50 years ago Israel invaded the West Bank and Gaza, and a young English musician named Roger Waters started a career in music with the rock group Pink Floyd. For 50 years the Palestinians have remained prisoners in their own land, while the band played on.
Waters left Pink Floyd in 1985 to pursue a solo career. It was a thorny path to choose. Twenty years later, in June of 2006, he was booked to perform in Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park.
As word spread, he was approached by Palestinian civil society activists who told him about a new protest movement that they had recently launched. A movement that reached out to foreign artists asking them to protest the occupation by joining BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions). After engaging in a dialogue with the leaders of BDS, Waters was persuaded to cancel the Hayarkon Park show and moved it to Neve Shalom (Peace Village) where he played in front of some 60,000 Israelis.
Towards the end of that concert, he told the crowd, “You are the generation of young Israelis who must make peace with your neighbors.” The crowd fell silent; this was not in the script.
That was the beginning of his support for BDS. It was cemented by Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Lebanon which happened one month after his Neve Shalom concert. Since then, his support has only continued to grow. He has become one of the movement’s most vocal and outspoken devotees – a commitment which has cost him many endorsements and media appearances, but one that has also set him apart as a courageous political artist, activist, and humanist.
Waters, who is currently on tour in the U.S. promoting his latest album Is This the Life We Really Want? spoke to StepFeed via Skype from his Philadelphia hotel room. He told us his views on Palestine, Thom Yorke, BDS, and Lebanon, his tour, Trump, world politics, and love.
During the hour-long conversation we had with him, only a few minutes were spent talking about his latest album. That was when he spoke about the inspiration behind two of the songs on the album "Wait for Her," which is based on a poem by late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, and the song "The Last Refugee," whose video ends on a scene that could have been pulled out from coverage of the current refugee crisis, particularly the tragic death of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, whose body was discovered on the shores of Turkey in 2015.
You became a supporter of BDS shortly after your 2006 Israeli concert. How did all that happen?
I was contracted to do a gig in Hayarkon Park, Tel Aviv in 2006 and since that news became public I started to get e-mails from, not just the Middle East, but from people around the world.
BDS had just been started by civil society in Palestine in 2005, so I can maybe forgive myself for how ignorant I was at that time … Anyway, after working through many emails, I eventually started to correspond with [BDS founder] Omar Barghouti, who’s since become a close friend of mine.
Omar explained a lot to me, a lot about the political situation. [I decided I would make] a compromise and cancelled the show in Tel Aviv, [moving it instead] to an agricultural community called Neve Shalom (Wahat al-Salam) - it's a community where people of different religions and ethnicities promote coexistence if you like - and we did the biggest gig there ever was in Israel - 60000 people showed up.
Towards the end of the concert, I made a short speech, telling everyone that they should work towards peace with the Palestinians. From a noisily ecstatic crowd, I was suddenly faced with absolute silence and I could see people looking at me, all very puzzled, trying to make sense of what I was saying. And in that moment I realized just how endemic the problem was and how brainwashed this generation was - most not all…
So I went back the next year to find out more. I traveled extensively, I didn’t go to Gaza, but I visited a lot of the West Bank and had meetings with some of the elders in the camps, in Jenin for instance. I was traveling under the protection of UNRWA, but even so, our party was treated with belligerence and disdain by the occupying Israeli soldiers at all the checkpoints. It was both a surreal and devastating experience. I remember thinking at the time if they treat foreign visitors with this casual brutality imagine how it must be for the occupied people whose home this is. I decided to give BDS, this non-violent tool of protest, all the support that I could.
A month after your trip to Palestine, Israel attacked Lebanon. Did that solidify your support for BDS?
Yeah, I had traveled in Lebanon when I was a teenager ... Every time Israel bombs and attacks Lebanon, it’s like a dagger in my heart; any of these acts of aggression solidify my conviction that BDS is the right choice, using non-violence to support the endeavor that was started in Paris in 1948 – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – and the idea of the treaty of Rome, that international law is something that actually exists, and to which all civilized countries should subscribe. So we protest when Israel operates outside the rules, laws and moral codes of the international community.
You were in Lebanon in the 60s, and even wrote a song called ‘Leaving Beirut’. Tell us more about that time.
I’ll tell you one story. I was a kid, 18 years old, a friend and I were living and sleeping on the beach. We used to pretend to be clients at the Phoenicia Hotel so that we could use the bathrooms. Anyway, one day I was swimming in the sea and my little pile of belongings - you know jeans and passport and stuff - was lying on the beach and some kid came along the beach and stole my shoes and I saw him steal them.
So, I’m shouting and waving and getting out of the surf as fast as I can and he’s disappeared into the crowd… So now I’ve lost my only shoes and I’m pissed off! I was really angry.
Anyway, I managed to find a cop – in those days there were cops all over Beirut whose only job was to help tourists in trouble, so I said ‘Hey! I’m a tourist in trouble, some kid’s stolen my shoes,’ and so we go together and start looking in the crowd - hopeless – it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.
But by some miracle, suddenly, about 50 yards away there’s this kid. ‘There he is,’ I said. To cut a long story short, the cop sees the kid, the kid sees the cop – they obviously recognize each other. The kid thinks about running away, [but] thinks better of it and reluctantly comes over; he’s wearing my shoes.
The cop jabbers at him, [and] the kid eventually takes the shoes off and places them on the neutral ground between us ... I’m thinking that’s a really great result! And then the cop jabbers to the kid again and gestures with his fingers [for the kid to leave], and the kid disappears into the crowd again, and I go, ‘What!? What are you doing, why are you letting him go?’ And this cop looks at me, pityingly, straight in the eye and he speaks to me in English for the very first time and he says, ‘He is poor’ (in an Arabic accent).
I still feel overwhelmed by the emotion that caused in me; that cop became very special in my life, because there I was this callous, stupid, little schmuck from England demanding retribution, ‘Lock him up, he’s a criminal!’ Now of course I realise what a blessing it is, if when we’re young and dumb as shit, like I was, we’re lucky enough to meet that cop, and if he’s that humane, in that moment, if we’re prepared to accept the opportunity, we get to start to learn about love.
That happened to me in Beirut.
Was it a life changing moment for you?
Absolutely … I was also taken in by an Arab family while hitchhiking just north of Beirut and [that inspired the] song ‘Leaving Beirut.’
That was life-changing as well, to be the object of that kind of Middle Eastern hospitality… For us [sometimes] it’s far easier to be persuaded that other cultures, other people are all foreign and dangerous, and of course, that’s simply not the case.
So, arguably, your travels helped you make up your mind. Should other artists not be afforded that right when it comes to BDS and Israel, say, Thom Yorke and Radiohead?
Thom Yorke, he has made his choice. In my view, he’s made the wrong choice. I think he will regret going and doing that gig in Tel Aviv, probably for the rest of his life.
The issue is not complex, which is the lie that the AIPAC, ADL and other supporters [of] the Israeli state try to persuade us, that it’s a very complex issue, that Israel is just defending itself...
But, isn't dialogue more effective than boycott?
That’s the point, BDS seeks to encourage dialogue - a discussion about what is really happening in Israel/Palestine. Isn’t it interesting that Thom Yorke refused to take part in the conversation? Ken Loach and Omar Barghouti and I, and everybody in BDS and everybody from Boycott from Within in Israel, and pro-BDS Israeli Radiohead fans all tried to engage Thom Yorke and Radiohead in a conversation. They wouldn’t speak to any of us.
Thom’s response was to give us all the finger. … he gave the finger to protesters in Glasgow in Scotland who were holding Palestinian flags and he said, ‘Some fucking people’ over and over again… That’s dialogue, Thom? It’s pretty disappointing... Had he come out and had a conversation, at least it might have illuminated the issue. Giving the finger just muddies the water.
BDS wants a conversation, we want to discuss the urgency of the situation. It’s the other side that avoids the conversation. We do not get a conversation from Thom Yorke or AIPAC or ADL or ZOA ... all we get is a lot of finger pointing and name calling. That’s because they can’t defend their support for the occupation or in Radiohead’s case their crossing of the picket line to perform there, letting themselves be used as part of the government’s ongoing “Brand Israel” marketing efforts, which they proudly proclaim when trying to get musicians, athletes, and actors to come to Israel.
In recent weeks, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington has accused you of antisemitism, even calling you ‘a man who sows division’ – what is your response to that?
Yes, I saw the video clip they made. Obviously, whoever made it is - I don’t know how to say this without sounding patronizing, but I will just say it – they’re just very dumb. Like most of the smear campaigners, they don’t have any facts so they just make stuff up … also they sound as if they’ve never been anywhere near Palestine, they don’t seem to know anything about the situation.
They make the mistake of conflating Zionism with Judaism and, in consequence, they have a blind attachment to the state of Israel … so you cannot have a conversation with them; they’re not interested. They’re interested in maintaining the status quo and they’re interested in "Greater Israel;" they’re interested in keeping the Golan Heights and the whole of historical Palestine as one state for them where they rule and where you have to be of the Jewish faith to have equal rights - and that’s what they want.
And so BDS is a non-violent movement trying to make clear that this is an absolutely antiquated form of imperial colonialism ... that there is a more modern way of looking at things, which is that all human beings are equal: a Jewish child and an Arab child are equally precious and important. All children for that matter, Chinese children, Australian children, it doesn’t matter! We should all have the same basic rights under the law.
How much have your words cost you? Why aren’t other artists as vocal as you are?
In this country [U.S.] many artists are scared, I mean I’ve been threatened a lot – not physically, I’m not scared of anything physical – but they have tried to destroy my career, they’ve tried to silence me in any way that they can. That only hardens my resolve.
As Michael Bennett, the NFL footballer says in his letter to the world, quoting John Carlos, famous for his 1968 Olympic games protest, “There is no partial commitment to justice, either you’re in or you’re out. Well I’m in," Bennet said - and I’m in, too.
The fact is, both my mother and my father were deeply committed humanists. My father was a religious man, he was a Christian, my mother was an atheist, but they were both humanists – and I’m lucky enough to have inherited some of their conviction. So, I have no choice really but to try and look at the facts of social and political situations, make up my own mind about what I think about them and act accordingly.
When anybody stands up for rights anywhere in the world they run the risk that the knives will come out and they will be attacked by the authorities, by the government, by the powers that be whoever they are, and by the police - who are often an armed extension of those powers.
Here in the United States, it’s unnerving that almost every municipal police force is now heavily equipped with military-style anti-riot gear. Many police departments send their people to study the way the Israelis police the occupied Palestinian territories, preparing I suppose to control U.S. citizens if they become too uppity or rebellious.
Is the United States starting to look more like a police state?
Yes, it is, it’s not [just] the militarization of local police, it is the attempts to create new draconian laws. For instance, there is a bill that has been introduced to Congress (S720) called the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. It aims to criminalize BDS. In draft form, it contains penalties for people like me of up to $1,000,000 fine and twenty years in prison.
There has been a big furor I’m happy to say. One of the sponsors of the bill is a junior senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, whom I know slightly – I saw her name on it and I was staggered. I’m happy to say that, to her credit, after she read the bill, she removed her name as a sponsor – at least in its current form - because it contradicts the first amendment… That was a step in the right direction.
Other good news is that movements like Jewish Voice for Peace are standing up against this undemocratic legislation, and their numbers are growing, Jewish people in the United States of America are beginning to [say], ‘Hold on! This doesn’t have anything to do with Judaism or The Torah or the religion we believe in... Judaism is a humane religion and what is being done to the Palestinian people cannot be done in the name of our religious beliefs.' People should not conflate Zionism with Judaism; one is a colonial movement, the other is a religion. In the same way that my criticism of the policies of this current, or past Israeli governments, shouldn’t be confused or conflated with any criticism of Judaism or Jewish people.
Your concerts are politically charged, particularly with criticism at the United States' current president, Trump. Is he, as your previous album says, amusing us to death?
Ha-ha! Probably. Though, of course, it’s not funny. In a recent TV interview, I imagined a situation where we could be doing an interview and suddenly experience an electromagnetic pulse and all the lights go out, and we realize, 'Oh my God! This is it, we’re all dead. These morons have killed us all.'
I mean what Trump’s been saying about North Korea, threatening to wipe them out, is so inflammatory and weird, even many senior Republican senators are turning on him because it’s just too dangerous. The fact that the human race still allows nuclear weapons to exist, threatening the existence of every living thing on this planet is quite extraordinary …
Recently the experts in this field put the doomsday clock at two and half minutes to midnight – which is the closest it’s been since the end of the second world war, well maybe not, maybe 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis was closer – American foreign policy is just incredibly dangerous.
So, do you believe that Trump is a threat to humanity, a threat to life as we know it?
I believe that the stranglehold that big business, which Trump represents, has on the lives of every human being on the planet is counterproductive to the possibility that we might discover and nurture within ourselves the capacity to love and help one another in times of trouble, to welcome refugees from other countries, for instance.
There are hundreds of thousands of refugees now, and in the future, there may well be millions. And particularly, for instance, with people not taking climate change seriously – global warming is a fact, and human behavior is contributing to it. It may well be too late now, but this administration is dismantling every federal agency in the United States including the EPA - the Environmental Protection Agency - they’re dismantling it brick by brick because they don’t believe in climate change.
Hard to believe but, you know, this is a primitive country … someone told me the other day that there are many people in Texas who believe the Earth is flat! I know it sounds funny … and it is, sort of, but it’s not really because ignorance is not bliss, it’s deadly dangerous!
Your tour is called 'Us and Them.' Who's 'us' and who's 'them'?
Well, there is no 'Us' and 'Them,' that’s the point, we’re all Us. The walls of nationalism and exceptionalism and religion that divide us are walls built by rich people to keep themselves rich. They’re not there to protect the Israelis from Palestinians or to protect the Americans from the Mexicans or the Chinese. They’re there to protect Donald Trump’s cash from you and me. They are an exercise in control, they are diversions.
I was recently in LA where there is now a new demographic, ‘the employed homeless’. Imagine working a hundred hours a week at Walmart or McDonalds or wherever for minimum wage and not being able to afford to rent a place to live with your family. You are rightly pissed off and complain, and the man says, ‘Don’t blame me it’s all those people over there, they’re the reason you can’t afford to live, let’s go and bomb them!’ And you’re supposed to forget that you can’t afford a room, food, a bed for your kids. You forget. It’s because they’re spending all of your money, trillions a year, to go and kill brown people in other countries.
But why? Why are we doing that? Maybe because it makes a ton of money? They claim self-defense, and yet there is no existential threat, of any kind, to the United States from anywhere in the world.
So, wars are all about making money?
Of course! Eisenhower, in his famous military industrial complex speech, when he left office in 1961, warned us of it. Well, we did not heed his warning, so the military industrial complex in the United States runs pretty well unchecked.
But there are voices being raised against this. The wise men have known, ever since I was born at the end of the second world war, well at least since the bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, that this is the greatest threat to human life. Well, this and now climate change too, but nuclear war is an ever-present threat and people just sort of pretend that it’s not there, that the danger doesn’t really exist and I hope that they are right, for everybody’s sake, because we’re all brothers and sisters.
You know the most malign influences on all our lives are nationalism, exceptionalism, isolationism, the idea that we may be better in some ways than others … It seems likely on the evidence of everything paleontological that homo sapiens is only about 200,000 years old and that we all came from Africa and that we look slightly different these days because of the influence of weather and climate and where we’ve developed, so we’re all brothers and sisters, we all share the same DNA.
Speaking of war, one of the songs on your latest album, "The Last Refugee" tells the story of displaced people. Its video also bears reference to the tragic death of Alan Kurdi. What message are you trying to send with both the song and the video?
The lady who’s in the video is displaced, yet she clearly has a history, and she clearly has a culture and she clearly has feelings, and she appears again in another song on the album, which is called "Wait for Her" largely based on a poem by Mahmoud Darwish. So, yes, she is an interesting character. The fact that she dances and attaches to her emotions, and her capacity for love and her memory and pain and her passions, embodies, for me, our capacity to love one another - and it’s maybe part of my way of expressing how much faith I have in human beings.
On your connection to Mahmoud Darwish's words, tell us about "Wait for Her." Why did you decide to interpret that poem into an English ballad, and what special meaning does it hold for you?
Well, that’s sort of private. You see it has something to do with love and it has something to do with how feeling the power of emotions that one can feel in a love affair, in a love for a woman or a man, I don’t care … Romantic love, and physical love and passionate love can bring out in one, maybe encourage the potential that we have for a broader expression of the love that we all have within us.
I’ve read a lot of Darwish, obviously only in translation as I, unfortunately, don’t read Arabic. Even in translation, his words are deeply moving, about love and women and life and land and his country.
Are you currently living a love story?
Yeah, I am, but that’s as far as I’ll go.
You said in one of your recent interviews that you wanted to talk more about love.
Yeah, I do, and the transcendental nature of love. That’s why my story about the cop in Beirut is so important because if we’re lucky we get that cop in our lives when we are young and we start to learn about life and love.
Any message you'd like to voice to people around the world?
We have to keep trying to resist the temptation to reject our humanity with every ounce of love that we have in us. What a waste of a life just to grab whatever we can and run back to the cave. Restiamo umani.
Anything particular message for Arab youth?
Education, education, education, and I’m not talking about bowing down to religious texts, I’m talking about history … history is not for fools, it’s probably the most important tool that we have.
I applaud parents who try to give their children an education, not an indoctrinated education, we don’t need no indoctrination is what I’m singing in my song [Another brick in the wall] – it’s sarcasm guys, I didn’t mean ‘we don’t need no education’, we need education more than we’ve ever needed anything. After we become educated then maybe we can start redressing some of the terrible social disparities and divisions that set us at each other's throats and instead start to draw from our joint humanity and our capacity to nurture one another.
You know, Nadine, I don’t know enough about the Arab world, I need educating too. People who don’t live in the Arab world see it from a very narrow perspective, we only get shown oil and religious conflict. We didn’t care much about the Arab world until after the first world war, except I guess in the 15th century the Crusaders didn’t have anything better to do than ride across Europe and fight over Jerusalem. Back in those days, in the ignorance of the dark ages, it’s understandable that they didn’t know any better, but now we should know better. We’ve developed the study of psychology and psychiatry and physiology, and philosophy, we’ve made advances in medicine. Now we can better understand the way human beings inter-react. Now we also understand that we are capable of empathy, and empathy can inform our politics, this is what we should be teaching our children.
In the Arab world, historically the cradle of civilization … You, like us in the new world, have more than your fair share of ‘Tyrants and Kings’. Yours accommodate ours with oil, and real estate for their military bases, ours provide yours with weapons to subjugate their peoples, and the beaches are clogged with the victims.
Do I have a message for Arab youth? Yes, if you are lucky enough to be free from hunger and war at the moment, use those rare freedoms to nurture your capacity for compassion and empathy towards all those who do not share them.