“Three thousand years with no place to be, and they want me to give up my milk and honey,” Jewish American performer Matisyahu sang of Israel early Sunday morning at a Spanish reggae festival that first wanted to boycott him.
The concert took place after Matisyahu accepted an apology from the organizers and they re-invited him to perform at the week-long Rototom Sunsplash reggae festival after initially caving into pressure from Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activists to drop him.
Some of those pro-Palestinian activists – Spanish newspaper El Pais put the number at about 100 – greeted him with catcalls when he appeared on stage, but as he began to perform the boos gave way to applause and cheers by others in the packed crowd at the festival at Benicassim, near Valencia in eastern Spain.
In an apparent statement to those who tried to get him blacklisted because he would not issue a statement of support for Palestinian statehood, Matisyahu sang his 2006 reggae-fusion song, “Jerusalem.”
“Jerusalem, if I forget you, Let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do,” he sang, paraphrasing the Book of Psalms in an up-tempo song about the Jewish connection to 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,” he sang.
In an allusion to the Holocaust, he continued, “Rebuild the temple and the crown of glory/ Years gone by, about sixty/ Burn in the oven in this century/ And the gas tried to choke but it couldn’t choke me.”
As he sang, a few of the pro-Palestinian activists in the audience waved huge Palestinian flags.
“Afraid of the past and our dark history/ Why is everybody always chasing we,” he continued.
Hamutal Rogel, the spokeswoman at Israel’s embassy in Madrid, praised Matisyahu for the way he handled the whole affair.
The affair began a week ago last Saturday when the festival, under pressure from the Valencia BDS movement which the organizers of the festival later said waged a campaign of “pressure, coercion and threats” against them, dropped the former Chabad hassid from the schedule.
This unleashed a wave of criticism against the festival by the Spanish press, the Spanish government, and various Jewish organizations.
Matisyahu refused to issue a statement in favor of Palestinian statehood, made clear on his Facebook page that he was being singled out to make a political statement because he was a Jew, and then decided to sing after being re-invited, but only after making clear it was a difficult decision, and that he would perform on his own terms.
These terms, Rogel said, were that he would appear on the same day, and at the same time and the same place, that was originally scheduled.
Matisyahu sang for 45 minutes on the festival’s central stage on the last evening of the festival.
Following the performance Matisyahu posted two clips from the show on his Facebook page: one of him playing “Jerusalem,” and another one of his singing the following words from “Ancient Lullaby,” another one of his songs: “Fan the flame in the name of Judah from the line of King David!” “He sang like a giant,” said Rogel, who was not at the performance even though the organizers, after apologizing for dropping the singer and then re-inviting him, invited and encouraged Israeli diplomats to attend the performance. Logistical reasons, she said, made that impossible.
Rogel said that in the Spanish media Matisyahu’s performance was seen as a “victory of pluralism and music against pressure.” She explained that much of the Spanish media was looking at the affair from a particular Spanish context, and likened the BDS tactics to those used by Basque separatists, tactics which are very unpopular in Spain.
Opposition to the threatening tactics used against the festival spawned criticism on both the Left and the Right of the Spanish political spectrum, she added.
Summing up the entire affair, Rogel said there were two primary points to keep in mind: the first, she said, was that “there is no doubt that this was a huge victory over BDS.
“BDS tried to present itself up until now as a human rights organization, but over the last week was seen in the Spanish press as a violent organization,” she said, noting that this was a significant public opinion victory.
On the negative side of the ledger, however, she said that if very few people in Spain knew about BDS until last week, this has changed because of the front-page headlines this story created.
Rogel also expressed concern that the attention paid to this story may scare off organizers of other music and film festivals which may not have anything against Israel, or want to boycott it, but will simply weigh whether or not it is worth the headache of inviting Israeli artists or films.
“This is the quiet BDS which it is difficult to measure,” she said.
“What goes on behind the scenes before the invitations are sent out.”
El Pais reported that one act, the local band “La Gossa Sorda” (“The Deaf Dogs”) pulled out of the festival because Matisyahu performed.
In the days before Matisyahu was re-invited, there were no reports of any of the 250 performers at the festival who stood with him in solidarity and said they would not perform if he was not allowed to play.
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