As a huge fan of Pink Floyd, I have regularly found Roger Waters’ political statements problematic, sometimes due to the tone, sometimes to the substance. In many cases, though, I found that accusations of antisemitism against Waters were unfounded or even reactionary.
That’s not the case with his latest foray into antisemitic tropes. Waters has been getting into more conspiratorial thinking in recent years, particularly when it comes to the civil war in Syria, where he has backed theories proclaiming Bashar al-Assad the innocent victim of Western conspiracies. His language and chosen symbols have, for years, stepped needlessly close to antisemitic tropes. Were they lapses of judgment, indifference to how this would interfere with his message of solidarity with Palestinians, or were his antisemitic stripes showing?
That debate will continue and will include voices who completely support the things he says, as well as many who call any criticism of Israel antisemitic. Does Waters hold antipathy for Jews as Jews? It seems inconsistent with his declared beliefs, but in line with conspiratorial thinking, which he has become more inclined towards. While his innermost thoughts are matters on which others can only speculate, we can draw a line in terms of his statements. And his recent ones leapt over that line.
I was hoping to find a hole in the latest story about Waters. After all, it was broken by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a far right, pro-Likud propaganda outlet which routinely mistranslates or cherry picks pieces of material to support their agenda. Unfortunately, there are also times when MEMRI can lick its chops at people giving them just the red meat they’re looking for, and this was one of those times.
Speaking with the Shehab News Agency in Gaza, Waters launched into a tirade against an easy target: fanatical right wing Israel supporter and mega-donor, Sheldon Adelson.
“Sheldon Adelson, who is the puppet master pulling the strings of Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, and what’s his name… The Ambassador [to Israel], Greenberg [sic] I think his name is. Sheldon Adelson is the puppet master pulling all of the strings. And Sheldon Adelson is a right-wing fascist racist bigot who doesn’t understand the first thing about the idea that human beings might have rights. Sheldon Adelson believes that only Jews – only Jewish people – are completely human.”
One point here is illustrative of how MEMRI operates. I’ve seen a few people point out Waters’ fumbling the name of the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, calling him Greenberg. Both are common Jewish names. Waters did start to say “Friedman,” then seemed to think he was misremembering (this was one of several examples of Waters seeming befuddled, possibly intoxicated, during the interview). He likely got confused with Jason Greenblatt who, before he resigned, was a more visible agent of the Donald Trump administration in Israel than the ambassador. Even when they had Waters dead to rights, MEMRI couldn’t resist padding the translation to notch one more, minor point of potential antisemitism.
But Waters did most of the work by himself. “Puppet master” is a common antisemitic trope, the stereotype of the nefarious Jew pulling strings in secret, manipulating things to his benefit. In fact, Adelson is quite open about his activities. He is the biggest political donor in the country by far. In the 2018 midterms, he gave over $123 million to conservative candidates. Republican candidates make regular pilgrimages to beg for his favor.
Adelson bankrolls the GOP to such a great extent that he exerts huge influence over their policies, even compared to other major political donors. But ultimately, money in politics is only as good as the votes it buys, and the reason it buys so much for Republicans is the enormous support Israel has among foreign policy hawks, military industrialists, and, especially, conservative evangelical Christians, who make up a huge chunk of the Republican, and the Trump, voter base.
Were it not for that base, and the fact that Israel has enjoyed widespread, bipartisan support for decades while Palestinians are still seen, absurdly, as the aggressors by many, Adelson could not buy the kinds of policies that Republicans pursue. I’ve explained this at length elsewhere.
The “puppet master” trope is not only false and offensive, it lets American leaders off the hook for their destructive policy decisions that have supported the deprivation of Palestinians’ rights for decades and helped to keep Israelis in a state of fear and insecurity at the same time. Policy toward Palestine is not going to improve while the myth that it’s all because of Sheldon Adelson persists.
That said, it’s obvious Adelson didn’t simply throw $123 million to the wind in 2018. He finds candidates who are the most hardline on issues regarding Israel (and a few others, like union-busting but these are much lower priorities for him, from all appearances) and does all he can to get them elected. He is very influential, but the “puppet master” trope suggests that absent him and people like him, we would have a more even-handed approach to Israel-Palestine. I suppose that follows along with our balanced approach to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela, Haiti, virtually all of sub-Saharan Africa, Vietnam…I could go on, but the point is, the idea that we need an Adelson to explain our harmful policy in Palestine is absurd on its face.
As to the beliefs Waters attributes to Adelson about Jewish superiority, I think it’s obvious he is simply spouting nonsense. I am fairly certain Roger has never met Adelson, and Adelson has never stated such beliefs publicly. Adelson is certainly an ultra-nationalist. But the view that Waters attributes to him is that of a tiny, fanatical fringe of Judaism. It gained notoriety about a decade ago, when the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef—the spiritual leader of Israel’s Shas party—said, “Goyim (non-Jews) were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world; only to serve the People of Israel…Why are gentiles needed? They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat.”
Yosef’s words were roundly condemned across the Jewish spectrum, left to right, religious and secular.
As a fanatical nationalist, Adelson has certainly indicated that Israel and his preferred Jewish community are what matters to him. He even suggested that the United States drop a nuclear bomb on Iran. So he’s plenty bad enough without embellishing his wicked views as Waters did, without any basis.
“The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week was done with a technique invented by the IDF, by the occupation forces…That is an Israeli technique, taught to the militarized police forces of the U.S.A. by Israeli experts, who the Americans have been flying over to the United States, to teach them how to murder the blacks because they have seen how efficient the Israelis have been at murdering Palestinians in the occupied territories by using those techniques. And they are proud of it. They are proud of it. The Israelis are proud of it. They go: ‘Look how good we are at this, you can learn…‘”
As I explained in another piece recently, this is just false. There is no evidence to suggest that this was a technique that any American police learned in Israel, or, in fact that the murderous action of Derek Chauvin was a learned “technique” at all, rather than just kneeling on the neck. Police in the U.S. and in Israel (as well as in other places) have done this for a very long time, it’s hardly some new “technique.” In any case, anyone who is even trying to make the case that American police needed to learn how to kill marginalized people from Israel needs to do a hell of a lot more studying of the history of police in the United States.
That said, it is true that Israel and the U.S. have been cross training their police for many years, and this is highly problematic for both countries, as it has increased the militarization of the police forces. It is particularly worrisome in the United States, where we have traditionally held the police as a non-military security force. As I’ve detailed, Israel’s militarizing influence on the U.S. and around the world is an issue we should take very seriously. But the idea that Israel is in any way to blame for the widespread incidents of American police using brutal and excessive force, including murder, against its citizens, especially citizens of color is, again, false, offensive, and harmful to those of us struggling for progressive change.
Whether Waters has antipathy for Jews as Jews or not, his statements here are antisemitic, and they need to be called out as such.
Yet, while Roger Waters’ views are a concern because of the platform he has, he is not capable of writing legislation and working to get it passed. The same cannot be said of Republican Representative Doug Lamborn of Colorado.
A little over a week ago, Lamborn sent a letter of complaint to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. As Lara Friedman pointed out, “When Trump signed his (executive order) ostensibly about antisemitism, some of us warned the real target was campus free speech critical of Israel. Complaints filed in wake of the EO demonstrate we were correct.” She has been tracking these cases assailing academic freedom.
Lamborn has targeted the Center for Middle East Studies (CMES) at the University of California, Berkeley. I take this personally since the Center is where I got my interdisciplinary undergraduate degree in Middle East Studies nearly two decades ago.
This is hardly the first time there have been complaints about CMES, or about similar institutions across the country. It’s the inevitable result of the fact that, even if a professor or a whole department is staunchly pro-Israel, there’s simply no way they can portray Israel and Palestine the way the right wing would like without being completely dishonest in a way even the most compliant academics cannot stomach.
In a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos requesting that she examine whether to cut federal funding of CMES, Lamborn claims that CMES students are “overwhelmingly fed a false and distorted narrative not only at odds with an objective approach to understanding the conflict, but substantially at odds at American national security interests.” The second part is true insofar as the facts of the Israel-Palestine conflict directly contradict the common American and Israeli narrative on which U.S. policy is sold to the American public. The first part is categorically false, and that becomes easily discernible when one reads the specifics of Lamborn’s complaint.
Lamborn’s first point is that CMES refused to co-host an appearance last year by Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Ayalon. Lamborn’s implication is that this somehow limited Ayalon’s ability to speak to the students at Cal, which is not the case. CMES simply declined to co-host the event, which went forward without incident, though with much complaining from staunchly pro-Israel campus groups.
Ayalon is a relentless, and disingenuous, propagandist. His videos which purport to tell “the truth” about various issues are self-evidently false by any measure. They are peddled by the most extreme supporters of the West Bank settlement movement. It is certainly reasonable that CMES would not want its imprimatur on such a person’s appearance.
Perhaps the most chilling statement in Lamborn’s letter is this one: “Berkeley’s CMES has hosted several highly politicized professors. While they retain the constitutional freedom to present biased interpretations of their subjects, there should be a clear delineation of which scholarship is funded by Title VI funds, and which is not.”
This is an explicit request to use Title VI funding to quash academic freedom. There is no alternative meaning, and it is precisely the use of Trump’s executive order that Friedman warned about, and that DeVos used against the joint Middle East program at the University of North Carolina and Duke University.
Lamborn then feigns knowledge of the Israel-Palestine issue when he challenges a professor of history, Ussama Makdisi, who, in 2012, wrote an article in Tikkun Magazine (a progressive Jewish publication) explaining that the impact, not the extent, of the well-known anti-Semitism of the Mufti of Jerusalem in the pre-state era, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, was distorted. Lamborn twists Makdisi’s words to claim that he was downplaying or denying al-Husseini’s antipathy toward Jews, when this was never explored in the article. Rather, Makdisi was making the point that al-Husseini’s very real association with the Nazis (which Makdisi labels “sordid”) is exaggerated to perpetuate the idea of Arab antisemitism. One can debate Makdisi’s view, but it is certainly credible and supported by evidence.
[On the Mufti’s exaggerated role in general, Makdisi is undoubtedly correct, in my view. For a very good and accessible exploration of this important piece of history, check out Rashid Khalidi’s book, The Iron Cage.]
Lamborn’s attempt to assail Makdisi’s scholarship was pathetic and revealed his thorough ignorance of the history at issue. But he really gives away his orientation with this line: “Emphasizing the Mufti’s Nazi ties, [Makdisi] wrote, ‘is evoked mostly to deny the Nakba,’ the Arabic word for ‘catastrophe’ used by antisemites to describe the creation of Israel.”
This is just blatant anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab bigotry. To assert that a commonly used Arabic word is antisemitic is the very definition of bigotry. But much more than that, Lamborn is here asserting that any mention of the single most pivotal event in Palestinian history from a Palestinian point of view is, by definition, antisemitic. That is intolerable.
Lamborn has thus revealed that CMES is not shirking its academic responsibilities, Rather it is he, with the backing of the far-right Middle East Forum led by notorious anti-Palestinian crusader, Daniel Pipes, that is trying to subvert Title VI funding to promote a distorted view of Israel.
There is much more in Lamborn’s letter that is worth noting, but the point is clear. As we have already seen in the Department of Education’s attack on the UNC/Duke Middle East Studies program, the Trump administration is trying to gut American universities of their ability to accurately portray events and the history of Israel-Palestine and prevent professors from presenting their views based on their own scholarship.
No one should be giving Roger Waters a pass for his comments. But while they have provoked responses not only from Jews and supporters of Israel, but also of Palestinian rights, Lamborn’s efforts, and too many others like it, have gone largely under the radar. As worthy of rebuke as Waters’ words are, they cannot compare to the damage a member of Congress can do with a letter to a corrupt and incompetent Secretary of Education. We need to get those priorities in order.