New York and Ottawa protest Leonard Cohen’s Tel Aviv gig
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New York and Ottawa protest Leonard Cohen’s Tel Aviv gig

Leonard Cohen’s plans to play a show in Tel Aviv have drawn the ire of BDS activists around the world, as the renowned musician has faced protests in several cities demanding that he cancel the concert. Cohen began a six-month long world tour beginning in North America in April, and ending in Tel Aviv on September 24th.

In response to his plans to hold his final event in Tel Aviv, the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) issued an open letter to Cohen urging him to cancel the show, and to refuse to be an accomplice in the whitewashing of Occupation crimes. Appealing to his Buddist faith and his humanitarian values, BRICUP asked Cohen to consider the message he is sending to Palestinians by playing in Tel Aviv: “If you had just emerged from three weeks of unfettered bombing from land, sea and air, with no place to hide and no place to run, your hospitals overwhelmed, sewage running in the streets and white phosphorous burning up your children, what would the news that the great Canadian musician Leonard Cohen had decided to play for your tormentors say to you?”

From there, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) issued an open letter calling for protests at all of Cohen’s concerts until he agrees to cancel his Tel Aviv show. Especially given that the planned concert would come merely months after the bloody military assault on Gaza, PACBI stated that Cohen’s concert would be a form of complicity in Occupation forces’ grave violations of international law and its trampling of human rights principles. Indeed, these types of high-profile cultural performances are essential in facilitating the normalization of Israeli apartheid, and in allowing the regime to construct a false image of itself as a democratic and humanitarian entity. As PACBI states, “entertaining any apartheid regime is morally wrong,” called upon the worldwide supporters of a just peace to shun Cohen’s events.

Activists from Adalah New York took up the call to pressure Cohen into canceling the concert, as they organized a protest outside of Radio City Music Hall during his show in New York City. The demonstrators chanted, handed out leaflets, produced sidewalk art, and sang protest songs to the tune of Cohen’s music. Activists passed out fliers to ticket-holders on the back of which was written “Don’t Play Israel.” Concert-goers were asked to hold them up during the concert so that Cohen could see a visual call to join the growing cultural and academic boycott.

Soon after the New York show, Cohen performed in Ottawa, where once again he was met by a group of demonstrators who chanted and handed out flyers outside his concert at the National Arts Centre. The protestors asked the concert-goers to leave the flyers saying “Don’t Play Israel” on their seats after the show, in another effort to give Cohen a visual image of the growing strength of the call for cultural boycott.

Before the show in New York, some of the local activists were able to meet in person with Cohen’s manager and PR team. The latter were extremely worried about Cohen’s name being ruined by protests at his concerts, and asked the activists to cancel protests in New York and in other cities. Desperate to maintain Cohen’s humanitarian reputation, they tried to appease the demonstrators without canceling the Tel Aviv event. This desperation is a testament to the effectiveness of popular pressure, and to the importance of keeping the pressure going in his future shows.