9 Thoughts on the Matisyahu Disinvite, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and Leftist Discourse

source: some corner of the internet. 

‘none are free until we are all free…’

So. Perhaps it was silly of me to think that I could just digitally jot down a few snippets about an issue I’ve been thinking about (but not writing about) a lot over the past year, and then call it a day. I have a lot more to say, some of it triggered by responses to my piece and tweets, and other things that are unconnected to Señor Matisyahu, but are very much connected to the other three subjects. Here goes.

1. I could be wrong about the Matisyahu Disinvite. 

It could be, as some thoughtful, progressive Twitter users argued, that the disinvite was not about him being Jewish, and rather was in response to offensive comments about Palestine and Palestinians. Daniel Wickham pared down the issue as follows:

(I also like his use of the word “dodgy,” but that is neither here nor there).

2. I could be right about the Matisyahu Disinvite. 

I do not know many details of the story. The sequencing, as Daniel noted, matters here immensely: Was he grilled about Palestine because he is a public Jew, or was the grilling about Palestine in response to his previous comments about Palestine? I don’t know. I do know that this organizer’s comments to Newsweek do not assuage my suspicions that it was the former: ‘”The festival said Matisyahu should sign [an endorsement] and Matisyahu didn’t want to, and that’s the matter of the cancellation.”

Also, I think I do a decent job of keeping up on this discourse, and I didn’t know until yesterday that Matisyahu had publicly expressed anti-Palestinian sentiments. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it wasn’t something that was publicly known, but the fact that the comments that were sent to me as proof yesterday were a screenshot of a Cornell Student Newspaper Interview and a 2011 tweet promoting a video by Danny Ayalon makes me think that one has to do a bit of digging to find Matisyahu’s Palestine views; i.e., one has to want to find them. Again, I could be wrong here.

3. But the burden of proof is on the Europeans because they are European. 

It could turn out that my initial reaction regarding the Matisyahu Disinvite was wrong. But in choosing to litmus test and then disinvite an individual Jewish musician from performing in Europe, the burden of proving that this action was completely devoid of bigotry rests on the European activists precisely because they are European. Yes, I am absolutely referring to the Holocaust, and to a history of persecution and demonization and horrific anti-Semitism. I am referring to these things because, as any decent progressive organizer knows, the past doesn’t just disappear, and history doesn’t just end.

Let’s spell this one out, for the still-skeptical.

In the USA, a Presidential candidate was found to go hunting on a ranch called “N****rhead.” In Spain, the town of Camp Kill Jews changed its name… last month. Europe does not get to say “Anti-Semitism was a thing of the past, and is no longer relevant to European discourse today.” The situation in Germany is notable and noteworthy for the ways in which both official and public discourse continue to take the legacy of anti-Semitism very seriously, but even there, anti-Jewish bigotry is far from being a “thing of the past.”

Let’s “tally up the people with Jewish ancestry who live here,” innit?

4. What I Talk About When I Talk About Matisyahu. 

I haven’t listened to his music since I was 16. “One Day” is catchy, I guess. I’m not so concerned with the quality of his reggae, though, or about his public career, nor am I “seeking to shield his racist worldview,” as one twitter user had the gall to claim. When I read the headline of a very obviously Jewish and indisputably American (”But Bernie, you are an Israeli citizen, right?”) singer being disinvited from a European festival under the guise of BDS solidarity, here’s what I was reminded of from the past year or so:

The South African BDS activists who threatened to kill jews or those who placed a pig’s head in the Kosher section of a supermarket; the UK grocery store that removed Kosher foods as a “precautionary measure,” the French comedian who invented a mini-Heil Hitler that then went viral (but go easy on the guy, chimes in a writer for MondoWeiss: He’s just a passionate anti-Zionist); the case of one of the farthest left (and I’d argue best) Israeli journalists, Amira Hass, being boycotted and asked to leave a conference at Birzeit University; the Brazilian University that sought to “list” all of the Israelis on campus; the bigoted elected Hungarian officials who say that “Hungary has become subjugated to Zionism”; the actual backlash against JVP and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation for disavowing Alison Weir and her group “If Americans Knew” in response to her alliance with -I kid you not- Neo-Nazis; and onwards.

5. Neither BDS nor anti-Zionism are anti-Semitic.

Contrary to what the right-wing demagogues would have you believe, as they react with glee rather than pain to cases like this one, most BDS campaigns are actually focused on achieving justice for a brutally oppressed people, and boycotting SodaStream, divesting from Hewlett Packard or calling for sanctions after Israel’s most recent massive attack on Gaza, are not manifestations of anti-Semitism. They are tactics in a just freedom struggle (and like any other tactic, B and D and S are each more and less justified and more and less effective in different cases; the aforementioned Amira Hass argued (a few years before she herself was boycotted) that BDS should be a tactic, not a religion).

The fact that BDS is not anti-Semitic does not mean that some of the activists in global BDS campaigns don’t stray into anti-Semitic realms (they definitely do). But the majority of the BDS campaigns I have followed are non-violent and justice-seeking and legitimate responses to a grassroots Palestinian call to take action against the occupation. Branding criticism, even very harsh criticism, of Israeli policy anti-Semitic does a radical disservice to our history and community (to the folks at Tablet Magazine who recently and absurdly called President Obama an anti-Semite: I’m talking to you). And it severely hurts and hinders the struggle for justice in all arenas: The struggle for freedom and equality for Palestinians and also the struggle against anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish bigotry around the world.

6. Most serious BDS activists recognize that BDS and anti-Zionism can serve as as a mask for anti-Semitism, and yet. 

The recent denouncing of Alison Weir is a good example of such; the less recent denouncing of Gilad Atzmon is as well. For those of you who haven’t read every link in this blog, I’ll just note that I’ve already linked twice to Aviva Stahl’s excellent piece on the Hungarian Right-wing Jobbik party’s use of “BDS” and “anti-Zionism” to kosherize their anti-Jewish bigotry.

And yet.

Those cases are easy. It’s easy to denounce Neo-Nazi supporters, Holocaust-deniers and Hitler-praisers.

But what is troubling to me is that, often, the buck stops there. The clear bigots are condemned (partially: see the Alison Weir defenses springing up in a whole bunch of murky corners of the internet). 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.

I understand that a lot of the discourse around anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is reactive to right-wing Israeli propagandists who wield the anti-Semitism accusation as a weapon against all who would criticize the Israeli State. But I am left-wing non-Zionist activist and writer who spends most of my political energies involved in campaigns challenging the Israeli State and its policies of occupation, its rampant segregation, its apartheid-like laws and its brutal and unjustified wars. I don’t exactly fit the profile of your classic Hasbara Troll, and can’t even be written off as a “Liberal Zionist Apologist.” I don’t have ulterior, anti-Palestinian motives for calling out things that, to me, resemble anti-Semitism. I believe deeply in the desperate need for international involvement in ending the occupation. So you’d think my comrades on the global Left would at least take my arguments against anti-Semitism seriously.

And: sometimes they do. One of the most moving experiences of my life on this subject was a long conversation I had with a new French friend in which I explained to her why it was not OK to say that “the Jewish religion is inherently violent, and is at the root of Israel’s policies of occupation.” At first, she was defensive, but after a few hours, she turned to me, tears in her eyes, and thanked me, “I get it,” she said, “I didn’t realize that what I was saying was anti-Semitic, but I get it now. Thank you.”

I have been moved beyond measure by pieces like Palestinian-American Yasmeen Serhan’s “Anti-Semitism has no place in Palestine advocacy” in 2014, and by UK-based activist Gary Spedding’s consistent speaking out on Twitter and elsewhere against the Israeli occupation and oppression and against anti-Semitism wherever and whenever he sees it flaring up.

I don’t expect all non-Jewish progressives to be well-versed in the nuances of anti-Semitism, although for those who would like to try, I cannot recommend April Rosenblum’s “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere” highly enough. But I do ask that I be taken seriously and listened to. I am not trying to trick anyone out of supporting Palestinian liberation, nor am I trying to stake claim to an exclusivist victim-narrative. I am trying to fight bigotry wherever I see it. As a West Jerusalemite, most of the bigotry that I see on a day to day basis is Jewish bigotry against Palestinians. That is why, on this blog, I’ve written 54 posts about Israel’s military occupation, another 52 about the occupation’s manifestation in East Jerusalem, 24 about Gaza, 19 about housing demolitions and evictions, and so on. This is my second post about anti-Semitism. But is the same value system that informs my anti-anti-Jewish bigotry and my anti-anti-Palestinian bigotry.

And yet.

The first post about anti-Semitism (yesterday) and its corresponding tweets got me an angry “unfollow” comment: ”I heard you speak at a JVP event in Oakland, I was very impressed. Now, I am very unimpressed. Your Twitter comments leave my jaw dropped… P.S. I have unsubscribed from your newsletter. Best of luck to you.”

But perhaps worse than this person, whose unwillingness to listen when I make an argument that they don’t agree with leaves me feeling relieved that they are no longer getting my emails, was the more common refrain: I am just being “sensitive.” Or I am “whining.” Or that I am letting my privileged feelings get the best of my clear vision.

7. Don’t be so sensitive. 

I live in Jerusalem, and I was born here, but I grew up mostly in Southwest Ohio. I was one of three or four Jews in my high school. In the areas around town, we’d often drive by confederate flags fluttering on barns. One guy in the career center outside of town told me that he aspired to “be like the guy in American History X, before he changed his mind.” My town, Yellow Springs, was a progressive bubble, but not so progressive that it was our high school was insulated from anti-Jewish slurs, “Jew-as-Cheap-and-Weak” jokes, et cetera. Nothing severe: I was never violently targeted, and the Jew-Joke trend that fluttered around me as I entered the halls of Yellow Springs high school died down pretty quickly, in part because I called the jokers out directly, and in part because I was relatively popular and socially adept and thus able to garner support from bystanders who may not have cared much one way or another about Frank (not a real name) using the word “Jew” to mean cheap, but who liked me, and saw that I was upset, and so stood by my side. I tell this story simply by way of illustration that I’ve heard the “don’t be so sensitive” line before. Many times, it wouldn’t even be Frank himself who would tell me that, but his friends, including a few of the other Jewish kids.

I’m clearly not the only one who has been told not to be so “sensitive.”

It’s a common refrain in mainstream discourse. It’s just extra disappointing when the same Leftist activists who would call out that line for what it is, i.e., “bullshit,” in contexts relating to black people, trans people, women, migrants, Muslims, et cetera, employ the exact same line of argument when it comes to anti-Semitism.

8. Multiple truths can exist at once.

Here are some that I believe: Israel’s policies vis-a-vis Palestinians constitute war crimes and resemble apartheid. BDS campaigns are legitimate, nonviolent methods of challenging the Israeli State. BDS campaigns are occasionally motivated by deep anti-Semitism. BDS campaigns more frequently employ accidental or incidental anti-Semitic rhetoric. It is not OK to grill an individual Jewish person on their Palestine politics in order for them to be seen as kosher; the BBC journalist who did so following Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher murders is just one particularly egregious example of this super-common phenomenon. Israeli propagandists use the accusation of anti-Semitism to silence criticism of many of Israel’s unjustifiable policies and actions. The campaign to end the occupation would deeply benefit from a less tolerant stance toward anti-Semitism. The fight against occupation and the fight against anti-Semitism and the fight against global racism and the fight against all forms of bigotry are not mutually exclusive: they are fundamentally interwoven.

9. More to come: an invitation.

My main struggle is and will remain the struggle against Israeli occupation and apartheid, whose severity and scale more closely resembles the anti-Semitism of past centuries than the anti-Semitism of this one. But I also want to commit now, publicly, to doing more than I have done to push back against anti-Semitism, both blatant and latent; both when it intersects with the Israeli-Palestinian discourse and when it does not; both when my opinion will be easily accepted, and when it will be mocked and minimized. I want to invite others on the Left, Jewish and non-Jewish, to join the struggle against anti-Semitism in our movements and in our world, not as a replacement of other struggles, but as a deep, humane and correct expansion of the universal struggle for a more just world.


Thanks to Jacob Udell, Gary Spedding, Kayla Rothman-Zecher and Mel for taking a look at early drafts of this piece and giving really valuable feedback.