Israeli musician responds to controversy over NCH gig

Musician Avishai Cohen responds to the controversy over his Israeli-government-supported Dublin gig

Trumpeter Avishai Cohen. Photograph: Caterine di Perri/ECM

Trumpeter Avishai Cohen. Photograph: Caterine di Perri/ECM


Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen has responded to criticism of his forthcoming concert at the National Concert Hall, which is being supported by the Israeli Embassy in Dublin. Speaking from his home in Tel Aviv, Cohen says he was not previously aware of the support, but says that it won’t change his decision to come to play in Dublin.

Concerns over the 36-year-old trumpeter’s appearance at the NCH’s John Field Room next month were expressed recently when it emerged that the Israeli embassy logo, which had originally been carried on all publicity for the event, including the NCH website, had been removed. The Irish Times subsequently learned that while the financial support remains in place, all references to that support were removed at the request of the Israeli embassy.

The move comes just weeks after a similar controversy arose at Listowel Writers’ Week. A number of authors attending the festival had threatened to withdraw if an appearance by Israeli author Savyon Liebrecht was financially supported by the Israeli embassy. Listowel declined the funding, and the appearance of Liebrecht went ahead without incident.

Cohen, whose name is often preceded by the word “trumpeter” to distinguish him from an acclaimed Israeli bassist of the same name, is considered one of the rising stars of international jazz. He recently released Into the Silence, his first album since signing to the prestigious German label ECM.

Referencing the support from the Israeli government, Cohen says, “When state support goes to art, and not to war, that’s a good thing. I mean, the funding for the arts is so low that any support that goes to art, it’s a great thing. Jazz promoters all over the world know to have live music is not an easy thing, so any support that makes it happen, even if it comes from state support, alleluia! I don’t see a problem with that.

“But it doesn’t mean that you support every act that the government does,” he adds. “Right now, for example, they are limiting funding for theatres in Israel. You have to sign a kind of pledge of allegiance to the country – the support is basically measured with your patriotism, and to me that’s horrible, because art cannot be treated like that.

“Artists have to be free, and we have to be free to do anything we want with our art, and usually with art, it creates dialogue, whether it’s you and the other artists, whether it’s with different types of artist, and definitely when it comes to artists from different parts of the world.

“When I was in New York for many years, I had friends from all over the world that I cannot have here in Israel. [Lebanese trumpeter] Ibrahim Maalouf, he’s a friend, and another guitarist from Lebanon is a great friend of mine. We can play music and hang in New York, but we cannot do it here – he cannot come here, and I cannot go there.”

Speaking of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and the calls for a boycott of Israeli state-sponsored events, he said: “I have been approached by the BDS movement before, and when they approached me, they did their research. They know my political views, and they know that I do not support my government action when it comes to the occupation. I am no supporter of this government in many ways.

“However, I’m not necessarily a believer in cultural boycotts, because I think if strong artists came here and spoke up, you know, if Robert Plant came here, and played a concert, and all his fans heard him say even a few words about coming together, and taking action to end the occupation of the West Bank, then I think that would make more sense.

“But that’s my opinion – I’m pro-dialogue. There is a lot of hypocrisy too when it comes to Israel. The same shit – excuse my French – is going on in so many other places, and you don’t know if the US government is supporting the event, or the Romanian embassy or whoever, no one writes about that”.

The Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign is calling for a boycott of the event as long as the Israeli funding remains in place. In a statement issued to The Irish Times last week, the campaign’s chairperson, Fatin Al Tamimi said that “if Israeli funding it too toxic to be acknowledged, then surely it should not be accepted at all”.

The concert is scheduled to take place in the National Concert Hall’s John Field Room on July 13th.

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