Defining Roger Waters’ Antisemitism

Freedom of expression is an important human right and one that must be protected. I believe that this extends to artistic expression. However, if that expression crosses the line to what is clearly antisemitism, it is something we must not be prepared to accept. How we respond to such bigotry is another question. It certainly needs to be called out for what it is. In the case of Roger Waters, it is clearly antisemitism. Perhaps the best way of responding is to explain what defines his expression as antisemitism by international standards and then–in consequence–to decide whether or not to go on attending his concerts or purchasing his music.

In May 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) adopted by consensus an intergovernmental definition of antisemitism at its plenary in Bucharest. Since then, the UK, Romania, Austria, Israel, and most recently, Germany have officially adopted the definition and the European Union has encouraged its members to do so. The definition can be found here.

The IHRA is an intergovernmental body whose purpose is to place political and social leaders’ support behind the need for Holocaust education, remembrance and research both nationally and internationally. Initiated in 1998 by former Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson, it currently has 31 member countries (including Canada), eleven observer countries and seven Permanent International Partners. The national government of each member country appoints and sends a delegation to IHRA meetings that is composed of both government representatives and national experts.

In noting musician Roger Water’s upcoming October concert in Winnipeg, where I live, and other venues across Canada, I am deeply concerned by many of his statements, which are antisemitic as per the IHRA’s definition. Mr. Waters has consistently claimed that he is “anti-war, anti-apartheid, anti-racist, pro-human rights, pro-peace and pro-self-determination for all peoples.” However, the imagery he has used in his concerts and his own statements on other occasions belie these assertions and fail the test of the IHRA definition.

Mr. Waters has used a Star of David on a floating pig alongside a dollar sign and a hammer and sickle in his concerts. Although he has denied that the Star of David symbolizes Judaism and claims it represents Israel, it is in fact the recognized religious symbol for Judaism. The fact that Mr. Waters has added a crucifix and a “star crescent” by no means justifies his explanation. Using the Star of David in such a way is antisemitic whether it represents Israel or Judaism, according to the intergovernmental definition. The pig symbolism is also very problematic. The pig has been a notorious anti-Jewish image dating back to the Middle Ages (the judensau (“Jews’ pig”). The IHRA’s definition states that it is antisemitic “to use symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism to characterize Israel or Israelis.” The sickle of course suggests a similar idea – an accusation of communism levelled at Jews, which is still being used in some countries of the former Soviet Union. In this case, Jews are blamed for Soviet crimes and in some cases, those responsible for the wholesale murder of Jews are therefore whitewashed by history and turned into heroes.

Image of Judensau from 1543 Martin Luther’s book, On the Jews and Their Lies


The dollar sign is of course blatantly problematic. The IHRA defines as antisemitic “making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as a collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.” If there were any doubt as to Mr. Water’s intentions, in an interview with CounterPunch magazine, Waters stated that people fear the “Jewish lobby.” He explained that lobby “ is extraordinary powerful here and particularly in the industry that I work in, the music industry and in rock’n roll as they say. I promise you, naming no names, I’ve spoken to people who are terrified that if they stand shoulder to shoulder with me they are going to get f****d”

The IHRA definition of antisemitism includes attempts to draw comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis. Unfortunately, here too, Mr. Waters has been crystal clear in his language: “The parallels with what went on in the 30’s (sic) in Germany are so crushingly obvious that it doesn’t surprise me that the movement that both you and I are involved in is growing every day.”

The IHRA definition is crystal clear: “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic; however, denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour is antisemitic.” So is applying double standards by requiring of it behaviour which is not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

Mr. Waters has led a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against the state of Israel that includes attempting to convince his fellow artists not to perform there. Rather than mirroring Mr. Waters’ behaviour, I suggest it is up to the conscience of the individual to decide whether to support a musician who has expressed his virulent antisemitism so clearly. I for one, will not be attending his concert.

About the Author
Belle Jarniewski is the director of the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada and the current President of the Manitoba Multifaith Council. Since 2013, she has served on Canada’s delegation to the IHRA—the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Her book, Voices of Winnipeg Holocaust Survivors (2010), documents the stories of 73 local survivors. Belle’s passion for tikkun olam has led her to pursue a graduate degree in Dialogue Theology at the University of Winnipeg. Her thesis explored survivor narratives through the thought of the theologian Irving “Yitz” Greenberg. She is also one of the founders of Operation Ezra, an initiative to sponsor Yazidi refugees to Canada and to focus world awareness on this genocide occurring “in broad daylight.”
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