Identity Politics and Aesthetics: The Case of Matisyahu

By Rachel Zimring Feldman

Jerusalem, if I forget you,
fire not gonna come from me tongue.
Jerusalem, if I forget you,

let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do.
In the ancient days, we will return with no delay Picking up the bounty and the spoils on our way
We’ve been traveling from state to state

And them don’t understand what they say
3,000 years with no place to be

And they want me to give up my milk and honey
Don’t you see, it’s not about the land or the sea

Not the country but the dwelling of his majesty

The opening lines of Matisyahu’s hit song “Jerusalem,” contain an inherently contradictory statement. In the first two lines, the artist asserts the eternal connection of the Jewish people with the physical land of Israel by refusing to give up his “milk and honey” after a 3,000 year exile. Then, in the last two lines, he draws our attention away from geopolitical struggle, claiming that “its not about the land or the sea,” in fact, but about maintaining a connection to the divine that is independent of physical location. It is not the “country” that matters but the “dwelling of his majesty.” These lyrics are emblematic of the controversy found throughout Matisyahu’s songs and videography, whereby his particular brand of universalism operates simultaneously with a method of exclusion by omission. Matisyahu is a voice for peace, appealing to fans via a clichéd call for universal acceptance of all religions and cultures and collaborating with a diverse variety of artists. Yet, Matisyahu’s work often (quite literally) utilizes Holocaust imagery and Jewish iconography to affirm the Jewish claim to Israel without reference to 20th century politics. Despite the place-less and time-less quality of his message of freedom and justice for all, Matisyahu’s universalism neatly manages to omit the Palestinian struggle. By dissecting the video for “Jerusalem,” I will argue that Matisyahu represents a form of cultural production that mobilizes an aesthetically depoliticized universalism. Matisyahu’s particular brand of aesthetic universalism relies on liberal notions of multiculturalism and exclusionary identity politics.

The video for “Jerusalem” opens with the image of Matisyahu, an orthodox Jewish reggae artist from West Chester, Pennsylvania. For many, such a musician symbolizes a proud affirmation of Jewish culture within the context of contemporary American life. On stage, he freely wears peyes, talit, and a yamulke while rapping and singing in a “rasta” voice. In this video, Matisyahu serves as an idealized image of an American Jew who does not forsake his ethnic and religious particularity amidst the homogenizing arena of American culture. Such a cultural icon has not always been available, as he reminds us with images throughout the video. First, a clip of a 1960s family photograph, father dressed in a college graduation gown holding a new baby in front of a suburban home. Such an image represents my grandparent’s generation, newly Americanized and longing to forget the horrors of the Holocaust by blending into the backdrop of middle class American life. Next, the video profiles ethnically diverse young adults tentatively approaching a wall and placing illuminated family photographs and journal entries onto the surface. The second portion of the video is a reflection of my generation, some excavating the past, some boldly reclaiming a sense of Jewish identity).

Rebuild the temple and the crown of glory
Years gone by, about sixty
Burn in the oven in this century
And the gas tried to choke, but it couldn’t choke me
I will not lie down, I will not fall asleep
They come overseas, yes they’re trying to be free
Erase the demons out of our memory
Change your name and your identity
Afraid of the truth and our dark history
Why is everybody always chasing we
Cut off the roots of your family tree
Don’t you know that’s not the way to be

In the second verse, Matisyahu reminds young Jewish Americans that, although their grandparents “came oversees…trying to be free,” they mistakenly “changed their name and identity” because they were “afraid of the truth and our dark history.” He proclaims that young Americans must not “cut off the roots” of their family tree. From these lyrics, one easily feels the conflict many Jewish Americans face: the struggle to ground themselves in a genealogically “rooted” identity. It is here that we begin to see how universality and particularity can become two sides of the same coin. The universal essence of the Jewish people that transcends the time-less and place-less dimensions of Diaspora, is sustained by the particularity of Jewish genealogy. In this verse, complex identity and identity transformation is disavowed. The changing of a name upon arrival in America is no longer situated within the historical context of assimilation, but framed as a fear of truth and a denial of history. In response to this fear and denial, the video goes on to re-embrace history and genealogical truth through the symbol of the memory wall. The image of the memory wall throughout this video seems like an obvious reference to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and the tradition of placing notes or prayers in cracks between the stones. At the same time, the illuminated wall covered in photomontage is strikingly similar to the curatorial techniques of modern Holocaust museums. Numerous Holocaust museums make use of the photomontage as a way of connecting the viewer with the personal face of the Holocaust, the immensity of lost lives, the magnitude of familial love and dreams, and with the deep genealogical history of the Jewish people in Europe. The effect is overwhelming and the viewer becomes lost in the images of people floating in time and space. The use of photomontage for Holocaust memorials fits within the popular characterizations of Jewish history, where the Jew is seen as an inevitable victim of endless diasporic suffering. As Arendt notes in “Jewish History, Revised,” such historical tropes functioned so that “Jews were not history makers but history sufferers, preserving a kind of eternal identity of goodness.”[1] The effect of Holocaust montage is a reliving of an inexplicable past, a channeling of victimhood into the present that effectively slides the Jewish people and Israel out of any moral condemnation.

The video continues as an elderly woman approaches the memory wall, identifiable as a Holocaust survivor by the numbers tattooed on her arm. For most Jewish Americans, this image is highly provocative and moving. The tattooed woman is an iconographic manifestation of the Jewish mantra to “never forget” that was ingrained into my psyche through American Jewish socialization. Yet, this historic remembrance seems to come simultaneously with an amnesia for current events and is connected with the overall apathy of American Jews towards Israeli policy.

It is at this point in the video that Matisyahu further deploys his contradictory and depoliticized universalism. Images of multi-cultural struggles for self-determination are placed on the wall, with a particular emphasis on the parallels between the historical Jewish struggle and the American civil rights movement. Through this cross-cultural paralleling of oppressive experience, the song is superficially rendered relevant for justice-seekers across the world. In the third verse Matisyahu reminds us of the pressing need for universal freedom:

Caught up in these ways, and the worlds gone craze
Don’t you know it’s just a phase
Case of the Simon says
If I forget the truth then my words won’t penetrate
Babylon burning in the place, can’t see through the haze
Chop down all of them dirty ways,
That’s the price that you pay for selling lies to the youth
No way, not ok, oh no way, not ok, hey
Aint no one gonna break my stride
Aint no one gonna pull me down
Oh no, I got to keep on moving

The video climaxes with a clip of Matisyahu placing a photograph of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem onto the virtual memory wall, now filled with glowing family photographs. With this final action, Matisyahu completes the visual representation of the American Jewish connection to Israel as a birthright. It is here that we must pause. Throughout this video one has the nagging sense that something is missing, that some glaring error has been made: where are the Palestinians? In a song that strongly suggests the universal struggle for freedom from oppression and the historical longing of individuals for the city of Jerusalem, criticism could be raised against Matisyahu’s producers who neglect to include the Palestinian memory in this video. However, it becomes more comprehensible if viewed through the lens of the particular brand of universalism that Matisyahu is selling. The depoliticized and amnesiac nature of his art is what allows Matisyahu to sell kefiyahs emblazoned with a Star-of-David at his Brooklyn concerts. Within this video, Jewish particularity and right to the land of Israel is reaffirmed through the language of universal justice, freedom, and a longing for the divine. Jewish identity politics are beautifully cloaked in a universal aesthetic that selectively renders certain histories (most notably the Palestinian one) mute. To conclude, I draw your attention to what is at stake in deploying a universalist aesthetic. The aesthetic of universalism can easily be manipulated to mask the exclusionary nature of identity politics. This is due to that fact that universality is an inherently exclusionary aesthetic, built upon notions of singular, stable, and  trans-historical subject identities. Jewish identity in this video is not historically contingent, but historically and genealogically determined. Therefore, we must consider whether the aesthetics of universalism foreclose the possibility of a radical democratic project that that is a based on a post-modern critique of essential identity. ❉