Not sure how I feel about Matisyahugate, and the recent mishagas over his participation in the Rototom International Reggae Festival in Spain. I started off feeling a bit turned off by BDS’ demand that Matisyahu make a statement about the Occupation as a precondition of his participation in the festival. BDS made this demand because of Matisyahu’s history of sometimes incendiary anti-Palestinian rhetoric. These views were out of step with the festival’s emphasis on social justice, human rights, equality, and non violence. Surely festival organizers knew Matisyahu’s views on Palestinian rights, or a Palestinian state, so asking for statements on the matter was both silly and clumsy. Don’t invite him if you don’t approve of his politics. But festival organizers only pressed Matisyahu for a statement because of pressure exerted by BDS, a movement committed to the social, cultural, and political isolation of Israel through boycott.
Now, an obvious question arises. If Matisyahu (a former Chabadnik) is singled out for his record of supporting Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, why don’t other artists representing other countries face the same scrutiny? Why don’t American artists face questions about the Iraq War, or the incarceration of millions of young black males for non violent crimes, before participating in International Film Festivals and Music Festivals? Why won’t BDS deploy the boycott tactic against artists coming from countries implicated in war crimes and human rights violations? Critics of BDS argue that the selective condemnation of Israel, and the boycotting of artists that support Israeli policies, demonstrates that BDS is anti Semitic. There is something about “the Jewish State,” critics argue, that BDS supporters find objectionable, and worthy of special scorn.
Another criticism of BDS, not directly related to Matisyahugate, lies in the movement’s commitment to boycotting Israel as an entire country. Instead of focusing their grievances around a specific set of policies, and limiting the apartheid claim to the occupied territories, the movement chooses to describe Israel, rather loosely, as an apartheid state. The movement thus blurs the distinction between the obvious crimes in the territories, and the less obvious crimes taking place inside the Green Line, where Israel’s official legitimacy is not in question, at least as it pertains to International Law. This distinction is critical, because there’s very little to be gained–practically speaking–by questioning Israel’s legitimacy as a nation state. All states are violent, and all states begin by displacing natives through force.
Failure to make a distinction between apartheid inside and outside the territories also undermines the potential for progress inside the country. If you’d like to see change in Israel, why not empower, support, and subsidize the artists, scholars, NGOs, Human Rights organizations, and activists committed to peace and democracy? Why should the forces of progress be included in the same tent as Miri Regev, Naftali Bennet, Ayalet Shaked, and the Knesset parties devoted to occupying and settling and annexing as much land as possible?
I contacted Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada and an important voice in BDS, about this question. He argued that boycotting Matisyahu is not a case of selective condemnation; if it were possible to change the policies of America by boycotting American artists, BDS would. Abunimah believes that international pressure on Israel–which BDS has helped cultivate–can lead to achievable goals; equal rights for all citizens of Israel, the end of the occupation, and the creation of a binational state. The increasing isolation of Israel, and its intensifying paranoia and defensiveness about the influence of BDS on college campuses, seems to prove that on some level, Abunimah is correct. BDS is having its greatest influence on future voters who may gradually diminish the impact of AIPAC and other pro Israel groups on US policy towards Israel. It is no longer a sensitive subject–as it used to be–to question Israeli policy, especially as Israel continues a regime of home demolitions, administrative detention, settlement construction, collective punishment, and disproportionate force.
Matisyahu was eventually reinvited to the concert, even though he is on record making some pretty terrible and vile remarks about Palestinians. That is his right. And it is right for the Spanish festival organizers to re-invite him to the concert. As a matter of strategy, but also on principle, BDS needs to distance itself from anything remotely connected to loyalty oaths and pledges of political fealty. Don’t attend the concert, or simply boycott the concert.
But don’t boycott the artist.