Can a Jew Enjoy Roger Waters’ new album?
Roger Waters, passionate supporter of BDS, purported anti-Semite, and Thom Yorke’s worst nightmare released his long-awaited new album, his first in 25 years when he released the critically acclaimed “Amused To Death.” Can a Jew enjoy this album in good conscience?
First, the album itself. There is much to like about “Is This The Life We Really Want?” Sonically the album soars, growls, grooves and ticks (yes, clocks and heartbeats thread though the record in Floydian style). Its multi-leveled, cinematic dreamscape is textured and finely balanced between the acoustic and the electric, silence and noise, funk and lament. Nigel Godrich of Beck and Radiohead fame brings production as excellent as one would expect.
Waters sticks to the anti-fascist, anti-war, and anti-greed Jeremiads he is so well known for, and his blunt, expletive-soaked verses feel like just the vicarious release we need. ” Picture a shithouse with no fucking drains,” he growls on “Picture That,” “picture a leader with no fucking brains.”
As on “Amused To Death,” Waters is angry with God, too, or perhaps the idea of God, in “Deja Vu”:
If I had been God
I would have sired many sons, and I would not have suffered the Romans to kill even one of them
If I had been God
With my staff and my rod
If I had been given the nod
I believe I could have done a better job
The song then segues to one of the album’s finest lyrical moments, adding to its clear attacks on Trump a swipe at Obama era militarism:
If I were a drone
Patrolling foreign skies
With my electronic eyes for guidance
And the element of surprise
I would be afraid to find someone home
Maybe a woman at a stove
Baking bread, making rice, or just boiling down some bones
If I were a drone
The chief complaint about the album, other than what some view as its pedantic preachiness, is that it does not break new ground, and I suppose those who hold up ceaseless innovation as the ideal for the artist will be at least somewhat disappointed by this album. Roger Waters does not re-invent himself or take his soundscapes and song composition in radically new directions. But he does hold his ground as Roger Waters, and do it fiercely and with intelligence and style.
The songs’ topics include war, the refugee crisis, American greed, political lies and stupidity, and the pervasiveness of inequality, injustice and violent exploitation in the modern world — to hit just a few of the high notes. Another theme is a love relationship which is difficult, painful, and ultimately redeeming. It is unclear whether this is a flesh and blood woman or Lady Liberty herself, whose betrayal Waters laments in “Broken Bones.” In the final track, “A Part of Me Died,” Waters sings,
Dead to the world just watching the game
Watching endless repeats out of sight out of mind
Silence, indifference the ultimate crime
But when I met you, that part of me died
I suspect the lady who saves Waters is Lady Liberty, the same one he woos so carefully in another track, “Wait For Her”, but maybe I’m slighting a flesh and blood muse somewhere, and Waters is simply celebrating our ability to wake each other up and to get back in the game, which is surely Waters’ meta-project here. Unlike some earlier Waters efforts, the cumulative effect of this album is not to make you want to hide under your covers, but rather to make you angry and ready to fight. That surely gives it a special value right now.
Waters does not specifically mention Israel on the album, though he twice mentions the practice of bulldozing people’s homes, a seeming reference to Israeli policies. There is no question about Waters’ unyielding promotion of the BDS movement, or his activism towards other artists, most recently Radiohead. As he told the NY Times last month, “My personal view is that there’s a valid and legitimate picket line that has been organized by BDS, and I would prefer it if colleagues in my business do not cross that picket line.”
Explaining further, Waters said, ‘Essentially I was convinced that all of the people who live in that region should have rights…All of them. So that’s all our Jewish friends who are in Israel, who live there, but also all our Palestinian and Arab friends who are living in the occupied territories and also in Israel…I’m not trying to destroy Israel. I have nothing against Jewish people.”
Waters also acknowledges, however, that “BDS goes further, they want the right to return of the refugees, who were kicked out of their homes by force in 1947 and 48 and again in 1967 after the ’67 war. I personally agree with that. I think that to be turfed out of where you have lived and where your family have lived for hundreds of years is wrong.”
For Waters, then the trajectory is simple: Palestinians should have the right of return to their homes and have full, equal rights alongside the current citizens of Israel. He thinks that blacklisting and shaming all Israelis is a legitimate methodology towards that goal. One might disagree with the realism of this trajectory (as most pro-peace, pro-Palestinian proponents of the two-state solution on the Left do). One might disagree with the method, arguing that cordoning off Israelis and treating them with contempt is not likely to further the cause of peace and unity. Is one required to view Waters as an anti-Semite?
Some will say yes, insisting that collectively punishing all Israelis for the human rights abuses of their government without applying the same behavior to any other country in the world belies a prejudiced agenda which must be cloaking anti-Semitism. Others will point out that Waters has vociferously denied the charge repeatedly, and has written, “I am anti-war, anti-apartheid, anti-racist, pro human rights, pro peace and pro self-determination for all peoples. I am not anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.”
The fact is, as much as one might disagree with BDS (as I do) the simplistic and seemingly reasonable vision that some of its proponents embrace is easy to empathize with if one stops looking through one’s usual lens for a moment. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the Palestinians could just go home and live in peace and prosperity alongside Israeli Jews and Arabs? It is also all too easy to respond to the horrific treatment of the Palestinian refugees by the IDF and the Israeli government with a raging wish to shun and to shame, as BDS does. One can empathize with all of that and peacefully disagree about practical goals and methods without responding with more of the same and trying to shun, shame, blacklist and block-out the Roger Waters’ and Linda Sarsours of the world who, to all appearances, are not anti-Semitic but are freedom fighters with whom some of us have deep and difficult disagreements. And yes, a Jew can enjoy Roger Waters’ new album.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance writer, journalist and Jewish educator located in Vancouver, BC. He is a Scribe Contributor and writes regularly for the Forward and the Jewish Independent. He has been published in Religion Dispatches, Tikkun, Situate Magazine, and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter, and blogs at “Talis in Wonderland.”