Boycotters target Leonard Cohen “as a Buddhist” – Jonathan Freedland

Jonathan Freedland
Jonathan Freedland

This piece, by Jonathan Freedland, is from the Jewish Chronicle.

Tricky business, boycotts. Take the case of Omar Barghouti. In 2004, the graduate of Columbia in New York helped found the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel campaign, urging scholars and researchers around the world to cut ties with Israel’s universities. But, as reported in last week’s JC, Barghouti is studying for a doctorate at… Tel Aviv University.

Asked to explain this apparent inconsistency between words and deeds, he told Maariv: “My studies at Tel Aviv University are a personal matter…” That’s quite a shift from Barghouti’s previous position which held that academic studies were not a personal matter but highly political — at least if the academic in question happened to be Israeli.

After that blow to their credibility, the boycott campaigners are now suffering an even more wrenching fate. One of their heroes is set to defy their call — and head to Israel. The hero in question is the Canadian singer, songwriter and poet, Leonard Cohen. “Your songs have been part of the soundtrack of our lives — like breathing, some of them,” begins an open letter to Cohen sent last week by Professors Haim Bresheeth, Hilary Rose and Jonathan Rosenhead of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine. “But we can’t make sense of why you’ve decided to perform in Israel in September this year.”

You can understand their heartbreak. This is not Girls Aloud we’re talking about. Not even Paul McCartney (who played in Israel last year, despite pressure on him to cancel). This is Leonard Cohen, a sublime artist who, now in his mid-70s, seems only to improve with age.

And yet, in the very next paragraph of their letter, the boycotters make a fascinating mistake. They appeal to Cohen not as a Jew but as a disciple of Buddhism, “your practice of which is public knowledge.”

But while Cohen did indeed retreat to a Buddhist monastery, he never disavowed the faith in which he had been raised. “I’m not looking for a new religion,” he said. “I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism.”

If the learned professors didn’t know of that quotation, they could have simply listened to Cohen’s songs. For he is surely the most Jewish musical artist at work in the world today. (Indeed, with the possible exception of Philip Roth, Howard Jacobson and a few Israeli novelists, he is probably the most Jewish artist in any medium.)

Start with Who by Fire, the darkly insistent song unashamedly inspired by the Unetanah tokef prayer incanted every Yom Kippur which plaintively asks, “who shall live and who shall die?” Or consider Hallelujah, the song that introduced Cohen to a new generation, thanks to its selection as the victory anthem on The X-Factor. Its opening line reverberates with the sound of the psalms: “I heard there was a secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord…”

There’s more at work here than mere liturgical name-dropping. In Anthem, Cohen voices what sounds like a distinctly Jewish belief, one that does not seek immaculate perfection but embraces humanity as it truly is. “Forget your perfect offering,” he sings, “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” To my ear, that is a profoundly Jewish observation, arguing that it is our very flaws that make us vessels for the divine.

So Cohen is not just a Jewish artist because his grandfather was a rabbi or because, when he retreated to live on a Greek island, he kept Shabbat, lighting candles and saying prayers. He is Jewish because when he needed a title for his second book of poems, he chose The Spice-Box of Earth, drawing inspiration from the havdalah ritual. He is Jewish because his poems seem to address God, sometimes with devotion, sometimes with fury — an alternating dialogue which has been the Jewish way since Abraham.

Which means the boycotters should have addressed Cohen not as a Buddhist, but as a Jew. Even then, I suspect their attempt would have been doomed. For it is surely futile to try to keep Cohen out of the Jewish homeland — if only because the people of Israel, perhaps more than anyone else, need to hear the cry of a Jewish soul like his.

This piece, by Jonathan Freedland, is from the Jewish Chronicle.

14 Responses to “Boycotters target Leonard Cohen “as a Buddhist” – Jonathan Freedland”

  1. zkharya Says:

    I think that there is also a racist assumption of Buddhism’s being more conducive to anti-Zionism i.e. more humane than Judaism.

    It assumes tha the assimilated, ex-Jew is easier to “reach” than the regular Jewish Jew.

  2. Lynne T Says:

    A Canadian university professor, Barrie Wilson, an Episcopalian convert to Judaism recently published a book titled “How Jesus Became Christain” in which he notes that the Jews, under occupation by both Hellenic and Roman culture in those days, really were pretty esoteric people who didn’t rebel against their occupiers until their own religious practices came under attack. So, there may not be anything new about contemporary Jews like Cohen finding value in other religious philosophies.

    But for the “anti-Zionist” set, that’s a very hard concept to get their minds around, I guess.

    I just wonder when Bob Dylan is going to get around to thumbing his nose at the anti-Israel set, as he did when the IDF made its pre-emptive strike against Osirek.

  3. Matt Says:

    Not only that, but a boycott seems very un-Buddhist to me. Thich Naht Hahn pissed of every side in the Vietnam War by talking to everyone on every side. Eventually, he was banned from returning to Vietnam because of it. Today, he has a joint Palestinian/Israeli sitting group.

    It’s long, but you can see an example of how he talks to such a group here:

    Or see this article on one of the Dali Lama’s visits to Israel.

    As much as I (a practicing Buddhist) struggle with the refusal of Buddhism to accept ideology (“Even Buddhism is not Buddhism”), the boycotters seem not to even realize this.

  4. Perplexed Belgian Says:

    Professors Haim Bresheeth, Hilary Rose and Jonathan Rosenhead can rest assured. Whatever Leonard Cohen decides their exquisite taste for poetry and pop music is not going to stand in the way of their political agenda. As George Steinter puts it “We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.”

  5. Saul Says:

    PB – have you read the Kindly Ones?
    Worth a read.

  6. Jonathan L Says:

    There is no contradiction between being both Jewish and Buddhist – at least not in Buddhist eyes (orthodox Jews may disagree).
    Cohen was playing in Israel in October 1973 and volunteered to perform for front line troops after the war.

  7. Evan Says:

    I remember reading an interview with Leonard Cohen in which he was asked for his opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; I don’t remember his exact words, but I remember his outlook as being surprisingly more balanced than that of other artists who have been asked to “speak up” on the issue.

    As it happens, I was lucky to see Len live when he play in Auckland earlier in the year, and it was truly a sublime experience. If anyone has a chance to see him perform live, I urge them to beg, steal or borrow a ticket (not that I condone theft…)

  8. Susan Says:

    There is a book called The Jew in the Lotus which describes a trip by Jewish leaders to meet with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama wanted to learn the secret of Jewish survivial.

    There is also a book called Zen and Hasidism which compares Zen Buddhism and Hasidic Judaism. A Hasidic master wrote that ALL is God. There is much in common between Kabbalah and Buddhism.

  9. lennylover Says:

    Maybe the “tea and oranges” that came from China offered to the singer by Suzanne is really code for Jaffa Oranges.
    Those Jewish artists, gotta keep an eye on ’em!

  10. fred Says:

    shouldnt this be tagged as-a-buddhist rather than as-a-jew?

  11. Shmuel Says:

    Cohen once greeted a nasty in Berlin with a Goebbel’s quote that was delivered at the same spot:

    “Wollt Ihr totalen Krieg?” (Do you want total war?)

    He isn’t prissy.

  12. Alice Says:

    I hope that spelling error (Bhuddist instead of Buddhist) in the headline is from the boycotters.

  13. David Hirsh Says:

    whoops. fixed.

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