Why Boycotting Matisyahu is Reasonable, Even if You Don’t Agree with It

Update: Apparently, the Spanish festival has recently apologized and reinvited Matisyahu.  The festival organizers’ should not be confused with the BDS-País-Valencià, which initiated the action.   The latter will no doubt continue to call for a boycott of the concert and ask other reggae acts to cancel their participation.

The Rototom festival organizers should be criticized twice: for requiring Matisyahu to sign a pledge supporting a Palestinian state (which has nothing to do with the BDS movement or with BDS-País-Valencià, which opposed the action) and for caving into pressure from groups to reinstate.  Well, I don’t envy them since they were hit from both sides.

But the BDS-País-Valencià should not be criticized for calling for a boycott against an artist who has publicly defended Israeli war crimes, or if that is too strong, actions that are considered war crimes by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.  For links see below.  And to consider their calls “anti-Semitic” is bigoted and offensive, and I don’t care where you stand on the BDS spectrum.  

I find it extraordinary that those who sense “anti-Semitism” behind criticism of Israel’s human rights abuse are willing to cut slack for Matisyahu on the grounds that his statements were “taken out of context,” “immediately dismissed as apolitical,” etc.  If this is not hypocritical, I don’t know what is.

Reasonable people can disagree with BDS-Pais-Valencià’s call to boycott Matisyahu, as I said in the post below.  But reasonable and decent people can agree.  An artist doesn’t get a pass for defending human rights violations.  An American Jews doesn’t get a pass for defending Israel’s human rights violations.

An internationally renown reggae artist goes  on record supporting the IDF’s response in the Mava  Marmara fiasco.  At the height of the Gaza Operation last summer, he posts on his Facebook page a one-sided defense of Israel’s actions in Gaza by hasbarita Sara Merson, igniting a firestorm of comments for and against.  He expresses love of performing in Israel, and he headlines a““pro-Zionist festival.”  He claims that as far as he knows, “there never was a country named Palestine.”

A Spanish BDS group protests the artist’s  invitation to appear at the progressive Rototom concert whose theme is Peace.  At the same time they protest the Israel reggae duo Congo Beats the Drum.  The organizers push back against the BDS group’s demand to the artist to clarify whether he supports the three goals of the BDS movement.  Instead he is asked whether he supports a Palestinian state (let us recall that Bibi Netanyahu is on record supporting a Palestinian state.)   The artist refuses both the demands of the BDS group and the organizers’ request to clarify his position on a Palestinian state.

When accused of anti-Semitism by the organizers, the Spanish BDS group writes the following:

The BDS movement is by no means against the Jewish people, in fact there are numerous Jewish and Jews around the world who are part of this movement.  For example, the (IJAN its acronym in English), the Jewish Voice for Peace, the Boycott from Within, or other individual Jewish people.  International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network A year ago, many Jewish people Holocaust survivors called the “total boycott” of Israel and Gaza bombing related summer with the word “genocide.”  Similarly, the BDS movement in the Spanish state (through its main coordinator, the RESCOP) consists of non-Jewish people and Jewish people, and recently has campaigned against fascism and anti-Judaism.  Finally, it is worth noting that other world notables both Jewish and non-Jewish personalities have joined the BDS and / or have canceled their participation in events in Israel.

So does the Matisyahu cancellation prove that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic?  If being Jewish means being automatically pro-Israel, pro IDF,and pro-Operation Protective Edge, I suppose it does.  But that’s not how I understand anti-Semitism.

When Israelis cultural groups are boycotted simply because they come from Israel, regardless of their political views, BDS is attacked for being anti-Semitic.  When pro-Israel artists are boycotted because of their views, BDS is anti-Semitic.

So why does the Matisyahu cancellation bother liberal Jews who support Palestinian rights?  Well, as liberals, they think that an artist should be free to think whatever he likes (unless, maybe, he is a glatt kosher fascist like the Israeli singer Ariel Zilber, who is routinely attacked by liberal Israelis).  If somebody makes a political statement, it is his or her right, but that doesn’t mean to say that others don’t have a right to protest.

But  Matisyahu is not Ariel Zilber.  He is just your average, everyday, pro-Israel musician who is clueless about politics and rarely speaks on it.  So I can understand why many liberal Zionists may have qualms about this one.  Still, they should view as reasonable the actions of pro-Palestinian groups, who are offended by his public defense of Israel have a right to point to his statements and to call for a boycott. 

Liberal Zionists tolerate uncritical Israel supporters because they are family.  But we shouldn’t be surprised when others don’t.  To be sure, I doubt this Spanish BDS group would have much sympathy for anybody who didn’t endorse the three goals of the BDS movement.  But that is their right.  Had Matisyahu, who has made political statements in the past in favor of Israel, endorsed a Palestinian state, or justice for the Palestinians, he would not have been cancelled, even with the protest of the Spanish BDS group.  But an artist who has politicized his work should not be surprised if he is called out on it.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on August 17 2015, on The Magnes Zionist, a website featuring commentary by Jewish studies and philosophy professor, Jerry Haber (a nom de plume).  It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Haber.

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