Martha Roth, left, and Itrath Syed. (photo by Matthew Gindin)
“I don’t get why people cannot look straight at what’s happening in the occupied territories and see it for what it is,” Roger Waters said to a full house at St. Andrew’s-Wesley Church on Oct. 26. “There’s a word for what is happening there: ethnic cleansing.”
The event took place a few days before the end of Waters’ cross-Canada Us and Them Tour, the final leg of a North American tour that kicked off almost a year ago. The primary songwriter behind Pink Floyd albums like The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon was invited to speak by Independent Jewish Voices (IJV). Among talk sponsors were IJV, CanPalNet, Seriously Free Speech, Not in Our Name, and Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights. Waters was interviewed by Martha Roth, co-chair of IJV Canada, and Itrath Syed, a professor at Langara College.
Many in the Jewish community were opposed to his speaking, accusing Waters of antisemitism and anti-Israel bias. B’nai Brith Canada made a documentary called Wish You Weren’t Here and followed him around Canada showing it in conjunction with his concerts. A week before the talk, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs sent out a mailing identifying Waters as “the rock musician obsessed with boycotting Israelis” who has become “the face of the hateful BDS movement.” An online petition called for the talk to be canceled.
At the church, Waters said his genesis as a BDS (boycott, divest from and sanction Israel) activist happened after a 2006 trip to Israel. “I was going to do a gig in Tel Aviv,” he said, “and I started to get emails from Palestinians and others who said that might not be such a good idea due to this very new movement started by Palestinian civil society called BDS, and they tried to prevail on me to cancel the gig. As an act of compromise, I moved the show to Neve Shalom, where they grow chickpeas and there are Jewish people living there, Arabs living there and Christians living there. All of their children go to school together, so it’s a lovely experiment in what can happen when people don’t fixate on all the things that we disapprove of in each other.”
Waters returned the next year for a tour of the territories with UNRWA and became a convert to BDS. “Since then, I’ve tried to open my big mouth as often as I can,” he said. “It’s been a long, quite trying, difficult road, not nearly as hard and trying, obviously, as living under occupation. The blackening of my name is just one more way of obscuring the truth. They want to stop the public discourse where people tell the truth about what happened in ’47-’48, what happened in ’67, in ’73, what’s happening now.”
Waters praised young Jews opposing the occupation. He said, “If you look at polls now, you find that younger Jewish people are no longer looking at the situation and not seeing anything. They’re saying, ‘This is not what Judaism is about, this does not represent the way I feel, it goes against everything I believe in with my heart. I am a human being, I am humane, and I do not want my people or anyone who pretends to represent me to behave like this. It’s happening, and it lightens my heart every time I hear someone speak out. It’s great.”
Waters also discussed his communist mother’s tutelage of him as a social justice activist, his opposition to the Trump administration, capitalism and militarism, and the inspiration behind songs on his recent album Is This the Life We Really Want?
A small group of protesters met across the street from the church, draped in Israeli flags. One entered the talk and unfurled a banner reading, “Boycotts Don’t Scare Us – Am Yisrael Chai,” before being peacefully removed. A college-age Israeli protester held a sign saying, “Israeli Lives Matter” and told the Independent that what was going on inside was “just like Nazi Germany.”
IJV sent someone out to invite the protesters in afterward for dialogue. While they declined, one Jewish protester exchanged phone numbers with a Palestinian from Gaza who had approached the group, agreeing to meet later and talk.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.