Jewish artist banned from festival for not endorsing BDS but backlash shines light on antisemitism. Low level boycotts and erasures of Israel become more common.

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Cultural boycotts of Israel and Israel supporters were suddenly prominent at the end of the summer, as artists, films, and exhibitions became targets. Most notable was the demand by a Spanish music festival that the American Jewish singer Matisyahu announce his support for BDS as a condition to perform. But the antisemitic nature of BDS became impossible to disguise and produced unwanted media attention and criticism. At the same time, boycotts or erasures of Israel by commercial entities became more frequent. These relatively minor events are becoming normalized, particularly in Europe, suggesting that individual companies or individual employees believe it possible to sanction Israel with relative impunity.


In July the focus of BDS activity shifted to the cultural sphere. Two notable incidents, one in which it was demanded that an American Jewish singer endorse BDS as a condition of performing, and a second in which an Israeli film was rejected from a Norwegian festival because it did not focus on the Arab-Israel conflict, demonstrated the antisemitic nature of the BDS movement.

In the first incident the American Jewish singer Matisyahu was scheduled to perform at the Rototom Sunsplash Reggae Festival in Spain. Under pressure from BDS activists, the festival organizers demanded that Matisyahu make a public declaration supporting “the Palestinians’ right to a state.” When he refused to do so, his appearance was canceled.

In a statement, Matisyahu clarified that

The festival organizers contacted me because they were getting pressure from the BDS movement. They wanted me to write a letter, or make a video, stating my positions on Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to pacify the BDS people. I support peace and compassion for all people. My music speaks for itself, and I do not insert politics into my music. Music has the power to transcend the intellect, ideas, and politics, and it can unite people in the process. The festival kept insisting that I clarify my personal views; which felt like clear pressure to agree with the BDS political agenda. Honestly 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?

Faced with rising criticism, the festival organizers first claimed that the decision to remove Matisyahu was “made by Matisyahu and BDS.” A local BDS activist who initiated the move noted, however, that “Matisyahu has never declared that he is in favor of human rights, nor the human rights of ‘Palestine,’… Unlike us.”

The implicit antisemitism of asking the only Jewish artist to endorse BDS as a requirement to perform quickly made headlines in the mainstream media. The incident also attracted widespread attention from the music media, and condemnation from Spanish media and government sources. Unwanted media attention was also focused on official Spanish support for NGOs pushing BDS, as well as the larger BDS environment in Spain. At least one of the festival’s sponsors severed its ties.

The festival then apologized and reinvited Matisyahu, stating that the BDS “campaign of pressure, coercion and threat” threatened the “normal functioning of the festival.” This concern prevented them from “reasoning clearly how to deal with the situation properly.”

Matisyahu performed at the Sunsplash Festival to a crowd of 20,000. Palestinian supporters and BDS protestors heckled and waved flags but otherwise there were no incidents. Some reports indicate that Spanish perceptions of the BDS movement have turned negative in the aftermath of the incident.

The banning of Matisyahu stood out since BDS guidelines do not focus on individuals supporting Israel but rather institutions. But reactions from BDS supporters were telling. Initially, BDS activists forced the festival to demand a loyalty statement as a condition to appear. When this was not forthcoming Spanish BDS activists criticized Matisyahu’s “incitement to racial hatred and his defense of Israeli war crimes, including in his lyrics,” and “hateful and racist views that dehumanize Palestinians and justify their oppression.”

A leading American BDS activist, Benjamin Norton, initially condemned the banning of Matisyahu but then deleted the post from his web site. In a clarification Norton stated that “Matisyahu’s ties to numerous Israeli institutions exempt him from unaffiliated individual status and satisfy the necessary conditions for what the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) calls “common sense” boycotts.” These include helping “raise money for the Israeli army,” performing at an AIPAC Policy Conference, and that his “lyrics are co-written by a settler in an illegal settlement in occupied territory.”

Palestinian BDS leader Omar Barghouti’s support for banning Matisyahu was unequivocal: “because of his record of hateful and racial incitement and his defense of Israeli war crimes and human rights violations, all of which directly contradict the human rights focus and spirit of the festival.” American BDS leader Ali Abunimeh echoed this position.

The implications of the Matisyahu incident are that, in the absence of explicit loyalty to the BDS cause, virtually any evidence of support for Israel may be sufficient for BDS advocates to claim that artists are implicated in Israeli “institutions” and hence should be boycotted. Despite BDS pressures, however, several major artists have recently appeared in Israel or have scheduled performances, including Mariah Carey, Kanye West, and Pharrell Wilson.

A second important incident was the banning of an Israeli film on disabled children from a Norwegian film festival. Organizers informed the Israeli director that as BDS supporters they could not show any film that did not focus on “the illegal occupation, or deals with the occupation or the blockade of Gaza, or otherwise about the discrimination of Palestinians.”

In this case Omar Barghouti, perhaps mindful of the inherently apolitical nature of disabled children, was quoted as saying the festival organizers had overreached and that “mere affiliation of Israeli cultural workers to an Israeli cultural institution is therefore not grounds for applying the boycott.” He added, however, that Israeli cultural institutions were “part and parcel of the ideological and institutional scaffolding of Israel’s regime of occupation.”

An incident in Paris shows that even routine efforts to represent Israel as a normal country are rejected by the BDS movement. The “Paris Plage” (Paris Beach) event is an annual series that recreates beaches along the banks of the Seine River in Paris. This year’s event included a day celebrating Tel Aviv and its beach culture. French BDS activists and left wing French politicians furiously criticized the event and demanded its cancellation. The event went forward, reportedly with few visitors but many journalists and a large police presence. Pro-Palestinian protestors also created a “Gaza beach” for the benefit of assembled journalists.

In addition to the Matisyahu, Norwegian, and Paris incidents, a variety of others suggest that BDS is being normalized, particularly within European society. In several incidents, Israel was removed from maps. In one, an Air France in-flight map showed only the West Bank and Gaza and not Israel. After complaints the company apologized for the omission. More predictably, the same omission was reported on a Royal Jordanian airlines in-flight map, as well as on a novelty globe sold in London shops.

Another report indicated that British Internet provider EE was preventing access to pro-Israel web sites. The status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital also became an issue with reports that the Brazilian foreign ministry no longer listed the country on passports issued to Jerusalem-born Israelis.

In another film-related event, an Israeli film series shown at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland was forced to change its name from “Carte Blanche” to “First Look at Israeli Cinema” after protests from pro-BDS Western and Arab filmmakers. The festival refused, however, to ban Israeli films. While initial reports touted the number of Arab films to be shown precisely as a response to the Israeli ones, in the end it appears that BDS pressure forced Arab filmmakers to withdraw from the festival.

Taken separately each incident is minor but together they suggest a trend where individuals within the European business and cultural communities make decisions to erase or ban Israel. Conversely, in most cases, widespread publicity, and in the most egregious cases their self-evident antisemitism, led to reversals.

Finally, in academia, several studies appeared showing the extent of campus BDS and antisemitism. A report from Brandeis University researchers surveyed several thousand Jewish students and found that one third had experienced verbal harassment, while three quarters had been exposed to antisemitic statements. California state schools, large Midwestern schools, and Canadian universities had particularly high levels of hostility towards Israel and Jews. One of the authors also commented that “the protection of Jewish students from harassment is not on the radar” of university administrations.

Another report from the Israel on Campus Coalition tracked 1630 anti-Israel events at US colleges and universities, in contrast to 3753 pro-Israel events at 213 institutions in the academic year 2014-2015. Overall, anti-Israel programming jumped more than 30% from the previous year. The report also made clear that Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) had undergone enormous growth and had considerable success partnering with “with progressive campus organizations that deal with issues such as LGBT rights, fossil fuel divestment, private prison reform, racial discrimination, and immigration reform.” This is consistent with the original approach of SJP from its founding in 2000 or 2001 by Hatem Bazian and Snehal Shingav, a South Asian socialist.

So-called ‘red-green’ alliances between BDS advocates and progressive and far left groups, such as Black Lives Matter, have been repeatedly noted. They form an essential part of European far left politics, and were a key method for the Muslim Brotherhood in Britain to gain power and legitimacy. The success of this strategy is reflected in the far left transformation of the British Labour Party and its domination by anti-Israel personalities such as Jeremy Corbyn and George Galloway. Corbyn, who is likely to be elected party leader, has been sharply criticized for his alliances with Islamists, Holocaust deniers, and antisemites, indulgence of Hamas and Hezbollah, and hostility towards Israel. For his part, Galloway, a long-time adversary of Israel and British Jews, has promised that if elected Mayor of London in 2016, he would not host Israelis.

The election of Corbyn, much less Galloway, would dramatically change the BDS environment in Britain. Their popularity, and the ‘red-green’ politics behind him, also portend changes in US politics.

Jewish artist banned from festival for not endorsing BDS but backlash shines light on antisemitism. Low level boycotts and erasures of Israel become more common.

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Alex Joffe

Editor SPME / BDS Monitor

Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. He received a B.A. in History from Cornell University in 1981 and Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona in 1991. From 1980 to 2003 he participated in and directed archaeological research in Israel, Jordan, Greece and the United States. Joffe taught at the Pennsylvania State University and Purchase College, and has been Director of Research for Global Policy Exchange, Ltd., and The David Project, Center for Jewish Leadership.

Joffe's work is uniquely broad. Since 1991 he has published dozens of studies on the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and is a leading figure in contentious debates over the relationship between archaeology and politics in the Middle East. He has also authored numerous works on contemporary issues, including Middle Eastern environmental security threats from pollution and weapons of mass destruction. His work on the problem of dismantling intelligence agencies is widely cited by experts and democratic reformers alike.

In the past decade Joffe has written and spoken on topics as varied as the future of American Jews, the Palestinian refugee problem, and nationalism. During that time as well he has been deeply involved with combating the problems of campus antisemitism, the ‘boycott, divestment and sanctions' movement against Israel, and in educating Jews and others about threats to Israel and the West. His current projects include a biography of a British World War II general and several novels. He and his family reside near New York City.

Read all stories by Alex Joffe