Justice, justice

MatisyahuYou may have read the recent story about reggae/rapper Matisyahu being disinvited to perform at a music festival in Spain. According to the Times of Israel (http://timesofisrael.com/matisyahu-expelled-even-as-spain-says-its-making-nice-to-jews/, accessed 8/18/15), the Rototom Sunsplash festival said it was canceling Matisyahu’s performance after the nearby Valencia chapter of the BDS movement described him as a “lover of Israel” and asked organizers to request that he “clarify” his political views.

The BDS (Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement sets three conditions Israel must fulfill before its call for sanctions will end:

A. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
B. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;
C. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

Israel was already at work on item B without any help from BDS. But if you understand the context and implications of A. and C., you’ll realize that they’re tactics for dismantling Israel altogether as the homeland of the Jewish people. That’s why being a “lover of Israel” merits boycott in the BDS world. BDS aims not so much for justice for the Palestinians, which is a worthy goal, but for the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

Matisyahu responded to the pressure by saying, “My most famous song, called ‘One Day’, is known worldwide as a cry for peace and human understanding.” He went on,

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.

Appalling and offensive indeed. And a reminder of how readily those who oppose Israel resort to methodology that can only be described as anti-Semitic . . . and how readily folks on the sidelines jump on their bandwagon. The coordinator of the music festival, Filippo Giunta, originally resisted the pressure to ban Matisyahu, and rightly called the BDS campaign “racist” for targeting a Jewish performer just because he’s Jewish. But in the end, Giunta caved, out of “sensitivity regarding Palestine, its people and the occupation of their territories by Israel”—which brings us to a famous line from this week’s parasha: “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20).

The classic Jewish commentators assume that no word of Torah is wasted. If the word “justice” is repeated here, it’s not just for poetic emphasis, they say, but to reveal something more than one word alone can reveal. So, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 32b) explains that the first “justice” refers to a decision based on strict law, and the second to a compromise, implying that to pursue justice in real life, you need both. A later rabbi interpreted this verse to mean that one must pursue justice using just means. “The Torah does not condone the pursuit of a holy end through improper means” (cited in the Artscroll Chumash). He nails the BDS approach of seeking justice for the Palestinians through the unjust means of undermining and delegitimizing the Jewish homeland—and individual Jews like Matisyahu as well.

So I agree with these interpretations of “justice, justice” and I’ll propose another. To pursue justice you must consider both sides. You can’t achieve justice for one side by denying justice to the other side. This doesn’t mean that both sides are equally right, or equally wrong. Justice doesn’t act like a frustrated parent who catches the kids squabbling and sends them both to their rooms for a time-out, without even asking what the squabble is about. But justice does meaning looking at the situation from the perspective of both sides. It means considering the struggle of the other side even when we stand up for our side.

As I said above, justice for the Palestinians is a worthy goal, but you can’t pursue it by denying justice for Israelis, or for Jews in general, as seems to be increasingly happening. In the name of justice, many are denying the Jewish people’s claim on their own historic homeland, a land that has been the center of Jewish prayer and longing throughout the ages, and the literal home to at least a small Jewish remnant through all those centuries as well. The words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks are worth heeding:

Antisemitism is not a static phenomenon. It is a virus that mutates, thereby defeating the immune system of free societies. During the Middle Ages, Jews were hated for their religion. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries they were hated for their race. Today they are hated for their nation state.

BDS uses the unjust means of targeting Jews because they’re Jews, and excluding Jews because they’re Jews, to pursue what it claims is a just cause for Palestinians. One Spanish newspaper, El Pais, got it right in their August 18 editorial, writing that cancellation “is a very serious act of political and religious discrimination to which the Spanish political authorities cannot remain on the sidelines.”

Contra BDS and today’s hyper-partisan culture, one can demand justice for oneself and still demand it for the other side as well. As Hillel taught, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”

So there’s a two-fold lesson for us from the Matisyahu story. First, we need to be on guard against the rise of anti-Semitism, the cultural acceptability of anti-Semitism, which cloaks itself as anti-Zionism to ramp up pressure against the Jews. It’s especially shameful that this latest installment happened in Spain, a country that expelled its entire Jewish population just because they were Jews centuries ago, and has only recently begun to wake up to this fact and try to make amends. Anti-Semitism has deep roots and nasty persistence—and it can resurface anywhere. Keep watch.

The second lesson is that we also need to be on guard against becoming like the anti-Semites. We can resist them and still be concerned about justice, including justice for their side. It might be simplistic and even naïve to join with Matisyahu in hoping for “one day” when, “They’ll be no more wars/And our children will play,” but it’s a hope that reflects the meaning of “justice, justice you shall pursue.”


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