On Leonard Cohen and BDS: To the Dead We Owe the Truth

By Richard Lightbown

As the death of Leonard Cohen was announced today tributes flowed in from around the world. Regrettably I cannot share this sense of loss. For me the spirit of the man who wrote The Partisan had already died a while ago, when the man who wrote ‘Everybody knows the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost’ entertained the bad guys in a concert at Tel Aviv in 2009.

Cohen’s partisan could have been a comrade of Sheikh al-Qassam hunted by the British in 1936. But he was definitely not an Israeli pilot attacking the al-Quds hospital in Gaza with white phosphorus in 2009. Nor was he a sailor on an Israeli gunboat machine-gunning Gazan fishermen lawfully working in Gazan territorial waters. Nor a checkpoint bully on the West Bank. So why didn’t Cohen recognize these facts by his actions?

In his song called Anthem he had said of ‘the killers in high places’ that ‘they’re going to hear from me’. Yeah, they heard all right, as their critic bestowed his blessing on Israel’s miscreant behaviour by performing in Tel Aviv. How bitterly ironic.

Of course Leonard wasn’t the only one to cross the BDS picket line. Elton John played Israel immediately after the Tsahal had shot up scores of civilians on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, just as he had played in apartheid South Africa some decades before. Martha Wainwright tried to conceal the fact that she had snuck into Israel to perform, just like she snuck in the back entrance at Hebdon Bridge to avoid the pro-Palestinian demonstrators. Not so the Rolling Stones who were allegedly paid between £2.4 and 3 million for their contribution to the normalization of Israel.

Yet Leonard Cohen was different to all the other scabs. Not only was he the winner of a formidable list of prestigious awards, he was a writer who addressed political and social justice in his songs. As a father he had named his daughter Lorca after the Spanish poet and playwright who had been shot by the Falange and whose works had been banned by Franco’s regime for many years. How could such a man ignore the plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation?

There had been a concerted campaign pleading with Cohen not to play this gig, but he was determined to go regardless. It wasn’t for the money: originally the purse was to be donated to Amnesty International USA, until a campaign to Amnesty scotched that. So a less prestigious fig-leaf was found for the so-called ‘Concert for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace’. In addition there was a late attempt to organise a concert in Ramallah, presumably to help defuse criticism. This was cancelled after the Palestinian Prisoner’s Club Society, who were the intended beneficiaries, refused to collaborate as long as the Israel gig went ahead.

Like vintage wine gone sour, Leonard Cohen’s beautiful love songs became tainted by his contribution to the normalization of Israel’s criminal policies. The man who saw himself as a soldier on stage just didn’t have it in himself to face the realities of everyday Palestinian existence. For a writer who had criticised social injustice this was a coward’s response to a gross injustice.

– Richard Lightbown contributed this report to PalestineChronicle.com.

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