BDS Is Over Until Matisyahu Sings

The anti-Israel BDS movement got the Jewish reggae singer booted out of a music festival. That isn’t a sign of strength but of its Leninist, extreme and marginal politics.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
Matisiyahu, singing at New York’s City Winery .
Matisiyahu, singing at New York’s City Winery .Credit: Amir Norman
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

The last week or so looked like a good one for the anti-Israel boycott, sanctions and divestment movement. Matisyahu, the American Jewish rapper, was booted out of an international reggae festival in Spain for refusing to declare his support for a Palestinian state. Meanwhile, a day dedicated to Tel Aviv at Paris’ ersatz beachfront on the Seine turned into an ugly pandemonium of shouting, protests and police checkpoints with metal detectors. Beachgoers were outnumbered by journalists, security personnel and demonstrators.

The world seemed to have had enough of the occupation and settlements, or maybe of Israel altogether. But appearances are deceiving.

Hypocritical at Sunsplash

The Rototom Sunsplash reggae festival, which disinvited Matisyahu (Matthew Paul Miller) under pressure from local BDS activists, is as much about politics as it is about music, with parallel events dedicated to mostly bizarro subjects like big pharma companies fighting to stop cannabis legalization, or framing the Ukraine conflict as an act of U.S. imperialism. They have a distinctly leftish, anti-American bent, which usually goes hand in hand for loathing Israel.

But none of the scores of other performers at Rototom were tested on other issues of concern to the festival organizers. And why should they be? The festival’s website urges “peace, tolerance, respect, solidarity, brotherhood, and nonviolence.”

Apparently the list should have included an asterisk, with an advisory that it doesn’t include tolerance for people who support Israel, much less respect for their views. And views, or even associations, is what it was all about: Matisyahu isn’t Israeli and he doesn’t have any Zionist music in his repertoire that might offend the BDS movement’s sensitive ears. People buying a ticket for a performance or applauding him aren’t giving a boost Israel’s image or fostering normalization. Matisyahu was singled out for being Jewish and supportive of Israel, period.

The outrage over the Metisyahu affair caused Rototom to re-invite the singer, but there won’t be many BDS activists celebrating a victory of free speech over intolerance.

BDS, be ashamed

The Tel Aviv on the Seine affair got less attention. After all, in Europe, anything connected with Israel is considered fair game for pro-Palestinian protestors, no matter how innocuous. If BDS and its allies are hard-pressed to explain how attending a concert of Israeli musicians or buying Ahava cosmetics is providing critical support for the Israel’s military machine, they can always fall back on the excuse that it is helping to burnish Israel’s image.

No argument that the Tel Aviv-on-the-Seine event was just that -- a small attempt to portray Israel as something other than an apartheid state dedicated to oppressing Palestinians. The Middle East conflict is fought as much through political narrative and image-making as it is with guns, but apparently the BDS movement thinks that only one side has the right to use these weapons.

It wasn’t that they wanted to exercise their right to protest at the Tel Aviv beach; they wanted the event cancelled, and when they couldn’t get that they were determined to ruin it.

From their social media comments, many BDSers were thrilled at the heavy police presence – they should have been ashamed.

Lessons from Lenin

Lenin gets a makeover (central Krasnoyarsk April 20, 2011).Credit: Reuters

BDS’ politics are intolerant and fundamentally anti-democratic, the kind that typify the far left (and for that matter the far right): there is no room for other opinions, much less public debate, only for propaganda. There are no forums that are neutral, no people, activities or institutions off limits to politics. Everything and everyone must be subordinated to the cause, with the goal of vanquishing your ideological opponent. And, if you can’t win directly, then you pursue victory through stealth, recruiting nave allies and holding your cards close to your chest.

Look to Lenin, who may be the progenitor of this scorched-earth approach to politics. He spent his years as a revolutionary exile relentlessly pursuing his enemies with ideological tracts, angry speeches, personal vendettas and rigged party conferences; when he came to power, he created a state built on the same seamless intolerance that morphed into a Stalinist hell.

Lenin at least had a grand ideological vision that all the death and destruction he was causing would lead to a new man and a more just society.

A dark moral universe

The BDS movement doesn’t have that; it just wants to punish Israel. It has no vision for Palestine. The only justice or human rights that concern it are those Israel has deprived the Palestinians. It lives in a moral universe with a single dark planet.

Take the case of a vote earlier this year by the Middle East Studies Association, an organization of American academics specializing in the region. The membership didn’t vote to boycott Israel. But in a resolution that would do Orwell proud they called for holding a “sustained discussion of the academic boycott and foster careful considerations of an appropriate position for MENA to assume.”

Let's have a discussion about your job.Credit:

A “discussion” -- like when your boss calls you into his office to talk about whether you’re really in the right job, or when your mother demands to talk about your recent behavior. You know where that’s going.

But bosses and mothers are one thing, for a professional association committed to rational and dispassionate scholarship to engage in such smarmy and covert political behavior is inexcusable.

Even more inexcusable is that MENA is dedicated to studying the Middle East, yet is ready to put the free pursuit of scholarship in a key country of the region second to a political agenda. And what a political agenda! In a region wall to wall with repressive governments, gross and fundamental human rights violations, violence perpetrated governments and terrorists alike, MENA is outraged, just outraged by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

But from BDS’ point of view, it all makes perfect sense – it has a single-minded agenda and nothing will get in its way, certainly not the needs of scholarship or a concern about human rights. The latter are just a cover.

BDSs extremism isn’t a sign of strength but of weakness. Its makes itself noticed in noisy demonstrations, in student councils and coop grocery boards and empty declarations of support from European labor unions. This has exercised many in Israel and the world Jewish community.

But the decisions about boycotts, sanctions and divestments that count are made by university boards of trustees, in corporate executive suites, in parliaments and government offices, and in these places BDS had made no headway at all. It doesn’t even really try. BDS doesn’t play the establishment political game because it would need to abandon its shrill extremism that is at the core of the movement. It’s a player on the political fringes.

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