Hasidic musicians face controversy over pro-Israel messages and appearances

Singers Motty Ilowitz and Berry Weber appear to draw criticism after a pro-Israel video poem and a DC rally prayer service

Screenshot from Motty Ilowitz's website

Nov 23, 2023 6:00 AM


A scheduled performance in Kiryas Joel by Hasidic singer Motty Ilowitz was canceled by organizers last week, after the artist released a video in which he pushed back against calls for a cease fire in the Israel-Hamas war, according to a source familiar with the matter. Another singer, Berry Weber, posted a clarification after appearing to take part in last week’s pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C.

Ilowitz, a popular Hasidic singer and songwriter, was slated to perform at a jubilee celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Satmar village of Kiryas Joel in upstate New York. But after a stridently pro-Israel video from the artist went public last week, organizers canceled his appearance, according to a source close to the event’s organizing committee who was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject. The source told Shtetl that organizers withdrew their invitation over concerns that Ilowitz’s video could be seen as representative of the Satmar community’s viewpoints.

The video was posted by Ilowitz on X, formerly Twitter, in which he recited a Yiddish-language poem responding to those calling for Israel to halt its attacks against Hamas in Gaza.

“‘Ceasefire! ceasefire!’ the killer cries,” Ilowitz recited in the video. “Did you hold your fire? Like hell you did, as you tied up mothers still weeping over the silenced cries of their murdered infants.”

The post has since been deleted, though it has continued to circulate on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.

Reached by phone, Ilowitz denied that his performance was canceled. He said he deleted the video simply because it was “private.” Ilowitz maintains an active YouTube channel, where he regularly posts updates of his most recent performances, and he also posts regularly on X.

Weber, the other singer, also appeared to run up against Haredi anti-Zionism, after he led prayers in front of the White House on the morning of last week’s pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C. While many Haredim attended the rally, several rabbis had publicly opposed it. In a Yiddish-language video posted earlier this week, Weber delivered a statement “clarifying” his appearance on the morning of the rally.

“I've never apologized before,” Weber said in his video statement, but he went on to say that leading prayers at the rally “had nothing to do with Zionism.” Instead, he claimed it was meant to promote the practice of vasikin prayer, or praying at sunrise, which he is known to lead at the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage at the gravesite of 18th century Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov in Uman, Ukraine.

In comments to Shtetl, Weber said that “not a single person” reached out to him to criticize his attendance at the rally. Posting clarifications, he said, “is just something I usually do.”

While some artists have received pushback, other Haredi musicians and singers have expressed strong support for Israel in public performances in recent weeks. 

In a video circulating online, Hasidic singer Levy Falkowitz appears to be singing “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” an Israeli classic written by the late Israeli musician and songwriter Naomi Shemer. Another Hasidic musician and singer, Lipa Schmeltzer, has an active Instagram page with numerous videos showing him singing in front of Israeli troops, including one of him performing atop an Israeli tank alongside other Haredi musicians and Israeli soldiers.

As previously reported by Shtetl, Haredi leaders are increasingly grappling with a younger generation that is more rightward-leaning politically and more inclined to support Israel and its military, challenging decades of Haredi anti-Zionism.

Read more on Shtetl:

Amid rising Haredi support for Israel, Satmar rabbis issue harsh media guidelines

Large numbers of Haredim join thousands of all stripes at DC rally to support Israel