Pitch Perfect

Matisyahu performs at the opening ceremony of the European Maccabi Games in July in Berlin. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Jewish Light Editorial

3,000 years with no place to be

And they want me to give up my milk and honey

Don’t you see, it’s not about the land or the sea

Not the country but the dwelling of his majesty

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lyrics from “Jerusalem,” by Matisyahu

American Jewish singer Matisyahu performed his “Jerusalem” in a triumphant performance at the Rototom Sunsplash Festival in spain as part of a 45-minute set on Sunday. The performance came two days after the festival issued an apology for initially canceling his slot in the face of pressure from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Matisyahu’s very appearance was a triumph over the odious bigotry fostered by the BDS movement’s targeting of artists, pressuring various stars to cancel concerts in Israel and leaning on festival sponsors to nix appearances by Israeli and other Jewish performers.

Matisyahu (who will be performing at the Sheldon here in St. Louis on Oct. 23) is an American Jew, not an Israeli. According to JTA, he was apparently singled out by BDS activists because he was the only Jewish performer on the festival’s roster.  

Last week, after he ignored requests that he issue a statement declaring his support for Palestinian statehood, the festival shamefully canceled his appearance. That craven decision provoked strong condemnations from Jewish organizations, the Spanish government and Matisyahu himself, who wrote on his Facebook page last Monday that the festival organizers’ behavior was “appalling and offensive.”

The Rototom Sunsplash festival organizers reversed course, posting a lengthy apology on Facebook, stressing that it “rejects anti-Semitism and any form of discrimination towards the Jewish community.” Spokespeople for the festival added that it had initially canceled Matisyahu’s appearance under pressure from the BDS movement, citing its “campaign of pressure, coercion and threats” against the festival that provoked fears of disruption, which supposedly had “prevented the organization from reasoning clearly.” 

It was great that Matisyahu was willing to go on with his show despite the initial decision. And as things turned out, when Matisyahu did perform his set, protesters waved Palestinian flags and chanted “out, out,” but many others applauded the singer.

While the festival’s initial decision to cave in to BDS pressures to cancel Matisyahu’s concert was abhorrent, its reversal was most welcome. The entire sequence of events exposes the true aims of the BDS movement — the Jewish Light has in previous editorials dubbed it the Delegitimize Israel (DLI) movement — which often cites freedom of expression as a cover for its boycott pressures. The fact that the movement targeted Matisyahu, who is not Israeli, but who was the only scheduled Jewish performer at the concert, illustrates the lack of a line between some BDS tactics and outright anti-Semitism.

Some major performers have courageously refused to bow down to BDS pressures. The late Pete Seeger, the famous singer who was not Jewish, and who often criticized Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, refused to withdraw from a concert telecast worldwide in support of Israel. Artists ranging from Lady Gaga, Bette Midler and the Rolling Stones have refused to be intimidated from performing in Israel, eschewing the pressure imposed by BDS proponents.

Although it came only after a strong negative reaction to the initial cancellation of the Matisyahu concert, Rototom got it right.  Let us hope that when similar BDS efforts target other Jewish, Israeli and other artists, the experience in Spain will help concert sponsors think clearly and refuse to buckle to this kind of intellectual blackmail.

As for Matisyahu, he deserves our support, whether performing in Spain or St. Louis. His willingness to step up and perform the strains of his anthem to the ancient city of Jews (with chorus borrowed from Psalm 137) on the heels of such mistreatment is both brave and significant.