Roger Waters: Frankfurt can’t cancel my shows, it’s illegal

The rock star tells The National efforts to call off his gigs in Germany over his support for Palestine are 'unconstitutional'

Roger Waters on stage in Barcelona on Tuesday. EPA
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Pink Floyd founder Roger Waters is in an upbeat but combative mood. Last weekend he kicked off his latest world tour — This is Not A Drill — in Lisbon with two sold-out shows.

Offstage, he was instructing a German law firm to fight efforts by two city councils to cancel his sold-out Frankfurt and Munich gigs in May over his views on the Israeli government. The respective councils accuse Waters of espousing anti-Semitic views, something he has roundly and consistently refuted.

“We are on the offense,” he tells The National by telephone in Barcelona, fresh from a workout. “Their actions are unconstitutional. They can’t cancel my shows, it’s illegal.” Waters has already gained some ground, with Munich authorities stating that the city had no legal grounds to halt his May 21 concert at Olympic Hall.

At 79 years of age, Waters shows no shortage of energy, defiance or determination. He has a reserve of sumud — “steadfastness” — that Palestinians, whose struggle for justice and freedom Waters has publicly advocated for since 2005, must admire and appreciate.

Since endorsing the non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions call of Palestinian civil society — which aims to place economic pressure on Israel until it ends the occupation of Palestinian land, grants Arabs equal rights and assures the right of refugees to return — Waters and a long list of other artists and academics have relentlessly fought against accusations of anti-Semitism.

“I am not an anti-Semite, I never have been — not for a single second of my long life. So it may be that I am finally going to get my moment in court,” he says, sounding positive, but not naive.

But something else is afoot. He says he had a constructive interview in Der Spiegel last week and he expresses surprise that two politically right-leaning, British broadsheets, The Times and The Daily Telegraph, reviewed his politically charged opening show favourably.

“That is weird, it’s never happened before,” Waters says, with a laugh. “Clearly people are beginning to think that what’s going on might be newsworthy in some way, which is a good thing.”

Germany’s past in the present

Germany has passed some of the most comprehensive anti-BDS legislation in the West. In 2019, the country's parliament designated the BDS movement as anti-Semitic. However, last year, Munich — which adopted a 2017 resolution barring BDS supporters from using public space — was told by the country's Federal Administrative Court that it was illegal and unconstitutional to do so.

Rogers is one of several British artists, including Brian Eno, Young Fathers, Kamila Shamsie and Caryl Churchill, who have had gigs threatened or cancelled, prizes or awards withdrawn or faced censure in the country over their endorsement of the cultural boycott of Israel.

Waters hopes that a German court will rule that “to conflate membership of BDS and criticism of Israeli policy in the occupied territories with anti-Semitism is an absolute nonsense”.

“The conflation of anti-Semitism with criticism of Israeli government policy is and has always been crazy, but it is the only weapon that the Israeli lobby has. And that's why they use it indiscriminately, because they have no platform to stand on."

Waters bristles at the idea that German municipalities today, given the nation’s history, would support a far-right government in a different country.

However, he remains optimistic. "I'm so happy to be going to Germany," he says. "I'm going to spread my message of love and reconciliation with all my friends and fans there, and there's hundreds and hundreds of thousands of us. They all want to come to the show. The shows [the municipalities] want to cancel have sold out.”

Is the tide turning?

Eighteen years of defending your reputation is surely mentally and emotionally draining. It’s also had a financial cost to Waters — Citibank and American Express dropped their corporate sponsorship of his tours several years ago, deals worth several millions of dollars.

But Waters has no regrets and says he doesn’t think about the monetary issues. One presumes that his stature and continued artistic output make such losses less painful.

In contrast, he says: “The benefit that one gains psychologically and emotionally from doing the right thing, it's so immense. You can't conflate love and money. They live in different worlds. My gain in love, and exchange of love and friendship with people all over the world, has been out of all proportion to any loss.”

He is “deeply moved” by the online petition initiated by his friends, Vijay Prashad, Katie Halper and Steven Donzinger, currently endorsed by nearly 17,000 people, including many prominent artists.

“It's been signed by a lot of very notable people, starting with Noam Chomsky and working through a wonderful kind of list of the intelligentsia and comrades in the peace movement,” says Waters gratefully.

The rock star is also buoyed by the changing narrative around Israel and Palestine, which he feels is accelerating, “spreading hand over fist”.

“The fact is we are winning the argument. You couldn’t use the word ‘apartheid’ back in 2005 to talk about Israel [vis-a-vis] Palestine, and now you can't talk about Israel without using the word ‘apartheid’. That's huge.”

Israeli own goals?

Waters believes the current Israeli government, which has drawn widespread condemnation for its treatment of Palestinians, is also shifting perceptions — especially in the US, where key support for Israel comes in the shape of diplomatic and financial backing.

“It's become very, very difficult to see how the Israeli government can go on doing what it is doing and retain any support in rank-and-file citizens of America. It's still there but is being eroded.”

The artist reserves particular criticism for Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who recently drew international condemnation for claiming “there isn't a Palestinian people”.

“I'm happy to see that a lot of good people in the United States were up in arms over his visit, protesting in the streets and saying you cannot entertain this guy in the corridors of power, in this supposed democracy.”

Speak to me

For years Waters would write to fellow artists, young and old, imploring them not to perform in Israel due to the government's treatment of Palestinian people. Today, he admits: “I'm bored with writing letters to other musicians, right?”

However, he mentions a video he’s just been impressed by — British-Iraqi rapper Lowkey’s Free Assange with Mai Khalil and The Grime Violinist, and says: “It’s about everything we’re talking about. There are always the Lowkeys of this world.”

Waters still upholds the advice his mother gave him when he was a teenager: “Read, read, read and read again. Not just opinions you agree with, but everything that everybody has to say. Get as fully informed as you can be on an issue.

“Then, do the right thing.”

Updated: March 28, 2023, 10:49 AM