Matisyahu’s litmus test
The Rototom SunSplash Festival is a well-known, popular, annual venue for reggae music in Spain, drawing talent from all over the world. The musician Matisyahu — the one-time “Chasidic Reggae Superstar” and current mainstream performer born as Matthew Miller — was scheduled to perform at the festival’s prestigious closing night event. But before he would be permitted to do so, organizers of the festival, under pressure from a local boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement group, demanded that Matisyahu declare his support for a Palestinian state. He refused. The festival then cancelled his performance.
When news of the cancellation and the reason for it was made public, the reactions were quick, pointed and powerful. Jewish organizations condemned the actions. The U.S. Embassy expressed its displeasure. The Spanish government itself criticized the move, and even El Pais, the Spanish newspaper that is harshly critical of Israel, condemned the BDS group and the festival. In response to the intense international condemnation, the festival reversed its position, reinstated Matisyahu and apologized. “Rototom Sunsplash rejects anti-Semitism and any form of discrimination towards the Jewish community,” said a statement.
As welcome as this apology is, it misses a larger point that exposes the true nature of the take-no-prisoners BDS movement. Matisyahu is a performer, not a politician. What place does the litmus test of Palestinian statehood have in determining whether he should perform? And what is to be gained by restricting the performance of an accomplished music star because of his political beliefs? More importantly, why was it that of all the hundreds of performers at the festival, only the American Jewish performer was subjected to the pledge demand?
The BDS movement is wrong in both a practical and an ethical sense when it calls for a boycott of Israeli artists. It becomes a totalitarian enforcer of its own vision of political correctness when it extends that boycott to artists who don’t meet its standards of ideology. And, it becomes anti-Semitic when it chooses to extend that standard of political correctness only to Jews.
In the end Matisyahu, who is not Israeli, chose to defy the BDS movement by closing out his performance by belting out his popular “Jerusalem” — not as a political statement, but as a personal, artistic statement.
Perhaps the Matisyahu experience can serve as a reminder that, so long as the art in question is not hateful and does not promote violence or harm to others — and objectively, there is nothing hateful or threatening in any of Matisyahu’s songs — we should let artists be artists. If people have a problem with a performer’s politics, lyrics or statements made in interviews, the remedy is not to ban the performer. Rather, those who don’t like a performer for any reason should not attend that performer’s shows. Or, they may choose to go, and just may be surprised.