Matisyahu’s Litmus Test


As welcome as the apology was, it misses a larger point. Matisyahu is a performer, not a politician.

The Rototom SunSplash FestivaL is a well-known, popular, annual venue for reggae music in Spain, drawing talent from all over the world. The musician Matisyahu — the onetime “Chasidic Reggae Superstar” and current mainstream performer born Matthew Miller — was scheduled to perform at the festival’s prestigious closing night event. But before he would be permitted to do so, organizers of the festival, under pressure from a local boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement group, demanded that Matisyahu declare his support for a Palestinian state. He refused. The festival then cancelled his performance.
When news of the cancellation and the reason for it was made public, the reactions were quick, pointed and powerful. Jewish organizations condemned the actions. The U.S. embassy expressed its displeasure. And the Spanish government itself criticized the move. In response to the intense international condemnation, the festival reversed its position, reinstated Matisyahu and apologized. “Rototom Sunsplash rejects anti-Semitism and any form of discrimination towards the Jewish community,” said a statement.
As welcome as this apology is, it misses a larger point. Matisyahu is a performer, not a politician. What place does the litmus test of Palestinian statehood have in determining whether he should perform? And what is to be gained by restricting the performance of an accomplished music star because of his political beliefs? More importantly, why was it that of all the hundreds of performers, crew members, ticket takers and refreshment stand workers at the festival, only the American Jewish performer was subjected to the pledge demand?
Perhaps Matisyahu’s closing performance offers a clue: As seen on clips circulating across social media, the singer didn’t hold back as he belted out his popular “Jerusalem” — its refrain, taken from the Psalms of King David, promises to always remember the holy city — in front of an audience that included some waving Palestinian flags. Was there something about fealty to the city of Jerusalem that evokes particular political animus? Is it worse than the flag-wavers in the audience who were clearly expressing their own political views?
Perhaps the Matisyahu experience can serve as a reminder that, so long as the art in question is not hateful and does not promote violence or harm to others — and, objectively, there is nothing hateful or threatening in any of Matisyahu’s songs — we should let artists be artists. If people have a problem with a performer’s politics, lyrics or statements made in interviews, the remedy is not to ban the performer. Rather, those who don’t like the performer’s views shouldn’t buy tickets to that performer’s shows.


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