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.
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.
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.
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.
Written by Matisyahu, Allan Grigg & DP Holmes.
From the album “Spark Seeker” (2012) - Fallen Sparks Records
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 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.”