Jewish American rapper Matisyahu (the stage name of Matthew Paul Miller) was disinvited from a music festival in Spain because of his support for Israel. Organizers of the Rototom Sunsplash European Reggae Festival say they were pressured to cancel the performance by supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement—an international movement that, through peaceful economic means, seeks to pressure Israel to abide by international law and ends its illegal military occupation of the Palestinians.
After Spain’s foreign ministry condemned the cancellation of the performance, the festival apologized and re-invited Matisyahu.
Denying accusations that the decision to cancel Matisyahu’s performance was motivated in any way by anti-Semitism, Spanish BDS activists maintain that they objected to Matisyahu’s “incitement to racial hatred and his defense of Israeli war crimes, including in his lyrics,” and “his hateful and racist views that dehumanize Palestinians and justify their oppression.”
The Spanish human rights activists explained:
As activists motivated by our commitment to full equality and human rights, irrespective of identity, we approached the festival organizers calling for the cancellation of Matisyahu’s concert in this year’s edition of the festival after learning of his participation. The reasons for our outrage was clear in our messaging: Matisyahu’s repeated defense of Israeli war crimes and gross violations of human rights, incitement to racial hatred, and connections to extremist and violent fundamentalist groups in Israel stand in direct contradiction to the human rights and peace principles and spirit of this festival.
The activists also emphasized that, although “the media has portrayed this effort as part of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, we wish to make clear that our efforts are outside the remit of the cultural boycott of Israel as per the guidelines issued by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).”
Supporters of the boycott argue that although Matisyahu is not involved with the Israeli government, he has done more than just support Israel verbally.
Revealed by the Spanish BDS activists is the fact that “Matisyahu’s lyricist, Ephraim Rosenstien, is himself a settler in an illegal West Bank colony. Rosenstein is associated with Honenu, an Israeli legal organization that defends settler terrorists who violently attack Palestinians to push them off their lands.”
On his official Facebook page, the musician claims he is not interested in politics, writing “My music speaks for itself, and I do not insert politics into my music.”
Does his claim that his music is apolitical stand up to closer scrutiny?
Jewish Studies Professor Charles Manekin argues no. On his blog, the scholar defended the decision to cancel Matisyahu’s performance. Manekin drew attention to a 2012 interview in which Matisyahu rehashed anti-Palestinian propaganda, claiming, “as far as I understand, there was never a country called Palestine.”
Manekin also points out that Matisyahu headlined a “pro-Zionist festival,” and notes that, at the height of Israel’s attack on Gaza in the summer of 2014, Matisyahu posted “on his Facebook page a one-sided defense of Israel’s actions in Gaza by hasbarita [singer] Sara Merson.”
“An artist who has politicized his work should not be surprised if he is called out on it,” Manekin states.
Although Matisyahu may call himself an apolitical artist, the facts appear to indicate he is far from it.
In March, on his official Twitter account, Matisyahu wrote “I fucking love Israel. If you don’t then go suck on a lemon.”
— Matisyahu (@matisyahu) March 3, 2015
In April, Matisyahu performed at the 2015 Policy Conference of AIPAC, the right-wing pro-Israel US lobbying organization that is invested in Israeli state bonds.
— AIPAC (@AIPAC) February 6, 2015
A video of Matisyahu’s performance at the conference was uploaded to YouTube.
Matisyahu also posted a video to his Facebook page of him at the AIPAC conference, stating “Just having a good time at the AIPAC conference.”
Palestinian journalist and the Electronic Intifada founder Ali Abunimah argued it is not anti-Semitic to boycott Matisyahu.
Abunimah notes that, in a 2012 article in the Washington Post, Matisyahu explained he is “a strong supporter of Israel” and has often recorded and performed in Israel.
Matisyahu also supported Israel’s killing of 10 people on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010, Abunimah reveals. “No other country,” Matisyahu maintained “would put up with the crap that Israel does.”
The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) endorsed Abunimah’s article.
Matisyahu has headlined fundraisers for the pro-Israel group Friends of the IDF, Abunimah indicates, and his music has been used in Israeli state propaganda videos, like “Sunshine Across Israel,” posted to the government’s official Facebook account.
The description of the video on YouTube credits Matisyahu and adds “Please credit Israel MFA for any use of this video.”
Journalist Benjamin Doherty discovered that Zed Films, a production company that has made propaganda videos for the Israeli government and other Israeli institutions, has also made videos for Matisyahu.
Matisyahu has also performed at numerous pro-Israel festivals.
Supporters of the boycott point to what they feel to be double standards, indicating that, in 1982, publications like the Rolling Stone criticized musicians and festivals who did not boycott apartheid South Africa. A leading Israeli journalist recently came out in support of characterizing Israel as an apartheid state, and South African anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu has defended comparisons between apartheid in his nation and apartheid in Israel, maintaining “I know firsthand that Israel has created an apartheid reality within its borders and through its occupation. The parallels to my own beloved South Africa are painfully stark indeed.”
Those who oppose the boycott of Matisyahu have raised concerns that the decision to boycott Matisyahu in fact defies BDS principles, because the founders of BDS—which was called for by Palestinian intellectuals and activists—made it absolutely clear years ago that BDS targets institutions, not individuals.
As the movement writes on its official website (added emphasis):
In its 2005 BDS Call, Palestinian civil society has called for a boycott of Israel, its complicit institutions, international corporations that sustain its occupation, colonization and apartheid, and official representatives of the state of Israel and its complicit institutions. BDS does not call for a boycott of individuals because she or he happens to be Israeli or because they express certain views. Of course, any individual is free to decide who they do and do not engage with.
Opponents of the boycott have also argued that the boycott of Matisyahu, who is not Israeli, only serves to further perpetuate the conflation of Zionism, Judaism, and Jewishness—a conflation that is ultimately anti-Semitic.
Supporters firmly oppose this argument, nonetheless, arguing that their opposition to Matisyahu’s performance has nothing to do with Judaism or Jewishness.
Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and co-founder of the BDS movement and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), defended the decision to boycott the musician.
Barghouti, who literally wrote the book on BDS, told Mondoweiss the decision to cancel Matisyahu’s performance is “because of his record of hateful and racial incitement and his defense of Israeli war crimes and human rights violations, all of which directly contradict the human rights focus and spirit of the festival.”
“Matisyahu’s ethnicity, faith and other identity attributes are absolutely irrelevant to the campaign waged by human rights defenders in Spain against his show,” Barghouti explained.
Barghouti’s full statement is embedded below:
Human rights organizers in Spain have called on the Rototom festival to cancel an American singer’s show because of his record of hateful and racial incitement and his defense of Israeli war crimes and human rights violations, all of which directly contradict the human rights focus and spirit of the festival. What’s the fuss about?
Israel and Zionist groups in the US are trying to use the anti-Semitism smear to intimidate festivals, artists and businesses alike into maintaining an exceptional status for Israeli (and Jewish) violators of human rights or advocates of war crimes.
If a racist Catholic singer, say, regularly makes anti-Black statements, many African-American and other progressive groups would pressure festivals to exclude him on the basis of his hateful, discriminatory message. No one can blame the boycotters then of being “anti-Catholic.”
Was Rosa Parks “anti-white”? No, she was boycotting segregation and racism, irrespective of the identity of its perpetrators.
Similarly, if Swedish human rights activists, say, call for excluding a Muslim artist from a feminist festival because of his persistent support for Saudi Arabia’s horrific denial of equal rights for women, can anyone reasonably shout, “Islamophobia”?
Zionists are trying to make the argument that Jewish persons who advocate for or justify war crimes, express racial hatred, or incite to racist violence should be immune to criticism, simply because they are Jewish and because of the Holocaust; otherwise, it is anti-Semitism. This exceptionalism, other than being racist and absurd, directly feeds anti-Semitism.
Jewish offenders should be treated like all others, not better and certainly not worse.
Some of Matisyahu’s lyrics, so full of hate and denial of the very existence of the Palestinian people, are written by an Israeli settler living illegally on occupied Palestinian territory. This racist record directly contradicts the peace, human rights and justice principles and spirit of the festival.
Matisyahu’s ethnicity, faith and other identity attributes are absolutely irrelevant to the campaign waged by human rights defenders in Spain against his show.
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), the part of the Palestinian leadership of the global BDS movement that deals with the academic and cultural spheres, calls for boycotts against Israeli institutions that are complicit in Israel’s violations of international law, not against individuals.
Unlike the cultural boycott movement against apartheid South Africa, the Palestinian BDS movement does not call for boycotting individuals. This is not because individual Israeli artists or academics tend to be more progressive or opposed to injustice than the rest of society, as often mistakenly assumed or falsely argued without a shred of evidence, but because we are opposed on principle to political testing and “blacklisting.”
The BDS movement has consistently refrained from using McCarthyist tools in resisting Israel’s regime of oppression, despite, or because of, the Israeli lobby groups’ persistent resort to what I call a “new McCarthyism,” one that uses unconditional allegiance to Israel as the litmus test of loyalty.
According to the BDS guidelines for the international cultural boycott of Israel, “a cultural product’s content or artistic merit is not relevant in determining whether or not it is boycottable.” The boycott is based on institutional links to Israel, its lobby groups or complicit institutions.
But, the guidelines also state that [emphasis his]:
“While an individual’s freedom of expression should be fully and consistently respected in the context of cultural boycotts, an individual artist/writer, Israeli or otherwise, cannot be exempt from being subject to “common sense” boycotts (beyond the scope of the PACBI institutional boycott criteria) that conscientious citizens around the world may call for in response to what they widely perceive as egregious individual complicity in, responsibility for, or advocacy of violations of international law (such as war crimes or other grave human rights violations), racial violence, or racial slurs. At this level, Israeli cultural workers should not be exempted from due criticism or any lawful form of protest, including boycott; they should be treated like all other offenders in the same category, not better or worse.”
I think it is perfectly reasonable for conscientious citizens in any country to oppose a performance by any bigot or someone who incites to racial hatred.