Achinoam Nini at the 21st UNESCO Charity Gala 2012 in Dusseldorf, Germany. (photo by Michael Schilling via commons.wikimedia.org)
The Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s invitation to Israeli singer Achinoam Nini (Noa) to perform at the community’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations has received mixed reactions, including a withdrawal of support for the event by Jewish National Fund of Canada, Pacific Region.
In a Feb. 18 statement, JNF Canada chief executive officer Josh Cooper said the organization would be taking a one-year hiatus from its tradition of sponsoring the Yom Ha’atzmaut event “due to the views of the entertainment booked for this year’s celebration. The entertainer that has been hired does not reflect nor correspond to the mandate and values of the Jewish National Fund of Canada.” When pressed to answer where, specifically, Nini diverged from JNFs mandate, Cooper said he had “nothing further to add.”
Among the many Jewish community partners in a Jewish Federation of Cincinnati-sponsored performance by Nini and Mira Awad in June 2015 was JNF, and JNF was one of the sponsors of a Nini and Gil Dor concert in Atlanta less than two weeks ago. About the different mandates and values of JNF Canada and JNF USA, Cooper said “JNF/KKL has offices in 48 countries. While we all work together in Israel, we operate independent of each other in our respective countries.”
Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver issued a statement saying the organization was “disappointed” by JNF’s decision to withdraw support: “JNF has been a valued sponsor of our Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration for many years, and we look forward to welcoming them back next year.”
In a Feb. 20 article, the world chair of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL)-JNF, Danny Atar, told Haaretz that he was against JNF Canada’s withdrawal of support over Nini’s views, saying, “I intend to express my opinion on the decision directly to the leadership of JNF Canada at a meeting we will be having shortly in Israel.”
Locally, Nini’s scheduled appearance is drawing strong reactions from some community members.
Richmond resident Arnold Shuchat expressed his “complete opposition to the decision to engage the controversial artist” in a Feb. 18 letter to Ezra Shanken, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, and to its board of directors. “The purpose of a Jewish community event should be to marshal and unify our community as opposed to fragment it,” he wrote. “It had to be obvious to any reasonable person who might have investigated her political positions that she would be a polarizing figure to many in the community. This decision is a regressive and irresponsible one and should be reversed as quickly as possible to prevent damage to both the reputation and fundraising ability of our Federation.”
René Ragetli, also from Richmond, agreed. “I think she’s a divisive figure and it’s a big mistake to have her here, especially for Yom Ha’atzmaut. She’s said some outrageous things – called our leaders fascist thugs and expressed admiration of Mahmoud Abbas. The woman is not balanced,” he said. “Her bringing comfort to the widow of a terrorist at an event to honor the Israeli fallen – it’s insulting. Sure, people are entitled to their own opinions, but having her on the stage for Yom Ha’atzmaut degrades the event. This is a storm that’s not going away, and a mistake that needs to be corrected.”
An online petition titled “Stop Achinoam Nini from performing at our Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration” had almost 400 signatures at the time of publication. Cynthia Ramsay, publisher of the Jewish Independent, said she has received several letters and emails about Nini.
“Every person who’s tried to get me to run a letter or has cc’d me on an email to Federation has the exact – and I mean exact – same two points: she supports B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, and she’s anti-Israel or pro-BDS,” Ramsay said. (See “Let’s talk about Nini…” by the JI editorial board.) “No one has provided any evidence, not even a Jerusalem Post quote, to support their allegations, some of which are even nastier and also with zero proof. Because of the wording of most people’s emails/letters, I think it’s a chain reaction, everyone’s just repeating what they’ve heard from someone else without doing any research of their own. The main concern seems to be about BDS and she is against BDS from what I’ve read.”
Shuchat said the issue with Nini was not about BDS. “This has been very divisive because she’s very controversial, she’ll offend a lot of people and it was very foreseeable that this would happen. She’s polarizing so it was a dumb decision to invite her. Mainstream media are going to see this and say, ‘Look at all these heebs fighting with each other!’ Federation should cancel the engagement and focus on building a cohesive community.”
Ramsay disagreed. “I think it would be very sad if Federation withdrew its invitation or if Nini declined it because of the controversy it’s causing, which, I think, is unmerited.”
A Feb. 22 letter to Federation board chair Stephen Gaerber signed by more than 30 Israeli Canadians also urged “Federation to stick to the invitation.” It notes that “the current political climate in Israel condemns every person who advocates for peace and human rights, and campaigns, such as the recent one by Im Tirzu and other similar extremist groups, single out progressive artists, including Amos Oz and David Grossman to name a few.
“By canceling the invitation of Achinoam Nini to perform in Vancouver,” the letter continues, “we will not only be missing the opportunity to experience a great musician, it will also mean taking a stand against everything Vancouver and Canada is proudly known for, our belief in tolerance, pluralism, human rights, these same core values as they are reflected in our Jewish heritage. Here in Vancouver we must not get entangled in the type of intimidation that is going on in Israel. If the opportunity to bring her is missed due to politics, it sends a terrible message and may create rupture in the local Jewish community and will distance plural and liberal people like us from it.”
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net. A version of this article was published by Canadian Jewish News.