Mr. Cohen doesn't do Ramallah

Leonard Cohen's Ramallah concert in Palestine got cancelled last week. He had added it to a September concert in Israel. But a Palestinian group heading a broad campaign against Israel -- BDS, for boycott, divestment and sanctions -- demanded he not get away with "whitewashing Israel's colonial apartheid regime" by a "token" show of "balance." A Palestinian prisoners' club had sponsored the concert. It was unhappy but agreed to the decision.

The BDS campaign has gained backing in the West among academics, artists etc. As a supporter of Palestinian rights and a critic of much Israeli policy, I'd like to say why I find it problematic and even disturbing.

I confess I feel an instinctive antipathy toward boycotts. That may be based on having experienced some myself, especially in my early writing days, often over pieces I wrote about Israel. Or on a family past that avoided rather than confronted issues. At any rate, I don't think you can fully quarantine these personal reactions from your politics.

But, more generally, boycotts have a mixed record. The half-century U.S. shunning of Cuba led nowhere good. U.S. sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s caused mass deaths of children and ensconced Saddam Hussein in power. Apartheid South Africa is always cited in the positive column. But, by the time boycotts began to bite there, the regime was already very isolated and it's questionable how much real effect they had. Personally, I was uneasy even in that case. In 1986, some Canadian journalists picketed others who'd invited South Africa's ambassador to be on a panel. I was inside at the panel.

I don't feel the same about particular boycott targets such as, say, a Canadian company that builds on occupied land. Author Tariq Ali refused to attend a Turin book festival in 2008 that celebrated Israel's 60th year, because they didn't invite an equal number of Palestinian writers. Agree or don't, but his wasn't a blanket no. It was a measured response.

In the "disturbing" category is the way that self-righteous language on each side tends to mimic the other, via demonizations and dismissals rather than direct moral confrontations. I'm thinking here of formulaic phrases such as "whitewashing Israel's colonial apartheid regime" on one hand; or how Israel decided this week to ban the use of "nakba," a Palestinian term for the "catastrophe" of 1948, from textbooks. That is an Israeli equivalent to Holocaust denial. Yet, these two peoples will eventually need to share that land.

There are also practical considerations. Decades of Arab boycotts failed to weaken Israel. Just recently, after last winter's invasion of Gaza, many Westerners seem ready to think more critically about Israeli policy. But the boycott campaign could divert that discussion -- to fears about renewed anti-Semitism or into countermobilizations, such as supporters of Israel buying up all the tickets to a boycotted exhibit of the Dead Sea scrolls in Toronto.

Edward Said -- the late scholar, Palestinian advocate and music critic -- supported his friend, conductor Daniel Barenboim, who holds both Israeli and Palestinian passports, when the latter was attacked in Israel for playing the music of an anti-Semite, Richard Wagner. "Real life cannot be ruled by taboos and prohibitions," he wrote, trying to apply what he had learned from the failed Arab boycotts. "Ignorance and avoidance cannot be adequate guides ..."

Edward Said also revered the music of Glenn Gould, who was devoted to "contrapuntal" musical forms, which he defined as "an explosion of simultaneous ideas ... where one implicitly acknowledges the essential equality of those ideas." This didn't mean they were morally equal; it meant they were equally present, acknowledged and responded to each other, found ways to co-exist and, finally, some resolution. Bach, as an example to us all.

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