It is not anti-Semitic to boycott Matisyahu

Matisyahu has a long record of supporting anti-Palestinian organizations. (DeShaun Craddock/Flickr)

In recent days, anti-Palestinian organizations have been crowing over the disinvitation of Matthew Paul Miller, an American Jewish singer who uses the stage name Matisyahu, from the Rototom Sunsplash music festival in Valencia, Spain.

Amid cries of anti-Semitism from the Anti-Defamation League and the World Jewish Congress and condemnation by the government of Spain, the incident has become the latest stick with which to beat the Palestinian-led movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

“The festival organizers contacted me because they were getting pressure from the BDS movement,” Miller wrote on his Facebook page on 17 August. “They wanted me to write a letter, or make a video, stating my positions on Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to pacify the BDS people.”

“My music speaks for itself, and I do not insert politics into my music,” he claimed.

Miller suggested that he was being singled out solely because he is Jewish: “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.”

Under a storm of pressure, the festival organizers relented, apologized to Miller and reinvited him to perform next Saturday.

Miller’s support for Israel

But was Miller really targeted just because he was Jewish?

Or was it because of his long, public record of supporting in word and by deed Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights?

BDS País Valencià have explained in a statement why they contacted the festival: “The reasons for our outrage was clear in our messaging: Matisyahu’s repeated defense of Israeli war crimes and gross violations of human rights, incitement to racial hatred and connections to extremist and violent fundamentalist groups in Israel stand in direct contradiction to the human rights and peace principles and spirit of this festival.”

Their goal was to hold the festival accountable to its stated goal of supporting “peace, equality, human rights and social justice.”

A native New Yorker, Miller has certainly never needed to be coerced to declare that “I’m a strong supporter of Israel.” But he has gone far beyond that.

He has headlined fundraisers for Friends of the IDF, a group that raises money for and glorifies the Israeli army of occupation. His work has also been used in official Israeli propaganda videos.

In April, he performed at the policy conference of AIPAC, the most powerful Israel lobby group in the US.

The same month he also performed at a pro-Israel festival in New Orleans, organized by Chloe Valdary, the Christian Zionist rising star of US pro-Israel activism.

Valdary’s Allies of Israel group, which sponsored the festival, has been funded by the extreme anti-Palestinian organization CAMERA, according to Times of Israel.

Backed flotilla attack

Miller was vocal in his support for Israel’s attack on the Gaza-bound flotilla in May 2010, which killed 10 people aboard the Mavi Marmara.

“Whether or not the ships should have been bringing aid to Gaza, those territorial waters belong to Israel – it’s internationally agreed,” he claimed in an interview with The Jewish Chronicle.

“Do you honestly believe that, if someone was in the English Channel, the British navy would do anything but blow the crap out of the boat, just blow it out of the water?” he added. “But still people are going to think Israel behaved horribly.”

“No other country,” Miller asserted “would put up with the crap that Israel does.”

Palestine didn’t exist

This wasn’t the only occasion Miller has used the platform he’s received as a musician to promote his anti-Palestinian views.

In a 2012 interview with The Cornell Sun, he promoted the position, popular among Zionist extremists, that Palestinians and their country are a recent invention.

“As far as I understand, there was never a country called Palestine,” he said. “Palestine was a creation that was created within Israel, as Israel had already come about.”

“Palestine” is in fact the only name for the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River that has historically been used by both Zionists and Palestinians.

Miller’s claim moreover that Palestine was “created within Israel” after “Israel had already come about” amounts to Nakba denial – the erasure from history of the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Zionist militias.

Miller is at least consistent. In 2011, he tweeted out a notorious video called “The Truth about the West Bank” featuring then Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon denying that the territory is occupied and justifying Israel’s settlements that are illegal under international law.

Is Miller boycottable?

Let us be clear that if the only reason Miller had been asked to state a position on Palestine was that he was Jewish that would indeed be discriminatory and unacceptable.

It is, however, Zionists and anti-Semites who insist that being Jewish and being Zionist are synonymous. This is a position long rejected by many Jews and of course by the Palestinian-led BDS movement.

The vast majority of artists addressed by BDS campaigns in recent years have been neither Jewish nor Israeli.

Nor are any of the firms that are most often the targets of divestment campaigns – such as Veolia, Hewlett-Packard, Boeing, Motorola, G4S, or Caterpillar – Israeli.

This is because BDS is not a campaign against Israelis as such, but against Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights and complicity in those violations.

Just because Miller is Jewish does not mean he cannot be held accountable for his high-profile support for Israeli policies against Palestinians.

“Anchored in precepts of international law and universal human rights, the BDS movement, including PACBI, rejects on principle boycotts of individuals based on their identity (such as citizenship, race, gender, or religion) or opinion,” the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel states in its guidelines.

PACBI says that its boycott aims not at individuals but at complicit institutions.

But, it adds, “an individual artist/writer, Israeli or otherwise, cannot be exempt from being subject to ‘common sense’ boycotts (beyond the scope of the PACBI institutional boycott criteria) that conscientious citizens around the world may call for in response to what they widely perceive as egregious individual complicity in, responsibility for, or advocacy of violations of international law (such as war crimes or other grave human rights violations), racial violence, or racial slurs.”

The same would apply to any non-Israeli, whether they are Jewish or not.

Conscience

It then comes down to a matter of conscience and judgment as to whether Miller’s vocal support for Israeli war crimes, his fundraising for the Israeli army, his performances for AIPAC and other anti-Palestinian organizations amount to “egregious individual complicity.”

The guidelines issued by PACBI are important, but they are not laws and Palestinians don’t have the power to enforce them.

Groups, in this case BDS País Valencià and others in Spain, must follow their consciences. Palestinians ask them to act in an ethical, consistent and anti-racist manner.

Based on my reading of the PACBI guidelines and Miller’s public politics it is difficult to see why asking him to state a clear position against Israeli violations of Palestinian rights is in any way unreasonable.

This is a conclusion that can be reached not only by supporters of BDS, but also those on record opposing cultural boycott, such as Daniel Sieradski, the prominent American Jewish blogger who used to have Miller as a web-design client.

“Matisyahu [Miller] wasn’t targeted because he’s Jewish. He was targeted because he’s a prominent pro-Israel figure who has publicly supported the IDF [Israeli army] and denied Palestinian identity,” Sieradski observes. “Every time he opens up his mouth about Palestine, he shoves his foot into it by spouting off some hasbara [propaganda] nonsense, and then reels it back and says, ‘But really I’m not political.’”

Sieradski reveals more about Miller’s background: “His spiritual mentor, Ephraim Rosenstein, to whom he attributes his spiritual regrounding, lives in occupied Hebron, praised Baruch Goldstein after the Tomb of the Patriarchs massacre and raises money for an organization that provides legal aid to Israeli extremists charged with murdering Palestinians.”

Sieradski also recounts a troubling story from New York City’s Beatbox Festival a few years ago when Miller allegedly pulled out the amp cord on another performer because he deemed his message to be “pro-Arab.”

Charles Manekin, an orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor who blogs with the pen name Jeremiah Haber, points out the inconsistencies of those crying anti-Semitism over the short-lived boycott of Miller.

“When Israeli cultural groups are boycotted simply because they come from Israel, regardless of their political views, BDS is attacked for being anti-Semitic,” he writes. “When pro-Israel artists are boycotted because of their views, BDS is anti-Semitic.”

“Had Matisyahu, who has made political statements in the past in favor of Israel, endorsed a Palestinian state, or justice for the Palestinians, he would not have been cancelled, even with the protest of the Spanish BDS group,” Manekin writes. “But an artist who has politicized his work should not be surprised if he is called out on it.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

Update, 20 August: government video

In February 2014, Miller’s 2012 song “Sunshine” was used in an official Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) propaganda video that was promoted on social media with the description “Israelis lip-dub Matisyahu’s hit ‘Sunshine’ on the background of some of Israel’s most beautiful sites.”

The purpose of the video, the Walla! news site reported, was to showcase “the beautiful face of Israel.”

The text on the YouTube page suggests an official relationship between the artist and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Israelis lip-dub Matisyahu’s hit “Sunshine” on the background of some of Israel’s most beautiful sites.

Sunshine

Written by Matisyahu, Allan Grigg & DP Holmes.

From the album “Spark Seeker” (2012) - Fallen Sparks Records

Credits

Production: Sluztky & Dana Cohen Productions HSCC, Zed Films

[…]

Please credit Israel MFA for any use of this video.

The Israeli ministry both credits Matisyahu as a writer while also asking that everyone “credit Israel MFA for any use of this video.”

The producers of this propaganda video, Zed Films, were also commissioned to produce the official video for “Sunshine.”

The Israeli video company Zed Films has produced other Israeli propaganda videos including “Sex with the psychologist,” a bizarre rape-themed story about the Mavi Marmara flotilla massacre.

The government video is an indication of how Israel is happy to use Miller’s music – undoubtedly with his consent and approval – for its own political purposes, but cries foul when others react.

Miller is also content to have his music used this way, but at the same time insists his work is not “political.”

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This was an interesting case of testing BDS cultural limits: can/should pro-Israeli performers be excluded from cultural events? This case was easy to label as anti-Semitism b/c the performer is Jewish. But what about non-Jews who are pro-Israel or have performed in Israel? Will they all have to sign or make a statement regarding their views on I/S before being allowed to perform at some event? And despite the enormous pressure being applied against artists, many are still going to perform in Israel: Mariah Carey, Kanye West, Bon Jovi, Gil and Caetano, Pharrell Williams etc. Either BDS is not working here or they don't care.
On the college divestment front, especially in the US, BDS's biggest obstacle will always be the "singling out, double standards" charge from the pro-Israel side. The watered-down divestment resolutions recently coming out of the US colleges, that have to include other countries (Turkey, China, etc.) and organizations (the PA), if they are to pass. They can end up being farcical or meaningless, as in the case of the Stanford one, which called on the university to divest from the US.

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Yeah, I don't buy it still. Do the festival organizers truly care about human rights? Why didn't they take Jamaican reggae artist Capleton off the lineup? Especially as his songs often feature violently homophobic lyrics, including one song that goes "shoulda know seh Capleton bun battyman [burn gays]/ Dem same fire apply to di lesbian/ all boogaman [gays] and sodomites fi get killed." Murder music is ok, but a supporter of Israel no?

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Oh come on only a handful of people can translate Capletons lyrics and it's not reggae ..
Reggae is the music of Jah love peace and unity
I see your point but don't feed the likes of Capletons & their O2 supply will run out !

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i was at the gig, I can honestly say all Capleton preached thru' his lyrics on Wednesday nite was love peace & harmony. Absolutely nothing derrogative was mentioned thru' his songs. Check out the videos on Rototom's website...
There is smoke where ther is not fire... Get over it!

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As it happens, I've heard his music. Some might describe it as being devoted to "peace" (without explaining what that word means to them). I would describe Matisyahu's music as a clear, militant expression of Zionist ideology, filtered through a messianic religious sensibility. His subject matter is drawn from Jewish claims on God's alleged promise of an unemcumbered, exclusive right to all of historical Palestine (yes, the nation that doesn't exist). He makes no pretense in his lyrics or manner of presentation to any concerns beyond those of the Jewish people as defined by right wing orthodox sources. On top of which, he adopts an artificial Jamaican accent in which to deliver his material, a tactic both condescending and racist. His performance becomes a sort of Jewish minstrel show. This appropriation of a cultural signifier associated with an oppressed people in order to cloak one's own dubious message in an air of justification is pretty rank.

I think the more exposure people have to this fraud the less time they're going to give his songs of "peace". But that exposure shouldn't come at the expense of an event organised around notions of justice, equality and friendship.

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2015 marks the 100th Anniversary of D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" (originally called The Clansman). Although acclaimed as a cinematic masterpiece it was also a brazen glorification of racism, slavery and the first Ku Klux Klan . Among other things it portrayed the victimizer (the KKK) as the victim. Not coincidentally it set in motion the formation of the second Ku Klux Klan.

In the matter of "Matisyahu", here is a fellow who holds clearly racist views (whether he chooses to admit they are racist or not), defends ethnic cleansing and is an apologist for a vicious brutal neo-fascist criminal regime. Yet he acts as if he were the victim (instead of the victimizer) when asked to account for his less than savory views.

The allegations of "anti-Semitism" leveled against those who wish to hold him accountable are not only baseless but pathetic, no desperate, attempts to weasel out of his despicable actions.

Hopefully the general public will not be bamboozled by this and see it for what is.

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Don't feed Chloe Valdeys ego. Make her think she's accomplished something other than getting smacked on camera.

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Was there anything in his original contract calling making his appearance dependent on espousing specific political views? Was the same clause in everyone else's contract? Was anyone asked to adhere to a particular position on any other regional conflict as a condition of their appearance? Chechnya? Syria? Tibet? Basque Separation? Scottish Independence?

Was anyone asked to comment on female inequality in the workplace? Was anyone forced to comment on Russian oppression of homosexuals?

I'm willing to argue that Matisyahu is "boycottable" due to the views he has expressed in the past, but to suggest that he was not singled out is an act of (not-unsurprising) BDS exceptionalism which places the blame for every bad thing that has ever happened in the world squarely upon Israel and its supporters.

It's hardly surprising that BDS has not gained mainstream acceptance when they waste their time targeting silly musicians while repeatedly refusing to release a single statement condemning misogyny, homophobia and extra-judicial executions when they are perpetrated on Palestinians by their own leaders.

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My thoughts exactly. If the concert organizers had a moral backbone, they would not sign artists with whom they politically disagree. This is a clear cut case of singling out a Jew.

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These are good points and I think BDS made a serious misstep here. Part of the problem lies in BDS's contention of being human rights organization and not just an advocate for the Palestinian people. I suppose it's not an either-or approach but by trying to situate or cast the I/P conflict as a universal human rights issue as opposed to a localized conflict between two peoples with all their specific issues, it will run into problems like Matisyahu and be vulnerable to the singling out charge from Israeli supporter. For if BDS is a universal human rights campaign, are they going to boycott Turkish artists if they do not sign a statement saying they disagree with the illegal occupation of Cyprus and the persecution of Kurds; Chinese artists who do not speak out about Tibet; South African artists who have remained silent about the destruction of the indigenous San people...? As I mentioned, this is the problem it's running into on college campuses in the US. I expect we will see the usual divestment resolutions being passed but they will be watered down to include divesting from companies that do business in the OT as well as China, Turkey, US, all the Arab regimes, and most of Africa.

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How could I forget! We must solve Chechnya first before we check anything else. (btw, Daniel Sevitt, was it OK to get rid of South Africa Apartheid? Or was that in the wrong sequence too, and too early? Should we reinstall it there, and solve Chechnya first? Tell us, what is our priority?)

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Thank you Ali for selectively quoting Matisyahu. His ideas come alive when I read them myself without your interference.

"Oh boy," he says, fiddling with his grey beard and peyot. "I am blown away by the one-sided media coverage. Whether or not the ships should have been bringing aid to Gaza, those territorial waters belong to Israel - it's internationally agreed. They were warned repeatedly not to go there. But when the Israeli soldiers came onto the ships they were lynched; they were shot, stabbed, and beaten with poles. They were meant to be peace activists and they've got Molotov cocktails! Did you see the footage? It's not Israelis beating up peace activists - they're slamming the soldiers one at a time with metal poles!"
He is shouting now, and fiddling more intently with his peyot.
"Do you honestly believe that, if someone was in the English Channel, the British navy would do anything but blow the crap out of the boat, just blow it out of the water? But still people are going to think Israel behaved horribly. As it is, Israel gives tons of aid to Gaza. And they told the people on the ship to go over to dry land and they'd bring the aid with those people overseeing it. But they [the activists] wanted to instigate whatever they wanted to. It's anarchy." He stops eating for a moment, then looks down. "No other country," he says with a heavy sigh, "would put up with the crap that Israel does."

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Since when does an artist's political views subject him or her to a boycott? PACBI and its patron saint Omar Barghouti have always made clear that someone's views have no bearing on boycotting them. It's supposed to be institutional affiliation.

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As the article makes clear, this artist enjoys a strong institutional affiliation with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He's also an avowed backer of the Friends of the IDF and has raised funds on their behalf. This is not an unattached position. It's a militant identification and participation in Israeli politics and military life from a far-right perspective. He has made this commitment. Fine. But he can't turn around and blithely declare that the only thing that's relevant is that he's Jewish. That's not what this is about. And by the way, neither Barghouti nor anyone else has said that an individual's endorsement of violent racism and oppression of Palestinian people shouldn't play a part in assessing whether he/she qualifies as a subject of the boycott.

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The territorial waters of Gaza do not belong to Israel. Leaving aside that very important point, it's equally true that Israel attacks and seizes vessels in international waters, having done so against the latest unarmed relief flotilla. Furthermore, Israel possesses no legal authority to maintain its blockade of Gaza. Nor slaughter the population there. Nor colonise the territories captured in 1967, expel the inhabitants, subject those who remain to the longest military occupation in modern times, introduce a foreign population into that territory, and devise an elaborate system of racial discrimination that veterans of the South African freedom struggle such as Bishop Desmond Tutu and Ronnie Kasrils have described as exceeding in thoroughness and cruelty the apartheid which formerly afflicted their homeland. These are the terms and conditions enforced by the Zionist state, and they have nothing to do with the British Channel, or Tibet, or the Bible. If the artist currently known as Matisyahu endorses all this and more, fine. That's his right and privilege. But by the same token, people of conscience around the world have the same right to point out the radical disjunction between his avowed position in support of this violent settler colonial regime and his claims of non-political involvement. He has taken a harsh, unrelenting and dishonest stand against a bitterly oppressed people, and as far as I'm concerned shouldn't be welcome at a festival promoting the cause of justice and equality.

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Another point to be made about Matisyahu and the comments that Naomi chooses to repeat - serious or satire by the way? - is that he, like so many, never bothers to study reports that differ from Israeli versions. For anyone with common sense and an open mind who reads all available versions, Israel's inconsistencies, distortions, propaganda and cruelty are obvious.
No, Matisyahu, the British navy would not blow the boat out of the water, and yes, we did see the footage and heard former Israel Air Force pilot Yontan Shapira's testimony: the activists displayed no violence, were met with extreme IDF brutality, the soldiers “just jumped us, and hit us. I was hit with a taser gun.” He added, “Some of the soldiers treated us atrociously,” Shapira said, adding that he felt there was a “huge gap between what the IDF spokesman is saying happened and what really happened.”
As for tons of aid to Gaza, I reckon Matisyahu is a falsifier .

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hence you feel he was singled out. BDS is the campaign for cultural and academic and commercial boycott of Israel. Perhaps groups for the causes you mentioned as LGBTQ and equality between genders aren't as active as BDS when appealing to festival organizers and asking them to reconsider?

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Thank you for detailing Matisyahu's agenda and revealing him as the hypocrite he clearly is. I am sorry that the Spanish Rototom Sunsplash festival caved in to pressure, but they obviously went about it the wrong way. They should have simply disinvited him on the basis of the above evidence as being someone unsuited to their concept.
Matisyahu sounds extremely unpleasant, by the way, and we probably will hear more of him in future - and I don't mean his music, which is excruciatingly bland. More suited to AIPAC than a quality music festival.
The 'tourism' video - no comment.

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Of course, Rototom Sunsplash should not have invited him in the first place. For the same reason. Performing for AIPAC and Friends of the IDF, is not a hint?

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.