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The Matisyahu Israel boycott controversy, explained

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Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Update: The Rototom festival has reversed itself, reinstating Matisyahu's invitation to perform. Also, the Valencia BDS chapter issued a statement defending its decision but stating that it had acted outside the cultural boycott guidelines outlined by the larger BDS movement.

Over the weekend, American reggae singer Matisyahu, who is Jewish, was booted from Spain's Rototom Sunsplash music festival. According to the festival's organizers, they canceled his performance because Matisyahu refused to issue a statement endorsing a Palestinian state.

That's exactly as outrageous as it sounds: The implication is that Jews are a suspect class, that all Jews are presumed responsible for the actions of Israel, and that is appropriate to demand that Jews affirmatively prove they have the "right" loyalties and beliefs.

But this is about more than just one Spanish reggae fest. The controversy speaks to a much bigger fight over the growing international campaign to boycott Israel, and if that campaign can overcome the extremists in its ranks — or whether it even wants to.

Why Matisyahu's performance was canceled


Matisyahu in 2005. He's since shaved off of his beard, as a break with parts of Orthodox Jewish tradition. (Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

The sequence of events here is important to understanding how this became an international controversy.

The first reports of Matisyahu playing Rototom appear around mid-April; he's scheduled for the Main Stage on August 22, the last day of the festival. His prominent billing makes sense; Matisyahu has been among the world's most famous reggae artists since about 2005. His music has always been pretty heavily Jewish-inflected, which was actually a selling point in Rototom's official bio on the website.

Sometime after that, the anti-Matisyahu campaign begins. It's spearheaded by the local chapter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in Valencia, Spain (the Rototom festival is held just outside of the city). BDS is a campaign that promotes boycotts of Israeli goods and sanctions on the country; more about this, and why it's so controversial, later.

The local BDS chapter, according to the newspaper El Pais (in Spanish), wanted Rototom to cancel Matisyahu's concert. Their main complaint, they said, was that Matisyahu is a Zionist who defends "a state — Israel — that practices apartheid and ethnic cleansing."

For a bit, Rototom's organizers stood by Matisyahu. They wrote in an August 11 Facebook post that his previous comments suggesting sympathy for Israel didn't mean he supported all Israeli policies.

Just two days later, though, the head of the festival, Filippo Giunta, demanded that the artist clarify his stance on Israel/Palestine. Matisyahu refused. On August 15, Rototom's organizers announced that the concert was canceled, citing the artist's failure to "clearly declare himself regarding the war and in particular the right of the Palestinian people to have their own State."

That's when the controversy exploded — and stopped being just about Matisyahu.

What Matisyahu actually believes and what it says about BDS

You might get the sense from all this that Matisyahu is an outspoken champion of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. In fact, he goes to some lengths to avoid discussing politics, and particularly the Israel-Palestine conflict, on which he has resisted taking a position. The fact that this alone got him booted from the Spanish music festival is significant for this episode.

Occasionally, a reporter will press him into discussing Israel, and typically Matisyahu will respond in a way that suggests sympathy for Israel but also a very strong desire to remain apolitical. In 2010, for example, he lamented what he called "one-sided" media coverage of the raid on a Gaza aid flotilla by Israeli forces, which killed 10. When the reporter asked him if he was a "militant Zionist," Matisyahu responded, "No. What does that even mean? That's getting into bigger questions, and I'm not going to do that. I'm a musician. My whole purpose is to bring people together; it's not about focusing on negative stuff."

Similarly, in 2012 he told the Cornell Sun in an interview that "as far as I understand, there was never a country called Palestine." It was a bizarre thing to say and understandably offensive to Palestinians. But he appeared to be speaking historically about a Palestinian state, not ideologically about the existence of Palestinians as a people. And, more to the point, he hastened to add, "I’m not going to claim that I have the answer or the truth or the right knowledge. I’m a singer. ... I have no answers as to who’s right and who’s wrong, and how we should deal with such huge issues that go back so far."

The point is that if you look at what Matisyahu has actually said, yes, he has at times suggested a vague sympathy for Israel, but it's clear that his overwhelming view is that he is apolitical and doesn't think it's his business to weigh in.

Yet the BDS campaign against Matisyahu claims he supports "apartheid and ethnic cleansing." Why? Given the scant evidence, it looked like the BDS chapter had concluded this based in part on Matisyahu's religion, and an assumption that Jews necessarily support all Israeli policies unless they prove otherwise. It's not a standard, after all, that non-Jews are being held to.

At the same time, the hostility to Matisyahu also seemed to reflect a belief that showing any support for Israel or Israelis is tantamount to complicity in all Israeli actions. That's an odd standard, given that many Americans can oppose certain US policies, such as drones or the Iraq War, without opposing the existence of the United States itself.

That standard starts to make more sense, though, if you think that not just Israeli policies, but the existence of Israel itself, is the problem. And indeed that is the position of some, though certainly not all, within BDS.

This shows a fundamental problem for BDS

spanish rally boycott

A rally against the Gaza war, which included calls to boycott Israel, in Barcelona. (Albert Llop/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

BDS, as a movement, officially has one central objective: to put economic and political pressure on Israel in order to get it to change its policies towards the Palestinians.

That's a cause with mainstream support in Europe, and elsewhere, as a means to end the occupation. But it's also a cause that's attracted support from activists who take a more extreme position. The incident with Matisyahu speaks to that, and to the way in which the movement is at times defined by its most hard-line members.

Much of the support for BDS comes from anger at Israel's settlement policy in the West Bank and its policies toward Gaza. "The main reason for [BDS's] continued growth ... is the failure to end the occupation that began in 1967 and achieve Palestinian national liberation and sovereignty," Matt Duss, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, said in recent congressional testimony.

Yet BDS has also attracted members who want to do more than just stop Israel's occupation of the West Bank and its policies toward Gaza. While the movement takes no official position on how to end the Israel-Palestine, one of its co-founders, Omar Barghouti, has called for unifying them into a single state, which would mean dissolving Israel as a Jewish state. This has fed suspicions that at least some proponents of BDS do not see it as just a means to pressure Israel to change its policies, but a means to ending Israel itself.

Proponents of anti-Semitism, which is rising globally, have also at times gravitated toward BDS. This spring in South Africa, for example, protesters rallying in support of BDS shouted, "You Jews do not belong here in South Africa."

That said, it would of course be wrong and unfair to judge an entire movement by the policy positions of a few of its members, or to judge all of BDS based on the statements of a few proponents in a protest. And indeed, many BDS proponents stress their support for a two-state solution that preserves Israeli statehood and protects Israeli interests. That includes the European Union, which is considering a measure to label any imports produced in Israeli settlements — a sort of soft boycott of those settlements.

But the Matisyahu incident shows that BDS really can sometimes look like the movement its more hard-line members want it to be. And the movement really has failed to deal with this. As the left-wing writer Moriel Rothman-Zecher points out, it's not clear BDS knows how to deal with this problem:

The majority of the BDS campaigns I have followed are non-violent and justice-seeking...[but] it seems that many pro-BDS activists are unwilling to even question a BDS campaign (like the Matisyahu one) or entertain the thought that there could be some traces of bigotry involved unless the organizers of the campaign go full out and say "Btw we hate all Jews." It is as if all one needs to do is swap out the word "Zionist" for "Jew," and they’re good to go.

Who is welcome in BDS?

The issue goes beyond a few cranks. Part of BDS's objective is to stigmatize: to make opposing their vision for Palestinian liberation unacceptable in polite circles, just as the campaign against South African apartheid made it socially unacceptable to support that government.

But they at times extend that stigmatization to any association with Israel, whether it is related to the occupation or not; an implication of this logic is that the Israeli state itself should be considered fundamentally illegitimate.

"The Palestinian boycott call targets cultural institutions, projects and events that continue to serve the purposes of the Israeli colonial and apartheid regime," as BDS puts it on its website.

That's roughly the logic by which it makes sense to target Matisyahu for protest, even though he's not Israeli: His refusal to condemn Israel's treatment of Palestinians serves "the purposes of the Israeli colonial and apartheid regime."

But that logic only makes sense if you assume that this American Jew who goes out of his way to avoid discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict, and in his few statements has hinted at generalized sympathy to Israel, must therefore be somehow abetting Israeli policies. It's a logic that is either totally incoherent or anti-Semitic or both.

As long as the BDS movement refuses to clarify its position on what is and is not a legitimate target for boycotting, not to mention on whether it sees the Israeli state as legitimate, it will likely continue to attract, and to some extent be defined by, extremists like those in the Valencia chapter. Running any international, decentralized movement is difficult, and often requires accepting a plurality of views, but until BDS sets a clear line on what it won't accept, it will be known as the movement that attacks largely apolitical Jewish singers as well as the movement that seeks justice for Palestinians.

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