A letter to Roger Waters...

Dear Roger,

You have always driven me nuts. Not with your political views and insights, most of which I admire and applaud. It’s your emotional perception, your acute awareness of the alienation and isolation that is present in relationships, the solitude of our society, the damage inflicted by unresolved past experiences. That literally drives me nuts. Like the time a quarter of a century ago when I sat alone for a couple of days in an armchair watching a section of The Wall movie on video over and over, screaming along to your words as I searched desperately for ways to fill my own empty spaces. If it hadn’t been for a mate turning up unexpectedly, negotiating the minefield in the drive, the shotgun in the hall and so on, I may never have made it out of that armchair.

The girl who happened to have the misfortune to be my latest pet when the album had come out thirteen years earlier said that my personality changed after I listened to The Wall: apparently I became morose and moody…Mother did it need to be so high? So yes, Roger, you really have driven me nuts through the years, verbalising my anxieties and vulnerabilities, dragging me over the same old ground, finding the same old fears…

But still I would listen, still I would turn up the volume on Comfortably Numb whenever I caught a fleeting glimpse, still I would go to watch you in concert. So I was there at the performance of The Wall in 2013. I watched with a mixture of amusement and bemusement at the conclusion, listening to a woman standing close to me shrieking the word ‘Israel’ to accompany the audience’s chant of ‘Tear down the wall!’

It was around this time that the world began to call you an anti-Semite. It is an accusation I, as a rabbi, have also faced. During the 1996 Lebanon conflict (or was it the one in 2006?) I was critical of Israeli belligerence and was attacked by members of my community for ‘betrayal’ of my heritage. But my heritage (or at least the bit of it I signed up for when I decided in 1984 that I wanted to become a rabbi) is one that cries out for the stranger to be respected and be treated with kindness, demands that no human being should inflict on another any action or deed that they would not want done to themselves. I saw that in your lyrics, your ethos, your lament for the demise of the post-war dream (so eloquently restated in ‘Broken Bones’). We spoke the same language, yearned for the same future: the one envisioned by all prophets and dreamers who had ever looked at our world and believed it could and should be better.

So how did it suddenly get to be all Israel’s fault? How did one small country surrounded by enemies baying for its destruction, hurling hundreds of rockets at its civilians suddenly get to be the embodiment of all the evils against which you have for so long campaigned? Is that really it? Don’t misunderstand me – as I have already indicated, I’ve regularly spoken out against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Three decades ago I wrote a song that I presented to my fellow students at a college in Jerusalem. It was called ‘Going Home for Pesach (Passover)’. It was about the Exodus from Egypt, that seminal moment in Israelite history where freedom was discovered and the indignity and obscenity of one human oppressing another was enshrined in the religion that would become Judaism.

The chorus of my song went:

‘So long now it’s time to be going, like our ancestors did once before

They got up and they left from a country they just couldn’t stand any more

They’d been victims of brutal oppression, and they knew what it meant to be free

That’s a lesson I think you’ve forgotten, so you’d better entrust it to me.’

My ‘audience’ was outraged. How could someone training to be a rabbi actually leave Jerusalem and go home for Passover, the festival that ends with the traditional line of ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’? Well, it It was the Spring of 1988, six months after the first Palestinian Intifada. Twenty-one years after the Six-Day War, when Israel had found herself unexpectedly in control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and made the catastrophic mistake of not giving it straight back. The rest, of course, is recent history, and it’s a history filled with violence and oppression, confiscation of land, construction of illegal settlements, building of walls, launching of rockets, closing of borders, of minds, of hearts – all the things against which you have so eloquently protested in your lyrics. Protests against these human failings are at the heart of the religion of Judaism. And many of us who espouse those teachings despair of the actions of Israel’s government in its treatment of the Palestinians, just as we despair of the human rights abuses in so many places all over the world.

But to claim that Israel’s government is ‘the same as the Nazis’? That Israel is ‘an apartheid state’? Please. In the past six years, Syria’s civil war has seen 400,000 deaths, 6.3 million people displaced and 5 million having fled their home as refugees. Good to note that you’re ‘particularly concerned’ about that situation. What about the Rohingya in Myanmar? The Yazidis? The list is shamefully long. But measured against all the horrors in the world, you still arrive at the conclusion that actually it’s all about Israel. ‘I’m not sure there are any much harsher regimes around the world, actually, if you look at it,’ you assure us.

That’s just silly. That’s so silly that it’s little wonder that you’re being accused of anti-Semitism. Yes, we all know the distinction between criticism of Israeli government policy and prejudice against Jews. But someone who crafts their lyrics as thoughtfully and sensitively as you ought to know better than to use emotive words like ‘Nazi’ and ‘Apartheid’ in contexts where they clearly don’t belong and can only inflame those very passions that the gunner dreamt would no longer tarnish our humanity.

But I’ll still go and see you in Hyde Park. With tickets that cost over £100 each (are you enjoying your cigar?) Because art dwells in a different realm from politics, and boycotting performers (or asking them to boycott) makes no difference to anyone. The calls to have you banned rom performing at Hyde Park (with which my Facebook feed is currently packed) are as futile as you asking Radiohead not to play in Tel Aviv. In the end, no matter how much we might think otherwise, music ends up being something to listen to, not protest with, or against. I’m sure that Jews listen to Wagner, even though he made some pretty offensive observations about the characteristics of Jewish people (while claiming that some of his best friends were Jewish). I know that kids at the local Jewish primary school were encouraged to dress up for Roald Dahl Day last week, notwithstanding his well-documented anti-Semitic comments. Art has the ability to transcend dogma and prejudice  - the very things against which so many of your lyrics speak out. Do yourself and your credibility a favour. Look at your own prejudice and your own dogma at the same time as telling the rest of us to look at ours. Otherwise, well, you’re just another brick in the wall.

See you in July.

(Rabbi) Pete Tobias, October 2017.

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