Matisyahu in Spain and the BDS Inquisition

Matisyahu in Spain and the BDS Inquisition


Picture: Sean Gallup-Getty Images


August 20, 2015

By Joshua Tartakovsky
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 theChicago 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 supportersexpressed 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.