In an escalation of the BDS wars involving a high-profile cultural figure, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York launched a campaign this week to inform New Yorkers of the anti-Semitic imagery and anti-Israel messages conveyed by former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters just days before he is scheduled to perform a series of concerts here.
The campaign, called Roger Waters is #OutOfTune with New York, includes a website (outoftuneny.com) in which New Yorkers are asked to sign a statement that says Waters’ “anti-Semitic and anti-Israel messages are not welcome in New York,” calls upon him to “stop using your musical platform to spread vicious propaganda and lies about Israel,” to “cease employing classic anti-Semitic imagery during your performances” and to “end your cultural boycott of Israel and embrace true peacemaking.”
This is the first time the JCRC, the central coordinating and resource organization for the Jewish community in the city, Westchester and Long Island, has mounted such a campaign against a cultural event. It was notably silent in 2014 when hundreds protested the staging of “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Metropolitan Opera.
The production was criticized by some for offering what they believed was a sympathetic portrayal of the Palestinian terrorists who killed Jewish American Leon Klinghoffer, a passenger who used a wheelchair, during their 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship.
Asked why the JCRC remained on the sidelines during that controversy, Charles Temel, JCRC’s president, explained that there is a “difference between a performance and what an artist is doing — waging an assault on the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”
The JCRC also did not intervene this summer when a pro-Palestinian group organized 60 artists to demand in a letter that the Lincoln Center Festival cancel a performance of David Grossman’s “To the End of the Land” because it was funded in part by Israel’s culture ministry; the JCRC, which said it did not know about the protest in advance, did, however, send a letter to Lincoln Center thanking them for not canceling the show.
In the past, the JCRC has had campaigns to protest those at the Park Slope Food Co-op who wanted to boycott Israeli-made products, and in May it objected to the choice of Linda Sarsour — who openly advocates for a boycott of Israel and its academic institutions — as the commencement speaker of CUNY’s School of Public Health.
But JCRC leaders were quick to stress that they are not calling for a boycott of Waters’ concerts.
“There is a person [Waters] who uses a public pulpit to malign the Jewish community and uses … Nazi language and images to talk about Jews.”
“This is not a call for people not to attend or to try to alter ticket sales,” said Noam Gilboord, the JCRC’s director of Israel and International Affairs. “He is a great musician who has deplorable views when it comes to Jews and Israel.”
Temel added that the JCRC’s job is to “look out for the Jewish community, and there is a person [Waters] who uses a public pulpit to malign the Jewish community and uses … Nazi language and images to talk about Jews. He is also intimidating artists not to perform in Israel.”
Waters openly expresses BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel) views during his concerts. In a 2013 open letter to Waters, Abraham Foxman, then national director of the Anti-Defamation League, observed that over the years Waters had “incorporated Jewish imagery into your concert performances, painting a Star of David on your famous floating pig alongside other symbols, including a dollar sign and the sickle and hammer. You repeatedly rejected accusations of a malicious subtext to the use of the Star of David, assuring fans that you were in no way equating Jews with money or communism. … In recent months, however, your relentless attacks against Israel and calls for a boycott of the Jewish State have caused us to reexamine your attitude towards Jews.”
Waters, 73, who has also equated Israeli policy and Nazi genocide, gained fame as the primary vocalist and conceptual leader of the progressive English rock band Pink Floyd that was founded in 1965. He left the group after two decades, during which it became one of the most commercially successful musical groups. He has toured extensively as a solo act since 1999, with one of his tours said to be the highest grossing of all time by a solo artist.
Attempts to reach Waters were unsuccessful.
It is because of Waters’ success as an entertainer that the Jewish community has launched this information campaign — not just here but in several other cities in which he has performed during his current 50-city tour.
“He and Pink Floyd were major icons and people know who he is and have gone to his concerts over the years,” said David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which represents 125 Jewish community relations councils nationwide. “We’re leaving it to each local community to organize” campaigns against him.
The JCRC of Greater Washington, for instance, decided to make a video about Waters as part of its information campaign.
— JCRC of New York (@JCRCNY) September 5, 2017
“We know as an absolute minimum that it was viewed 40,000 times in our area, and we also advertised on Facebook locally,” said Ronald Halber, the group’s executive director.
“He [Waters] sang twice at a venue downtown and we wanted to create a video that was online because that is where most of the traffic is,” he said. “We produced a video that could be modified and used by other communities in the U.S. and Canada.”
Jewish communities in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have used the minute-long video, and it is featured on the webpage of the JCRC of New York. In the video, an announcer says: “Music breaks down walls and gives people hope. Roger Waters should know that. Instead, he is using music to divide people. … By pressuring musicians to boycott Israel, Waters makes things worse by shutting down the free flow of ideas.”
“One can be anti-Israel without being anti-Semitic … but he is beyond the pale and we said this guy has to be answered.”
Halber said it was the first time his organization has gone after a “cultural icon.”
“He is so egregious and outspoken and he hasn’t been challenged,” he said. “We felt we could not let him go unanswered. Most of his fans are baby boomers and beyond, and we want them to know that he is peddling a bunch of nonsense. One can be anti-Israel without being anti-Semitic … but he is beyond the pale and we said this guy has to be answered.”
Some observers question whether this campaign will lead the JCRC to mount campaigns against artists who heed Waters’ entreaties not to perform in Israel but who don’t take an active role in promoting it. And they note that the campaign against Waters is complicated by the fact that he is also a successful composer whose works have been performed by such artists as Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza. In a 2014 interview, Broza told The Jewish Week that he performs Waters’ songs because he “grew up on this music.”
“I loved it then and I love it now,” he said. “I have to perform [these songs] in spite of anything that may ruin my impression of those who wrote them. [The boycott] doesn’t take away from the songs.”
Gilboord of the JCRC of New York said his organization is “not calling for a ban on Roger Waters’ music. A lot of musicians use each other’s songs. We’re raising awareness that this man is using anti-Semitic imagery in his performances.”
He added that Waters is doing more than “just participating in the Israel boycott movement, he is an ambassador for the BDS movement against Israel.”
As he reflected on Waters’ upcoming concerts, Temel observed: “I almost have the feeling that he is an aging rock star who is looking for attention and using the most egregious ways to do so.”