Important Update: Artistic freedom showdown as BDS protests Matisyahu appearance in Ithaca, NY

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Matisyahu, whose real name is Matthew Paul Miller, is the American Jewish reggae musician who rocketed to fame with his combination Hasidic Jewish and Reggae anthems such as One Day, a call for peace:

Matisyahu has been targeted by the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

In the summer of 2015 an international firestorm of controversy erupted after BDS succeeded in getting Matisyahu banned at the Spanish Rototom Reggae festival after Matisyahu refused to denounce Israel. That political litmus test was applied to no other musician and to no other nation.

The ban was reversed only after an international outcry, including denunciations by the Spanish government and a leading Spanish newspaper that the action amounted to religious discrimination. Matisyahu appeared at the festival where “pro-Palestinian” protesters tried to disrupt his performance.

Now Matisyahu is under attack again, this time by an anti-Israel BDS group in Ithaca, NY. The group, calling itself The Ithaca Committee for Justice in Palestine, has a controversial history of inflammatory statements and actions.

This is setting itself up as another test case of artistic freedom, in which a political litmus test is applied to a musician. And as at the Spanish Rototom festival, that litmus test is being applied selectively against Matisyahu.

Matisyahu’s Spanish Inquisition

In mid-August 2015, the Spanish Rototom Festival announced that it was cancelling Matisyahu’s scheduled appearance at the festival after pressure from a local BDS group. We covered the events and proof of BDS pressure in our post, American Jewish musician barred from Spanish festival by anti-Israel boycotters.

Spanish Reggae Festival Rototom Facebook Page Banner

The Times of Israel reported at the time,

Spanish music festival demanded Jewish-American reggae star Matisyahu endorse Palestinian statehood, and then canceled his upcoming show after the singer declined, Spanish media reported Saturday.

The Rototom Sunsplash Reggae Festival called off the formerly Hasidic rapper’s August 22 show, with organizers saying Matisyahu had refused to comply with their demand to pen a statement or a video message backing “the Palestinians’ right to a state.”

Festival organizers were driven by intense pressure from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the reports said. Artists scheduled to perform at the event threatened to cancel their appearances if Matisyahu were to perform because he was “seen to represent Israel.”

The organizers gave Matisyahu an ultimatum, telling him if he would “sign such a declaration [publicly affirming his support for the Palestinians, he] can perform,” according to Spanish daily, El Pais (Spanish Link)….

After the ban, Matisyahu wrote on his Facebook page:

“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? No artist deserves to be put in such a situation simply to perform his or her art. Regardless of race, creed, country, cultural background, etc, my goal is to play music for all people. As musicians that is what we seek. – Blessed Love, Matis”

The international reaction was swift in deploring this suppression of artistic freedom and religious bigotry.  A leading Spanish newspaper called the ban Unacceptable Discrimination:

It is absolutely unacceptable that in the Spain of the 21st century, individuals and organizations can still demand that somebody explain themselves in ideological terms in order to be able to exercise their profession, and takes us back to the dark days when everybody was required to prove their religiosity and purity of blood.

Anti-Semitism and discrimination on the grounds of ideology cannot be tolerated and must be stood up to. Criticism of Israel’s policies and defense of the Palestinians cannot be used as cover for systematic persecution of those who hold different views, or because they are Jewish. Spain’s politicians need to speak out about this scandal that questions this country’s commitment to free speech and thought.

The Spanish government condemned the ban as unlawful discrimination:

“Imposing a public declaration [from Matisyahu] puts into question the principles of non-discrimination on which all plural and diverse societies are based,” Spanish foreign ministry officials said in a statement sent to media outlets on Tuesday afternoon. The Spanish Constitution forbids discrimination on the grounds of “birth, race, sex, religion, opinion, or any other personal or social condition or circumstance.”

Even Ben Norton, a writer at the anti-Zionist Mondoweiss website and elsewhere, posted at his own website that Cancellation of Matisyahu’s Performance Blatantly Defies BDS [though he later recanted and took down the post]:

The cancellation of Matisyahu’s performance, however, blatantly defies the most basic principles of the BDS movement.

The founders of BDS, which was called for by Palestinian intellectuals and activists, made it absolutely clear years ago: BDS targets institutions, not individuals….

The disinvitation of Matisyahu makes no political sense. The artist has made it clear that he is not a hardline Zionist. And, even if he were, it would not matter, as BDS does not target individuals based upon their political views. Once again, BDS targetsinstitutions, not individuals.

The BDS movement tried to defend its actions by making false claims, including some repeated at the U.S. “Electronic Intifada” website, that Matisyahu supported violence, ethnic cleansing, and so on. Numerous unconfirmed claims were made that Matisyahu engaged in discriminatory acts, which Matisyahu denied. In reality, the effort to defame Matisyahu to cover up the true motivations of the boycotters came down to the simple proposition that because Matisyahu supported Israel, he deserved to be banned like BDS seeks to ban Israeli musicians in Europe, and harasses those who do appear.

Those who seek to ban Matisyahu point to the fact that his hit song “Sunshine” was used in an Israeli video production:

Despite the obviously contrived attempts to explain the BDS Movement’s bigotry, the Spanish Festival apologized for the BDS-pressured ban and reinstated Matisyahu to the center stage, but not without further BDS protests, including signs referring to him as Naziyahu.

Matisyahu signe Naziyahu

And protesters waving Palestinian flags in his face during his performance.

Matisyahu on stage Rototom Sunsplash Palestinian Flags

In the face of this hate, he bravely sang of peace, a fact highlighted in the Spanish press:

http://www.elmundo.es/cultura/2015/08/23/55d90e9746163f5c798b4579.html?

Matisyahu sang one of his most famous songs, Jerusalem, which uses wording similar to Psalm 137: “Jerusalem, if I forget you, fire not gonna come from me tongue.”

Matisyahu’s appearance, and the worldwide sympathy it generated, was consider a devastating blow to the BDS movement’s attempt to suppress artistic freedom.

When it was over, Matisyahu issued a statement in favor of peace and artistic freedom:

Today music wins. Freedom of expression wins. Spain, this Saturday Aug 22nd.

I have always believed in the power of music to unite all people, regardless of religion, politics or geography. This was an excruciating decision, as I felt that my core, essential being was being used as a pawn for political convenience. It is my deep conviction however that acceptance and the ability for rebirth allow us to move forward.

The incredible outpouring of worldwide support from fans and organizations who rose up as one to protest the intrusion of politics into a borderless celebration of music has been humbling. My deepest thanks to the worldwide community for rallying to the cause of musical freedom. Most of all, thank you to my incredible fans and to so many people of all faiths who refused to remain silent in the name of artistic freedom. This is your victory.” – Matis

Ithaca, New York, Concert December 4, 2015

As part of a nationwide tour, Matisyahu is booked at the historic State Theater in downtown Ithaca on December 4.

Matisyahu - Ithaca State Street Theater

The tour is billed on the State Theater website as a commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of Matisyahu’s famous “Live at Stubbs” theater:

Matisyahu - Ithaca State Street Theater Description

A promotional announcement in The Ithaca Voice also focused on this anniversary:

Over the course of the tour, Matisyahu and his band will present an evening of stripped-back arrangements highlighting the music that launched his career while taking fans of all ages on a journey through the evolution of Live at Stubb’s to his most recent release Akeda. This tour reconnects Matisyahu with musical collaborators from his early touring days, including Live at Stubb’s guitarist Aaron Dugan. PreviousLive at Stubb’s releases have sold over 768k combined albums and over 500k tracks.

This is not the first time Matisyahu has performed in Ithaca. In November 2012 he played the State Theater to good reviews (photos here):

Matisyahu brought his brand of Hasidic infused reggae on November, 6th to the historic State Theater located in Ithaca, NY. The medium sized college town venue seemed to be a perfect fit for the artist as he performed to a crowd just as diverse as his sound.

Ithaca BDS Group Plans Protest

The Ithaca Committee for Justice in Palestine is one of the main BDS groups in central upstate New York. It originally was called the Central NY Committee for Justice in Palestine, and consists of a core group of roughly a dozen BDS activists who cross-over to other local BDS groups, such as Ithaca Jewish Voice for Peace, Vegans Against The Occupation, and Ithaca Food Justice for Palestine Committee.

Different group names are used for different purposes, but it’s mostly the same people involved.

The groups have a very controversial recent history. In November 2014, under the name of CNYCJP they posted a horrific photo of Auschwitz survivors being liberated, with anti-Israel signs photoshopped into their hands.

I Acknowledge Apartheid Exists Facebook Image Holocaust Survivors with Anti-Israel Signs - Central NY Committee

The group took it down after I posted about it and brought national attention. They claim the photo was posted without authority by a former member, but when I asked, they refused to name the member.

One of the leaders of the group, Ariel Gold, then posted a poster falsely asserting that Sabra Hummus — which is a target of the BDS movement — was named after the 1982 Sabra and Shatilla massacre of Palestinians in Lebanon by Christian militias.

CNY Committee Sabra Hummus Named Massacre

The photo was taken down after I called attention to it.

The group led the ultimately failed attempt to get the Ithaca-based Greenstar Food Coop to boycott Israeli products (and also Sabra Hummus, which is made in the U.S. but partly owned by an Israeli company). For that campaign, they changed their name to Ithaca Food Justice for Palestine Committee and launched a national campaign to get anti-Israel celebrities, such as Angela Davis and Media Benjamin (of Code Pink), to endorse the boycott. But it failed when the Coop’s legal counsel advised that the boycott may violate New York’s anti-discrimination law.

Two of the leaders of the group, Ariel Gold and Beth Harris (a retired Ithaca College professor) deliberately got themselves arrested at the 2015 American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Gold also was the person who arranged the now-infamous Third Grade Event in Ithaca at which an anti-Israel presentation was made, leading to a condemnation by the Ithaca City Schools Superintendent.

Gold also recently performed a disruption at the Western Wall, the second holiest place in Judaism and the holiest place at which Jews are permitted to pray, on behalf of Code Pink. Gold and another Code Pink activist unfurled a BDS banner among the worshippers, and also held signs right next to the Western Wall. The disruption was heavily promoted by Code Pink and by Gold herself.

Ariel Gold Western Wall Protest Code Pink Tweet Nov 10 2015 5 a.m.

Gold also was briefly arrested in a close military area while attending a protest, and later claimed she was used as a “human shield” by Israeli border police against Palestinian rock throwers. An Israeli website published documents, including photos taken from different angles and a statement from another pro-Palestinian activist in attendance, showing that there were no rocks thrown in the area where Gold was arrested and that the claims of being used as a human shield were false.

Gold actually defends rock throwing against Israeli soldiers as “nonviolent,” asserting “The stones carry the message of the people.”

This background is relevant, because when these local groups say they are going to protest something, there’s every reason to believe they will.

And they are vowing to protest Matisyahu’s appearance, as announced on the Facebook page of the Ithaca Committee for Justice in Palestine:

https://www.facebook.com/CNYCJP/posts/1671827103030009

The reference in the post is to the same Electronic Intifada article used against Matisyahu, unsuccessfully, in connection with the Rototom Reggae Festival ban.

What type of protest is planned is not yet known. But based on history, it should cause a scene.

Others in Ithaca have noticed, and are planning on appearing at the concert in solidarity with artistic freedom for everyone:

I think it would be valuable for us to go see him to affirm that Ithaca values include 1) enjoying good music, and 2) valuing artists who work for peace and coexistence, 3) supporting the existence of the state of Israel and working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Support for Matisyahu Facebook

After the Greenstar battle, this is shaping up as the next big BDS battle in Ithaca, and likely will obtain national attention.

But this time it’s not “pro-Israel” versus “anti-Israel.” It’s pro-artistic freedom versus political litmus tests for musicians and artists.