From time to time, the incidents flare up, like open wounds on the Jewish body politic. The Jewish National Fund of Canada withdraws support for a performance by the outspoken Israeli singer Achinoam Nini, known here as Noa. The Miami JCC shuts down the run of a controversial play about Israel. The Metropolitan Opera is accused of anti-Semitism for staging a work about the Palestinian murderers of Leon Klinghoffer.
All differing circumstances, with one common thread: Diaspora critics who loudly insist that art created in an Israeli context must never stray outside certain boundaries — boundaries often drawn by the critics themselves, boundaries that too often curtail dissent and seek to enforce a single-mindedness that is as self-defeating as it is unsustainable.
Though these critics are ostensibly trying to protect Israel, they harm it — and us — instead. They suppress the very attribute that sets Israel apart from so many of its neighbors and underlines the bonds tying Diaspora Jews to that freewheeling culture.
But as troubling as these developments are, occasionally there is pushback of the most effective sort. And that’s what has happened to the protests over Nini’s scheduled appearance in Vancouver. Not only did the local federation reiterate its intention to invite her for Yom Ha’atzmaut in May, but the event also picked up two coveted and surprising new sponsors: the Embassy of Israel in Canada and the Consulate General of Israel in Toronto.
Sometimes the bullies are put into their rightful place.
There was something deeply ironic about the campaign against Nini. Supposedly, the critics were outraged over a Jerusalem Post report alleging that she supports the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. But the report was so erroneous that the Post 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!”
In any other context, Nini would be a poster child for Israeli achievement. Born of Yemeni parents and mostly raised in New York, she made aliyah when she was 16, served in the military, and pursued a musical career that has turned her into a worldwide phenomenon. She became the first Israeli to perform in St. Peter’s Square, and has been invited back to the Vatican eight times. She wrote part of the soundtrack for an Academy Award-winning film about the Holocaust. She represented Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest.
True, she has been a staunch critic of the current Israeli government. She is part of the struggling “peace camp,” supportive of a two-state solution and aligned with groups that advocate coexistence with Palestinians. 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 at 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. Given the current polarization in Israel, that choice has led to her being criticized and attacked there.
Instead of scurrilously defaming Nini for positions she does not even hold, her critics in the Diaspora should recognize the enormous goodwill a performer like her generates in Europe and North America. Her distinctive voice and original music make her arguably one of modern Israel’s great cultural exports. That’s why JNF’s opposition was so self-defeating and, in the end, unsustainable.
And that’s why the support from Vancouver’s federation, seconded by official representatives of the Israeli government in Canada, is so welcome and important. Many of the other flare-ups with controversial art and artists have not ended this positively, so it’s seductive to expect that the ugly demonization will continue. But it doesn’t have to. Reason can prevail.
Culture and thought cannot and should not be censored — whether by Jews seeking to protect Israel or by a BDS movement seeking to undermine it. That principle applies even when artists and academics make us uncomfortable. Good art does that. Experiencing creative expression doesn’t mean you endorse it, but it may leave you challenged and unsettled.
Nini herself explained it best when I interviewed her after a recent concert at Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center in New York.
“Artists should be leaders in society,” she told me. “Their job is not to be at the end of the camp, they should be before the camp, leefnay ha’machane, we say in Hebrew. Because artists have this amazing position… You take your hand and stick it deep in the mud — you’re looking for earthworms, hidden secrets, treasures. Which is wonderful. Like children! Artists are never afraid to stick their hands in the mud, and wiggle it around, which is beautiful.”
“And then artists also have this soaring quality. Where they fly, spread their wings and fly away. And from that place, the perspective is totally different. Think of a bird and what it sees of the landscape. It definitely doesn’t see where the borders run. It doesn’t know who speaks what language or who practices what religion….”
“That ability to soar and to dig at the same time… it’s very unique to artists. That’s why I think artists are in a position to see things differently… And when you are driven to do that, you are also driven to speak out, to stand out.”
And we ought to be driven to listen.
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.