This article was first published on spiked on Wednesday. Since then moves have intensified to get Roger Waters banned. For example, a legal group has threatened the owners of the venues where he is playing with legal action.
Pressure is mounting to ban Roger Waters from performing in Britain. The former Pink Floyd frontman and veteran anti-Israel activist stands accused of anti-Semitism. But whatever one makes of Waters’s antics, his performances should not be cancelled.
Waters is set to perform his first UK show tonight in Birmingham, with further concerts scheduled for Glasgow, London and Manchester. These are part of his controversial ‘This Is Not a Drill’ tour, which began its European leg a few months ago. The show contains a number of controversial elements, such as Waters dressing up in a Nazi-style uniform and brandishing a gun, while Anne Frank’s name is projected above the stage. In past tours, he has floated an inflatable pig with a Star of David on it above the stage.
The Waters row came to a head earlier this month, when local authorities in Frankfurt attempted to ban his concert. The ban was successfully challenged by Waters in court and the concert went ahead, despite protests. Waters is now being investigated by the German police for wearing a Nazi-style uniform on stage at his Berlin gig (the display of Nazi symbols is illegal in Germany, except for educational or artistic purposes). According to Waters, he donned the uniform not to endorse Nazism, but in order to make a ‘scathing critique’ of it.
Jewish community organisations in the UK have condemned Waters, with some calling for him to be censored. The Board of Deputies of British Jews has argued that his concerts are probably better described as political rallies. The National Jewish Assembly has called on the UK government to condemn Waters. The Campaign Against Antisemitism, a volunteer-led charity, has not only launched a petition to stop venues hosting him – it has also written to cinema chains demanding they cancel film screenings of his concerts.
Several politicians have also waded in. Cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt has promised she will ‘raise concerns’ about the performances with the Home Office. Meanwhile, Christian Wakeford, the Labour MP for Bury South, went further by openly calling for Waters’s planned concert at the AO Arena in Manchester to be cancelled.
It should be noted that Waters resolutely rejects the charge that he is anti-Semitic. He claims that the accusation is being cynically weaponised against him by supporters of Israel in order to discredit his criticisms of the Jewish state.
Of course, it is impossible to know exactly what is going on inside Waters’s head. He does, however, follow the same pattern of thinking as many anti-Israel activists. He does not see Israel as just another country worthy of criticism, but rather as the centre of a global system of oppression. This is apparent from his numerous pronouncements on Israel over the years, as well as his actions on stage. For Waters, his support for the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is a central part of his advocacy for an ‘anti-war, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment movement’.
But even if it could be proven incontrovertibly that his concerts were anti-Semitic, it would not follow that they should be banned. The same would be true even if he really were hosting political rallies.
An important principle is at stake here – namely, freedom of expression. The authorities – whether local councils, MPs or community organisations – should not be allowed to determine what the public can see and hear. Cancelling Waters’s concerts would not only infringe his right to free speech – it would also deny the public an opportunity to judge his views.
There are also more practical reasons to challenge these attempts to cancel Waters. The campaign against him, first in Germany and now in Britain, has allowed Waters to present himself as a free-speech martyr. To some, this will lend credence to his dubious claim that he is the victim of shadowy, covert forces determined to silence his advocacy for the oppressed.
Besides, banning displays of anti-Semitism does not make the problem go away. On the contrary, it only encourages anti-Semitism to take on more disguised forms. This often includes the demonisation of Israel or of Zionism, rather than Jews as such. Even those who do genuinely hate Jews will rarely admit to it openly. Instead, they typically use coded language, which is harder to challenge and confront.
By all means, protest outside Waters’s concerts and challenge his outrageous antics. But the attempts to ban his concerts are an affront to freedom. And they will do nothing to help the struggle against anti-Semitism. Roger Waters must have the right to perform.