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Roger Waters Criticizes Senate Bill Criminalizing BDS & Radiohead’s Recent Concert in Tel Aviv

StorySeptember 14, 2017
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Last week, Roger Waters wrote a piece in The New York Times titled “Congress Shouldn’t Silence Human Rights Advocates.” In the op-ed, Waters criticized a bill being considered in the Senate to silence supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel. The bill seeks to criminalize individuals who participate in the BDS effort. We speak to Waters and Sut Jhally of the Media Education Foundation. We also discuss criticism of the BDS movement and ask Waters about his public spat with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, whose band has rejected calls to join BDS.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with British musician Roger Waters, founding member of the iconic rock band Pink Floyd. Nermeen Shaikh and I spoke to him and Sut Jhally of the Media Education Foundation about their documentary, The Occupation of the American Mind: Israel’s Public Relations War in the United States, and Waters’ support for the BDS movement, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Last week, Roger Waters wrote a piece in The New York Times headlined “Congress Shouldn’t Silence Human Rights Advocates.” In the op-ed, he criticized a bill being considered in the Senate to silence supporters of BDS. The bill’s author, Maryland Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, was recently questioned by The Intercept’s Ryan Grim.

SEN. BEN CARDIN: We are very sensitive to maintain freedom of speech and expression. Nothing in our bill goes—hurts that.

RYAN GRIM: The ACLU says that kind of the way that it’s written would lend itself towards felony penalties for people if they participated in these kind of —

SEN. BEN CARDIN: I didn’t think we had criminal—if we had criminal sanctions in it, we’d go to Judiciary. I don’t think we have—I don’t think—


SEN. BEN CARDIN: I just don’t think that’s in our bill. You know, you’re catching me without—

RYAN GRIM: Sure, sure.

SEN. BEN CARDIN: I think I know the bill fairly well. I don’t believe we have criminalized. I think our issue is U.S. participation in international organizations—


SEN. BEN CARDIN: —speaking out against the U.N. actions. I think that’s the bill.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Senator Ben Cardin, the co-sponsor of the bill. Roger Waters, you’re laughing.

ROGER WATERS: Well, yeah. I mean, that is funny. You know, that deserves to be on a comedy show.

AMY GOODMAN: Because, of course, there are sanctions and fines related to this.

ROGER WATERS: The guy hasn’t even read the bill he’s sponsoring.

AMY GOODMAN: But, interestingly, even some of the co-sponsors are changing their views. New York Senator Gillibrand responded to a question from her constituents at a Flushing town hall meeting by saying she wouldn’t support the bill in its current form and that she wouldn’t support it unless the bill’s authors add language specifying the punishments only extend to corporations and not to individuals. That’s according to Crain’s.

ROGER WATERS: I know Kirsten Gillibrand a bit. I’ve met her a couple of times. And I was absolutely flabbergasted when I saw her name as a co-sponsor. She was a co-sponsor of this bill. So, but it—so, that points to something. And that is that when a piece of paper comes across your desk, and you’re a politician, and you go, “Oh, AIPAC. It’s from AIPAC. It’s been drafted by AIPAC,” you just sign it and hand it back. You don’t even read it. They don’t even read it. They just go, “Oh, that’s it. That’s a done deal. Whatever AIPAC wants, AIPAC gets. And that’s all there is”—which is bizarre, and wrong, obviously.

And I’m really glad that Kirsten Gillibrand has taken her name off it. She’s still against BDS, but almost certainly, she—almost certainly, she doesn’t know. She hasn’t traveled enough, though she did say—to her credit, she did say that she had a meeting with Netanyahu when on a visit to Israel. And she asked him a question of what was his plan for what should happen in the future. And he went, “Next.” You know?

SUT JHALLY: Well, because his plan is to never leave.


SUT JHALLY: His plan is to take over the entire thing.

ROGER WATERS: But they can’t say that.

SUT JHALLY: Yeah. But in the film, we actually have some footage of him at a meeting with his right-wing settler base, where he thinks no one is listening, essentially saying that. He said, “We’re never going to give it back. And don’t worry about America. I know how to manipulate America. It’s very, very easy.” It’s very, very telling. And so, from their perspective, the occupation is never going to end.

And one of the major ways in which you can put pressure on is, I think, precisely through things like BDS, is precisely through what’s happening within the U.S. I think BDS—you know, no matter what you think of BDS, as a rhetorical device, it is superb. It has been branded in a way that even if you’re against BDS, you’re talking about it. And so, I would really urge everyone to talk as much as possible about BDS, because it is such a weapon to use to be able to raise these issues, especially with young people. Especially with young people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I just want to say that people who are critical of BDS say that Israel is being unfairly singled out, and there are many other countries who commit absolutely egregious violations of human rights against their own people, and the world is silent. Now, our guest, Roger Waters, and other supporters of BDS have criticized Radiohead recently for playing a concert recently in Tel Aviv. The group’s leader, Thom Yorke, responded, in part, by saying, quote, “Playing in a country isn’t the same as endorsing its government. We’ve played in Israel for over 20 years through a succession of governments, so more liberal than others. As we have in America. We don’t endorse [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu any more than Trump, but we still play in America.” So that’s Thom Yorke of Radiohead. Your response to that?

ROGER WATERS: I would say, in answer to Thom Yorke saying that we’re not supporting the Israeli government, “Willy-nilly, Thom.” And I’ve said this to him—well, not face to face, because he won’t talk to me. But I’ve said to him, “Willy-nilly, you are. Like, after you did your gig in Tel Aviv, it was all over the front pages of Israeli newspapers.” And they actually quote—there were quotes saying, “This is the best moment for hasbara that we’ve had in decades. Radiohead playing has given us so much better position and so much more power than we had before they played.” Doesn’t matter what they say in—not that they’re speaking much about it. They’re being pretty quiet about it, I think. If you’ve listened to what Thom Yorke has said since the gig, it’s—I haven’t seen—

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been going back and forth with him a lot.


AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been going back and forth with him a lot.

ROGER WATERS: No, no, no. Before they played, I contacted him. I wrote him a number of emails, and I said, “Can we talk about this?” And so—and then there was a little bit of to and fro, when he said that people like me and—oh, well, people like me—it’s enough, me—have been kind of throwing mud at them from afar and not coming for dialogue, which is nonsense. You know, I entreated him. I implored him to have a conversation about it and to talk about the picket line and to talk about BDS and to talk about the situation on the ground, as well, because I’m sure Thom doesn’t know. I bet he hasn’t been around the West Bank. I bet he hasn’t been to Gaza. I bet he hasn’t actually looked. Because when you do and you see the way the Palestinian people are treated by the occupying army, it breaks your heart, and you have really no alternative but to say, “I am going to be part of this.”

It’s like Michael Bennett, that Seattle Seahawk. A number of NFL players were invited to go to Israel on a PR—all expenses paid. And Michael Bennett, to his eternal credit, and half a dozen of the others went, “No, I do not want to be”—I mean, he’s a sporting icon. “I do not want to be used as part of the hasbara, part of the whitewashing of that.” And see, sorry, just to finish—and he quotes John Carlos, you know, who was the athlete in '68 who stood up and gave the Black Power salute at the thing. He says, “It's John”—

AMY GOODMAN: In Mexico City Olympics.

ROGER WATERS: In Mexico City at the Olympic Games, very, very bravely and very controversially. And he says, as John Carlos says, you know, “As far as justice is concerned, you’re either in or you’re out.” And he says, “Well, I’m in.” That’s Michael Bennett. And I thought, “Yeah!” You know, that kind of commitment to the idea that everybody should have justice is laudable.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Critics of BDS, when it comes to Israel, say there are other very close allies of the U.S.—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, to name only a few—who have also waged egregious violations against their own people, minorities, to say nothing, for instance, of non-U.S. allies, of Russia and China, where people routinely go and perform and have other forms of cultural exchange. Now, what—is there anything, do you think, that distinguishes the position of Israel and why a BDS campaign is more legitimate there than it would be in these other countries?

ROGER WATERS: We’ve been asked by Palestinian civil society to join them in their struggle against the occupation of their land, let’s be clear, OK, land that was laid out in the U.N. resolutions in 1947 as land that should be for a Palestinian state. Whatever your feelings may be about the creation of the state of Israel or whatever, the U.N. decided that partition was a good idea, and whatever, OK? So—and it’s not happened. And as Sut just said, it’s been whittled away, piece by piece by piece, by illegal settlements. The land is slowly being stolen. The indigenous population, the Palestinian people, are being forced out, or the attempt is. Their resolve to protest their situation nonviolently, using something like BDS, is one of the most admirable pieces of resistance that we’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. You know, it’s quite extraordinary.

Could I boycott Egypt? If anybody ever asked me to go and play in Egypt, I might see if there was an organization in Egypt that I could ally myself to, like there is BDS in Palestinian civil society. Could I go and play in Syria? No, there’s nothing left. It’s rubble, you know. Well, there is, there’s something there, but it’s clinging to its statehood by its fingernails.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s end with one last clip of the film, The Occupation of the American Mind, that looks at how perceptions are changing in the U.S. about the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Again, the film begins with narrator Roger Waters.

ROGER WATERS: Over just the past few years, the proliferation of social media and internet news sources has made it increasingly difficult for the Israeli government and pro-Israel groups in the U.S. to manage American perceptions of the conflict. Video footage and reporting from the ground bearing witness to the reality of the occupation are now more accessible than ever on the internet.

In addition, over the past few years, a number of high-profile documentaries, made by Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers alike, have trained a harsh light on current Israeli policy and the repression of Palestinian rights.

ADEEB ABU RAHMAH: [translated] This is a small village. What do you think? Have you no heart? No family? Every one of you knows that this is village land! You stole my land!

ROGER WATERS: At the same time, a powerful new Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has been gaining momentum and raising awareness of the occupation, while activists from the Black Lives Matter movement have been making explicit connections between police violence against African Americans and the Israeli military’s repression of Palestinians.

MARC LAMONT HILL: We stand next to people who continue to courageously struggle and resist the occupation, people who continue to dream and fight for freedom. From Ferguson to Palestine, the struggle for freedom continues.

ROGER WATERS: And all of these developments seem to be having an effect. Polls now show that while sympathy for Israel remains at all-time highs among older Americans, it has been hemorrhaging among young people.

SUT JHALLY: Despite the efforts of the lobby, something really striking is taking place. Lots of young people are abandoning the mainstream media and turning instead to other independent sources. So they have a totally different way of making sense of what’s happening—an unfiltered view of Israel’s repression. And pro-Israel operatives like Frank Luntz are in a panic. In his latest report, he calls what’s happening with young people a “disaster,” and demands that Israel’s supporters respond. And people have answered the call. You have powerful right-wing billionaires, like Sheldon Adelson, a major donor to Republican candidates, bankrolling a campaign to silence and intimidate student activists on college campuses. But it’s not working. Groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, who see what’s happening to Palestinians as a civil rights issue, have refused to be intimidated. They’re refusing to back down, even though they’re being labeled as anti-Semitic and terrorist sympathizers. And their numbers are growing.

PROTESTERS: Hey, hey! Ho, ho! The siege of Gaza’s got to go!

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: As the discourse begins to open, more people are starting to understand this as a rights-based issue, not an issue of radicalism. This is a movement for the rights of people whose rights are being denied, who are living under occupation, who want to live in their country freely, just like anybody else.

RASHID KHALIDI: You can see just so many video clips of kids having their hands smashed by soldiers with batons. You can see just so many pictures of thousands of people being killed as happened in Gaza. And at a certain point, there’s a cognitive dissonance. You realize that what you’re being told is a pack of lies.

AMY GOODMAN: The last voice, Rashid Khalidi, professor at Columbia University, and, before that, Yousef Munayyer, Sut Jhally, our guest, and Marc Lamont Hill. Well, Roger Waters, you’re the narrator of this film. You don’t have to do any of this. You could just perform. You are an icon in so many places in the world. But you focus on this issue. Ultimately, what gives you hope?

ROGER WATERS: What gives me hope? Well, we just saw a little clip there of a Black Lives Matter activist talking about how he feels that his struggle is in concert with the struggle of the Palestinian people. And it’s also what Sut was saying in the film, that there are blogs, there are other places to get news now via the internet, so that you can get at more of the truth of what’s going on. And the fact that people are communicating through that now gives me some hope. In our show, it’s expressed very, very clearly. I don’t mention Palestine once in our show. There’s one—there’s one shot, I think, of the separation wall going through it or something. It’s something I steered away with. But there’s a general sense in everything in my show that we’re all human, that we have an absolute responsibility to look after one another.

AMY GOODMAN: Roger Waters, founding member of Pink Floyd, and Sut Jhally, founder of the Media Education Foundation, which produced the film The Occupation of the American Mind: Israel’s Public Relations War in the United States. Roger Waters is performing Friday night and Saturday night at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! co-host Juan González is speaking about his new book, Reclaiming Gotham, tonight at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Arizona, at 7 p.m. Tomorrow night, Friday, in Austin, Texas, Juan is speaking at 5:30 p.m. at the Workers Defense Project. In the next weeks, he’s heading to Newark, New Jersey; Kansas City, Missouri; and College Park, Maryland. I’ll be speaking throughout Canada on the weekend at the end of September. Check our website at

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