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Spain festival backtracks, re-invites Matisyahu after BDS controversy

Organizers apologize for dropping Jewish-American reggae artist from bill; blame pressure from pro-Palestinian activists

Following a barrage of criticism, organizers of an international reggae festival in Spain backtracked Wednesday and apologized for canceling a scheduled performance by Jewish-American singer Matisyahu because he had declined to state his position regarding a Palestinian state.

The Rototom Sunsplash festival said in a statement that it publicly apologized for canceling the concert and invites Matisyahu to play as originally planned on Saturday.

It said it recognized its mistake, adding that it had been the fruit of pressure by a local branch of the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which campaigned against Matisyahu's participation.

The growing BDS movement, modeled after a campaign in the 1970s and 1980s to isolate South Africa during its apartheid era, seeks to pressure Israel through tactics of economic and cultural boycott into ending its military occupation of Palestinian territories and human rights violations against Palestinians.

The festival's change of plans comes after the World Jewish Congress wrote to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, calling on him to condemn the cancellation, which they called “anti-Semitic,” and demanding firm action by Spain.

Spain's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday the government understood the Jewish communities' unease, adding that Spain opposed boycott campaigns against Israel. It reiterated its support for a Palestinian state through negotiations.

The World Jewish Congress and the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain lauded the reversal Wednesday and thanked the organizers.

It wasn't immediately known if Matisyahu, whose real name is Matthew Miller, will accept the new invitation.

Festival organizers originally said they canceled the Aug. 22 concert because Matisyahu refused to state his position regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the issue of a Palestinian state. The request was made of Matisyahu after BDS activists raised concerns that statements he has made supporting the state of Israel contradicted the event’s stated principles.

The annual Rototom Sunsplash festival, held in Benicàssim, a beach town on the eastern coast of Spain, bills itself as an event promoting a culture of peace, social justice and non-violence.

BDS activists on Monday hailed the cancellation as a victory for their movement.

"Human rights organizers in Spain have successfully pressured the Rototom festival to cancel this U.S. artist's show because of his record of hateful and racial incitement and his defense of Israeli war crimes and human rights violations," Omar Barghouthi, co-founder of the BDS movement, told Al Jazeera on Monday.

Barghouthi also dismissed charges of anti-Semitism, stating Matisyahu’s religion was “irrelevant” to the decision.

"Matisyahu's ethnicity, faith and other identity attributes are absolutely irrelevant to the campaign waged by human rights defenders in Spain against his show," said Barghouthi.

However, Rototom Sunsplash organizers on Wednesday said the BDS activists had prevented them from seeing the situation clearly.

They said the festival rejects anti-Semitism and respects the Jewish community.

On his Facebook page, Matisyahu said Monday that the festival organizers were pressured by the pro-Palestinian group and wanted him "to write a letter, or make a video, stating my positions on Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to pacify the BDS people."

"I support peace and compassion for all people. My music speaks for itself, and I do not insert politics into my music," he said.

BDS activists have been successful in convincing a number of musicians and artists to cancel engagements in Israel or at Israel-related events — including Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello and Sinead O’Connor. On Wednesday, American rapper Talib Kweli joined more than a thousand African-American racial justice activists in signing a statement supporting BDS.

Al Jazeera and wires. Renee Lewis contributed to this report.

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