Roger Waters is no stranger to controversy. The founding member of Pink Floyd is an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights and the BDS movement, but his current Us + Them tour has been met by opposition from pro-Israel groups and a new documentary targeting his views on Israel.
A series of film screenings of Wish You Weren’t Here, a documentary by Ian Halperin that accuses Waters of anti-Semitism, is scheduled in cities across Canada in October. The screenings, sponsored by Jewish advocacy group B’nai Brith Canada, are timed to coincide with Waters’ own tour across the country.
Karen Rodman, an organizer with the Canadian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) coalition, which calls for an international boycott of Israel over the way it treats Palestinians and violates international laws, said that the film’s tour is part of a wider “smear campaign” to discredit Waters and the movement. The BDS committee includes groups like Independent Jewish Voices and Palestine Solidarity Network.
A Waters concert last week in Long Island went on in spite of attempts to shut it down by Nassau County officials who cited a local anti-BDS bill, which passed in May 2016.
The concert Waters held in Miami was marred by a full-page ad in the Miami Herald paid for by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation (GMJF) with the headline: “Anti-Semitism and Hatred Are Not Welcome in Miami.”
In what Canada Palestine Association chair Hanna Kawas calls part of a “co-ordinated” international campaign to discredit Waters and the BDS movement, the GMJF wrote:
“Your vile messages of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and hatred are not welcome in our community,” adding, “Mr Waters, stop openly calling for support of a cultural boycott of Israel.”
Encouraged by the same organization, The City of Miami Beach prevented a group of children from a summer camp drama programme from singing on stage with Waters. He responded in an op-ed published earlier this month in the New York Times, headlined “Congress Shouldn’t Silence Human Rights Advocates.”
“I understand that city officials have a democratic right to disagree with my opinions, but I was shocked that they were willing to take it out on kids,” Rogers wrote.
The show goes on
Still, Waters tour goes on and he continues to campaign for Palestinian rights.
He opposed a draft bill in the US Senate aimed at silencing BDS supporters, called the Israeli Anti-Boycott Act, which would impose penalties on US citizens “engaged in interstate or foreign commerce” who support the boycott of Israeli products and services, including up to 20 years in prison and a $1m fine.
Waters wrote in the New York Times:
By endorsing this McCarthyite bill, senators would take away Americans’ First Amendment rights in order to protect Israel from nonviolent pressure to end its 50-year-old occupation of Palestinian territory and other abuses of Palestinian rights.”
The bill has also attracted much criticism from free-speech advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union. Rodman points out that while motions have been passed federally, provincially and even municipally that condemn BDS in Canada, they are not binding like some American legislation that criminalizes support for BDS.
Still, this has not stopped groups like B’nai Brith Canada from targeting Waters. The group’s CEO Michael Mostyn said in a statement explaining the campaign:
When you’re only targeting Israel for delegitimisation and demonization and with a double standard, that‘s anti-Semitism, and that’s what Roger Waters is guilty of.
By promoting this film, B’nai Brith hopes to raise awareness of his extremely misguided and dangerous views, and highlight the truth surrounding Waters’ activism: that it’s biased, unfactual, and lends credence to the movement that seeks Israel’s destruction.
He further stated:
Whether or not he views himself as an anti-Semite, Roger Waters is using his platform as a musician to promote a completely false and anti-Semitic narrative. This narrative ignores history, genealogy, archaeology, and anthropology, and leads to real-world consequences for members of the Jewish community who get targeted by fanatics caught up in its hateful ideology.”
Rather than “playing into B’nai Brith Canada’s bid for publicity,” said Rodman, Canadian activists will be staging not counter protests but “welcoming events” for Waters as he makes his way across the country. Rodman and her fellow activists plan to stand outside venues with signage and information tables about Palestinian issues and BDS.
“The leadership that Roger Waters has shown globally in standing up for Palestinian rights is admirable,” Rodman said. “We’d love to see Canadian artists follow in his footsteps.”
To that end, the group is “delighted” that Waters has signed a petition to stop Canadian rock star Bryan Adams from playing in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem this December.
“I think Roger Waters is being unfairly targeted, as are many people who stand up for Palestinian rights. They risk being slandered and tactics of fear are used to silence them,” Rodman said.
But the B’nai Brith tour of Wish You Weren’t Here may in fact backfire says Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) activist Sid Shniad, who has already bought his ticket for Waters’ Vancouver date, and notes that the tour, which has included stops in Europe and America, is quite popular. Waters even had to schedule several extra concerts on his tour because of the huge demand.
“I’ve sent word to Waters via Facebook, asking if there’s anything IJV and others in the Palestine solidarity movement can do to express our support for the tour, but haven’t heard anything back,” he said.
Waters visited Israel in 2006 to play a gig during his Dark Side of the Moon tour, where he toured the occupied West Bank and moved his concert from HaYarkon park in Tel Aviv to Wahat al-Salam – Neveh Shalom, a village in between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, called the “Oasis of Peace” in English. After this visit, his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict changed.
In an article published in February 2016, Rogers told the Independent that the Palestinian civilization, “is an ancient, brilliant, artistic and very humane civilization that is being destroyed in front of our eyes”.
In a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published in June 2017, HRW stated:
Fifty years after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it controls these areas through repression, institutionalised discrimination, and systematic abuses of the Palestinian population’s rights.” HRW added that the Israeli occupation was involved in “unlawful killings; forced displacement; abusive detention”.
Trial by film
In an interview with MEE, film-maker Ian Halperin, whose last documentary Broken was about Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s relationship, said he was not bothered by potential “welcoming events” by activists for Waters.
“I am very pro-first amendment,” said the film-maker, who has secured screening dates in Chicago, New York and Miami in November, hosted by Jewish and Christian evangelical groups.
“My film is not an echo chamber of Jews complaining about anti-Semitism. Some Arabs and Muslims are interviewed as well as South African former anti-apartheid leaders,” he said.
Although Halperin said he cannot reveal too much information about the film until its premiere, he relates that interviews include ones with the Pope, Britain’s former prime minister Tony Blair, a member of the Quilliam Foundation, named after the man who opened England’s first mosque, as well as with Palestinian citizens of Israel interviewed in Tel Aviv.
Halperin said his film is about Waters within the larger context of global anti-Semitism. “Racism is racism,” he said, noting that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are both related issues.
But he cites Canada’s inter-faith and multicultural nature, and solidarity after the massacre at the Quebec City mosque as being distinct from the US.
But why focus on Roger Waters?
“As a son of Polish Holocaust survivors, I am deeply offended by Waters equating Israel with Nazi Germany,” he said. The premise of the film, he explained, is to disprove this notion by interviewing global experts on racism and anti-Semitism.
Halperin, who is also a musician, said that he played with many black South Africans from townships and was an anti-apartheid activist in the 80s. But, unlike South Africa’s archbishop and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, he does not see a parallel between calls for sanctions against South Africa from black activists and the BDS movement.
“They are apples and oranges,” he said, noting that “Israeli Arabs” can “sit in parliament” and have “equal rights”. Halperin has never been to the occupied West Bank or Gaza, but travelled to Israel to interview “Jews and Arabs” for the film.
“Everyone I talked to wanted peace,” he said. “It’s just the leaders that foment the conflict.”
The cultural boycott against Israel, he said, unfairly targets artists and intellectuals, many of whom are pro-Palestinian.
According to Halperin, Roger Waters declined interview requests and is not part of Wish You Weren’t Here.
For her part, Rodman, who like Halperin has had no direct contact with the rock star, said: “We commend Roger Waters for his stance and convictions on human rights. The Palestinian civil society call for BDS is based on international humanitarian law, and calls for the same rights for Palestinians afforded to all people.”
She noted that “Roger Waters’ music and words speak for themselves. To criticise any state is not a violation of human rights. However, to violate the principles of freedom, equity and justice for people is a violation of human rights. In speaking for these principles, Roger Waters is condemned by the Zionist project as are many people who defend justice for Palestinians.”
Top photo | Composer and former bassist and singer of British rock band Pink Floyd Roger Waters, is seen while touring Israel’s apartheid wall in the West Bank refugee camp of Aida in Bethlehem, Tuesday, June 2, 2009. (AP/Muhammed Muheisen)
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