American musicians who support boycotting Israel over the issue of Palestinian rights are terrified to speak out for fear their careers will be destroyed, according to Roger Waters.
The Pink Floyd star – a prominent supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel since its inception 10 years ago – said the experience of seeing himself constantly labelled a Nazi and anti-Semite had scared people into silence.
“The only response to BDS is that it is anti-Semitic,” Waters told The Independent, in his first major UK interview about his commitment to Israeli activism. “I know this because I have been accused of being a Nazi and an anti-Semite for the past 10 years.
“My industry has been particularly recalcitrant in even raising a voice [against Israel]. There’s me and Elvis Costello, Brian Eno, Manic Street Preachers, one or two others, but there’s nobody in the United States where I live. I’ve talked to a lot of them, and they are scared s***less.
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“If they say something in public they will no longer have a career. They will be destroyed. I’m hoping to encourage some of them to stop being frightened and to stand up and be counted, because we need them. We need them desperately in this conversation in the same way we needed musicians to join protesters over Vietnam.”
Waters likened Israeli treatment of Palestinians to apartheid South Africa. “The way apartheid South Africa treated its black population, pretending they had some kind of autonomy, was a lie,” he said.
“Just as it is a lie now that there is any possibility under the current status quo of Palestinians achieving self-determination and achieving, at least, a rule of law where they can live and raise their children and start their own industries. This is an ancient, brilliant, artistic and very humane civilisation that is being destroyed in front of our eyes.”
A trip to Israel in 2006, where Waters had planned to play a gig in Tel Aviv and the end of the European leg of his Dark Side of the Moon Live tour, transformed his view of the Middle East.
Roger Waters alludes to the band’s lyrics while painting on the Israeli-Palestinian security barrier in Bethlehem in 2006 (Getty)
After speaking to Palestinian artists as well as Israeli anti-government protesters, who called on him to use the gig as a platform to speak out against Israeli foreign policy, he switched the concert from Hayarkon Park to Neve Shalom, an Arab/Israeli peace village. But as the tickets had already been sold, the audience was still entirely Jewish Israeli.
Waters said: “It was very strange performing to a completely segregated audience because there were no Palestinians there. There were just 60,000 Jewish Israelis, who could not have been more welcoming, nice and loyal to Pink Floyd. Nevertheless, it left an uncomfortable feeling.”
He travelled around the West Bank towns of Jenin, Ramallah and Nablus, seeing how the two communities were segregated – and also visited the security barrier separating Israel from the Occupied Territories spraying a signed message from his seminal work “Another Brick in the Wall”, which read: “We don’t need no thought control”.
Waters soon joined the BDS movement, inviting opprobrium and condemnation for daring to do what so few musicians are prepared to. “I’m glad I did it,” he says, as people in Israeli are “treated very unequally depending on their ethnicity. So Palestinian Israeli citizens and the Bedouin are treated completely different from Jewish citizens. There are 40 to 50 different laws depending on whether you are or you are not Jewish.”
Waters expected to be shouted down by critics, but it is the Nazi accusations that he considers the most absurd, especially given that his father, Lt Eric Waters of the 8th Royal Fusilliers, died aged 31 fighting the Nazis at Anzio, Italy, in early 1944. His body was never found but his name is commemorated at the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Monte Cassino.
The pain of not knowing his father, who was killed when Waters was five months old, influenced some of Pink Floyd’s most famous songs.
“I have veterans coming to all my shows and meet them at half time. At a gig in 2013, one veteran came up to me, took my hand, wouldn’t let go and looked me in the eye… I can hardly tell you this now without welling up. He said: ‘Your father would have been proud of you.’
“My father died fighting the Nazis, my mother [a strong CND and Labour supporter] devoted her life to doing everything she could to create a more humane world.
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“We are asking questions that have never been asked until the last couple of years, which are bringing the wrath of the Israeli lobby down on people like me and all the others who dare to question and criticise.
“[The Israeli lobby] is determined not to let that conversation develop into one that people can listen to and that is why they accuse us of being Nazis. This idea that BDS is the thin end of some kind of genocidal Nazi wedge that ends up in another Holocaust – well it isn’t.”
Nick Mason, Pink Floyd’s drummer, wrote of Waters in his autobiography: “Once he sees a confrontation as necessary he is so grimly committed to winning that he throws everything into the fray – and his everything can be pretty scary.”
Israel’s incoming ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, Benjamin Netanyahu’s former spokesman, seems to be the next man in Waters’ sights over “this battle of words”.
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He said: “I can tell you what Mark Regev is going to say about any situation. He is going to say: ‘What would you do if your children were being slaughtered by terrorists? Do we not have a right to defend ourselves?’ And that is the mantra.”
Waters cites growing activism on US university campuses, often by Jewish students, as reason for optimism that the status quo may change in his lifetime. He often writes letters to those students who, he said, are set to play as important a role in the future of Israel as the anti-Vietnam War protesters played in influencing US foreign policy in the 1960s and 1970s.
“It makes my heart sing to see these young kids organising themselves and I applaud them for taking a stand in what they believe in the face of such huge opposition,” he said.
“These are brave young people and they cannot be bought. They believe in their attachment and love for other human beings. We do not believe in the building of walls. It’s so important we understand our humanity and co-operate with one another to create a better place for our children and grandchildren.”