Roger Waters, the former bassist and co-founder of the storied rock band Pink Floyd, has always challenged the limits of political correctness. But on July 20, when he released an enormous pig-shaped balloon emblazoned with a Star of David during a concert in Belgium, he crossed the line into blatant anti-Semitism.
Waters stood before thousand of fans, cloaked in a long leather jacket and red-and-white arm band highly reminiscent of the Nazi uniform, and sang lyrics that could hardly be seen as anything less than derogatory: "Get him up against the wall! That one looks Jewish! And that one's a coon! Who let all of this riff-raff into the room?" And to add insult to injury, Waters toted a replica machine gun and pretended to fire it as the song ended.
Waters has a long history of opposition to Israel, particularly its Palestinian policy. In a 2005 tour of the West Bank, he scrawled, "We don't need no thought control" — lyrics from the 1979 Pink Floyd song "Another Brick in the Wall" — on the separation fence in the West Bank, calling it "an appalling edifice to behold." Since then, the musician has joined the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, which seeks to use economic and political pressure to encourage Israel to abandon its occupation of Arab territories and to respect the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
Waters's anti-Israel campaign is not in itself anti-Semitic, or even particularly unusual among celebrities of his social stature. A number of musicians and actors have voiced their opposition to Israeli treatment of Palestinians; Stevie Wonder, Dustin Hoffman, and Emma Thompson have all canceled recent performances in Israel in order to protest the occupation of the West Bank. Moreover, Waters contends that his criticism of Israel is devoid of anti-Semitism, insisting "You can attack Israeli policy without being anti-Jewish … I'm critical of the Israeli policy of occupying Palestinian land and their policy of building settlements, which is entirely illegal under international law, and also of ghettoising the people whose land they are building on."
Although Waters' intent might not have been anti-Semitic in origin, the display should be denounced as the medieval and insulting act that it was. Waters has used the pig balloon in concerts throughout his solo career to denounce everything from the presidency of George W. Bush to Colombian drug wars and the divisive power of religion. But by associating it with the Jewish religion and the Nazi regime that sought to decimate it, Waters only came across as bigoted. The display has understandably provoked the ire of Jewish and anti-defamation groups around the world and risks delegitimizing Waters' activist campaigns.
Ironically, this latest spectacle risks imperiling the very cause that Waters champions. With the first peace talks between Israel and Palestine in years set to begin Monday evening, anti-Semitic displays such as this only threaten the brittle calm between the two camps. If Waters truly wishes for Israeli occupation of the West Bank to end, he should apologize and acknowledge that anti-Semitism isn't the answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.