(photo credit: ETHAN MILLER / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP)
Let’s not mince words: The attack on Jewish hip-hop singer Matisyahu was motivated by blatant anti-Semitism.
Nothing else explains why only Matisyahu, the most visibly Jewish performer invited to an annual reggae music festival in Benicassim, Valencia, was subjected to a grilling on political opinions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When he refused to declare his unconditional support for the creation of a Palestinian state, Matisyahu was disinvited.
It is reprehensible that any artist should be interrogated by thought police or cultural commissars on his or her political opinions as a condition for participating in a festival or other public forum that provides exposure for the artist’s art.
This is particularly true when the artist’s political views are largely unknown and tangential to his or her art.
Matisyahu’s songs have touched on themes related to Judaism, such as “Jerusalem,” based on Psalm 137 that expresses the Jews’ longing for a perfected world. Other lyrics are influenced by hassidic thought.
But Matisyahu’s art does not deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has rarely commented on the subject.
On the few occasions when he has, he has done so with tremendous care, nuance and sensitivity.
In a 2012 interview with Cornell University’s student newspaper that has been used as evidence against the singer for his purportedly anti-Palestinian opinions, Matisyahu noted in response to a question about his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that the idea of a Palestinian state was born in response to Zionism.
The hip-hop singer went on to say, however, that “I’m not going to claim that I have the answer or the truth or the right knowledge. I’m a singer. I’m a musician trying to find his own sense of balance in his own life, trying to write songs that inspire people. I love people and I love human beings and I think if people could focus on that. It’d be great.
“But I have no answers as to who is right and who is wrong, and how we should deal with such huge issues that go back so far. All I know is that I have devout Muslim followers who love my music. To me that’s what it’s about with modern people, getting past who killed who and knowing that God created this world in mercy. And if we could emulate that quality of mercy, we would be godly people.” Matisyahu’s critics also point to a Tweet from 2011 in which the singer recommended a video featuring then-deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon explaining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Cornell interview and the Tweet were all that the BDS activists could come up after much digging.
That this is happening in Europe compounds the obscenity. The legacy of the Holocaust gives Europeans a special moral obligation to combat attacks motivated by anti-Semitism such as the one on Matisyahu. Yet, organizers of the music festival chose to cave in to pressure from BDS activists. Sadly, this comes as no surprise.
Visibly Jewish people are regularly attacked on the streets of European cities, sometimes with lethal results, simply because they are visibly Jewish. Criticism of purported Israeli “war crimes” or “the occupation” serve as a pretext for lashing out against Jews who may or may not support specific Israeli policies.
On June 22, Spain finally changed the name of a town called Camp Kill Jews [Castrillo Matajudios], a testament to the deep roots of Jew-hatred in the Iberia Peninsula dating back to before the Inquisition. That change should be praised. But clearly there is more to be done in Spanish culture to differentiate between criticism of Israeli policies and anti-Semitism.
The festival receives part of its financial support from public authorities funded by Spanish taxpayers. These authorities have a moral obligation to demand that Matisyahu be reinvited or, alternatively, demand that the public funds be returned.
As Matisyahu noted in a Facebook post, “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.
“Were any of the other artists scheduled to perform asked to make political statements in order to perform? No artist deserves to be put in such a situation simply to perform his or her art. Regardless of race, creed, country, cultural background, etc., my goal is to play music for all people. As musicians that is what we seek.”
All we can say to that is: Amen.