(Move Along Nothing to See Here) BDS & Anti-Semitism (Matisyahu)


For discourse theorists, of interest is how heated ideological arguments begin to assume the exact same form over time. For people tired about the cultural politics swirling around the debates regarding Israel and Palestine, it highlights how petty they can get. For anyone who is still interested, here’s one more word on the brouhaha surrounding singer Matisyahu’s run in with BDS. It’s about two things: American Jewish support of Israel and [2] BDS and lingering questions about anti-Semitism.

For anyone who still cares, the rap sheet assembled by Ali Abunimah against Matisyahu seems hardly to rise to the occasion. You can read it here. It includes things like performing at AIPAC and Friends of the IDF events, and some sharply worded public statements about the Mavi Marama incident. What this little story suggests is that BDS begins to put the ban not on Israel and Israelis, but vanilla supporters of Israel, at least Jewish ones who are the only ones to have been singled out to meet litmus tests.

This incident raises once again the larger question about anti-Semitism and movement-inspired academic and cultural BDS. For the sake of an argument, one can remain agnostic while still pointing out that BDS has lent itself regularly to this kind of line-crossing. Whenever these things keep happening you hear the same thing, always insistent and with great impatience, along the lines of “move along, nothing to see here.”

In my experience, only a small number of American Jews are willing to give this kind of denial a wash. But having said that, it would be fair to say that when Jews bat back and forth the perception of anti-Semitism, that’s called a considered difference of opinion. When non-Jews, with near perfect and self-righteous certainty, tell you what is and what is not anti-Semitism sounds a little more like Jew-splaining. For the play of anti-Jewish tropes and the difference between overt and latent anti-Semitism, I’m pretty sure they don’t have the nose for it.

Because this particular burden rests on them, it’s probably best left for the left to figure this out. The best thing written so far about this little debacle is here by Moriel Rothman-Zecher at Leftern Wall,  “9 THOUGHTS ON THE MATISYAHU DISINVITE, ANTI- SEMITISM, ANTI-ZIONISM AND LEFTIST DISCOURSE.” Worth reading, the exchange with “Jeremiah Haber” in the comment section is particularly sharp.

For anyone interested in the Valencia BDS chapter’s rationale, you can follow Haber’s advice and read it here (available 8/20/15). We could start with the image of a Jewish face, with sidelocks no less, his mouth shut up with BDS tape. Or the hashtags #RotocomContractsZionism and #NoPeaceWithMatisyahu suggesting that “Zionism” represents an unassimilable virus. Perhaps because they believe so purely in the purity of their own intentions, what promoters of BDS don’t grasp is the slippery and non-linear nature of discursive cause and effect. In Valencia it came down to the fact that Matisyahu is a “lover of Israel” and “participated at pro-Zionist festivals.” With that kind of wide net, BDS will put the ban on the vast majority of American Jews and Jewish organizations, but don’t call it anti-Semitic.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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7 Responses to (Move Along Nothing to See Here) BDS & Anti-Semitism (Matisyahu)

  1. Oh wow.
    Thanks for this.
    In reading this post, I came upon something I hadn’t noticed before, and which, for me, pretty conclusively closes the case that this BDS group did employ anti-Semitic tropes.

    You’ll notice that in the BDS poster, Matisyahu is pictured not with two sidelocks, but with one. A close look shows that the picture is actually a spliced together picture of Matisyahu in the past (still Haredi) and Matisyahu now (no longer). I don’t know how to read this except something along the lines of “he may look normal now, but let’s not forget what he once was (and is at his core): a sidelocked Jew.”

    • zjb says:

      I went to go see the link to the Valencia site as recommended by my friend J. Haber. My jaw just dropped. Really, you wrote the best thing I’ve seen. It’s a pleasure meeting you online! Best,

  2. Thanks! And likewise.

    I will note, though, that the single-sidelock argument I made wasn’t as strong as I initially thought: I showed the image to my partner, and she asked: ”Are you sure that wasn’t a Matisyahu-made image?” I said, ”you think so?” She said: ”Google it.” I googled it. She was right: https://thetheoryofeverythingandhumanconciousness.wordpress.com/tag/matisyahu/.
    Still, I think your argument stands, and it is a disconcerting choice of photo by the group, rather than just going with, say, this one: http://noisey.vice.com/es/blog/matisyahinterview

    • zjb says:

      Yes, of course, but then they went and cropped the image and stuffed his mouth shut. Images are funny that way, how they morph as they circulate. Again, nice to finally meet you online. I’ve been a long-time fan.

  3. Benjamin Doherty says:

    Actually there are official links between the artist and the Israeli foreign ministry. https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/it-not-anti-semitic-boycott-matisyahu#update

  4. Pingback: Fives Years on The Leftern Wall – Looking Back & Forward – The Leftern Wall

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