Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters on BDS and oppression of Palestinians

This is a lightly edited transcript of an interview with Pink Floyd co-founder and defender of Palestinian rights Roger Waters by Eugene Puryear on Sputnik Radio’s “By Any Means Necessary” show on August 8, 2017. The broadcast itself can be heard here.

Eugene Puryear: We are extraordinarily happy to be joined here in our studio by Roger Waters who is known to many of you I am sure, songwriter, bassist, co-founder of the legendary band Pink Floyd, also a great solo artist, here touring the United States. I’m sure some of you listening here on 105.5 FM have probably already seen him here locally, and hopefully others will along his tour here in the United States. Mr. Waters, thank you so much for joining us here on By Any Means Necessary.

Roger Waters: Couldn’t be happier.

EP: Well you’re here in Washington D.C. and you’re certainly perhaps the right place to be in a geopolitical storm here and a lot of commentary coming around the statements you’ve made in support of BDS, around the Palestinian issue, there’s a lot to cover there. But I wanted to start with a question that I’m always curious about when we talk about this conflict: what was your, how did you come to the Israel-Palestinian issue, I mean, was this something you’ve always known about, was there a moment that woke you up, I mean how did become something that you felt strongly about?

RW: Well I came to it because a gig in Tel Aviv was tacked onto the end of a tour I was doing in 2006. It may even have been the Dark Side of the Moon tour, that’s now 11 years ago so I can’t really remember. And suddenly there was this gig in Tel Aviv. And I confess I wasn’t that focussed, and of course I immediately started getting emails, which I read, and responded to. And inevitably, and I’m chuckling now, because since then the guy who I started the conversation with has become a close friend, which is Omar Barghouti, who as you know, BDS had only just recently started in Palestinian civil society about a year before. And so I got into a conversation with him, this, by the way, to bring things up to date, being the conversation that Thom Yorke [of Radiohead] wouldn’t have with BDS. He prefers not to talk to them about their desires, needs, and their situation. But I decided that I absolutely needed to talk to them, it sounded very relevant.

So I did, and eventually I came to a weird compromise, which may or may not have been a good idea, I cancelled the gig in the stadium in Tel Aviv, but we moved it to a place called Neve Shalom, or Wāħat as-Salām, which is an ecumenical agriculture community growing chick peas halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where many different races and religions of people have come together and grow chick peas to make hummus with, I assume that’s what they make with the chick peas. And the kids all grow up together, and they live together, and they all go to the same school, and so on. It’s a noble experiment in coexistence. So we did the gig there instead, and it was hugely successful, there were 60,000 people all gathered and everything was wonderful, except, of course, there were hardly any Palestinians there, because they’re not allowed to move anywhere.

Everything was wonderful until the very end of the gig, when I made a little speech to the audience, and they went from being ecstatic Pink Floyd/Roger Waters fans to being silent, not understanding uncomprehending Israelis, and it was when I said, “You are the generation of young Israelis who are going to have to make amends with and friends with your neighbors, or you’re all…” Anyway, when I said that, they went “What’s he talking about? We were having a lovely rock concert here. Why does he have to mention the ‘P’ word?” So I felt very, very uncomfortable after that experience. So the next year I went back at the invitation of UNRWA and the woman who was running it there in Jerusalem called Allegra Pacheco. And they took me everywhere. Not just all around Jerusalem, where I was sort of molested and maligned by settlers, in Jerusalem, and this is 2007, and I went to Bethlehem and the refugee camps, and we drove all over the West Bank, so I saw a lot of settlements and outposts and checkpoints, and I sat down with the elders in Jenin, in the refugee camp.

And somehow I got involved with Marcus Vetter, a German filmmaker who made the movie Heart of Jenin, and with Ismael who was the father of the kid who…I don’t know if anybody knows, but Heart of Jenin was the documentary about the 9-year-old Palestinian boy who is killed in Jenin by the IDF, and after a lot to-ing and fro-ing, he was on life support for a bit but he was brain dead, his parents and the local resistance and the local Imam and everybody agreed that his body parts might be used for the saving of life. And so they went all over. His heart went somewhere, which is what the movie’s about, and his kidneys and his lungs and blah blah blah. And many of the bits went to Israeli families. And they follow the story, it’s a remarkable document. I get a bit emotional remembering it now.

Where was I? So after that, I thought I have to do what little I can to shed light on the situation. So I learned a bit more about the history, and I also subsequently learned that my father, when he finished his teacher training in the mid-30’s, the first post that he took was at St. George’s School in Jerusalem. And he was there in ’34 and ’35 and ’36 before he left and came back. So there was a connection there as well. And he was already in the ’30’s, he wrote a letter to my grandmother saying how concerned he was at the Zionist movement, and how the land was being bought up with a lot of American money, and he was concerned about the potential fate of the indigenous Palestinian people, who at the time were a majority, 90% of the people living in the land. So all those years later, a few years later, when Golda Meir was saying “A land with no people”, it’s just a barefaced lie. There were a lot of people there for a long time.

EP: That’s certainly for sure, and not the only lie that has been told in the service of that cause. One thing I’m always curious about, especially people who like yourself have a higher profile, who have been criticized for embracing BDS, are you ever surprised with the vitriol behind it, because Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, here we have a non-violent movement, steeped deeply in so many of the Martin Luther King, Gandhi, so many people who are so revered worldwide, but when you put BDS, Israel together, the vitriol directed towards it seems so out of whack with how we’re taught to remember nonviolent civil disobedience and the importance of that moral crusade in different contexts. Are you ever surprised by that level of vitriol?

RW: Yeah, I mean they’re hugely well organized. It’s completely understandable bitterness that followed the way Jewish people were treated in Northern Europe and Western Europe in the 30’s and 40’s and during the Second World War has somehow been diverted into an exceptionalist extremism that knows no boundaries of behavior. Particularly in terms of AIPAC for instance, in this country, where they are terrified by it, that anybody might discover the real narrative of what actually happened in 1947 and ’48 and what the history has been since. So in order to draw the picture that they want people to understand, or to believe, of Israel as this tiny outpost of democracy and freedom and goodwill toward men and whatever, which clearly is not what it is, that’s the picture that they want to sell, and if somebody suggests that there might be an alternative narrative, they want them silenced. So they want to reduce anybody who has been there, and who has actually experienced the oppression of the Palestinian people first-hand, and they will stoop to the lowest, wherever they have to go, they will go.

In D.C. we did two gigs here last week, and they were great, the audiences were wonderful, the audiences that we had, there was a lot of love in the room, it’s very encouraging. Actually I’ve been finding this all over, everywhere we’ve played so far, and we’re about 30 gigs in. And I said to the audience the other night, I said “There’s a lot of love in this room, and there’s a lot of love in this country. It just needs to allow itself to rise to the surface, so it can interfere with whatever the scum is that’s on the surface at the moment, which is what the world sees.” But I have a lot of friends in D.C., because I’ve done work here with people from Walter Reed. I’ve worked with wounded men a bit. And we don’t do politics, the wounded guys and I, we play music together. I did a gig in the Daughters of the American Revolution Hall which I called “Music Heals”, a couple of Novembers ago, and that was a very moving experience as well.

I only bring these guys up because it’s something that I haven’t been public with before, but I think maybe this is the correct forum, because we’re in D.C. I did some gigs with these men, who I met at Walter Reed through a guy named Arthur Bloom, who runs a program called Musicorps, which is to help rehabilitate wounded veterans. And we worked for Bob and Lee Woodruff who have a charity called Stand Up for Heroes, and that’s just to raise money to help some of these guys. Whatever you think of the foreign policy that has sent them into harm’s way, you have to see them as victims, in the same way that all people who are wounded in war, or conflicts, are, to at least some extent, however misguided they may have been for going there. It’s very easy to become indoctrinated and get all rah-rah and get what is quoted as being patriotic and exceptionalist and believing we’re the greatest country in the world and we have to go and tell everybody else how to behave.

So Stand Up asked me if I would do some gigs in New York. They have a charity raising gig every year. It felt a bit weird to be showing off a bit and playing rock and roll with these guys who are badly, badly damaged, injured, amputees and so on. But then I had an idea, so I said to the board, “What about if I go down to Walter Reed put a band together of these blokes?” Then I would feel cool. So they went “What?” Anyway they agreed so we did it, to cut a long story short. So we did it, and we did a gig in 2012 at the Beacon in New York, and it was great. And it was very moving working with these guys and with Arthur Bloom. So the next year we did it in a bigger place, it was the theater upstairs at Madison Square Garden. Boom. So we’re two in.

The next year, it’s the middle of the summer, and I’m thinking, “I haven’t had the phone call.” Well the gig is always first week in November. So I started to smell a rat. I thought there’s something wrong here. I looked into it, and of course eventually I found out what it was. And what it was, was they didn’t want to tell me, and I’m laying no blame on Bob and Lee Woodruff, who are wonderful, wonderful people, and perfectly decent, two or three of the main sponsors for the next year, all Jewish of course, had come to them and said, “If Roger Waters plays at the gig, you’ll never see a penny from any of us, every again.” And that is low. I’ve never been so angry in my life as I was in that moment. And shocked. Shocked beyond belief. Eventually I shared that with the men and we decided that we were going to put on our own show the next year, which we did, which was the one that we did here in D.C. That is the depths to which they will sink.

They’ve done it to me in other charities. I was involved in a charity in New York distributing food to hungry people in New York. People in New York, richest country in the world, people are hungry. We know people are hungry all over this country because that’s the way it’s organized. And it’s wrong. And that’s what this is all about. So I was going to play at their annual fundraiser. Same thing: Three people on the board, “If he plays, not a dollar.” So they use their financial muscle to marginalize me, and also to prevent me from giving my services to people in need. Which is despicable.

EP: And we’re going to take a break on that note, but we will be back with more from Roger Waters, stay with us.

EP: You know it’s one of the things that I think is also interesting about BDS as a movement as well, because I think it speaks directly to the point your making, and I’m curious whether you agree with this general point, is that it attacks the ability for people to use these sort of cultural manifestations, economic manifestations and different things like that, to tip the scales in their favor. It really acts in a way to help balance the scales internationally, as much as it possibly can be done, by raising not only the issue in a way, but really putting that material pressure on a force that makes people sit up and take notice.

RW: Well what’s raising the issue right now, of course, is the fact that AIPAC are trying to criminalize BDS. And by and large they have done so successfully. There is a bill in Congress, sponsored among others by Kirsten Gillibrand who is the Junior Senator from New York, the aim of which is to make any cooperation with BDS — Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions — a criminal offense in the United States. So on the alter of Zionism, they want to tear up the Constitution. They want to scratch out the First Amendment, take away all rights of free speech, not just from all your citizens, but also from a concerned foreigner like myself who happens to live here and work here. So we’re arriving at a fundamental crunch point where your civil liberties are being attacked by what is essentially an agent of a foreign government. Because these people — AIPAC and ADL and the other extremist Jewish lobby organizations, or Israel lobby, I shouldn’t say Jewish, because it’s nothing to do with Judaism or Jewish people, in fact many, many of my friends in this country are very active with Jewish Voice for Peace and other organizations, because they understand that these policies, and the policies of the Israeli government and the Zionist movement, do not represent the fundamental tenets of Judaism, which is at heart as humane as any of the other religions, or any of the other Judeo, Middle East-centric religions that have grown up in the last couple of thousand years.

So we’re at an absolute watershed. They’re trying to cancel my gig at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island in three weeks time. Local councillors, and they’re speaking to newspapers, and even the State Attorney has gone public saying he’s considering whether to make a legal attack on my gig in three weeks time. I kind of hope he does. Because it would give those of us who believe in personal freedom and believe in the rule of law and also believe in boycott as a legitimate non-violent protest tactic, it would give us a chance A) to have our voice in public. Because you wouldn’t see me on Colbert, or Charlie Rose. I used to appear on Charlie Rose until they said “No, you can’t have him”. You won’t see me on mainstream television. But I did a little thing on CNN, because I was attacked in Florida. They wouldn’t let the kids that I had got to come to sing “Brick” to. I have a dozen local children, wherever we perform, come and become part of the show, and the local mayor forbade them appearing on the show because some Jewish organization, sorry, some Israel-oriented organization, no sorry, they call themself a Jewish foundation for something or other, and accused me of being anti-Semitic, and said I was spreading hatred and so on and so forth. It’s the big lie.

Anyway, this bill, we all have to stand shoulder to shoulder and say “No no no”. And we all have to protect our right to boycott. You know it worked with Dr. King, it worked in South Africa, and let us not forget, and this is something that Radiohead said, when they were saying “We’re going to go and play there [in Israel] anyway”, “Why don’t you boycott the United States, you don’t agree with their foreign policy?” The people of the United States have not asked me to come and boycott the United States. The people of Palestine have, all of Palestine civil society, in 2005, 2006, made a general international appeal to artists, activists, politicians, anybody there was, to help them in their cause, and to help shine a light on their predicament by joining the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. It is a request from the people who are occupied. In exactly the same way that the boycott of South Africa back in the 80’s and 90’s was at the request of the ANC, it was at the request of the vast majority of South African people.

So when an oppressed people from foreign countries ask you to join them in a struggle for basic human rights, which is all BDS is about, we’re not asking for the destruction of Israel, we’re not asking for anything that could be accused of even being faintly anti-Semitic in any way. We are asking that all the people of the region have the same political, civil, and religious rights. And that’s pretty simple. And of course they say “No, we don’t want them to have rights. We want rights to only be for people who are Jewish in Israel and in the Occupied Territories as well.”

EP: And I would just say notable here as historical fact for people who want to know, “Another Brick in the Wall”, famous Pink Floyd song many people know, banned by apartheid South Africa at one point, who thought it was too rebellious. I’m curious how you, and I know there’s one organization here in the D.C. area that even made a video calling you an anti-Semite, to try to get it out there, to try to make it difficult for you to perform, it seems that it has an extra pernicious bite to it because it speaks to the people whose heart cries out for justice, who would never want to be associated with anti-Semitism or anything like that, and that it’s just such an easy way to disengage from the conversation about right and wrong, to just throw that label, because then people say “Hey, I don’t want to be associated with that”. And rightfully so, of course.

RW: Well they’ve discovered that the tactic has been successful, and that’s why they use it. And they for exactly the reason that they do not want to engage in the dialogue. Because whenever they engage in the dialogue, they don’t have any moral or righteous ground to stand on. What the Israeli government has done since 1947-’48 and through in the ’67 war and the occupation, particularly the occupation and the settler movement, is completely illegal under international law and it’s clearly deeply inhumane, deeply divisive, and deeply exceptionalist. They are operating under “Look. We are more important than you. We’re better than you. Our rights are more important. You don’t count. You are sub-human people. And we’re above you.” Which is completely unacceptable in any part of the world or any society that wants to call itself civilized. And not just in my view. In the view of all progressive thought would agree upon that point.

People tell me constantly, I get trolls on websites and things, saying “Why doesn’t he just shut the eff up and play his songs?” Hang on, let me think how long have I been writing political songs? 50 years? The fact is that I wouldn’t, well I am, I’m going to say it now, Dr. King in the day, I’m quite sure, people were saying, “Why doesn’t he just shut the eff up and go back to preaching about God? That’s his job, this is none of his business. We’ll decide who can ride where, on what busses, use what drinking fountains, and whatever. It’s none of his business, shut up!” Well no, it is his business, and this is my business. So that’s a non-operative argument as well.

EP: The final thing I just wanted to raise here is I think the flip side of a lot of what we sort of see in terms of, what I view Israel’s very effective use of “soft power”, is that it also eliminates the idea, you don’t hear a lot about Palestinian artists and cultural production and so on and so forth, and as someone who has this platform, and who obviously has an unbelievable musical background, do you also see this as a good opportunity to raise that issue as well that there’s so much about Palestine that we don’t see, from the artists to the musicians and so on and so forth?

RW: Well of course. I’ve written this often. They’re an ancient people, with a huge tradition of literature and scholarship and philosophy and all kinds of artistic endeavor that is completely ignored, because at the behest of the lobby, the United States has decided to label them “terrorists”. Palestinian, terrorist, it’s all the same thing. These are just violent, unpredictable people who we must just control at all costs in order to protect this colony or satellite or whatever it was, or home for the Jewish people after the Holocaust, or whatever picture you want to paint of Zionism. And it’s deeply distressing, I mean it’s quite amazing how Palestinian culture has survived through the last 70 years. It just shows how resilient the people are, and how philosophical.

Everybody always says, and quite rightly, just imagine if it was you. Imagine if you had to live, any one of us, imagine if we were living under a military occupation. Just imagine for a second if Washington D.C. had a foreign army in it, and there were soldiers on every street corner, and you could not walk from here to the river, because there are checkpoints, and only these foreigners, or these people who have occupied your land, are allowed to walk to the river. You’re not allowed to go to the river. You can’t go to the sea. You’re completely restricted in every way. The lights go on and off because they decide when the lights can go on and off. You know the stench of human feces, if you’re a Gazan, fills your nostrils wherever you are, all day, every day. Your children’s lives are kind of considered worthless to the occupier.

Imagine how it would feel, even for ten minutes. It’s beyond belief that there hasn’t been a complete bloodbath. What’s happening every day is a bloodbath. Because young women would go to their mother’s sewing basket and take out a pair of scissors and go and commit suicide by running at a heavily armed Israeli soldier. With a pair of scissors. With no hope of inflicting any damage on them. It’s a symbolic act. And it’s a suicidal act, because they shoot them dead on the spot. They wouldn’t have to, obviously they could clearly disarm a child with a pair of scissors. And then if you were a civilized country, what would you do with that child? You’d maybe take them into protective custody and try to give them counseling or whatever. Except that, you would then have to ask yourself the question, “Why is a child running at me, in full body armor, carrying a A17 or whatever they shoot them with, with a pair of scissors? There must be a reason, what could it possibly be?” Duh. It’s not rocket science. They feel like you would feel if it was being done to you.

It makes me think of Charles Kingsley, a famous English author, who wrote a book called “The Water-Babies”. And it’s a strangely metaphysical but kind of cautionary tale, but in it, there are two characters. And one of them is very famous in English literature, and is rooted in our psyche, and is a woman, and she’s called Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. Which is the old kind of Biblical thing, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Well if we were to apply that as the general rule, not just to the Israelis, or to Zionism, but to our own foreign policy. How would you feel? How would you feel if the sky in Washington D.C. was full of drones, and you never had any idea whether you were going to be blown to bits, whatever you were doing. What right do these people flying these drones, probably sitting in an airfield in whereever it is, when you’re in Yemen they’re probably sitting in Nevada. By what right are these people droning mmmmmmm all day and night? How would you feel?

EP: I think that’s a fantastic note to end on. Roger Waters, thank you so much for joining us. You are on the “Us and Them Tour” right now here in the United States. Hopefully folks who are listening can have the opportunity to check that out.

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