By Avi Goldstein
An early evening in the summer of 1991 found me driving my family through the Galilee, on our way to a resort on Lake Kinneret. The radio was tuned to the British Broadcasting Corporation’s international station, and a program titled Desert Island Discs came on. The show, a decades-long BBC production, features celebrities playing the short list of recordings they would take with them were they to be stranded on a desert island for the rest of their lives.
To our delight, the guest for this particular program, a rebroadcast of an April show, was none other than Jonathan Sacks, then the Chief Rabbi Elect of Great Britain. Rabbi Sacks proceeded to spin classical pieces, chazzanut, and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. I took great pleasure in listening to one of the world’s most prominent Jewish figures as he spoke about his choices. (Rabbi Sacks’s eight selections are listed at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/desert-island-discs/castaway/1eaaf3fc.)
None of Rabbi Sacks’s picks would be on my list were I to be headed for a lifetime in moat-like solitude. For one thing, he included not a single selection from Pink Floyd. It is reasonable to assume that if I were allowed to take twenty albums into exile, up to three Pink Floyd records would make the final cut: Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall. Although many roots-rock fans disdain the progressive music that Pink Floyd embodies, other fans hold the band—and its leader Roger Waters—in tremendous esteem.
While some readers of this newspaper may not recognize Waters’s name, to many readers (probably more than you think!) he is rock royalty. Today his concerts continue to sell out, as he mounts sophisticated, innovative shows that belie his three-and-a-half-score years.
None of this would be germane to Five Towns Jewish Times readers, if not for the fact that Roger Waters has emerged in recent years as a vocal and vituperative anti-Israel spokesman. Waters is articulate and smart, and precisely because of his standing as a musician, his words carry weight among fellow artists and among fans. Several months ago, an article in a local paper insisted that Waters was making no headway in his battle against Israel, but I must disagree. Indeed, he was instrumental in convincing Stevie Wonder (one album, Songs in the Key of Life, gets to my island) to withdraw from a major benefit for the Israel Defense Forces last year. Indeed, every time a major artist schedules a concert in Israel, Waters publicly calls upon the performer to back out.
One wishes that Waters’s opinions could be attributed to a momentary lapse of reason, but in fact they have developed over the course of many years, to the point where he is today’s poster boy for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to economically isolate the Jewish state.
Articles have been written about Waters and Israel, but for the most part the authors have been unfamiliar with the evolution of his Middle East views. For one thing, Waters actually did play in Israel, and not so long ago; yet even that show had overtones that portended his future course. In 1996, he scheduled a concert at Tel Aviv’s HaYarkon Park. Israelis are big Pink Floyd fans, and Waters reportedly had wanted to play there for some time. The trouble began in mid-preparation when, having taken an interest in the Palestinian Arab cause, Waters requested a change of venue to the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Neve Shalom, believing that the latter better reflected his political views. (Apparently, the fact that Jews and Arabs mingle freely in Tel Aviv did not register with him.)
Still, he did play in Israel, something that some other artists would not do at the time, generally out of safety concerns. As time passed, however, Waters assumed a more dogged anti-Israel stance. In the fall of 1996, I attended a Waters concert at Madison Square Garden. There, among other provocations, video images accompanying the music likened Israel’s defensive barrier to the Berlin Wall. No attempt was made to understand that the Berlin Wall was built by East Germany to keep freedom-lovers from escaping, while Israel’s defensive wall was built to keep homicide bombers out. In the eyes of Roger Waters, a wall was a wall.
Waters was not done. In more recent concerts he has featured a balloon pig (a common feature at Pink Floyd concerts) with the image of a Star of David alongside images of oppression, such as the hammer and sickle. The obvious inference: Israel is an oppressive state.
Waters recently fully adopted the anti-Israel position of the BDS movement. And in testimony before the United Nations last November, Waters went even further. He had earlier attended the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, a virulently anti-Israel conclave that arises periodically to spew its hatred. While the Russell Tribunal carries no weight and is not taken seriously on its own, Waters used it in his UN testimony as a springboard from which to assert his views. Among other things, Waters stated that he represented “global civil society,” clearly implying that the State of Israel is not civil.
Waters’s UN testimony can be viewed online. In it, he praises Hamas for dropping its opposition to the State of Israel and for endorsing recognition of Israel based on its withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 borders. One can only wonder how Waters has become so deluded; Hamas would be shocked to be informed that its signature platform plank, the dismantling of Israel, has been dislodged. Indeed, this would mean that Hamas is more amenable to compromise than Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, which to date have refused to make full peace even if Israel withdraws to the 1967 lines!
When someone denounces the State of Israel, the only Jewish country, in such resounding terms, the question arises: is he anti-Semitic? I don’t think Roger Waters is anti-Semitic, and he has taken pains to publicly state that he has nothing against Jews. However, the nomenclature that he uses when it comes to Israel—claiming it is an apartheid state and making odious comparisons to Nazi Germany—renders the issue of anti-Semitism practically moot. One recent despicable comment about Israel: “The parallels with what went on in the 1930s in Germany are so crushingly obvious.” And so Waters may not be anti-Semitic, but his rhetoric echoes the words of anti-Semites. He is not rock music’s equivalent of Wagner, but he does look at Israel with paranoid eyes.
Lest any readers remain unconvinced, Waters’s rhetoric and the BDS movement that he champions are dangerous. While BDS spokesmen will not admit it, an analysis of the group’s views confirms its belief that Israel should not exist in its current form as a Jewish state. (BDS evidently is not bothered by the existence of a multitude of Muslim states, states where Catholicism is the official religion, or the existence of Anglican Great Britain, Roger Waters’s country of birth.)
How pernicious is BDS? I venture that we disregard it at Israel’s risk. The BDS strategy has been to equate Israel with Apartheid South Africa and consequently to encourage an economic boycott of the Jewish state. To date, BDS has made little headway. There are a handful of university student councils that have voted to support economic divestment from Israel. A small academic group, the American Studies Association, acquired transcendent publicity for its recent vote in favor of divestment. These successes are overwhelmingly countered by the enormous investments made in Israel by companies such as Google, Facebook, and Intel. Yet while the BDS victories have been minor, let us keep in mind that most movements start small. Israel can ill afford to ignore Roger Waters and his Israel-hating cohorts. Each time BDS succeeds, it builds another brick in the movement that is dedicated to Israel’s destruction.
To date, there are very few musicians besides Roger Water who refuse to play in Israel. The most significant is Elvis Costello (although Elvis’s wife, the übertalented pop-jazz pianist Diana Krall, has not opted in to his boycott and has performed in the Jewish state). At minimum, supporters of Israel should not buy albums or attend concerts by artists who contest the right of the Jewish state to exist. Further, in the past I have posted pro-Israel comments on rogerwaters.com. I urge readers to be proactive online in defense of Israel.
Going back decades, important rockers made Israel a tour stop despite the country’s small population. Among these was Eric Clapton, regarded by many as the best rock guitarist ever (he gets to the island with Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, recorded with his band Derek and the Dominos). Dire Straits (on the island with Love Over Gold) played in Israel, as did Paul Simon (Graceland is his island contribution), U2, Jethro Tull, and Renaissance (which graces the island with the majestic Scheherazade & Other Stories). The political backlash accompanying a performance in Israel surfaced only in the past decade.
In this latter period, many significant musicians have graciously played in the Jewish state, often resisting enormous pressure. Paul McCartney performed two shows a few years ago, despite facing death threats. (McCartney and his fellow Beatles are on my island with two albums, Revolver and Abbey Road. McCartney’s Band on the Run, which he recorded with Wings, is a close runner-up.) Sir Paul made clear that he was not about to permit politics to get in the way of music’s universal appeal.
Interestingly, McCartney is a strong supporter of One Voice, an organization that seeks support among Jews and Arabs for a two-state solution. One can agree or disagree with One Voice, but it is not at all anti-Israel. In fact, the aforementioned Lord Sacks is a One Voice member.
Elton John recently played in Israel, as has Alicia Keys, the soul songstress, who refused to buckle to enormous pressure to cancel her appearance. Barbra Streisand, Deep Purple, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have also performed, as has Carl Palmer, the drummer for Emerson, Lake & Palmer (on the island with Trilogy).
Bob Dylan, who has expressed powerful Zionist views, played in Ramat Gan in 2011. (Dylan comes to the island with the magnificent Blood on the Tracks.) And while rumors circulated a while ago that Jon Bon Jovi would not play in Israel, the rumors are absolutely unfounded. In a recent BBC interview, Bon Jovi was asked to name the country where he most desired to perform. His immediate answer: Israel.
The Rolling Stones have announced that they will play in Tel Aviv in June. The Stones (on the island with Sticky Fingers) are widely regarded as the best live rock and roll band of all time, and their appearance would be a true blow to the Waters initiative. We can be certain that they will face a torrent of protest from Waters and BDS. Also slated to perform are Justin Timberlake and superstar Neil Young (whose Harvest Moon is a strong contender for island status). We can show our support for these artists by posting positive notes on their websites and on message boards.
Most recently, Waters turned his ire upon the actress Scarlett Johansson, who appeared in a Super Bowl commercial for the Israeli company SodaStream. Waters and his BDS fellow travelers were incensed that Johansson would endorse a company that has a manufacturing facility in the West Bank, despite the fact that this plant employs hundreds of Arabs alongside Jews on an equal footing. Jewish organizations have, to their credit, publicly thanked Johansson, who has courageously stood her ground.
Those of us who recognize that Israel is a shining diamond in the mostly cruel world that is the modern Middle East must not let our guard down. International artists such as Roger Waters must be taken to task when they viciously attack the Jewish state. No country is perfect, and Israel is not an exception. We can respectfully debate some of Israel’s policies. But when one challenges Israel’s elemental right to exist, it becomes a matter of us and them. We cannot afford to act as if there is no threat; we must not remain comfortably numb. v
Avi Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.