The short answer is no. He was a mensch, not to say the two things are mutually exclusive.
The long answer follows.
On May 21st, a celebratory concert in Israel for Yom Yerushalayim featured an English-Hebrew rendition of “Hallelujah,” by far Leonard Cohen’s most misused song (if you don’t count the millions of questionable hook-ups spurred by some dude with a guitar singing “Suzanne”).
Some were not happy with this. Mondoweiss said the song was being used as “an anthem of Jewish exclusivists.” The article claimed (probably wrongly) that Cohen would have approved, mostly on the basis of Cohen’s 1973 visit to Israel during the Yom Kippur war, where he toured Israel with the troops cheering them with his presence and his music.
Leonard Cohen was far from dreaming in black and white. He was a nuanced, subtle thinker who continually changed and evolved throughout his life. He was also very resistant to being involved with the political or to placing himself on the side of a movement or a nation, as when he refused to share a stage with Lech Walesa in a concert in Poland despite the popularity of his music with Solidarity leaders. The characterization of Cohen as a straightforward Zionist is nonsense.
Read the following, from a poem from his 1984 book of poetry “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.
The poem continues:
The Covenant is broken, the condition is dishonored, have you not noticed that the world has been taken away? You have no place, you will wander through yourselves from generation to generation without a thread. Therefore you rule over chaos, you hoist your flags with no authority, and the heart that is still alive hates you, and the remnant of Mercy is ashamed to look at you. You decompose behind your flimsy army, your stench alarms you, your panic strikes at love. The land is not yours, the land has been taken back, your shrines fall through open air, your tablets are quickly revised, you bow down in hell beside your hired torturers, and still count your battalions and crank out your marching songs. Your righteous enemy is listening. He hears your anthems full of blood and vanity, and your children singing to themselves. He has overturned the vehicle of nationhood, he has spilled the precious cargo, and every nation he has taken back.
The poem concludes with the reason why, with a reference to the Biblical story of Jacob/Israel: “Because your cowardice has led you to believe that the victor does not limp.”
The evidence from Cohen’s life and writing belying the identification of him with any simplistic nationalist or religious affiliation are legion. Cohen was faithful to Judaism throughout his life, but the caricature of him as a religiously Jewish poet and singer goes too far. Throughout his career Cohen was quite willing to be blasphemous — this is the man who wrote a book of poetry called “Flowers for Hitler,” for heaven’s sake.
Cohen was a devoted student of a Zen master for thirty years, an ordained Buddhist monk, and a disciple of the Hindu guru Ramesh Balsekar (who apparently finally cured him of his depression). Cohen’s final single, “You Want It Darker,” which is often misunderstood as an affirmation of religious faith, is actually a very complex song which includes a dark exploration of the idea that the world is as God wants it:
They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker, we kill the flame.
As far as Cohen’s 1973 trip to Israel in concerned, the young Cohen was an impulsive, romantic, and narcissistic young man. After the Cuban revolution, he flew to Cuba to see the action. In an interview a year later Cohen commented, “The real truth is I wanted to kill or be killed.” In Israel, Cohen similarly told a friend melodramatically that “I will stop Egypt’s bullet.” He was more a depressive young poet enamored with the idea of heroic self-immolation than a professing militant Zionist. In Israel he wrote a song called “Lover, Lover, Lover” which contains the lines:
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
In a move that tellingly reveals Cohen’s complexity as a person, however, at a concert in 1974 he introduced it as a song “written in the Sinai desert for soldiers of both sides.”
Cohen was an object of adulation in Israel, and playing there surely had great meaning for him — Cohen had a strong emotional connection to his Jewish heritage. He expressed his fundamental solidarity with the Jewish people numerous times, even though that solidarity cannot be translated into a simplistic Zionism without doing violence to Cohen’s character.
Three days after Cohen’s 75th birthday he played in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, his first concert in Israel in more than 20 years. Mark the sold out concert was billed as a “Concert for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace”, and not a “Concert for the Eternal Homeland of the Jewish People”. Cohen donated all of the proceeds to Israeli and Palestinian organizations working for peace. When criticism of the concert from the BDS movement mounted Cohen responded by adding a second night in Ramallah, on the West Bank. Amnesty International and the Palestinian Prisoner’s Club pulled out, however, and Cohen created a charitable fund to distribute the two million dollars in concert revenue to groups working for peace in the region.
As an interesting counterpoint to the May 21 concert in Jerusalem, when Cohen performed “Hallelujah” that night he dedicated the song to all of the families who had lost children in the conflict, and expressed his admiration for those who had resisted “the inclination of the heart to despair, revenge, and hatred.”
Throughout his life, Cohen embraced paradox and irony. Even “Hallelujah” itself is a song about praising God not from a place of joy and fulfillment but from a place of brokenness and defeat. Truthfully singing Hallelujah at an Israeli nationalist concert may be more appropriate than one might think, though not for the reasons that one might ascribe. The rebirth of Israel is indeed miraculous- miraculous and broken.
For those who live in a black and white universe of purity and impurity and us against them, who have decided to swear off of Cohen due to his fidelity to the Jewish people and his solidarity with Israelis (which they cannot see does not preclude a solidarity with Palestinians) I say- good riddance. You don’t deserve Cohen’s humane, multi-valent, and wise music — and more’s the pity.
Matthew Gindin is a journalist, educator and freelance writer located in Vancouver, BC. He is the Pacific Correspondent for the Canadian Jewish News, writes regularly for the Forward and the Jewish Independent and has been published in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Religion Dispatches, Kveller, Situate Magazine, and elsewhere. He also writes on Medium from time to time.