Spanish Festival Apologizes to Matisyahu, but the Truth About BDS Is Already Out

Analysis | Matisyahu-gate is leaving many with the strong sense of a very distinct lose-lose, mainly that the fight against the occupation can’t be gaining anything from what seems like indiscriminate political persecution.

Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim
Matisyahu performs at New York’s City Winery.
Matisyahu performs at New York’s City Winery. Credit: Amir Norman
Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

The Spanish festival that canceled Matisyahu’s performance earlier this week over BDS pressure changed its mind on Wednesday and is re-inviting the Jewish-American reggae singer. But it’s too late – the truth about an ugly side of the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions movement is already out of the proverbial Bob-Marley-themed bag.

All things considered, it’s probably been one of the most tumultuous and best weeks of Matisyahu’s musical career. Tumultuous because the American-Jewish, one-time-Hasidic, singer, born Matthew Miller, was booted off the Rototom Sunsplash festival, following his refusal to denounce the Israeli occupation, only to be apologized to and re-invited. It was the best, however, since it’s actually been a while since anyone cared that much about Matisyahu’s musical exploits, and having this much publicity really can’t hurt that much.

It all began when Matisyahu announced he was “disinvited” from the Spanish festival over his refusal to specify his views concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the statement the artist released on his Facebook page, organizers, pressured by BDS activists, asked the American singer for his clear, unequivocal opinion on the matter, in either written or recorded form as a condition for his participation in the musical event.

Having refused that request, the festival found no other way to resolve the issue than to cancel Matisyahu’s concert, and then, naturally, re-invite him following the public outcry. So far, just a run-of-the-mill BDS-themed chaos, where both sides get to score some points, without really doing that much: The artists gets morality points for being snubbed, and the festival gets morality points for snubbing, then un-snubbing. Win-win, right?

Actually, Matisyahu-gate is leaving many with the strong sense of a very distinct lose-lose, mainly that the fight against the occupation can’t be gaining anything from what seems like indiscriminate political persecution.

One way this loss is apparent lies in the initial targeting of a non-Israeli, Jewish artist for his views on Israel-Palestine. For years, BDS activists have worked hard to denounce criticism of their movement as anti-Semitic. “It’s not about Judaism, or Jews,” they said, “but about the belligerence of Israeli policy.”

That claim received quite a body blow with this latest turn of events. While far from coloring the entire movement as anti-Semitic, the Spanish, inquisition-like push for Matiayahu’s “confession” regarding his political views, if only because he is a Jewish man, leaves a tad more than just a bad taste in one’s mouth.

Silence is extremism

But what’s even more troubling is the notion that silence is now considered a dangerous form of extremism. Indeed, extremism is the word used by festival organizers in their own Facebook statement that the festival was faced with “two extremisms”: The with-us-or-against-us attitude of the BDS activists, and Matisyahu’s refusal to answer a “simple question.”

What made Matisyahu an extremist, you see, was not, hypothetically, that he celebrated the death of Palestinian children, changed his Facebook picture to an Israeli flag, or took a “selfie” with an Israeli tank in the background. No, it was because he, as an artist, saw no merit in aligning himself politically, in any way whatsoever.

In a way, this could be viewed, and already is viewed, as a BDS aberration – the Spanish branch, as the festival’s Facebook statement on re-inviting the singer only affirms, may have gone too far, but the fight to boycott Israel is legitimate. However, I would argue that the targeting of a non-Israeli Jewish performer is nothing less than the logical conclusion of the effort to prevent, say, artists performing in Israel, Israeli artists performing abroad, and so on.

Once we begin the work of policing the views of artists in the name of dialogue, even if that tacit or implicit view is manifest in their very willingness to perform in Israel, then the road is indeed quite short to a more indiscriminate, perhaps racist policing far from Israel and its shores, and an absolute end to dialogue.

Obviously, art can be a part of the political debate if it wishes to be. If Matisyahu had a hit single called “There is No Such Thing as a Palestinian People,” then few would criticize the festival or the BDS movement for pushing him aside from the festival’s bill. Much in the same vein, no one would criticize Israel for not bringing in a parade to welcome a band with an album tiled “Israel: The Terrorist State.”

But, as opposed to BDS’ efforts in targeting artists, one’s nationality, religion or flight plans do not necessarily expose a political inclination. If you think they do, then please don’t act surprised when a Jewish-American singer is booted off stage for refusing to disclose his opinions thousands of miles from Israel.

Ultimately, what this new stage in BDS efforts exposes, yet again, is the rising price of an ever-escalating rhetoric of non-dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians, one exacerbated by BDS efforts. In a landscape devoid of actual words and an actual message, the right to remain silent has morphed into a unwitting battle cry.

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