True story: Born in Israel to Yemenite parents, the girl was raised in the U.S. from a very young age. At 15, she went on a summer hiking trip in Israel and fell in love with an Israeli man. The next year she left her yeshiva in New York and moved to Israel, where she completed her education, served in the military, pursued a musical career — oh, and married that man.
Since then, she has become a homegrown, worldwide phenomenon, bringing her original music from Israel to all over North America and Europe. She signed to a major record label. Became the first Israeli to perform in St. Peter’s Square, and was invited back to the Vatican eight times. Wrote for an Academy Award-winning film soundtrack. Represented Israel in the Eurovision contest.
She’s Achinoam Nini — many know her professionally as Noa. The pride of Israel, yes?
But not to a few vociferous, ill-informed critics in Vancouver, who pressured the Jewish National Fund of Canada to withdraw its support for a Nini concert planned for Israeli Independence Day in May.
Supposedly, these critics were outraged over a Jerusalem Post report alleging that Nini supports the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. But that report was so erroneous that the Post actually deleted the story from its website and apologized for it. Nini has never supported BDS, a position she reiterated in a Facebook post in which she wrote: “I not only condemn the BDS. I myself am a victim of its hypocritical and harmful activity!”
Could she make it any clearer?
I’ll confess here that I am a long-time fan, having first seen her perform years ago in Philadelphia and again more recently in New York City. So when I was asked to moderate a conversation with Nini last week after a performance at The Temple Emanu-el Skirball Center in Manhattan, I accepted, eager to become better acquainted with the person behind the sultry voice and haunting melodies.
It is true that her politics are staunchly critical of the current Israeli government, and she is unquestionably part of the struggling “peace camp” in Israel, supportive of a two-state solution and aligned with groups that advocate coexistence with Palestinians. But she comes by these positions honestly.
Her political awakening occurred November 4, 1995, when moments after she performed at a massive peace rally in Tel Aviv, a Jewish radical pointed a gun on that very stage and assassinated Yitzhak Rabin. She decided that night to speak out as fearlessly as she could to promote the late prime minister’s policies and, given the current polarization in Israel, that has often led to her being criticized and attacked there.
Worse than that internal controversy, though, is how certain Jews outside Israel ignore the enormous goodwill a performer like Nini generates in Europe and North America and instead scurrilously defame her for positions she does not even hold. She is arguably one of modern Israel’s great cultural exports, but among her critics an arrogant narrow-mindedness takes over that is ultimately self-defeating.
This is especially ironic because, in concert, Nini does not present as a politicized performer. The only “peace song” in her repertoire is the one she wrote and sang with Mira Awad, a Palestinian artist, for the Eurovision contest, with the utterly unobjectionable title, “There Must Be Another Way.”
Mostly she sings about love and nature and relationships — “the mysteries of the soul,” she told me. At the Skirball concert, she intertwined music she heard from her Yemeni grandmother with the brilliant contemporary guitar playing by her long-time collaborator Gil Dor, effortlessly accompanying herself on conga drums and even tapping her hand on her upper chest to create a hollow, haunting sound with one of the songs.
Fortunately, the JNF’s withdrawal is not stopping the May concert in Vancouver, which the local federation is still proudly sponsoring. Canadians are in for a treat. I wish I could be there.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.