Until last week, few people outside the rarefied world of Jewish pop culture had ever heard of American Jewish reggae personality Matisyahu. Then the pro-Palestinian BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) movement pushed to have him blocked from a reggae festival in Spain. Event organizers demanded Matisyahu formally endorse a Palestinian state; when he refused, he was dropped from the lineup, provoking outcry from Jewish groups worldwide.
Blogospherics ran decidedly in Matisyahu's favor, even in lefty venues like Vox. 'He's an American Jew, not an Israeli for goodness' sake,' was the general gist of general sentiment—and festival organizers soon re-invited him.
But now that the kerfuffle is behind us, and the artist has safely gigged his gig in Spain, I think it's worth taking a deep breath and considering why Matisyahu made a worthy target for BDS after all.
It's not that Matisyahu is a rabid anti-Palestinian activist... almost just the opposite. It's that he personifies that substantial block of American Jews who take it as our birthright to waft in and out of Israel as we please; to know we can move there any time we choose, even though almost none of us will; to treat Israel as a source of identity play and vicarious thrill--all without ever having to engage in an honest way with the issue of Palestine.
Consider the lyrics to Matisyahu's Jerusalem:
In the ancient days, we will return with no delay
Picking up the bounty and the spoils on our way
We've been traveling from state to state
And them don't understand what they say
3,000 years with no place to be
And they want me to give up my milk and honey.
It's no wonder he sets American Jews alight, whipping together with a hip reggae sensibility the belief that Jerusalem belongs to the Jews by dint of biblical promise.
The problem—one problem at least—is that most American Jews are not in fact mightily observant. Most of us would scoff at the idea of a deity who doles out geopolitical territories like a medieval king (or, say, demands women be stoned to death for premarital sex). Yet we love to let the vibe of god-given rights to Israel percolate through otherwise secular spaces of Jewish life. We love the emotional high it gives us, the background thrum of meaning it provides; we love the way it dispenses with the need for rational thought.
At least when Israeli Jews feel the same, they have the excuse that they are, literally, on the spot and on the line. But few American Jews will ever have to live with the direct results of that emotional, content-less high we get from the idea of Israel--or the politics of intransigence it pushes many of us to feel justified in nurturing. Just about .0006 of North American Jews moved to Israel in 2013, in what seems to have been a typical year. Of those few Americans who do take advantage of the right of return (an option that does not exist for Palestinians) most will use it as a sort of inspired retirement plan, making their move well beyond the child-rearing years.
The upshot is that we may send our kids on "birthright tours" of Israel, but we don't send them to serve in the Israeli army. We may honestly grieve and worry for Israeli friends when conflict is hot, but their daily concerns are not ours.
And the lives of Palestinians are, for the most part, utterly beyond our ken.
In this respect, too, Matisyahu is highly representative. Matisyahu travels frequently to Israel, records music there, has an Israeli following. Yet through all his dealings and travels there, the only thing he's managed to conclude about Palestinians is that, "as far as I understand, there was never a country called Palestine."
It was a "bizarre thing to say and understandably offensive to Palestinians," opined Vox commentator Zach Beauchamp, in a piece that forcefully decried the targeting of Matisyahu. This suggests that either Beauchamp knows precious little about the Israel-Palestine conflict, or that he was being highly disingenuous.
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Because this wasn't a bizarre thing for Matisyahu to say at all. It was absolutely commonplace.
"The Palestinians were never a nation" is an idea I heard frequently around the dinner table growing up, and it's something American Jews are still widely taught in Hebrew schools and summer camps, and on birthright trips to Israel.
It's also a line so lacking in context as to collapse at the most glancing attempts at inquiry. True enough there was no Palestinian nation before 1947, and the Palestinians had not solidified a modern national identity or mechanisms of self-rule. But that's the basic story of the majority of the world's nations. Forget the colonized territories of the Middle East and Africa: Italy was conspicuously lacking in what we think of as modern national identity before becoming a nation-state. Meanwhile, of course, the entire idea of Israel as a nation-state was spun nearly from whole cloth. It's not just that few Jews lived in Palestine before the Zionist mobilization, it's that few Jews anywhere in the world ever thought twice about it as a real place. Israel was, rather, a symbol and idea, the focus of other-worldly longings, a deep and consoling source of identity.
Pretty much the way it is for most American Jews today.
So when American Jews say, "Palestine never existed as a nation prior to 1947," what they mean is that Palestinians should never have had the temerity to let their reality interfere with our ideations. That Palestinians should have accepted the creation of a Jewish nation on their homelands without complaint--or else conveniently disappeared themselves into neighboring Arabic states in 1948.
What American Jews are saying when they unthinkingly repeat that infamously pat and partial line is that Arabic people on the land that became Israel never deserved to be anything but refugees.
The closest analogy to Matisyahu's dropping that offhanded remark would be a non-Jewish performer who happened to make a name on the klezmer circuit offhandedly remarking that, as far as he knew, the Holocaust never happened. And then adding, as did Matisyahu, "I’m not going to claim that I have the answer or the truth or the right knowledge. I’m a singer."
There are times when it's possible, ethically, to retreat into the pose of a teenage boy who doesn't do politics and just wants to rock on, dude. There are times it is not.
That doesn't make Matisyahu "the problem"--and it doesn't mean there wasn't good reason to reinstate him to the festival in Spain. Among other things the spectacle of asking him to make a video renouncing any possible Zionist aspirations was too, too farcically high-Stalinist to bear.
But it is to say there were good, logical reasons to target Matisyahu, separate and apart from anti-Semitism.
It's also to say that, as American Jews, we lose something important every time we find reason to discount the aspirations of the Palestinian movement or its relationship to us: we lose the chance to be a good, tough friend to Israel.
Because there are only two options left in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Either both sides work toward a messy, incomplete but durable peace, or one side so terrorizes and decimates the other as to win de facto submission.
As American Jews we could be using our position of relative ease and remove to help move Israel toward the only ethical option. Unfortunately, it seems, a great many of us would rather keep feeding vicariously on the righteous buzz of conflict, comforting ourselves with infamous half-truths—and blissing out to the historically unmoored idea that Jerusalem just is ours, and is and is and is...