Cohen defies critics with Israeli gig

Veteran plays to 47,000 in Tel Aviv despite accusations of 'immorality'. Donald Macintyre was in the crowd

It was vintage Leonard Cohen. "We don't know when we'll pass this way again," he told the sell-out audience at the Ramat Gan football stadium: "But we promise to give you everything we've got tonight." And he did.

Any worries fans had after the 75-year-old Canadian poet-singer-songwriter collapsed while performing "Bird on the Wire" in Valencia last week (apparently from food poisoning) quickly dissipated.

Disbelieving laughs rippled through the crowd at those familiar lines in "Chelsea Hotel", the beguiling elegy to his late Sixties fling with Janis Joplin: "You told me again you preferred handsome men/but for me you would make an exception". And certainly the maestro, in customary suit and fedora, looked as good as he sounded in the still warmth of this Tel Aviv September night, his first concert in Israel for more than 25 years.

He – literally – danced off the stage before each of three encores, one of which charmed the enraptured crowd to their feet in an excited singalong, thousands waving their green glow sticks in time to "So Long Marianne". He and his gravelly bass baritone voice were at peak form, from a gloriously funky "I'm Your Man" to the dark and haunting "Famous Blue Raincoat" and, of course, "Hallelujah" (which served as a reminder that none of the many cover versions are as good).

But this is Israel, and the political context cannot be ignored.

Mr Cohen, Jewish like the vast majority of his audience, had billed the gig on Thursday night as "A Concert for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace". And this was not the usual vacuous platitude. For he had also agreed to donate its $1.5m to $2m proceeds to a new fund he is behind to promote coexistence projects.

One of these is the Parents Circle – Families Forum, a unique organisation of bereaved Israeli and Palestinians who have lost close relatives in the conflict and who meet regularly together to share their painful experiences across the divide.

In the face of protests by proponents of a cultural boycott of Israel that he was playing Tel Aviv at all, Mr Cohen had planned a similar concert in the West Bank city of Ramallah, with proceeds earmarked for a Palestinian prisoners' charity. But that was successfully blocked by boycott campaigners – including, according to his American manager, Robert B Kory, a number of "British academics" – who argue that concerts like this and Paul McCartney's last year validate Israel as a "normal country" as it tramples Palestinian rights.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) said that such attempts at "balance" not only "immorally equate the oppressor with the oppressed ... [but] are conscious acts of complicity in Israel's violation of international law and human rights".

The campaign has been given fresh impetus by Israel's winter offensive on Gaza, which left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead.

But the Parents Circle was undeterred. At a reception before the concert, the writer and long-time peace campaigner David Grossman said: "It seems so easy to believe that war is the only possibility and that Israelis and Palestinians will continue to kill each other." But Mr Grossman, whose tank commander son was killed on the last weekend of the 2006 Lebanon war, added: "But those gathered here tonight know what we have inflicted upon each other and the price we have paid. Leonard Cohen, through his art, indicates that he understands this suffering."

Another of the 47,000 at the concert was Ali Abu Awwad, a 37-year-old Palestinian who was jailed for four years for his part in the first intifada, and whose brother Yusef was shot and killed at the outset of the second.

Mr Awwad has since toured mosques and synagogues in Europe and the US on behalf of the Parent's Circle with Robi Damelin, a 65-year-old Israeli, who has complained that the occupation is "killing the moral fibre of Israel" and whose son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper while serving in the Army in 2002.

"It's not our destiny to keep dying," Mr Awwad said. "I can't boycott a great heart like Leonard Cohen. I was jailed for four years, my mother was jailed for four years. I lost my brother. I am proud that Leonard Cohen is supporting us."

For PACBI, "those sincerely interested in defending Palestinian rights ... should not play Israel, period". But for Mr Cohen, grassroots reconciliation, however modest in its reach, reflects the words of "Anthem", the song he pointedly sang straight after plugging Parents Circle work from the stage: "There is a crack, a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in."

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