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The Matisyahu Israel boycott controversy, explained in 500 words

Matisyahu.
Matisyahu.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Around April, the Jewish-American reggae artist Matisyahu was invited to play at the Rototom Sunsplash festival near Valencia, Spain. But the Valencia chapter of the movement to boycott Israel over its treatment of Palestinians publicly objected.

Valencia BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) claimed that Matisyahu defends "a state — Israel — that practices apartheid and ethnic cleansing, and so should be kicked out of the festival." Rototom's organizers caved: They demanded that Matisyahu make a public statement endorsing Palestinian statehood and, when he didn't, disinvited him on August 15.

On Wednesday, Rototom apologized and reinstated Matisyahu. But the incident had already become an international controversy.

Part of the issue is that Matisyahu is not Israeli, so demanding that he come out against Israeli policy comes across as being about his religion.

Valencia BDS points out that he once played at a Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces benefit, and has said concerning things about the history of a Palestinian state. But it would not be right to describe Matisyahu as a vocal supporter of Israel, much less of Israel's occupation of the West Bank. He generally opposes weighing in on politics, and has resisted discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict.

This leaves the impression that the BDS chapter had targeted Matisyahu based in part on an assumption that Jews necessarily support all Israeli policies unless they prove otherwise. Indeed, no other artists were asked to publicly come out in favor of a Palestinian state.

But part of the controversy is that this also speaks to a larger problem for the global BDS movement, which has struggled to reconcile its mainstream members with its hard-liners.

BDS's mainstream support comes from legitimate outrage at Israel over its treatment of Palestinians and a desire to peacefully force change. But a number of prominent BDS activists, including one of its co-founders, wants to end the conflict by unifying Israel and Palestine into a single state, which would end Israel's existence as a Jewish state entirely. That kind of hard-line position can attract cranks, sometimes even anti-Semitic ones.

As the left-wing writer Moriel Rothman-Zecher points out, it's not clear BDS knows how to deal with this problem:

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.

It's wrong and unfair to judge an entire movement by its nuttiest members. But the Matisyahu incident shows that BDS really can sometimes look like the movement its more hard-line members want it to be. 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.