Roger Waters Is Undermining the Cause He Claims to Support

Roger Waters has long denied he’s antisemitic. His former collaborators — including the celebrated producer Bob Ezrin — are telling a different story.

A new documentary, The Dark Side of Roger Waters, includes claims from Ezrin and former Waters saxophonist Norbert Stachel. Both are Jewish, and both claim Waters made offensive remarks about Jewish people to them. The documentary, a 37-minute project produced by the U.K. group Campaign Against Antisemitism, also includes screenshots of a 2010 email Waters wrote to his team that suggested emblazoning his famous inflatable pig with a Star of David and insults like “dirty k***.”

This is far from the first time Waters has been labeled antisemitic, though it’s maybe the first time the allegations against him have come from close associates citing specific instances where he allegedly denigrated Jewish people. Ezrin — who produced Pink Floyd’s The Wall — recalled Waters making up a song about the band’s former agent, Bryan Morrison: “I can’t remember the exact circumstance,” Ezrin said, “but something like, you know … the last line of the couplet was, ‘Cause Morry is a fucking Jew.’ It was my first inclination that there may be some antisemitism under the surface.”

Stachel, meanwhile, claimed Waters once grew frustrated during a vegetarian meal, eventually declaring, “That’s it! That’s it! Where’s the meat? Where’s the meat? What’s with this? This is Jew food! What’s with the Jew food? Take away the Jew food!”

Additionally, Stachel said he once told Waters about his Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, including relatives murdered in the Holocaust; Waters allegedly turned it into an offensive bit. Stachel claimed Waters said he could “introduce” him to his dead grandmother with an impression of a Polish peasant. The saxophonist said Waters “tried to go into character as a babushka,” describing it it as “like a slapstick, insulting way someone would think a person of no education and low class, and maybe not really smart, would speak and talk.”

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Stachel added, “What got me was, after he does it, he goes, ‘Now you’ve met your grandmother. How do you feel now?’”

On Friday, Sept. 29, Waters issued a statement on his website that read in part, “Truth is, I’m frequently mouthy and prone to irreverence, I can’t recall what I said 13 or more years ago. I’ve worked closely for many years with many Jewish people, musicians and others. If I have upset the two individuals who appear in the film I’m sorry for that. But I can say with certainty that I am not, and have never been, an antisemite — as anyone who really knows me will testify. I know the Jewish people to be a diverse, interesting, and complicated bunch, just like the rest of humanity. Many are allies in the fight for equality and justice, in Israel, Palestine and around the world.”

He continued: “The film totally distorts and misrepresents my views about the Israeli state and its political ideology, Zionism. It relies on a definition of antisemitism that sees criticising Israel as inherently antisemitic and assumes that Zionism is an essential element in Jewish identity. These opinions, clearly shared by the presenter and the two interviewees, are widely contested by many, including many Jewish people.”

Ezrin said in a statement of his own shared with Rolling Stone, “By now we have learned that it is minorities themselves who are best qualified to identify the bigotry against them. And it is time that the Jewish community was heard on this. In my opinion, Roger needs to show some humility and listen to us. You can challenge Israeli policy, and nowhere does that happen more vociferously than in Israel itself, but if your language directly or by implication promotes the eradication of the world’s only Jewish state, then that is absolutely antisemitism in my book.”

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Much of the documentary, however, rehashes familiar accusations of antisemitism that have been leveled against Waters over his long, well-documented support of Palestine and his vociferous opposition to the Israeli occupation. For his part, Waters has rejected the assertion that his stances on Israel and Palestine make him antisemitic, saying his problems are with Israel, not Jewish people. In an interview with Rolling Stone last year, he said, “I’m absolutely not antisemitic, absolutely not. That hasn’t stopped all the assholes trying to smear me with being an antisemite.”

In this way, Waters embodies an ongoing debate over what constitutes antisemitism. Some see his anti-Zionism and support of causes like the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as inherently antisemitic. (That he delivers those critiques while wearing a Nazi-esque costume, or while performing next to flying inflatable pigs festooned with the Star of David and other religious symbols, doesn’t help either, even if his use of both have old Pink Floyd roots.) On the other hand, many believe conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism is a way of stifling legitimate criticism of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians — particularly when that criticism is delivered by someone as outspoken as Waters.

You can look at Waters’ comments about Israel over the years and see what you want: An outspoken, sometimes bumbling advocate or an outspoken, always bumbling bigot. I, for what it’s worth, tend to see the former — though that’s not because of anything Roger Waters ever said or did. It’s just, as an American Jew raised on a steady diet of Holocaust education, I’m pretty confident I know how to recognize brutal systemic oppression when I see it, and I see it often in the expansion of Israeli settlements, and displacement of Palestinians, in the occupied West Bank, or the forced evictions of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem. At the very least, I can give Waters credit for using his platform to bring more mainstream attention to these issues.

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But I also recognize the ways he’s undercut his own efforts. These new allegations from Ezrin and Stachel feel frustratingly in line with Waters’ habitual tendency to use language that nods to offensive tropes, stereotypes, and conspiracy theories about Jews. Take, for instance, a 2013 interview with CounterPunch, where he said, “The Jewish lobby is extraordinarily powerful here and particularly in the industry that I work in, the music industry and in rock ’n’ roll as they say.” Or in 2022 when he used the word “cabal” when discussing early European Jewish settlers arriving in the Israel-Palestine region.

As much as Waters is a devoted proponent of Palestine, he’s a flawed one, and maybe even a bit of a liability at this point. That’s not to say it’d be better if he just shut up, though it sure seems like a step back and some self-reflection might be in order. Because, as Israel lurches further towards authoritarianism with the most right-wing government in its history, and more people seem to be growing aware of the atrocities in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, what’s needed are dedicated, clear-eyed advocates. Not ones with a history of allegedly mocking Jews with bad Borscht Belt shtick.

This story was updated 9/29/23 @ 5:57 p.m. ET with a statement from Roger Waters. This story was updated again 10/1/23 @ 9:25 a.m. ET with an additional statement from Bob Ezrin.

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