Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters has supported the boycott of Israel for years. That is why the city of Frankfurt cancelled one of his concerts. In London, he now met Meron Mendel, the director of the Anne Frank Education Centre, who has just published the book “Talking about Israel”.
Roger Waters, 79, is responsible for “the golden years of Pink Floyd”. That’s what it says on posters with which the Englishman is currently advertising “his first farewell tour”. There is still a dispute about his concerts in Hamburg, Cologne, Berlin and Munich. In Frankfurt am Main, the city’s magistrate has declared that the concert in the Festhalle will be “immediately cancelled extraordinarily for good cause”. This is because Waters supports the BDS movement, which wants to achieve a change in Palestinian policy by boycotting Israel. But he does not want to be accused of hostility towards Jews. That is why he will sue Frankfurt – and wants to talk.
Meron Mendel, 46, is Israeli, German and director of the Anne Frank Educational Centre. During the dispute about anti-Semitism at the Documenta in Kassel, he appeared in public for the first time – as a Jewish intellectual who knows how to differentiate. He has just published “Talking about Israel. A German Debate”, a book on the subject. An ideal discussion partner for Roger Waters.
Waters and Mendel met for an hour at the Rosewood Hotel in London last week.
Live photos by Kate Izor.
SPIEGEL: Mr Waters, the magistrate of Frankfurt am Main has cancelled your concert planned for 28 May in the Festhalle. It wants to send “a signal against anti-Semitism”. Does that surprise you?
Waters: No, they’ve been babbling about it since at least 2018. I read what the Frankfurt magistrate had to say. Of course he is wrong.
SPIEGEL: Of course?
Waters: Yes, of course. I am not an anti-Semite. I have never been an anti-Semite and I will never be one. I have stressed that on many occasions. It is bizarre that my career should now be attacked on the basis of allegations made by the Israel lobby.
SPIEGEL: Can you understand that there are statements and artistic choices that suggest such an assessment? A flying pig, for example, is a highlight of your shows – there was a Star of David on it.
Waters: And therefore I am supposed to be an anti-Semite? The flying pig is part of every show where I play the song “In the Flesh”. This particular pig flew ten years ago as a prop for “The Wall” concerts. In the statement of the magistrate of Frankfurt it says that I gave 200 shows in which a Star of David was supposed to be on it. That is nonsense. I researched it again, there were less than twenty concerts, and only five of them in Europe. Because as soon as people complained about it, on social media after a show in Belgium, I said: Okay, I can understand why some people, some religious Jews, are upset.
SPIEGEL: And then?
Waters: And then I immediately removed the Star of David from that pig. But I stand by my original decision to use it. It was one of many symbols for dogmas of all kinds. Religious dogmas like Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And commercial symbols representing capitalist dogma. In addition to the Star of David, the crucifix and the crescent moon, the McDonald’s logo, the dollar sign and the Mercedes star were also on display at these shows…. No company complained, no Christian, no Muslim. Only the Israel lobby. At the time, the ADL took a close look …
Spiegel: The Anti-Defamation League, based in New York, an organisation that campaigns against the defamation of and discrimination against Jews.
Waters: They decided that there was no anti-Semitism here.
Mendel: I have been in the Israeli peace movement for 30 years and an opponent of the occupation of Palestine ever since. I wonder why you still cannot admit that your pig action not only hurt religious feelings, but that linking the Star of David to symbols of capitalism reproduces classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. And I wonder why you criticise Israel so vehemently but do not apply the same standards to Vladimir Putin or Bashar al-Assad.
Waters: You sit here and tell me you are against the occupation.
Good, we have something in common there. Are we against the occupation for the same reasons? My reason is that the occupation contradicts the very idea of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Paris 1948, according to which all people should have universal and equal human rights? Even those who live in Palestine or Israel – call it what you will?
Mendel: Of course.
Waters: Well, I have the impression that the Israeli government does not believe that.
Mendel: Yes, that’s true.
Waters: Then we have no disagreement.
Mendel: I have been wondering for years how to get the majority of people in Israel to think in terms of human rights. Israel is not perfect, but it is a democracy …
Waters: Aha, a dissent! Everyone knows that Israel is not a democracy. A democracy needs equal rights for all citizens. And Israel doesn’t have those. It is a state in which a certain group, the Jewish people, have supremacy, and Jewish citizens enjoy rights that are denied to their fellow citizens. The government says so openly.
Mendel: You must not ignore the fact that the founding of Israel as a Jewish state took place against the backdrop of the pogroms in Europe and the Holocaust – Israel is the only home for Jews worldwide. And you must have noticed that in the last five or six weeks hundreds of thousands of Israelis have protested against this government. And they are not backing down today. You and I, we may have the same opinion about the current Israeli government …
Waters: Okay, good. That’s a start!
Mendel: And there is no perfect democracy. But the last coalition government involved an Arab party. Israelis themselves fight each other on the political stage. You say yourself, when you talk about other states in the world, that there is not only black and white. Why should it be different in Israel? Maybe Israel is something in between, and you could recognize that.
Waters: We are getting off topic.
Mendel: May I tell you how I came to the peace movement?
Waters: Please do.
Mendel: When I was 14 or 15, there was a project that brought Israeli Jews and Palestinians together. And we learned from each other. Today, the peaceful dialogue has fallen silent. Why? Because of BDS. But without dialogue there will be no peace.
Waters: Do I understand you correctly? You say that the boycott movement has destroyed the peace process?
Mendel: Yes, they have made all initiatives for dialogue impossible. Because dialogue and boycott do not go together.
Waters: We have an organization here, BDS, that campaigns for equal human rights for all those who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea – I’m just talking about the geographical space. Because people live there who are deprived of their basic human rights. BDS is an attempt to draw worldwide attention to this problem. And you are telling me that this would destroy the peace process? How is that possible?
Mendel: BDS is against any rapprochement. I will give you an example. Rami Aman, a Palestinian peace activist from Gaza, took part in a Zoom conference with activists from Gaza and from Israel. BDS activists denounced him on Facebook and informed the military arm of Hamas. One day later, Hamas arrested him, put him in prison for two months and tortured him there. Since then, Rami Aman has not been active. I could give you many more examples of people in Israel and Palestine who dedicate their whole lives to peace and understanding between the parties – and are opposed by BDS. That is my problem with this movement.
Waters: I don’t know anything about this case, so I can’t comment on it.
Mendel: Let’s talk about principles. One of my principles has always been to talk to people.
Waters: Well, that’s a good thing.
Mendel: Then you also agree that there are Jews in Israel who really want peace with the Palestinians?
Waters: I know that there are. My friend Gideon Levy from the newspaper “Haaretz”, for example. If it’s about the peace movement in Israel, you have to ask him. He lives there, I don’t.
Mendel: But Gideon Levy is not here, so I ask you. BDS punishes these people instead of strengthening them. Liberal and progressive forces don’t have it easy in Israel. And if they want to come to Europe and America, they are boycotted there.
Waters: The mandate and task of BDS is first and foremost to empower the Palestinian people. But since you bring it up: I also know peace activists in Israel who are supported by BDS.
SPIEGEL: Mr Waters, you are not a politician. Doesn’t your music have to do with communication? And also with empathy?
Waters: Of course it does. Everything I have created over the past 60 years expresses my desire and need to empathize with other people. That’s exactly what it is.
SPIEGEL: Then I ask, not as an Israeli, but as a German whose grandfather fought against your father in the Second World War, why this opportunity to communicate does not apply to Israelis, why they have to be boycotted.
Waters: Well, let’s go back to the beginning. I played in Israel and there was not a single Palestinian there. I played in a field of chickpeas near Neve Shalom …
SPIEGEL: … a peace village between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Waters: Yes, that was in 2006. That was when I first saw with my own eyes what was going on…. I was there.
Mendel: Why were there no Palestinians there?
Waters: Because they are not allowed free movement even if they want to see a pop concert.
Mendel: Palestinians from the occupied territories I can understand. But weren’t there Palestinians from Israel there?
Waters: Maybe. How many will there have been? I don’t know. I didn’t go around asking everyone…. But I remember saying to that young audience there, “You are the generation of young Israelis who must make peace with your brothers and sisters, the Palestinians.” Before I said that, 60,000 fans were screaming at the top of their lungs: “Pink Floyd! Dark Side of the Moon! Roger!”. After my plea for peace, there was absolute silence.
Mendel: This is a great moment! This is exactly what these people need!
Waters: The mood tipped from frenzied enthusiasm to: “This guy is nuts”.
Mendel: Isn’t that a great opportunity? There are maybe 50,000 people, mostly Israelis, and Roger Waters tells them, “You are blind! You have to make peace!”.
Waters: Well, they didn’t do it, did they?
Mendel: It would be megalomaniacal to believe that a rock star alone could fix it. But who knows, maybe you made one or two concertgoers think back then?
Waters: Maybe but since then things have got worse and worse. And why? Because too many people in Israel are racist and don’t want peace with their neighbours. You, Mr Mendel, seem to be an exception to the rule. May I ask you a question?
Mendel: Of course.
Waters: How can it be that a monster like the radical settler Bezalel Smotrich is finance minister today? Well? Somebody must have elected him!
Mendel: Hundreds of thousands are demonstrating against him.
Waters: If the people of Israel want peace, let them choose peace. Let them admit that this experiment was a mistake and give the people back their stolen land and the human rights they are legally entitled to. That is all. It’s not complicated.
SPIEGEL: And that’s why you ask colleagues like Nick Cave or Radiohead not to play there?
Waters: That’s right. Musicians like those you mentioned would probably agree with Professor Mendel, and advise me: “Go to Israel, talk to students in the cafés. We can have disagreements and talk about it and everything will be fine.” No, everything won’t be fine talking to students won’t help. The fact in the occupied territories is: if you are Jewish, you have rights. And if you are not Jewish, you don’t have them. It’s as simple as that. I would like to know from you, as a journalist from SPIEGEL, whether you believe that the Bundestag – especially the SPD, CDU, and the Greens – believe in the idea of human rights in general and especially for all those living in the occupied territories? And, more importantly, do you think that the German people as a whole are interested in universal human rights?
SPIEGEL: I can speak neither for the parliament nor for the people. But my impression is that both a majority in the Bundestag and the Germans as a whole are quite interested in universal human rights. But …
Waters: But? But what? But not for the Palestinians?
SPIEGEL: The Germans, as you know, have a special relationship with the Jewish state for historical reasons.
Waters: I know that.
SPIEGEL: And the situation in the Middle East is very complicated. Germany should have an interest in refraining from anything that could make the situation even more dangerous than it already is.
Waters: More dangerous for whom?
SPIEGEL: For the state of Israel.
Waters: Ah, the Jewish state of Israel! Are you saying that the German people are only in favour of human rights when they concern Jewish Israelis, not Palestinians? Because if that’s the case, then it’s not “complicated”. It’s just wrong. Human rights should be enjoyed equally by all.
Mendel: Can’t you empathise with Israel’s certain concerns? Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. All around it are states that are hostile to Israel. Wouldn’t it be helpful to get Israelis to engage in dialogue?
Waters: Meron, you sound like a very old, very, very broken record. That’s why I’m making movements here like I’m pulling my hair out. No, it’s not complicated! Either we believe in equal human rights or we don’t. You can’t say: “Of course, the Rohingya in Myanmar! Of course, the blacks in South Africa! But in Israel? No! Jews live there…”, there is the Jewish state, it’s complicated.
SPIEGEL: Mr Waters, you get quite loud sometimes.
Waters: Well, I am a passionate man, and this issue grieves me deeply. That’s why I’m in the firing line, that’s why my career could be on the line. Because I’m one of the few people in my business who stands up for what he believes in – whatever happens. For all I care, they can try to cancel every concert I do in Germany. I will fight them in court. It’s a tragedy for Germany that they even try. Because the message to the world is: We Germans don’t care about human rights and freedom of expression.
Mendel: We agree that human rights are not only violated in Israel and Palestine, but also in China, Russia or Myanmar?
Waters: Of course we agree on that!
Mendel: So Israel is the only place on earth where you wouldn’t play? What’s helpful about that?
Waters: My refusal to break out of the BDS picket line is disrupting the racist status quo in Israel. That’s what helps. You know the word that we were never allowed to use, but are now allowed to use because it is used all the time, and that is: apartheid. Pointing out that there is apartheid in Israel is as helpful as when it was in South Africa-. It definitely helped to end apartheid there.
Mendel: Unlike in South Africa under the apartheid regime, in Israel all citizens are equal under the law. What is happening in Israel is structural discrimination and racism against the Arab population. And these problems must of course be fought! The concept of apartheid also gives the false impression that there is a racist ideology at the heart of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. This is not the case. This reading ignores that Israel is an attempt by Jews to create a place of safety from anti-Semitism. But to my actual question: Can you understand my discomfort if you were playing in Moscow, in Tehran or Damascus – but not in Israel?
Waters: I just explained it to you. The people of Russia or Iran or Syria have not organised a BDS movement and asked me not to break the picket line. They are not listening! Why am I not playing there? Because there is a picket line organised by BDS. I was asked by the Palestinian people, by every man, woman, child, “Please, please, Roger Waters, creator of this beautiful music, don’t play in Israel!”. If you do, you will help normalise apartheid! So please don’t do it!”
Mendel: Suppose I were to introduce 500 Palestinians to them? And these Palestinians would ask you to play in Israel? So that you can point out the human rights violations in the occupied territories to your Israeli audience?
Waters: I have already been asked by the whole of Palestinian civil society to respect the boycott. So your 500 Palestinians have already spoken.
Mendel: You know that many Palestinians are afraid to speak out against BDS. If they do, they end up in Hamas prison. I’m amazed that for you the situation is always so simple and clear when it comes to Israel. Why is it suddenly complicated when Putin invades Ukraine? As a Jew and a peace activist, I wonder if you are my ally – or an anti-Semite. I’m not sure about that.
Waters: I am sure that your Judaism has nothing to do with it. I don’t want to talk about Russia and Ukraine today. That is a completely different topic. Maybe some other time. Such a conversation would obviously also touch on many questions about human rights.
Mendel: Human rights are the most important thing of all for me, whether in Israel or elsewhere. As an Israeli, I am particularly concerned about the violations of these rights in Israel, in the occupied territories. But the question is: How can we end this occupation?
Waters: I am making my contribution by not singing “Another Brick in the Wall” in Tel Aviv. So can we please stop even thinking about that? Because it’s not going to happen. I’m not going to break the picket line, end of story. The cause of my oppressed brothers and sisters in Palestine is more important to me than the needs of Israeli fans of my music in Israel.I will be there in a heartbeat when human rights apply to all in Israel and the occupied territories. How ironic that the Israelis want to get me to play in Israel – and the Germans are trying to ban me in Frankfurt. That’s crazy!
Mendel: I don’t speak for “the Israelis”, but only for myself. As someone who advocates dialogue and not boycott. Neither of us would have come if we thought the ban was a good idea.
SPIEGEL: We think it’s a mistake to ban concerts on that basis.
Waters: I’m very happy to hear that. I would be very, very happy to see that printed in SPIEGEL.
Mendel: Now if the Ukrainian people would ask you not to give concerts in Russia …
Waters: Which Ukrainian people? One part is for Russia, the other part is for Ukraine.
Mendel: The elected government of Ukraine …
Waters: The elected government of Ukraine was removed in an illegal government coup in 2014.
SPIEGEL: In a revolution.
Waters: Well, yes. We’re talking about the Maidan. You call it a revolution, I call it a coup. Let’s leave it at that. I don’t have any concerts planned in Russia.
Mendel: So you won’t give any concerts there as long as the war goes on?
Waters: That’s none of your business.
SPIEGEL: But it might interest many of your fans in Germany.
Waters: I don’t want to be dragged into this discussion by you. You are Israeli, yes? And you are a journalist from SPIEGEL, right? And I came here to talk about the cancellation of my concert in Frankfurt.
SPIEGEL: That’s what we did.
Waters: Yes, we did. And I thank you for this opportunity to beat my drum. You say, “It’s complicated!” and I say, “It’s not complicated!”. Give equal human rights to the peoples in the holy land. That is my final word.
SPIEGEL: Mr Waters, Mr Mendel, thank you for this interview.