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How Matisyahu Ban Backfired on BDS Backers

It looked like a big coup for a small-time player when a pro-Palestinian group in Spain’s third-largest city, BDS Pais Valencia, managed to convince an international reggae festival to cancel a closing-night performance by the American ex-Hasidic star Matisyahu.

Instead, it blew up in its face. Spanish and international politicians, musicians and newspapers protested what appeared to be blatant anti-Semitism, singling out an American Jewish entertainer, demanding that he — and only he — endorse Palestinian statehood before organizers would let him take the stage, then issuing a humiliating cancellation when he refused. In the end, the festival reversed itself and apologized to Matisyahu. And on Friday morning the festival announced that Matisyahu had accepted their apology and would appear on the prestigious stage in the beachside resort of Benicassim, 50 miles north of Valencia.

The annual weeklong festival, Rototom Sunsplash, now in its 22nd year, is dedicated to the themes of “peace, equality, human rights and social justice.” It often holds forums and teach-ins on social issues, including the Middle East conflict. The BDS group said Matisyahu’s appearance would contravene those principles, because of his support of Israel and Zionism.

Rototom called on Matisyahu to issue a statement recognizing “the right of the Palestinian people to have their own State.” He refused. On August 16 the festival issued a statement canceling his performance. It catalogued its long years of support for human rights, including Palestinian rights. It protested that “the attacks it has suffered this week” from Palestinian activists were unjustified. And it then knuckled under to those unjustified attacks by canceling Matisyahu’s August 22 performance. BDS Pais Valencia was on the map. Or so it thought.

What followed, however, was not a public rallying to the Palestinian cause, but something like the opposite: three days of public protests in Spain and across Europe against what was almost universally seen as straightforward anti-Semitism: punishing an American Jew for the actions of the Jewish state.

Spanish Jewish organizations threatened legal action. The World Jewish Congress issued a statement calling the cancellation “a clear instance of anti-Semitism, and nothing else.” The organization’s billionaire president, Ronald Lauder, wrote to Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy and urged that Spanish authorities have the festival either apologize and re-invite the singer, or repay its public funding.

The government promptly condemned the cancellation, declared its “rejection of any anti-Semitic action” and hinted that the cancellation might constitute illegal discrimination. The U.S. embassy weighed in.

One popular Spanish entertainer, the Uruguayan-born Jewish singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler, noted in a sardonic tweet that the festival “doesn’t want a Jew like Matisyahu, but says yes to a homophobe like Capleton,” referring to a Jamaican reggae star known for his anti-gay lyrics who’s on the festival program without a peep from the organizers.

Matisyahu himself, in a statement on his Facebook page, made his outrage plain: “My music speaks for itself, and I do not insert politics into my music,” he wrote. “…Honestly it was appalling and offensive, that as the one publicly Jewish-American artist scheduled for the festival they were trying to coerce me into political statements. Were any of the other artists scheduled to perform asked to make political statements in order to perform? No artist deserves to be put in such a situation simply to perform his or her art.”

And so, on August 19, the festival did what it does: it bowed again to the pressure, this time from the opposite direction. It apologized to the Jewish community, apologized to Matisyahu and reinstated the invitation.

“Rototom Sunsplash rejects anti-Semitism and any form of discrimination towards the Jewish community; we respect both their culture as religious beliefs and we sincerely apologize for what has occurred,” it announced on its website.

The World Jewish Congress responded to the reversal with a surprisingly grumpy acknowledgment. “The organizers have done the honorable thing and apologized,” the organization said in its statement. “However, this affair leaves us with a sour taste in our mouths. It was yet another example of how anti-Jewish attitudes, dressed up as vicious and unfair criticism of Israel, are still widespread, and are especially prevalent in a number of far-left global political parties.”

The statement also quoted a joint comment by WJC president Lauder and the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain. The duo said they “thank the organizers for realizing their mistake and for taking the necessary steps to remedy it. However, lessons must be learned from this affair.” They didn’t specify what the lessons might be.

Here are a few suggestions:

First, if you’re going to swing a big stick in the name of justice, check to make sure the other guy doesn’t have a bigger stick to swing in the name of his version of justice.

Second, get your facts straight before you go public. Case in point: BDS Pais Valencia wasn’t objecting to Matisyahu because he’s Jewish. Like it or not, it had a detailed list of specific statements and actions by the singer that the pro-Palestinian group found objectionable. One was a 2007 performance at a fundraiser for Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. Another was a June 2010 interview with the Jewish Chronicle of London in which he emotionally defended the Israeli naval raid the previous month on a Gaza-bound Turkish flotilla in which nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed. Israel came under substantial international criticism and its actions were condemned by one United Nations inquiry, as the BDS group noted. A separate, more in-depth U.N. inquiry was considerably less emphatic and was accepted by Israel as fair, but pro-Palestinian activists and sympathizers tend to consider the case — like most of what Israel does — still open.

A third complaint tells you more about the complainers than it does about Matisyahu. He performed this past March in Washington at the annual policy conference of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying organization. BDS Valencia identifies it as “the pro-war, pro-occupation Israel lobbying group.”

The thing is, the AIPAC concert was a shared bill. The other performer was Israeli folk-rocker David Broza, who’s closely identified with Israel’s Peace Now movement and a host of other Israeli-Palestinian peace and coexistence initiatives. AIPAC, it seems, has more room on its stage for a diversity of opinions than BDS Valencia would like the reggae festival to have.

The final complaint against Matisyahu tells you more about the singer’s soul than his politics. The BDS group claims that Matisyahu “has praised Israeli settlers stealing Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank and making the lives of Palestinians a living hell.” As evidence, it links to a February 2014 blog post that Matisyahu posted to accompany the release of a single, “Hard Way,” from his album “Akeda.” Akeda is Hebrew for “The Binding” (of Isaac).

The song, “Hard Way,” (lyrics, video) is a wrenching meditation on Matisyahu’s painful break with Chabad Hasidism. “… I’m not OK and I cannot stay,” he sings, “when the trees go bare and sky goes gray, when the medicine’s gone and the dog has strayed, when the hurricane hits and there’s no barricades…”

And the refrain that’s repeated throughout the song — and that might be the greatest lesson about the Spanish uproar — he sings: “Who am I to say? I know nothing it seems, until it’s way too late. I’m learning this the hard way.”

The accompanying blog post is a moving narrative of his struggles with drugs and rebellion, his search for meaning, his discovery of Chabad and his realization — after he had already bound himself to the community with a marriage and children — that he found it stifling.

“Palace made of glass, thought that it might last,” he sings. “So afraid of change. Don’t do anything rash. But now I need my sight, more than ever before…”

In the blog post, the one person who comes through as a genuine friend and even savior — he describes him as a teacher and friend, and elsewhere as a spiritual mentor — is an unconventional Hasidic psychotherapist named Ephraim Rosenstein. Here’s how Matisyahu describes Rosenstein in the blog:

“Eventually I met an anti-establishment renegade Russian therapist/original thinker/Chassidic and Kabalistic creative wiz with a heart of gold and no fingers. They were shot off at point-blank range at his home in Hebron, where he lived with his family surrounded by Arabs in a trailer with no locks on the doors and bullet holes in the walls. Fearless and fuckin’ cool as shit! He came to Crown Heights every other week and we started intensive therapy and became close friends. I had found my teacher and friend and I began to heal.”

See? That’s where he “praised Israeli settlers,” according to BDS Valencia. Indeed, it does show tolerance for the settlement project, with perhaps an obliviousness to the political controversy that surrounds it. Does that quote constitute grounds for cancellation? There’s an old saying that silence implies consent, presumably meaning knowing silence. But what about obliviousness? What does that imply?

The Jerusalem Post and Ali Abunimah’s Electronic Intifada both quote — the Post approvingly, Abunimah critically — from a 2012 Cornell Sun interview that’s no longer on the Web, in which Matisyahu apparently said there was no such thing as Palestine until after Israel came into being. That’s ignorant.

Abunimah charges that these incidents indicate that Matisyahu uses his fame to spread his views, and so should be held accountable. That’s a pretty broad judgment call. Some entertainers, like Roger Waters, Ted Nugent and the Indigo Girls, clearly make efforts to use their fame as a tool to spread their opinions. They deliberately tie their art to their politics, even though the politics doesn’t appear within the performance. They’re virtually asking to be judged by what they say off-stage.

At other times, an entertainer might offer a controversial opinion at a random moment that’s so glaring and offends so many people that it can’t be overlooked. In 2011, country music legend Hank Williams Jr. shared an opinion of President Obama on Fox News that got his music yanked from ESPN. A Williams song was the lead-in to the sports network’s weekly Monday Night Football broadcast. Williams told Fox and Friends that Obama playing golf with House Speaker John Boehner was “like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu.”

The music was immediately replaced on the broadcast. It’s remained off permanently, despite Williams’ subsequent apology. The artist and the art became inseparable in too many minds. If you’re a country fan, you might well think that Williams didn’t deserve the permanent stigma. But Hank himself has acknowledged in the past, with a nod to his famed daddy, that perverse self-immolation is something of a family tradition.

As for Matisyahu’s views, the political ones seem to have been offered rarely, and in response to direct questions by interviewers. The ones he asks to be judged by are the ones he puts out intentionally, in his music. The one that’s essential to our present conversation is the observation that forms the refrain and spine of his stunningly personal confessional in “Hard Way”: “I know nothing, it seems, until it’s way too late. I’m learning this the hard way.” Yup.

His early music included the spiritual messages he absorbed from Chabad. In his newer incarnation, he’s sharing the lonely urgency of thinking for oneself. If he goes deeper and learns to question the political assumptions of the Chabad “glass palace” — a palace he fled four years ago — he and others will be enriched. But it won’t change the spiritual importance of his music. It’s important that he keep on rockin’.


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