Roger Waters, former Pink Floyd frontman and veteran anti-Israel campaigner, is to perform in Frankfurt on 28 May after months of wrangling over anti-Semitism allegations.
On one side of the controversy are those who have argued Waters should be banned from performing because he is anti-Semitic. In their view his criticism of Israel is a thinly disguised form of anti-Semitism.
On the other, the rock musician and his supporters insist he should be allowed to perform as he is anti-Israel rather than anti-Semitic. They claim Israel supporters are cynically weaponising the charge of anti-Semitism to silence his legitimate criticisms and in doing so curtailing his freedom of expression.
Unfortuntely the existence of a third possibility did not feature in the debate. That is that even if Waters is an anti-Semite he should be allowed to perform. The attempt to ban him has allowed him to pose as a free speech martyr. It has also done nothing to challenge Jew-hatred but, on the contrary, has only made the discussion even more confused.
Arguments over these themes have raged over Waters’ 2023 European and South American This Is Not a Drill tour but Frankfurt has become a focus. That is partly because the Festhalle, his concert venue in the city, is publically owned. On 24 February the ultimate owners, the City of Frankfurt and the federal state of Hesse, announced they were banning him as a sign of their opposition to anti-Semitism. The fact that in 1938 the venue was used for rounding up Jews before transporting them to prisons and concentration camps added an extra emotional charge to the debate.
Waters and his supporters mounted a concerted media and legal campaign against the ban. In early March Katie Halper, an American political activist, launched a Change.org petition which garnered over 36,000 signatures. Among them were high profile muscians, artists, journalists and writers.
On 16 March Waters made an announcement on Twitter with the heading “Hey Frankfurters leave free speech alone”. He said that his lawyers would taking steps to ensure that concerts in Munich – which was also threatened at one point – and Frankfurt would go ahead. The statement went on to say that:
“I want to state for the record and once and for all that I am not and never have been antisemitic and nothing that anyone can say or publish will alter that. My well publicised views relate entirely to the policies and actions of the Israeli government and not with the peoples of Israel. Antisemitism is odious and racist and I condemn it, along with all forms of racism unreservedly.”
Eventually a Frankfurt court decided that Waters did have the right to perform at the Festhalle. Waters took the verdict as a vindication of the view that he is not an anti-Semite. The City of Frankfurt and the State of Hesse decided not to appeal against the decision.
Jewish community leaders have recently reiterated their dismay at Waters being allowed to perform. Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has stated that “Roger Waters also transfers his hatred of Israel to Jews, in which he knowingly plays on resentment.”
There are certainly plausible grounds to accuse Waters of anti-Semitism. One of the most prominent features of his tour for months was a giant inflatable pig, floating above the stage, with a star of David on the side. At his recent Berlin concert the traditional Jewish emblem was replaced with the words “Elbit Systems”, an Israeli weapons manufacturer, on the side. His concerts have also included him wearing a Waffen SS uniform with other performers also donning Nazi regalia. Waters has claimed that these are a parody of the Third Reich and a warning of what he sees as the current resurgence of fascism.
In April he also appeared breaking down in tears in a short video clip on twitter in which he says: “It’s the same thing. Day after f***ing day. What is wrong with the f***ing Israelis? What is wrong with them?” Presumably some of his supporters saw this as an expression of heartfelt emotion but to many others he probably appeared unhinged.
Waters’ preoccupation with Israel is typical of the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in that it is not just about the country itself. It is a central part of the identity of those who uphold this particular brand of radicalism. In the words of his twitter statement on the Frankfurt verdict he sees his support for BDS as part of an “anti-war, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian, antiestablishment movement”. From this perspective the campaign against Israel is symbolic of a broader struggle against global oppression.
This connection between Israel and his broader worldview was apparent at times during his Berlin concert. As well as the words “fuck the occupation” flashing up on a giant screen were “reproductive rights” and “trans rights”. He has used all the standard tropes of accusing Israel of being a settler-colonial state, an apartheid state and commiting genocide.
Unfortunately many have reacted to Waters by arguing that he should be banned. For example, on 24 May there is scheduled to be a rally in Frankfurt with the theme “Anti-Semitism as freedom of expression? Not with us!”. It will include a discussion of anti-Semitism and the showing of a documentary on the history of the Festhalle including its involvement in the Nazi rounding up of Jews.
It is of course entirely right and proper that people should demonstrate against what are in effect bizarre political rallys starring Waters. Protestors should expose the strange spectacles for what they are and argue against his politics.
However, calling for him to be banned is another matter entirely. It is objectionable in principle because it is a clear violation of freedom of speech. But there are also more practical reasons not to go down that path.
For a start the moves to ban Waters have allowed him to pose as a free speech martyr. He has seized the opportunity to pose as a principled defender of freedom against the authoritarian authorities.
There is also a related risk that attempts to ban him lend credence to his otherwise outlandish conspiracy theories. He can present himself as a brave fighter against shadowy dark forces trying to shut him down. At a time when conspiracy theories have a lot of credence it is vital not to give them any more credibility.
Finally, the attempts to ban anti-Semitism only mean that it takes more disguised forms. The underlying sentiment will not disappear simply because of attempts to ban it. Nowadays it often disguises itself as political criticism of Israel rather than attacking Jews overtly.
Instead Waters must be exposed to the harsh light of scrutiny. His bizarre claims should be challenged and his arguments tackled. It is only by direct confrontation – as opposed to the evasion of banning – that such poisonous views can be defeated.
I am delighted that Novo has pubished a German translation of my piece.
Photo: Roger Waters headshot "Roger Waters en el Palau Sant Jordi de Barcelona (The Wall Live)" by alterna2 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.