Matisyahu in Spain and the BDS Inquisition

by Joshua Tartakovsky

 Image credits: Sean Gallup-Getty Images.

Iimage credits: Sean Gallup-Getty Images.

The decision to pressure a music festival in Spain to disinvite American-Jewish singer Matisyahu does smack of more than an iota of anti-Semitism. Supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel traditionally make several arguments. The first is that Judaism is separate from Zionism. The second is that the state can successfully be pressured via a sanctions campaign against Israeli artists as well as artists who perform in Israel.

The choice of Matisyahu as an artist to boycott reveals that BDS activists do not in earnest separate Judaism from Zionism. Matisyahu is an American-Jewish singer, not a citizen of Israel. Faced with accusations of anti-Semitism in the boycott of Matisyahu, Ali Abunimah of the Electronic Intifada claims that any suggestion Matisyahu was picked out as a Jew is simply untrue. He argues, rather, that Matisyahu was chosen as a target because he performed at a Friends of the IDF and at an AIPAC event and because he also expressed support for Israel.

The validity of these claims does not pass closer scrutiny. Simon Cowell also performed at a Friends of the IDF event, yet, to the best of my knowledge, there has not been a post-event campaign against him in the UK or an appeal to remove him from X-Factor. The Bright Star Church of God Ensemble performed at an AIPAC event and later in the Chicago Gospel Music Festival. Yet, there has not been a request made to organizers of the festival by local BDS activists in Chicago or by Students for Justice in Palestine to boycott the group. As far as expressing support for Israel goes, it is true that Matisyahu had expressed far-right statements on several occasions. Artists should not be boycotted for their political views, however, or, if they are, then they must be boycotted equally. Madonna, for example, also performed in Israel and while BDS supporters expressed their frustration about the singer’s decision, there has not been a campaign to boycott her in Europe. This despite the fact that not only did she express support for Israel but went as far as to meet Peres and Netanyahu on different occasions. The singer has been photographed embracing Peres, while telling him she is “in love with Israel.”

Matisyahu was asked by the festival organizers in Spain to profess his commitment to a two-state solution. Last I checked, the days of the Spanish Inquisition were long over and musicians did not need to adhere to articles of faith in order to be given a stage. Indeed, such a request was not made to Madonna or to the Bright Star Church Ensemble.

It has been argued that the policy of boycott towards artists who perform in Israel is practiced in earnest and without discrimination. To buttress the claim, BDS-campaign supporters like to point out that BDS activists went after the Dead Sea Jazz Festival, asking artists to boycott it. Yet, were African American artists who had performed there in past years subsequently boycotted in other countries due to their performance in Israel? Of course not.

There is another issue at stake. The BDS campaign has been adamant about its ability to produce change in the Middle East quagmire via a dogmatic method. It holds that there can be no end to the boycott until Palestine is liberated and refugees are allowed to return. The latter can take at least a century and smacks of unjustified confidence in one’s power for the simple reason that for change to happen in this direction, Israelis need to grow less fearful of Palestinians and need to recognize that the Israeli government is their adversary. The confidence, verging on arrogance, is unjustified because BDS actions are likely to lead Israelis to identify further with Netanyahu even as he pursues policies which can be harmful to all residents of the area. One may wish to see Palestinians and Israelis living side by side in a single state, but the boycott campaign against artists and cultural institutions is likely to lead Israelis further to the right, rather than to encourage them to realize that they themselves are the tools (and potential victims) of the US military-industrial complex, which has a need for continued wars.

Sanctions should be directed against the government. If they are imposed against the people, they may work or they may fail since people will tend to identify with a government even as it pursues policies which harm it. Yet once BDS is directed against Jews as such, Israelis will certainly harden in response. By going after an American Jewish singer who was no different from Simon Crowell and a Black Baptist band, the BDS campaign exposed its subconscious anti-Semitism.

When questioned why the focus on Israel, BDS activists tend to answer that only Israel is sponsored by the West. The crimes of Israel are well known, but it is not the only place where the West is meddling. In Syria to the north, Western-sponsored jihadist groups are engaging in massacre and destruction in their goal to topple the legitimate president of Syria, Dr. Basher al Assad. Ancient Christian cities and archeological sites now face annihilation and Syria is facing a neocolonial war by the West. In such a small region where everything is connected, it is required that those who speak out on Palestine will speak out on Syria too.

The decision to boycott Matisyahu and to bully him as an easy target shows that the BDS campaign serves as a secular inquisition which at least subconsciously identifies Judaism with Zionism and goes after the weaker links while further hardening the position of most Israelis.

Joshua Tartakovsky is a graduate of Brown University and LSE and an independent journalist.


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Matisyahu in Spain and the BDS Inquisition | Joshua Tartakovsky
Aug 22, 2015 7:49 AM

[…] Off-Guardian […]

Joshua Tartakovsky
Joshua Tartakovsky
Aug 22, 2015 5:54 AM

Going after a weak link does now show courage but cowardice.
Few are as pro-Israel as evangelical Christian-Zionists or Madonna. Yet no attempt has been made to go after them and boycott them following their performance or support.
The selection of Matisyahu merely strengthened the perception that Zionism and Judaism are one and the same. Such actions cause immense damage and postpone ending the occupation and colonization of the land even further down the road.
If you enjoy calling yourself a hypocrite, than perhaps it is a good path for you to pursue.

Aug 21, 2015 7:12 PM

Is this a parody of hasbara?

Joshua Tartakovsky
Joshua Tartakovsky
Aug 22, 2015 12:09 AM
Reply to  David

The dogmatic approach of the BDS groupies, not all those who fight against Israeli oppression, apartheid and aggression in Syria, but particularly the Omar Bargouthi groupies, is never admit they made a mistake or to pursue a non-dogmatic effort to pressure Israel. They are caught in a prism by which every boycott is a success even if it appears as anti-Semitic and is counterproductive.
Boycotting Israel is not anti-Semitic but boycotting Matisyahu appears to be.
They lack nuance and vision. When most Israelis see that it’s about a total boycott or acceptance of the right of refugees to return, they will chose the former.
Therefore, the BDS groupies just did a great service to Israeli hasbara.

Aug 22, 2015 4:41 AM

I see. We shouldn’t shun a racist until we’ve shunned ALL racists. And even then we shouldn’t shun a Zionist racist because we should be focusing instead on “making Israelis grow less fearful of Palestinians.” Sounds like you’ve got yourself a plan for perpetuating Zionism forever.

Not interested.

Aug 22, 2015 4:56 AM

(BTW why is Off-Guardian even running transparent hasbara like this? Isn’t Jonathan Freedland already bad enough?)

Aug 22, 2015 7:51 PM
Reply to  David

OffGuardian is about giving voice to opinions , facts and ideas that are suppressed by or not well-represented in the mainstream, as well as questioning prevailing narratives. There’s no political agenda or editorial policy beyond that, and no set of assumptions should be beyond reasoned analysis.

Joshua’s article presents a very nuanced and rational POV that deserves to be aired. That’s why it’s here. He certainly doesn’t deserve to be compared with Jonathan Freedland! In the same vein of encouraging free expression, if you or anyone else have a different take we’d be open to publishing that too.

Debate is the thing most outlawed in the mainstream isn’t it. I think all of us would agree we don’t want to outlaw it here.