The decision by JNF Canada to withdraw its sponsorship from a 2016 Independence Day concert by noted Israeli vocalist Achinoam Nini is inexcusable. JNF Canada’s justification reportedly involved a spurious claim that Nini, a peace activist, supports the BDS movement. I was gratified that JNF international chair, Danny Atar, expressed reservations with the Canadian decision, explaining that JNF Canada was an independent entity, that did not represent the position of the international Jewish National Fund (KKL) board.
As a member of that very Jerusalem-based JNF-KKL board for 12 years, I understand the chair’s diplomatic understatement. But there are times when one must speak loud and clear. So let me be plain: JNF Canada’s decision to side with deceitful hatemongers and besmirch the name of one of Israel’s most talented and intelligent artists is not only morally wrong – it is the exact opposite of what the JNF stands for as a Zionist organization.
For those unfamiliar with Achinoam Nini a few words of introduction are in order. She has been a local and international singing sensation for more than twenty years, bringing her compelling synthesis of jazz, folk and Middle Eastern traditions, along with her poetic lyrics to venues from Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall to Rome’s Colosseum. Ahinoam (or Noa – as her many fans around the world know her) has a voice so ethereal that the Pope asked that she return time and again to sing in the Vatican. It would seem that her ballads of love and wonder may have the power to open the gates of heaven.
But Nini is not just a beautiful singer with an extraordinary voice and rare gift for musical arrangements. She is a thoughtful and principled individual who speaks out about any number of challenges that Israel faces, not least of which is how we might leave our children a country that is at peace with its Arab neighbors and citizens. That was symbolized in her remarkable duet with Arab-Israeli vocalist and actress Mira Awad, when they represented Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest. Their song title, “There Must Be Another Way,” was a reflection of a personal commitment to finding one.
Sadly, Nini has been targeted by right-wing extremists who don’t see it that way. They have thrown out myriad disinformation about her political positions – even claiming that she supports the BDS movement — notwithstanding her clear statements to the contrary. This is a person who cares so much about Israel that she left New York at age 16, on her own, to join the IDF and bring her rare talents to making Israel a better place. Indeed, like more than half of the Israeli public, she supports a two-state solution. But unlike much of Israel’s artistic community who feel this way, she has the temerity and integrity to actively promote this vision.
Unfortunately, this commitment seemed to bother some extremists on the Right who attacked her as an enemy of the state with false claims that she supports a boycott of Israel. For example, Eli Ben-Dahan, a parliamentarian from the Jewish Home party recently went on the record supporting this malicious position. In some very shoddy journalism, this claim was actually repeated in a Jerusalem Post article that was eventually removed from the website, even as the paper never apologized for the slander. On her facebook page Nini explained unequivocally: “I not only condemn the BDS. I myself am a victim of its hypocritical and harmful activity!” But as designers of smear campaigns know, lies can be shockingly persistent.
Recently, Nini gave a benefit concert in Atlanta for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, the innovative research and educational center that brings together Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to work on regional ecological issues. The incoming chair of the Jewish Federation Joel Marks was so inspired by her performance and its uplifting message about Israel that he promptly announced that he wanted to bring her back for a community-wide event. Unfortunately, because of her detractors’ bogus and hateful campaign, the benefit only brought 350 people to the 500 person hall.
The decision by JNF Canada to capitulate to such odious, extremist voices and snub an Israeli hero and cultural icon is not just morally wrong. It is the exact opposite of the tolerance that Zionism has always stood for. In Theodore Herzl’s 1902 utopian novel, Altneuland the Jewish state is envisioned as a pluralistic democracy where Arabs enjoy a full place at the table. Revisionist Zionist visionary Zeev Jabotinsky demanded that “equal rights for all Arab citizens will not only be guaranteed, they will also be fulfilled.” Jabotinsky was “prepared to take an oath binding ourselves and our descendants that we shall never do anything contrary to equality in a Jewish State and that we shall never try to eject anyone.” This is the kind of forbearance and benevolence that Achinoam Nini tirelessly works for. So it leaves one wondering whether there would be a place for the tolerant Zionist leaders of old at a Canadian JNF event.
The JNF historically has brought together all strands of the Jewish world in a shared dedication to a healthier, lovelier and more ethical state of Israel. Over the years I have met many JNF members from Canada: these are good, principled people who have nothing to do with small minded, misguided policies that disqualify an artist because she works for peace and social justice. I am hoping that they will step up to the plate and demand that their organization retract its position and that those who made this ill-considered decision are held accountable.
The international JNF-KKL board represents a very broad range of perspectives. There is plenty of arguing. That’s fine – there should be. We would not be an authentically Jewish organization if there wasn’t. But we also understand that what unites us trumps the disagreements. A key part of Israel and Zionism’s historic success has been the ability to rein in extremist elements, allowing the vast majority of citizens and supporters to find common ground and work together. We embrace artists from all sides of the Israeli political spectrum. We reject the petty path of derision and division – and like Achinoam Nini seek a future for our country of hope and harmony.