Peace, was a triumph of the will. Or as Cohen put it:
Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.
"How many roads must a man walk down, before they can call him a man?" asked his fellow troubadour, so many years ago when they both began to build their tower of song and enter into the consciousness of my generation. For Cohen to be able to reach the point of saying "I'm your man", he had to overcome the theft of millions of dollars by his former manager, bouts of depression, transformations of identity, a fainting spell in one of his recent performances and a call that he should boycott Israel as a show of solidarity with the Palestinians.
Cohen's response to the call for a cultural boycott was to create a Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace and to devote all of the proceeds from the Israeli concert "to organisations and individuals working in Israel and Palestine to advance the recognition and full expression of human rights in the region".
The singer singled out the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Parents Circle, who despite the loss of a close loved one work together for peace and reconciliation. Author David Grossman, who lost a son on the last day of the Lebanon war in 2006, thanked Cohen for his support and the singer answered from the stage that "the bereaved parents' response to their suffering transcends the instinct for anger and revenge, and offers hope from the heart, even the hope for peace".
I have always believed that constructive engagement, and not boycott, is the way to promote an end to the occupation and build Israeli-Palestinian peace. Last week I participated in a brainstorming session of the Palestinian-Israel Peace NGO Forum, a network of more than 100 civil society organisations, which discussed the challenge of promoting greater awareness in the media of activity for human rights, against the occupation and for peace. This is never an easy matter when media is immersed in a Darwinian survival of the fittest and continues to function under the traditional slogan, "If it bleeds, it leads (and also sells)". Cohen's concert, with the media saturation it achieved, provided the answer.
I was not surprised to see Member of Knesset Ilan Gilon (Meretz) at the concert, one of the few MKs who openly declares that he is still a socialist, devoted to both a just society and Israeli-Palestinian peace. However, I also saw MK Tzahi Hanegbi (Kadima) who, as a student at the Hebrew University, used to attack leftwing activists but has now mellowed into an opposition MK who is ready to come to a concert held under the flag of peace and reconciliation.
Roger Waters recently narrated a short film called Walled Horizons, produced by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. During the film's finale, in a segment from his 2006 concert at the joint Jewish-Arab community Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, Waters promised to do a performance of The Wall when the separation wall comes down, just as he did when the Berlin wall came down. Just imagine the potential impact that Waters might have if he were to perform the concert today next to the wall, with Israeli and Palestinian singers and a joint audience.
In the words of Cohen's mesmerising version of the old anti-Nazi Partisan Song, one of the highlights of last night's concert and an old staple of leftwing hootenannies during the 1950s and 1960s in the US:
Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing, through the graves the wind is blowing, freedom soon will come; then we'll come from the shadows.
With a little help from our friend, Barack Obama.