Leonard Cohen Was a Zionist – I Know Because He Told Me So
A year has now passed since the death of the great poet and singer Leonard Cohen. He’s been remembered no doubt for his music, but also — among Jews — for his deep sense of pride in his Jewish identity.
In Israel, he was lauded as a great friend of the Jewish state. Both the country’s president and prime minister issued statements of mourning upon his passing, remembering Cohen’s historic visit to Israel in 1973. “I will not forget how he came to Israel during the Yom Kippur War in order to sing to IDF soldiers, out of a deep feeling of partnership,” Netanyahu said.
It was during that trip to Israel that Cohen wrote the song “Lover Come Back To Me,” composed amid falling bombs in the Sinai desert. The ode ends with the words, “And may the spirit of this song, may it rise up pure and free. May it be a shield for you, a shield against the enemy.”
But doubts were also raised. An article published by the Forward asked, “Was Leonard Cohen a Zionist?” and answered, “The short answer is no.” The article asserted, “The characterization of Cohen as a straightforward Zionist is nonsense,” citing a poem from Cohen’s 1984 poetry compilation The Book of Mercy:
Israel, and you who call yourself Israel, the Church that calls itself Israel, and the revolt that calls itself Israel, and every nation chosen to be a nation — none of these lands is yours, all of you are thieves of holiness, all of you at war with Mercy.
With this discussion surrounding Cohen’s views on Israel, it struck me that his first yartzheit — today — may present an apt occasion to shed some light on the matter. Having discussed the issue with Cohen at great length — and not so long ago — I felt duty bound to contribute to the conversation.
It is with respect and humility that I do so, and with the full understanding that, as the Forward noted, “Leonard Cohen was far from dreaming in black and white.” I also acknowledge that, as with many of us, it is quite feasible that his views may have evolved throughout the course of his life.
I was first introduced to Cohen in mid-2015 by The Algemeiner’s chairman and publisher Simon Jacobson, who had connected with the singer decades earlier on more spiritual grounds.
Cohen was a regular reader of The Algemeiner and when I informed him of a planned trip to Los Angeles that summer, he invited me to come meet with him at his home.
He lived in a small, simple two-story house in the city’s Mid-Wilshire neighborhood and when I pulled up at his place late that June afternoon, he was sitting on a deckchair on the lawn out front and beckoned for me to sit down beside him.
And there we sat — for close to three hours — discussing the intricacies of Middle East politics, as we chewed on kosher cookies and his housekeeper served cup after cup of strong Turkish coffee.
I was struck firstly by the depth of his knowledge on the subject, especially his familiarity with lesser-known Syrian rebel groups and the complex web of alliances in the war-torn region. Throughout the discussion, he maintained a deep sense of sympathy and concern for the victims.
Our discussion soon turned to Israel. We spoke about his “Concert for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace” in 2009, at a Ramat Gan soccer stadium, which was attended by a crowd of 47,000. He had faced criticism from the boycott Israel crowd for the show and had attempted to schedule a parallel performance in Ramallah, but had been rebuffed by the Palestinians. In our conversation, he seemed frustrated that his overtures had been rejected.
He appeared equally vexed by the outcome of the peace effort he had hoped to initiate with his donation of the proceeds — some $2 million — to a project aimed at bringing Israeli and Palestinian children together. I haven’t delved into the details of how that project turned out, but got the sense that Cohen felt the money had gone to waste.
In an effort to better understand his current perspective of the issue, I asked if there was a particular Israeli politician who resonated with him, whose ideas he found appealing. “Moshe Feiglin,” he responded, referring to the former leader of the Manhigut Yehudit faction of the governing Likud party.
I was surprised by Cohen’s familiarity with Feiglin, no less that the nationalist leader’s views had found favor with the octogenarian star. “We need to separate from them (the Palestinians),” he told me. “But it must be humane.”
Feiglin has long held the view, as he explained in an AFP interview in 2008, that the Palestinians “will have to seek the right to self-determination in Arab states.” Feiglin added, “Israel will encourage the Arabs to emigrate to their countries and assist any Arab who wishes to do so.”
We didn’t discuss any of Feiglin’s other controversial views, some of which Cohen would most likely have rejected.
I stayed in touch with Cohen until a few months before his death. He was always warm, graceful, selfless, humble and very Jewish. In all our correspondence he signed off with his Hebrew name, Eliezer, and often included the traditional priestly blessing.
He was certainly a man of peace, and made great efforts to contribute to the healing of the region. But — not unlike the journey traveled by many Israelis — it seemed that the obstructionism he encountered left him more sympathetic with the Israeli view best expressed by the great Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, in eloquent testimony before the British Peel Commission on Palestine in 1937:
It is quite understandable that the Arabs of Palestine also prefer to be the Arab state No. 4, or No. 6 — that I understand. But when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation.
Dovid Efune is the editor-in-chief and CEO of The Algemeiner.