Israeli and Jewish artists face threats, boycotts at U.S. shows

Matisyahu had shows canceled in three cities on his current tour; he’s scheduled to perform in Washington, D.C. tonight

Inside a hotel ballroom in Atlanta last month, the Israeli pop star Netta Barzilai played a private show at a conference for pro-Israel college students. Audience members screamed gleefully as Netta — the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest winner is a first-name-only kind of musician — took the stage.

A few floors below, one of Netta’s team members faced a different kind of reception as they checked in. When her staff member handed their Israeli passport to the hotel employee working at the front desk, the receptionist asked: “How does it feel that your country is killing babies?” 

A spokesperson for Hillel International, which organized the concert and brought Netta to the U.S., said they brought the incident to hotel management, who removed the hotel employee from the front desk. “Netta Barzilai’s concert and the remainder of the Israel Summit continued without further incident,” the spokesperson said. 

The incident reflects the atmosphere of intimidation that increasingly surrounds Israeli and Jewish artists performing in American venues. In Netta’s case, the show went on without a hitch. But other performers have faced boycotts and cancellation. 

Matisyahu, a Jewish singer and rapper, has had shows canceled in Arizona, New Mexico and Illinois on his current tour — instances that he alleged were motivated by antisemitic protests. Many of his other performances took place while protestors marched outside. On Saturday, protestors gathered outside Paradise Rock Club in Boston and chanted, “Paradise, Paradise, you can’t hide, you’re supporting genocide.” 

Matisyahu is not Israeli. 

Protests are also planned for his Wednesday show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., by activists who accuse him of “artwashing racism and Zionism” and co-opting Black music because of his reggae style. 

“He is just a Jewish artist that is getting attacked as if he is Israeli, as if he was an IDF soldier,” said Ari Ingel, director of Creative Community for Peace, a nonprofit that works to spread support for Israel in Hollywood and among musicians. “That is really beyond the pale. That is when, quintessentially, anti-Zionism becomes antisemitism.” 

The protest of performances by Israeli artists, and Jews who have been vocally supportive of Israel, is a new phenomenon in the U.S., which has until recently avoided the brunt of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that emerged in Europe and targeted cultural institutions there over the past two decades. 

The harassment and cultural sanctioning of Israeli artists is particularly apparent with the eccentric annual Eurovision Song Contest that Israel has won four times. The organizers are under immense pressure to bar Israel from this year’s event, set for May, a move they have declared they will not do. But this week, the venue that hosts London’s biggest screening party for the Eurovision finals canceled the event entirely to protest Israel’s participation in the contest.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MAY 31: Netta Barzilai attends ‘GYM U’ by David Barton Opening Party on May 31, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)

Israel does not have a lot of allies in the American music scene, or at least not many who were willing to speak up after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel. There has been similar silence, by and large, in the face of the Matisyahu cancellations and threats to shut down Israeli and Jewish performers.

“It’s just another example of the shameful nature of our business, that not every single artist and agent and manager is standing up screaming, ‘We will not stand for this.’ Because it’s not a one off,” John Ondrasik, a singer-songwriter who performs under the stage name Five for Fighting, said. Ondrasik in January released a song, “Okay,” reflecting upon what he saw as moral failure among artists and leaders after Oct. 7. 

The trend does not stop with musicians. In January, anti-Israel protestors disrupted an event with the author Moshe Kasher, who was speaking about his new book in conversation with the actress Mayim Bialik, an outspoken supporter of Israel. Kasher’s book, a chronicle of American subcultures, had nothing to do with Israel; Bialik was only the moderator of the event. 

But protestors continuously interrupted the event, shouting expletives and playing a recording on a loudspeaker to drown out the speakers, a lengthy ordeal that ended with the protestors being removed. PEN America, the literary organization that hosted the event, said in a statement that two other authors had recently declined to participate in events with the group because of its ties to Bialik. 

When the comedian Jerry Seinfeld did a show in Albuquerque in February, protestors affiliated with a local socialist group organized a protest called “shut down racist Zionist Jerry Seinfeld.” Signs accused Seinfeld of “supporting genocide.” Another said “hands off Rafah” — a reference to a Palestinian city in which Israel is planning to mount an operation. Seinfeld, despite a recent visit to Israel, is American; he has no involvement in Israel’s war effort. The Jewish actor Brett Gelman, known for his role in “Stranger Things,” said a West Hollywood bookstore canceled his planned book talk due to “antisemitic intimidation.” 

Amit Peled, a renowned Israeli-American cellist and a professor at Johns Hopkins, only faced protests at a show once prior to Oct. 7. In recent months, they’ve become common. Peled has ended each of his shows since October with Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. He usually shares a few words about Israel before he plays the song. 

“At this point in my career, I feel that it’s actually more important for me to stand for what I believe in than to get another concert. I probably wouldn’t feel like this if I were 20 years old,” Peled acknowledged to JI. “But that’s not the case. I think we can make a change, like we are ambassadors in a way.” 

At a January performance in Minneapolis, Peled was asked by the conductor of the Minnesota Sinfonia, the orchestra that accompanied him, to refrain from speaking about Israel, a request he disagreed with but ultimately chose to accept. So he played Hatikvah as usual, without saying anything first — a particularly jarring act since classical musicians usually announce the name of the piece they will be performing. 

Goldstein-Peled-Fiterstein Trio performing at Washington Irving High School on Saturday night, December 19, 2009.This image;From left, Alexander Fiterstein, Amit Peled and Alon Goldstein performing Beethoven’s “Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano in B-flat, op. 11.”

Jay Fishman, the Sinfonia’s conductor, told JI that he asked Peled to refrain from discussing the war to avoid harming the Sinfonia’s work with local public schools. “My job is to educate and do the very best for the kids that I possibly can, and I don’t want things interfering with that,” said Fishman. Had Peled spoken about the war, “that could trigger all kinds of reactions, many of which would not be good,” said Fishman.

For artists and musicians who rely on live events to make a living, speaking out comes with an uncomfortable calculus: Will saying something pro-Israel mean a show gets shut down? 

“​​They make their living playing shows and they are very careful not to offend fans,” said Creative Community for Peace’s Ingel. “I think they are making calculations based on that as well.” Those calculations might look different for artists at different stages in their career, or for those who play large venues that will be unfazed by a group of 100 protestors versus those who book smaller venues where threats of boycott might present bigger challenges.

The Sinclair, a small venue in Cambridge, Mass., was almost forced to cancel the concert of Israeli artist Ishay Ribo in February after its staff collectively decided not to show up to work that day to boycott the Ribo show. Ribo, an Israel Defense Forces Veteran, has played several shows for IDF soldiers since October.

“They disclosed that they have a bunch of their employees who are refusing to staff the event, and this is a quote, these were the words, ‘because it’s against their personal beliefs,’” said Harvard Chabad Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, who organized the concert. Once the venue found additional staff to work the concert, Zarchi said the protestors then called the supplier that was renting Ribo and his band their equipment, threatening them not to fill the order. 

“We had a signed contract with the vendor. They needed to do the event. I mean, they couldn’t legally get out of it,” Zarchi said. Still, several days beforehand, the venue said they may not have the resources to pull it off; Zarchi began to consider alternate venues. Eventually, everything came together for two sold out shows, but the event went thousands of dollars over budget due to additional security and staffing costs. 

On the day of the concert, several dozen protestors stood outside the Sinclair, shouting at concertgoers as they walked in that they were supporting genocide. Sinclair employees showed up with signs that read “Venue workers against genocide.” But once attendees made it inside, they were treated to a joyful show that brought Jews together across the religious and ideological spectrum. 

“The fact that it was targeted the way it was, in a strange way made it all the more meaningful, because it just created this contrast,” said Zarchi. “It achieved exactly what it set out to do, to lift people’s spirits.” 

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