Matisyahu, BDS and the Sephardic Jews

The popular Jewish American singer Matisyahu made it into the news this past week after he was disinvited and then reinvited back to perform at the Rototom Sunsplash festival, an annual reggae event held on the Spanish Mediterranean coast.  The organizers had insisted that Matisyahu make a public statement about his position on Israel and its alleged “apartheid” policies against the Palestinians.  After facing international public outrage, the organizers offered Matisyahu to perform without any preconditions.  The musician should be admired for his steadfastness in rejecting the coercive tactics of BDS advocates.

A important article authored by Soeren Kern of the Gatestone Institute carefully catalogs a series of policy positions by the current and previous governments of Spain that largely coincide with the objectives of the anti-Semetic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in Spain and elsewhere throughout the world.

Among other things, Spain has taken the following actions:

  • Announced in March of 2013 a plan to open a Spanish consulate in Gaza, which was later scrapped after realizing that the EU identifies Hamas as a terrorist organization.
  • Announced in August 2014 an arms embargo against Israel ostensibly aimed at forcing Israel to stop its military operations against Hamas, the same terrorist entity which launched hundreds of rockets and missiles into Israel before the incursion.
  • The Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo praised the Spanish parliament in November of 2014 for voting to recognize “Palestine” as a state.
  • The Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID) provides substantial funding to various Palestinian and Spanish non-governmental organizations that aim to delegitimize Israel through the BDS movement.

Parallel to these activities, the Spanish Parliament passed legislation that will permit descendants of Jews expelled from the country in 1492 (Sepharadim) to seek Spanish citizenship.

This law, which enters into force on October 1, 2015, is ostensibly intended to right a historic wrong and demonstrate that more than 500 years after the Spanish expulsion, Jews are once again welcome in Spain.  According to a New York Times article published on June 11, 2015, the Spanish Justice Ministry was already handling 4,454 applications from Sephardic Jews filed under the current citizenship rules.

The new law is intended to give Spanish citizenship to any person whose Sephardic originals can be certified.  It also removes any obligation for applicants to renounce their current citizenship, although the applicant must demonstrate some Spanish language proficiency.  A Spanish passport would provide one with travel and employment opportunities throughout the European Union, as well as access to Spain’s free medical care.

This author is a descendant of Jews expelled from Spain, with his maternal grandmother having a last name of a prominent city in southern Spain.  My descendants eventually made their way to Turkey, where they lived for generations until the early Twentieth Century.  I am an active member of my local Jewish community, and am a member and past president of a Sephardic synagogue.  While the offer of Spanish citizenship to Sephardic Jews appears to be a means of purging Spain’s past sins, this effort is incongruous if not outright disingenuous when Spain concurrently pursues diplomatic and financial means to undermine and delegitimize the Jewish state of Israel.

Let not flattery or misplaced nostalgia blind ourselves to the reality of Spain today.  Nothing Spain can do now can atone for the brutal expulsion, persecution and murder of Jews from the Iberian peninsula more than 500 years ago.  Moreover, modern Spain has not demonstrated that it is a true friend to the Jewish people or of Israel. As explained earlier, the recent international commotion over Matisyahu’s performance at a Spanish music festival is not an isolated incident.  To be sure, many Spaniards and more than a few officials have the best of intentions and are wonderful people.  But we cannot permit the offer and acceptance of Spanish citizenship to Sepharadim to act as political cover for Spain to continue its virulent anti-Israel and anti-Semitic crusade.

About the Author
Steve Hemmat is an attorney in private practice in Seattle, Washington, where he has held several leadership roles in local Jewish institutions and is an alumnus of a Tikvah Fund workshop. Formerly with the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Justice, Steve has a deep interest in Israel and the welfare of the Jewish people. His wife, Rachely, is a native of Israel, and he has three children. He can be reached at
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