It was two months ago that I had the privilege of seeing you perform in New York. You might say I’d been waiting thirty-five years for it. I remembered the first time I’d heard your music in Israel, and you could tell from my smile “that tonight would be fine.” As I arrived outside the show, I met some old friends—partners in the struggle—who were demonstrating across the street: “Leonard, don’t play Israel!” After all the kissing and warm embraces, I told them that I really must go in so that I wouldn’t miss the opening song. They nodded and slipped a small placard in my hand, then warily asked if I would hold it up during the show: “Leonard, don’t play Israel!” Amid those hearts that burn like coal, the sign seared my hands like hot coal too.
I was there with my only daughter. Your wonderful voice had been a soundtrack to my life, and now I wanted to share that with her. I recalled the day, when we were living in New York, that her grandfather died in far-off Beersheba. She lit candles around her bed to the strains of “Hallelujah,” and the two of us wept over Grandpa Jukey. Jukey was a wonderful man, who apparently died from a cancer he contracted at the Dimona nuclear reactor, a modern-day temple to the new God that has “become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.” My daughter had never heard “Hallelujah” before, and I hadn’t yet told her about the reactor in Dimona, but that’s when she first fell in love with your music. Now, in New York, we had come to take advantage of that brief moment of kindness that you so generously shared with us.
Who am I to tell you: “Don’t play Israel”? Your voice, so mature, so moving, so shattered, could shatter even a heart of stone. And yet, that placard still seared my fingers—fingers belonging to an Israeli and a Jew who believes that we are ultimately responsible for the fact that the Palestinian people have lived in exile in their own land for the past sixty years. I was hesitant about raising that sign, but just then you came on stage, and sang in your broken, heart-rending voice, “Like a bird on the wire, Like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.” The placard slipped from my hands and the romantic idealism that still fills my soul quivered and shook off years and years of accumulated dust. I sang along as if I was you or you were me. I remembered you well in the Chelsea hotel … and it was if we were there with Janis Joplin herself … I never wanted it to end. You knew who I am and you gave me your all. Then, when the concert was finally over, I got up and laid the sign gently on my seat. Maybe someone else would raise it.
I was very excited when I first heard that you would be playing in Ramallah. I said to myself, “It’s different with him.” I always knew that you are not like Paul McCartney and the others. You are a true symbol of art, who is (still) trying to make this world a better place. In New York I heard you sing, “I’m your man.” It’s true: you are my man, indeed. I called my friends in Ramallah and said, “Let’s go see Leonard together,” and only then did I learn that the Palestinians had decided to cancel your show. It goes without saying that I was quite disappointed. You are someone who listens, who cares. You are different from all the others. Why must they be so stubborn? Why can’t they finally reap the fruits of their success—“Leonard Cohen plays in Palestine!” What right do they have to rob their fellow Palestinians of this chance to hear the best that music has to offer? What could they possibly gain from this boycott of the arts? The very idea of mixing art and politics is very problematic, to me at least.
But then my daughter looked me right in the eye, and said in her straightforward way: “Dad, write to Leonard and explain to him why the Palestinians are right to cancel his concert. They don’t have the privilege of free access to culture that we have in Tel Aviv or New York. They’re tired of all the goodwill gestures and the petty benefits we concede to as an alibi for our own dirty consciences. They want justice, and that’s why they are asking: ‘Don’t go and amuse our occupiers, and then come to us with a consolation prize.’” Her words were so simple, so wise, that as soon as I heard them I knew I had to write to you.
Well, Leonard, maybe you should only play in Palestine. Maybe you should open your heart to the oppressed and not to their oppressors. If you cancel your show in Israel, no other self-respecting artist will perform here. At first, the self-indulgent audience in Tel Aviv will be annoyed at those artists and say that they are all anti-Semites. Over time, however, they will come to realize that they cannot gain acceptance in some escapist fantasy as long as the Occupation continues. Israelis will not join the struggle against the Occupation as long as the Occupation doesn’t hurt them directly. Israelis must be told: “The Occupation is not normal. Nothing here is normal, God dammit!”
The Palestinians can afford to miss your show, not because they don’t like you or admire your art, and not because they necessarily believe that art should be political. They simply think that the artist Leonard Cohen should side with the oppressed. So much so, in fact, they are even willing to sacrifice this chance to hear a truly great artist like you so that they too can be like that “bird on the wire,” finally free. Leonard, I just want you to know that even if you did play in Ramallah, you would not be able to give a show in Gaza, because the 1.5 million people living there are trapped in a prison, where no one comes or goes. To paraphrase you, “The walls of this prison still surround them, and they cannot break away.”
You might ask: Why me? Why Leonard Cohen? What about all the other artists who perform in Israel? All I can say is that yours is the fate of the last of the troubadours—the same fate shared by Moses on Mount Nebo. Take it as a compliment that the Palestinians chose you. Someone there must believe that you represent the human conscience. And if Madonna, Depeche Mode, McCartney, and the rest can play only in Israel and only for Israelis, then you can play only in Ramallah and only for Palestinians.
After endless consideration, I finally realized that the question that should be asked is not whether we support or oppose a cultural boycott. It is not even whether the Palestinians were right for cancelling your concert in Ramallah. The question is really whether we should comply with the request of those Palestinians who have chosen the path of non-violent resistance in their struggle against occupation and racism. It may be difficult for me, emotionally, to accept a cultural boycott; I already described how I failed in my attempt to raise that placard during your show in New York. That is why this time I will comply with their wishes. With my actions I will offer those denied self-determination the right to determine their response. By accepting their right to decide, I will empower those who’ve been disempowered for so long and help to restore the sovereignty they lack. That is what solidarity really means.
Leonard, I truly admire you as a poet. My admiration for you and your work is unconditional, and will continue unabated regardless of whether you decide to play Israel or not. I am not boycotting you at all, and I will send all my friends to hear you sing anywhere else in the world that you might play. Here, however, in response to the calls of the Palestinian people, in solidarity with a people denied their basic rights for the past sixty years, as a Jew, and as a citizen of Israel who supports the non-violent struggle of the Palestinian people for freedom, equality, and justice, I regret that I will not be able to attend this show, this time. This is the one place where I cannot allow the placard to slip from my hands. I cannot be derelict in my duty to help tear down the roadblocks and walls. Because here in Israel-Palestine, only when all of the inhabitants who share this very special place can come to see your show, regardless of their race or ethnicity, could I possibly sit back in my seat, close my eyes, and sing with you: “The holy or the broken, Hallelujah!”
With Deepest Regrets,
UDI ALONI is an Israeli-American film maker, whose works include “Left,” “Local Angel” and “Forgiveness.” He can be reached through his website.