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Van Morrison’s lyrical antisemitism

By Melissa Langsam Braunstein

(JNS) Van Morrison’s latest song comes complete with its own eyebrow-raising title: “They Own the Media.” But who exactly is “they”?

The song doesn’t specify, and Van Morrison hasn’t issued a public statement to clarify, in spite of numerous articles flagging the song’s antisemitic language. If we look back 16 years, though, it’s reasonable to think Morrison has Jews on the brain.

As The Forward recently reminded readers, Morrison “denied back in 2005 that ‘They Sold Me Out,’ in which he sings in first-person from the perspective of Jesus, was antisemitic. That song includes the lyrics: ‘For a few shekels more, they didn’t even think twice/For a few shekels more, another minute in the spotlight’ ” and “Sold me out for a few shekels.”

That earlier song uses what Ben M. Freeman, the author of Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People, calls the economic libel, in his new book: “Judas – a Jew – betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver. … This specific framing of Jews and money was rooted in the idea that they would do anything – including betrayal for material gain. This idea was eventually extrapolated by the Nazis who declared: ‘Money is the God of the Jews.’” And that slander apparently then found its way into Morrison’s music.

Once might be a mistake. Twice is not. A well-meaning person would be horrified by stirring an antisemitism scandal and work hard not to repeat it. Yet we appear to be witnessing round two.

Reflecting on the new song’s title, Stereogum’s March preview noted it “sure seems to be an antisemitic trope” before very generously allowing “maybe it’s satire.” With lines like “They own the media. They control the stories we are told. Ya ever try to go against them, you will be ignored,” and “Leave it all and you’ll never get, never get wise to the truth, ‘cause they control everything you do,” it seems fair to say this is not a satirical song.

For their part, InsideHook’s March preview opined, “We’ll have to wait to find out who exactly ‘they’ is referring to in the latter, but even if it’s not relying on old antisemitic stereotypes, the idea that any singular group of people ‘owns the media’ is a dangerous myth.”

Media ownership is a dangerous myth, specifically a dangerous antisemitic myth. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s widely embraced working definition of antisemitism offers numerous examples, including “allegations about Jews … controlling the media.”

Reflecting on Morrison’s song, Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center emailed: “The lyrics by this rock legend are deeply distressing. While the word Jew doesn’t appear, its mindset is set in conspiracy mode.” That also signals a problem. People who believe in one conspiracy are more likely to also believe others, and any time conspiracy theories gain traction in a particular culture, antisemitism does, too.

Dov Hikind, founder of Americans Against Antisemitism, told me that “Individuals can sing whatever they want in their shower, but what label in this country would promote [Morrison] and think it’s OK to do that?”

That label would be BMG Music. Curious how much of Morrison’s album was attributable to him versus his label, I inquired. A press spokesperson emailed, “Van delivered a finished record, which we then licensed, meaning we were not involved in its creation.” And in response to allegations of antisemitism, I was told, “BMG’s position on racism, antisemitism and hate is very clear. If we believed a song to be antisemitic, we would not release it.”

That’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s a weak response given how much buzz around this song has focused on antisemitism. While BMG may have been pleased the song was “tipped to enter the UK Official Albums Chart in the Top 10,” such toxicity’s being widely heard is no cause for celebration.

Zach Shapira, executive director of the J’accuse Coalition for Justice, messaged, “The shame of Van Morrison’s song belongs not only to the famed singer-songwriter himself, who has taken a tragic turn. It also belongs to … all those who speak out against hatred from other artists but remain silent as musicians like Van Morrison … engage in anti-Jewish hatred with little consequence. The music industry’s lack of seriousness in rooting out antisemitism is a stain on their legacy.”

Rabbi Cooper added, “When music is leveraged to mainstream hate, we need gatekeepers of music and culture to rebuke these disgusting and dangerous attacks before they become normalized.” But where are the gatekeepers, and why are they so quiet? At some point, silence conveys support, or at the very least acceptance.

Mainstream music shouldn’t be mainstreaming bigotry. Not every song a recording artist creates is necessarily worth promoting. Recording labels also have a responsibility to recognize what crosses a line, rather than contributing to, and profiting from, anti-Jewish tropes. No matter how beautiful the melody, antisemitic words will always be ugly.

Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a former U.S. State Department speechwriter, is now an independent writer in metro Washington.

Main Photo: Van Morrison at Edmonton Folk Music Festival in 2010. (Wikimedia Commons)

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