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Roger Waters on Palestine: “You Have to Stand Up for People’s Human Rights All Over the World”

posted on: May 7, 2019

After a judge ruled a panel can move forward Saturday at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on “Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights,” we speak with one of the event’s scheduled participants: Roger Waters, co-founder of Pink Floyd, one of the most popular rock bands of all time. He says he welcomes the lawsuit that challenged the event, because “what it does is it serves to shine a light on the predicament of the Palestinian people.”

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights.” That’s the title of the panel set to take place Saturday at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Three anonymous UMass students filed a lawsuit to stop the event, claiming they’ll, quote, “suffer irreparable harm” if it takes place. But Judge Robert Ullmann ruled on Thursday the event can proceed, saying, quote, “There’s nothing that comes even close to a threat of harm or incitement to violence or lawlessness.” Meanwhile, the university has backed the event despite the protests, saying it’s committed to the principles of free speech and academic freedom.

So, we are joined right now by Pink Floyd founder Roger Waters, who is one of the participants in that event.

Welcome to_Democracy Now!_

ROGER WATERS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about why you’re doing this on Saturday and the significance of the court ruling.

ROGER WATERS: Well, Sut asked me to come to his university to be on this panel, and I’m delighted to be able to do it.

Thank you, Judge. He was very explicit and brief and to the point in his ruling. He’s obviously sound.

My view is that it’s a good thing that the organizations are attacking the event, because what it does is it serves to shine light on the predicament of the Palestinian people, who we support. And the more light that is shone on any question of human rights, the better, in my view. So, I’m very glad that they’ve failed, though, in a way, if they had succeeded in their legal maneuvers, that might have gone even further to shine light on the predicament of the Palestinians, which is what this is about.

You know, something that I say at every show I do now, because I fine my speeches down so they’re very short, is, at some point in everybody’s life, they have to decide whether or not they believe in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris. If you do—either you believe in it or you don’t; you can’t have it both ways. And so, if you do believe it, then you have to stand up for people’s human rights all over the world, irrespective of their ethnicity or their religion or their nationality, which is what we are doing in this panel at the University of Massachusetts on Saturday.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the backlash against pro-Palestinian voices, including the backlash that you, Roger Waters, have experienced, as a musician, as a human rights activist, as you travel the world?

ROGER WATERS: Well, this particular issue is far more divisive than any other. So, I’ve just been on tour for a couple of years all over the world. And in many countries, certainly in Europe, in France and in Germany, I came up against an absolute wall of silence, really, particularly in Germany, where nobody in the press, until I spoke to one journalist with a newspaper from Munich—nobody would speak to me, on the grounds that they had been told that I was anti-Semitic and that I could not be spoken to. And the Germans are very sensitive about Jewish affairs, and, in consequence, they are not open to even speaking—even speaking about human rights within the context of Palestine.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the equation of being critical of the Israeli government with anti-Semitism?

ROGER WATERS: Well, I could talk about it, yeah, but what’s the point? So much—

AMY GOODMAN: Respond to it.

ROGER WATERS: OK. Well, it’s—quite clearly, criticism of any government is nothing to do with anti-Semitism, and certainly criticism of the Israeli government’s flouting of international law and abuses of human rights has nothing to do with the Jewish faith or Jewish people. I’ve had lots of meetings, all over the world, with JVP-sponsored events.

AMY GOODMAN: Jewish Voice for Peace.

ROGER WATERS: Actually, we did one in—the first one we did after I left the States was in Vancouver. And it wasn’t JVP, but it was another Jewish organization, Jewish—I can’t remember, something other than Voices. And, of course, they are just as humane and care just as much about human rights as everybody else does who cares about human rights. Unfortunately, the Israeli government does not care about human rights, and neither does this government in this country, which is why this administration is supporting the annexing of the Golan Heights and the moving of the embassy to Jerusalem and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah and all the rest of it. So, it is very important that those of us who do care organize, meet, have meetings and continue to protest the situation of our Palestinian friends.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Rachel Weber back into this conversation to address this particular issue of equating being critical of the state of Israel, of the current government in Israel, with being anti-Semitic. You’re an attorney and member of Jewish Voice for Peace.

RACHEL WEBER: Yes. Zionism is a political movement. And from the very beginning of that movement in the late 19th century, there’s been dissent within Jewish communities around whether or not Zionism was a good idea. And, in fact, right around when the Balfour Declaration was about to be enacted, which gave a mandate for—essentially, that was the beginnings of the establishment of the state of Israel through the British mandate, there were several prominent Jewish members of the British Jewish community that issued a statement in The Times of London about how this was a dangerous idea. So, there’s been discussion and debate and disagreement about Zionism from the very beginning within Jewish communities.

So, to say that all Jews feel that Israel—the Israeli government speaks for them is—again, it’s inaccurate, and it’s incredibly offensive. I have an absolute obligation to protest injustices that are happening in my name, both as a Jew and as an American, given the amount of aid and military resources that this country gives to Israel. It’s actually quite offensive to suggest that just because of the—just because of the identities of the people who are running the government in Israel, that because I share some heritage with those people’s identities, that I would support anything that they do. And there’s a growing voice in this country and around the world of Jews saying Israel does not speak for us, and we have to speak up against the human rights abuses that are happening against Palestinians.

And to say that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, it’s incredibly dangerous. And it’s actually bad for Jews, because it prevents us from doing the hard work that has to happen to contest white supremacy. White supremacy is what is dangerous for Jews in this country and around the world. And when we use a definition of anti-Semitism that includes criticism of Israel, that actually divides us from—internally. It’s a huge divide within the Jewish community in this country. And it also separates us from allies, in working together to fight white supremacy. So, it’s actually—it’s dangerous, obviously, for Palestinians, because it makes anyone who stands up for Palestinian rights fear that they’re going to be accused of being anti-Semitic and smeared, just like in this lawsuit. And it’s also dangerous for Jews, because it prevents us from working together internally and with allies to fight white supremacy.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring in Sut Jhally again from the University of Massachusetts, a professor of communications, head of the Media Education Foundation. According to reports, you had hoped to bring the Palestinian leader and activist Hanan Ashrawi, but she didn’t receive a visa in time. Is this true? And what do you understand happened?

SUT JHALLY: Yes, it’s very true. Again, when I was organizing the event, I sent an invitation to Hanan Ashrawi, and she replied and said she very much wanted to come, but she was waiting for a visa, and that she will be back in touch with me, you know, if she got the visa. And she got back in touch with me about two months later and said that she could not include the United States in anything she was going to do, because she was not receiving a visa. And so, you know, Hanan has been coming to the United States for decades. And I don’t know if people know, but she’s a famed Palestinian legislator, an elected representative of the Palestinian people. And she cannot now come into the country to talk about the issues that confront Palestinians. And this goes along with, just two weeks ago, Marwan [sic] Barghouti, the founder—the co-founder of BDS, was denied a visa to come in.

So, I think this is—I think what is happening at UMass is a kind of microcosm of what’s happening everywhere. There is this kind of intense pressure now to make sure that the pro-Palestinian voices or any kind of rational discussion of Israel-Palestine does not happen. At UMass, it’s to do with—you know, it’s the phone calls. It’s the letters that came in. It’s the lawsuit. And I think this is an act of desperation on their part. For example, they knew the injunction would never—would never stop this event from taking place. And so, the question is: Why did they go through with it? Why did they spend the thousands of dollars on the lawyers to go through the courts? And I think that it was not an attempt to stop this event, because they knew they couldn’t. It was an act of intimidation and bullying for the next one, to tell people, “If you start to think about organizing events around this or start speaking out about this, this is what’s going to come down on you.”

And I think they’re petrified. I think they are terrified of the coalitions that have been building between Palestinian students and Jewish students in organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine. They’re terrified of the links that are taking place between the battle for black liberation in the United States and battle for liberation in Palestine. And they want to destroy those and make sure that those voices are not heard, through intimidation and threat.

But the name of our panel is called “Not Backing Down,” because I think we’re in a new moment right now where there is a space for different kinds of voices to come through, and people are not backing down and are forcing this conversation into the mainstream.

AMY GOODMAN: That was actually Omar Barghouti, one of the organizers of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, who was not allowed into the United States, despite the fact that he’s come here many other times and was also coming for his daughter’s wedding. People can see the interview we did with him at democracynow.org.

We also recently spoke to Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author. He said Democrats are supporting Palestinian rights more now than in the past. He said times have changed.

NOAM CHOMSKY: The support for Israeli expansionism, repression, the whole alliance that’s developing, that support has shifted in the United States from the more liberal sectors—roughly, the Democratic Party—to the far right. Not very long ago, support for Israel was based passionately in the liberal sectors of the population. It was a Democratic issue. It isn’t anymore. In fact, if you look in the polls, people who identify themselves as Democrats by now tend to support Palestinian rights more than Israel. That’s a dramatic change. Support for Israel now is in the most reactionary parts of the population: evangelical Christians, ultranationalists. Basically, it’s a far-right issue. Among younger people, this is even more the case.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Noam Chomsky, who had just returned to Boston, to Massachusetts. I was interviewing him at the Old South Church there. About a thousand people packed into the church. Roger Waters, do you feel that kind of optimism? I mean, here, Noam Chomsky has been so critical of the Israeli state for so long, and yet he says he feels there is a different climate right now.

ROGER WATERS: Absolutely. I mean, I’ve been involved in this struggle only for the last 12 years. But over those 12 years it has changed dramatically. And Noam Chomsky is exactly right. And so is Sut. They are desperate now. That’s why they pulled this silly legal stunt about this meeting in UMass. And I’m so happy to see it. And working with people from Jewish Voice for Peace and other Jewish organizations, as well, has developed dramatically over the years, as the demographic within the Jewish community in United States has changed, and they’re coming more and more ’round to saying, “Not in my name,” and which is hugely encouraging, yeah. I feel overcome, almost, with joy even to be able to speak about it in these terms now. And I’m really looking forward to Saturday in Massachusetts and having—you know, speaking to young people and meeting also the other panelists, all of whom I admire.

AMY GOODMAN: Why risk this criticism? I mean, you are a world-renowned musician, and yet you take this on everywhere you go. Why?

ROGER WATERS: My mom. You know, my mother, when I was young, at one point, she said to me, “You know, at some point in your life, you’re going to be faced with difficult decisions. You should think about things, find out as much as you can about anything that you’re confronted with, then make up your own mind what it is that you’re going to do. There’s nearly always the right thing to do. Just do it.” This is the right thing to do, and I’m just doing it. So, there’s never any sort of question about any of it.

AMY GOODMAN: And what message do you have to other musicians and artists?

ROGER WATERS: Get on board. I mean, a lot of people, a lot of my colleagues in my industry are still very frightened of the industry and of the power in the industry of the Israeli lobby. Just the same as members of Congress are still terrified of AIPACand the people who fund their elections. That is still there, but it’s diminishing, which is—

AMY GOODMAN: It’s been quite remarkable to see the number of Democratic presidential candidates who did not address AIPAC this year.

ROGER WATERS: It was a huge change, yeah, and hugely encouraging to us all.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us, Roger Waters, co-founder of Pink Floyd; Sut Jhally, University of Massachusetts Amherst professor, founder of the Media Education Foundation; and Rachel Weber, attorney and member of Jewish Voice for Peace of Western Massachusetts. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in 30 seconds.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: The acclaimed Mexican singer Lila Downs, performing here in our Democracy Now! studios. It was a cover of the Manu Chao classic, “Clandestino.” Her new album, Al Chlie, is out today. Visit democracynow.org to see the full performance and interview in our studio.