The Electronic Intifada

Activists in Spain are celebrating a big legal win against Israel lobby efforts to punish support for Palestinian rights.

Their victory also exposes a lie that European Union officials are spreading to discredit BDS – the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

On 11 January a court in Valencia dismissed a criminal complaint alleging hate crimes against eight BDS supporters. It ruled that the activists were exercising their right to free expression in pursuit of legitimate political goals.

The case stemmed from a 2015 incident when members of the group BDS País Valencià called on Spain’s Rototom Sunsplash music festival to cancel a performance by Matthew Paul Miller.

Miller is the American singer and pro-Israel activist who uses the stage name Matisyahu.

At first the reggae festival – which bills itself as fostering “peace, equality, human rights and social justice” – did drop Miller.

But amid cries of anti-Semitism from Israel lobby groups, and after pressure from the Israeli and American embassies, the festival put Miller back in its lineup.

Miller and his supporters claimed he was targeted merely because he is Jewish.

But this was never the case: The activists focused on Miller because of his well-documented history of anti-Palestinian activity and his use of his music to support Israel, including by raising money for its military.

Cleared of hates crimes

Yet the activists were charged in 2017 with criminal offenses that could have landed some of them in prison.

The complaint was filed by pro-Israel lawyer Abel Isaac de Bedoya, president of the so-called Legal Committee Against Discrimination.

De Bedoya has baselessly claimed that the BDS movement encourages anti-Semitism.

But the court in Valencia vindicated the activists.

According to the European Legal Support Center, a nonprofit that helped defend them, the court cleared the activists of any hate crime.

The ruling states that the activists were only contesting Miller’s presence in the festival because of his alleged views on Israeli policy, “not because of his Jewish status, religion or any other circumstance.”

The judges cited last June’s landmark decision by the European Court of Human Rights affirming that urging a boycott of Israel over its policies is not discrmination, but protected political speech.

The activists hailed their victory as a sign of how “the global Zionist strategy and [attempts by] its far-right allies to delegitimize the BDS movement are failing.”

“BDS has won, Palestine has won, solidarity has won, human rights have won,” the activists added.

EU spreads a lie

Their victory also deals a blow to the EU’s smear campaign against BDS.

In 2019, Katharina von Schnurbein, the EU’s anti-Semitism coordinator, cited the 2015 Matisyahu incident while speaking at the launch of an Israeli government report attacking the Palestine solidarity movement.

Von Schnurbein called the incident a “prominent example” of the “anti-Israel BDS movement” veering into anti-Semitism.

She claimed that “BDS put him [Miller] under pressure to denounce Israel although he is an American citizen” – as if he had only been the focus of activists because he is Jewish.

This false claim is repeated in a new handbook published by the EU to promote the so-called IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

This definition, supported by Israel and its lobby, is widely denounced by civil libertarians as a politically motivated tool of censorship that falsely equates criticism of Israel and its racist state ideology Zionism with anti-Jewish bigotry.

The EU handbook lists the Miller controversy under the heading “Anti-Semitic incidents.”

In a highly misleading account, it asserts that the Spanish festival “canceled the performance of an American Jewish singer because he declined to make a declaration condemning actions of the State of Israel.”

It adds: “No other artist was asked to condemn a country’s policies in order to perform.”

History of anti-Palestinian activism

At the time BDS País Valencia asked Rototom Sunsplash organizers to cancel Miller’s appearance in August 2015, his long record of anti-Palestinian activism and bigotry was well-known.

He had performed for Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, a group Israeli newspaper Haaretz describes as “the army’s US fundraising arm.”

In April 2015 he entertained delegates at the conference of powerful Israel lobby group AIPAC.

Miller had justified Israel’s May 2010 attack on the Mavi Marmara, killing nine civilian activists and fatally injuring a 10th as the ship sailed in international waters as part of a humanitarian flotilla to Gaza.

Miller had even denied the existence and identity of Palestinians.

“There was never a country called Palestine,” he claimed in 2012. “Palestine was a creation that was created within Israel, as Israel had already come about.”

Since the Spain controversy, Miller has publicly embraced Israel’s global war on BDS.

In November 2015, he headlined a New York gala to raise money for StandWithUs, a right-wing anti-Palestinian group with close ties to the Israeli government.

Miller has also worked closely with Creative Community for Peace, a StandWithUs front group that recruits artists to undermine solidarity with Palestinians.

He even released a single in 2016 that has been promoted as delivering an “anti-BDS message.”

And last Spring, Miller played a virtual concert in celebration of Israel’s “independence,” the name Israel gives to the 1948 Nakba – the systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland in order to establish a Jewish-dominated state.

It is defamation and government intimidation for the EU to continue to falsely accuse activists who have been exonerated in a court of law of anti-Semitism.

The EU must retract its “handbook,” apologize and end all its efforts to smear, silence and intimidate European citizens exercising their democratic rights to campaign for an end to Israel’s EU-supported crimes.

Von Schnurbein did not respond to a request for comment.