Lessons learned from Stalin, Trump…and Matisyahu

Unlike the current Labour Party leadership in Britain, I don’t go out of my way to reference far left totalitarians (only Mao and then). But recent events got me thinking about Joseph Stalin’s most famous line:

“The death of one is a tragedy; the death of millions a statistic.”

Of course, there’s an element of horrific self-assurance in this pithy one-liner, given that the speaker was responsible for some of the highest body counts in history. But there’s no doubt that the architect of the Gulag Archipelago hit upon a very real fact: we homo sapiens are much better at empathizing with individuals than with numbers.

Even if they don’t actually have a photo of a mustachioed mass-murderer in their fundraising department, every charity knows that’s why you need to put a human face on suffering to convince people to dig deep. It’s why a single story — even fictional — can profoundly affect how a society sees the big issues, from “Cathy Comes Home” triggering debate on homelessness in the sixties, to the indelible, tragic image of Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach changing our entire perspective on the refugee crisis.

Moving from Uncle Joe to Uncle Sam — and from a Communist dictator to a capitalist demagogue — my initial thoughts for this piece started when reflecting on the words of Donald Trump. Specifically, his claim that, were it up to him, no more Muslims would be allowed into the United States. Under his watch, the iconic words at the base of the Statue of Liberty — “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — would need to be suffixed with: “Terms and Conditions Apply.”

The social media backlash was in turns hilarious, scathing, and affecting. But perhaps what had the greatest impact was not the general appeals to principles, or the exhortations about the crisis facing those fleeing the Middle East.

Rather, it was the stories of the individual men, women and children — shared with the hashtag #MuslimID — who both belong to the second largest religion in the world, and are interwoven into the tapestry of the American Dream. For me, what was most moving was the photo of the graves of Muslim soldiers — soldiers who gave their lives to defend the country Trump seeks to run.

What, if anything, does this have to do with Israel or Zionism? Well, here in the UK, as elsewhere, there is also a concerted campaign to keep out people based purely on their background. I refer, of course, to the BDS movement. Cloaking their prejudice in virtue signalling and self-righteousness, these would-be Trumplings would stop us having any contact with Israelis if they could. Only this week it was reported that Kuwaiti Airlines would cease flying to the UK — in case it was forced to allow Israelis on board.

Part of the BDS shtick — apart from the cynical appropriation of human rights and anti-apartheid rhetoric — is to talk in terms of institutions, not individuals. It’s Israeli universities, you see, not Israeli academics, that will find their ties severed. It’s Israeli theaters, not actors, who will find their shows interrupted. It’s representatives of the colonial Zionist regime, in other words, not real life people, whom they seek to stop at the border.

It’s no surprise that two of the biggest BDS fails of year highlight how utterly nonsensical this position is. On the surface, Matthew Paul Miller and Shachar Rabinovitch have very little in common — except for the fact that they are both Jewish (This is not irrelevant).

But Matisyahu — as he is better known — made headlines earlier this year when he was invited, dis-invited, and finally re-invited to a Spanish reggae festival, following protests from BDS supporters, and then global outrage over this obvious act of anti-Semitism. Likewise, when Rabinovitch recently sent an innocent inquiry to an English academic about equestrian history, the patronizing and petty refusal she received quickly went viral.

Matisyahu and Rabinovitch are so different — he a reggae/rap musician who has spoken candidly about his struggles with faith and drugs, she an inquisitive school girl with a passion for horses — that I truly believe they deserve their own buddy cop TV show (I’m not saying it has to be called “Riding High”…). But what these two stories have in common is that they exposed the real nature of BDS, and how inherently self-defeating it is.

Let there be no doubt — if you want to ban someone on the grounds of their background, whether it’s race, religion, or anything else, you’re a bigot. And, if you oppose Trump banning people based on their background, but support BDS banning people based on their background, you’re a hypocrite. But the best way to show up both is the same — by sharing the real life stories of the human beings they want us all to ignore.

About the Author
Paul Charney is chairman of the ZF (the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland). The ZF is the UK’s grass roots activist organisation for Israel. Each year the ZF initiates events, ranging from lobbies of Parliament to events on campuses to empower Jewish students to stand up for Israel in hostile environments. As Israel is constantly subjected to campaigns in the press to delegitimize its existence, the Zionist Federation continues to stand at the forefront to ensure the dynamic future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.