Matisyahu performs in concert during the "Hold The Fire Tour" at Stubb's in Austin, Texas, Feb. 10, 2024. (Photo/JTA-Rick Kern-Getty Images)
Matisyahu performs in concert during the "Hold The Fire Tour" at Stubb's in Austin, Texas, Feb. 10, 2024. (Photo/JTA-Rick Kern-Getty Images)

Matisyahu concerts in the Southwest canceled after pro-Palestinian activists protest

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(JTA) — Two concerts by Matisyahu, the American Jewish singer famous for his peace anthem “One Day,” have been canceled after pro-Palestinian protesters targeted venues where he was set to perform.

Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico, canceled one concert on Wednesday. The Rialto Theatre in Tucson, Arizona, canceled a second on Thursday, after first saying it would not do so.

Both venues cited staffing shortages and safety concerns. Both had been targeted by protesters who said Matisyahu’s record of performing for Israeli soldiers and pro-Israel groups in the United States should disqualify him from appearing.

Matisyahu said in a statement posted to Instagram that he had offered to pay for additional staffing and security at the Rialto show but had been rebuffed.

“They do this because they are either antisemitic or have confused their empathy for the Palestinian people with hatred for someone like me who builds empathy for both Israelis and Palestinians,” he wrote about those who had sought to cancel his show. “It truly is a sad day when dialogue with those you disagree with is abandoned for hate-mongering and silencing artistic expression.”

He will instead play a free show in Tucson for hundreds of people. He is scheduled to perform at the UC Theatre in Berkeley on Thursday; tickets are still available.

The concerts’ cancelation adds to a growing number of incidents in which Jewish and pro-Israel athletes and celebrities have had appearances scuttled, or threatened to be canceled, amid fierce criticism by pro-Palestinian activists, more than four months into the Israel-Hamas war that began Oct. 7 when Hamas attacked Israel.

Matisyahu, 44, was notable early in his career for balancing his reggae-infused music and an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle; he has since changed his religious practices but remains popular among Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. His 2008 hit “One Day” — which preaches a message of peace and envisions a world without war or bloodshed — is especially well known after appearing in movies, commercials and as a theme song during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

In 2015, Matisyahu was briefly booted from a Spanish music festival after he refused a demand from organizers that he endorse Palestinian statehood. After a brief uproar, he was reinstated, and eight pro-Palestinian activists were prosecuted, though not convicted, on hate crimes charges related to the incident.

Since Oct. 7, Matisyahu has engaged vocally in pro-Israel advocacy, appearing at the March for Israel in Washington, D.C. in November. He recently told the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles that before October, his music had become less Jewish in content, but after the attack, he felt “this strange pull back to being Jewish and feeling Jewish, of wanting to be connected to other Jews and Israel and speaking out about what’s happening and writing songs about it.”

Last week, Matisyahu posted a video of himself draped in an Israeli flag while performing “One Day” for Israeli soldiers during a recent visit in which he toured a kibbutz attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7, met with relatives of the Israeli hostages in Gaza and performed a benefit concert with the Israeli pop star Netta. In a caption, he explained why attendees at his U.S. shows were seeing him wear a flag onstage representing the Golani infantry unit of the Israel Defense Forces. “It is a reminder for me every time I perform for our family of warriors fighting for the soul of our nation,” he wrote.

The Tucson Coalition for Palestine cited video from Matisyahu’s Israel trip in explaining to supporters earlier this week why they should protest the Rialto show. An email script distributed by the group says the video is evidence of the artist’s longstanding support for the Israeli military. It also notes that Matisyahu has performed for pro-Israel U.S. groups including AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby; the Friends of the IDF fundraising group; and StandWithUs.

“I’m calling on the Rialto Theatre to stand against hosting an artist who clearly sides with the belligerent and violent state of Israel,” the script says. “Matisyahu does not align with community values that include compassion and peacefulness for Palestinians. I would hope the Rialto would demonstrate those same values by canceling his show.”

The Tucson chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace amplified the call. On Instagram, some supporters of the Tucson Coalition for Palestine said they doubted the venue would cancel a nearly sold-out show and suggested protesting in person instead. Pro-Palestinian protests have created frequent disruptions in public spaces and cultural institutions across the country since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war.

“Rialto won’t do anything over some angry calls,” one commenter wrote. “Make this unworkable.”

In the end, the Rialto did cancel the show. Though it did not post about the cancelation on its Instagram page, comments on the most recent post — the announcement of a show by the 1970s British band The Buzzcocks — are split between expressions of support for and dismay about the decision. An Instagram post by Meow Wolf in which it explained its cancelation in the comments also drew a mixture of responses.

On Matisyahu’s Instagram post, messages of solidarity poured in from fans and other pro-Israel celebrities, including the influencer Montana Tucker and the singer Regina Spektor, before the account hid comments on Thursday evening.

In his post, Matisyahu lamented widespread tactics deployed by pro-Palestinian activists during the war.

“Tearing down posters of kidnapped children does not bring justice. Chanting genocidal slogans at Jews does not bring peace. Preventing fans of all ethnic and religious backgrounds from singing together in Santa Fe or Tucson does not bring peace,” he wrote. “In fact, it does the opposite.”

The singer also vowed to continue his tour — for his new album titled “Hold the Fire” — and to return to Tucson in the future. His next scheduled performance is Friday night in Las Vegas.

“I’m sorry you were denied a show. I love you all,” he wrote. “My band and I will be back. We will not respond to hate with more hate. We will be together again. We will make music together again. We will sing together again One Day soon.”

Philissa Cramer
Philissa Cramer

Philissa Cramer is editor in chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.