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We can’t become comfortably numb to antisemitism

Roger Waters, lead singer of Pink Floyd, sings in the band’s 1979 rock-opera, The Wall, of becoming “Comfortably Numb” to sound (“your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying”), touch (“my hands felt just like two balloons”) and other stimuli. In everyday language, when something becomes normalized, or we are indifferent or apathetic to it, we have become numb to whatever the “it” is. After hearing of Waters’ latest, recent, antisemitic tirade, those lyrics remind me that we must not allow ourselves to become “comfortably numb” to Waters, and those like him, who attempt to normalize antisemitism.

For those not familiar, Roger Waters has a long history of anti-Israel and antisemitic comments and actions. For example, in 2013 his solo concert tour featured a large inflatable pig emblazoned with a Star of David and dollar signs and has preached that Jews control the music industry and press. He has called Israel a “settler-colonialist” “apartheid” state made up of a “little cabal” of Europeans that commits genocide and insists the Jews have no historical connection to the land of Israel. He has long supported the BDS movement and openly criticizes and attacks musical acts who have performed in Israel.

Last month in Berlin, Waters performed on stage in an SS-style uniform while projecting side-by-side images of Anne Frank and Shireen Abu Akleh, the Palestinian reporter who was likely accidentally killed by an Israeli-fired bullet in Jenin last year while covering a military operation. There is no factual similarity between those two and the insinuation there is and the attempt to draw any equivalence is just plain wrong. Waters’ attempt in interviews to characterize his SS-style uniform as “satire” and that he is allowed artistic license to express himself on stage rings hollow. After being called out for these recent antics by the media and by protests at his concerts, Waters has expressed that he is “pissed off” at the “antisemitism bullshit” which “all comes from Tel Aviv.”

The reason it is important to call Waters what he is – an antisemite – is because we cannot allow his comments and actions to become normalized or accepted. We cannot become “comfortably numb” to the insidious spread of antisemitism that all reports and indices say is increasing globally. One inappropriate prop on stage or a single comment, possibly taken out of context, does not make one an antisemite.  But, as far back as 2013, former ADL National Director Abe Foxman, who had previously defended Waters from such charges, concluded that, “[h]is comments about Jews and Israel have gotten progressively worse over time….and has now morphed into conspiratorial anti-Semitism.”

Next week, I am proud to be visiting Israel to attend the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum being held in Tel Aviv. One of AJC’s main policy goals is to fight antisemitism, both in the United States and globally and I look forward to hearing from those in Israel and other countries about how together we can fight back against this worrying trend. In the US, AJC was instrumental in formulating and pushing for the Biden Administration’s recently announced (May 25, 2023) National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, and its embrace of  the non-binding International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism (IHRA Definition).

Some in the United States, the far-left and free-speech advocates, oppose the use of the IHRA Definition claiming it unlawfully stifles their ability to express opposition to Israeli policies and actions. It does not; rather, the IHRA Definition does contain illustrative examples of speech that can potentially cross the line into antisemitism. For example, the use of Nazi-symbolism and speech to describe Israel, or questioning the legitimacy of Israel’s right to exist or questioning the legitimacy of the 1947 UN vote to create a Jewish State, or advocating for a Palestinian State “from the River to the Sea” thus wiping Israel from the map, or by attacking and holding all Jews collectively responsible for the actions of Israel, can, according to the IHRA Definition, morph into unacceptable, antisemitic speech. Claiming such statements are merely legitimate criticism, disagreement or debate with Israeli policy is a veiled attempt to hide behind the First Amendment. If those critics want to criticize, protest, or demand change from the Israeli government – especially the current extreme right-wing coalition – then count me in. You can also count in the hundreds of thousands of Israelis taking to the streets in protest of their government.

But that is not what those opposed to the use of the IHRA Definition, or the Roger Waters of the world, mean. When they speak out again Israel, they are not protesting a specific policy or action or proposal of the Israeli government; rather, they are protesting the very existence of an Israel government and the very existence of the State of Israel. So yes, if you question the very right to exist of the one Jewish State in the world, with a population equal to 1/10th of 1% of the global population, then yes, as others before me have said, you might just be spewing antisemitism.

The more we allow these types of comments and actions – hidden behind free speech and artistic license arguments – to enter the legitimate public debate, without calling them out for what they are, the more they become normalized and accepted and we have become “comfortably numb” to antisemitism all around us.  We cannot allow that to happen.

About the Author
Michael Kohler is a synagogue past-president, ardent supporter of Israel and strengthening the relationship between US Jews and Israel, and professionally works as an immigration attorney on Long Island, N.Y.
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