Roger Waters’s Critics Are Smearing Him as Antisemitic Because They Hate His Pro-Palestine Activism

Claims that former Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters deployed antisemitic imagery at recent concerts in Berlin are baseless. The charges are being elevated by media figures and politicians who detest his advocacy for Palestinian liberation.

Pink Floyd cofounder Roger Waters performs at the Olympiahalle in Munich, Germany, on May 21, 2023, as part of his “This Is Not A Drill” tour of Germany. (Angelika Warmuth / picture alliance via Getty Images)

If you’ve been on social media lately, you’ve possibly seen outraged claims about Roger Waters’s recent performances in Berlin. The former Pink Floyd member’s support for Palestinian human rights and calls for peace negotiations in Ukraine have long garnered a litany of demagogic critics. As part of their campaign against him, they’re now disseminating claims that, during the Berlin performances, Waters dressed up as a Nazi SS officer while disrespecting the memory of Anne Frank and those who died in the Holocaust — all while flying a pig balloon emblazoned with a Jewish Star of David.

That this alleged spectacle took place in the former capital of the Third Reich only makes it more sinister. Waters’s critics are citing this as proof that his criticisms of Israel’s apartheid government are rooted not in support for the Palestinians, but in antisemitism.

The central claims against Waters, however, are a mixture of distortions and outright falsehoods. First, there’s Waters’s own background. When he was just five months old, his father was killed by Nazis while fighting with the British Army during World War II. As a result, anti-fascist and antiwar sentiment has been a continuous motif of his work at least since Pink Floyd’s 1973 single “Us and Them.” Such themes also feature heavily on Pink Floyd’s 1979 concept album The Wall.

Then there’s the matter of what actually happened at his concerts. Since the band’s 1980 tour for The Wall, Waters’s performances have featured a theatrical element in which he assumes the role of a fictional fascist demagogue (the uniform that critics claimed was a literal SS uniform has now been demoted to merely a “Nazi-style costume”); this was true of his 1990 historic performance in Berlin to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall. Waters’s performances have up to this point always been understood as condemning, not exalting, fascism.

As for the balloon, as left-wing British writer Alex Nunns has pointed out, the photographs purporting to show an inflatable pig with a Star of David on it are not from Waters’s Berlin performance. A review of videos of the performance reveal they are not even the same color as the balloon Waters used in Berlin.

Claims that Waters insulted Anne Frank are simply a malicious lie. Waters featured the name of Anne Frank in a montage of individuals murdered by state actors, in many cases due to racial prejudice. This did not occur during the part of his concert that satirizes a fascist rally. Waters’s performance made clear Frank was the victim of the Nazi genocide because of her Jewish identity.

Elevating Disinformation

That false claims are being made about Waters is not the only disturbing aspect of this episode. What is especially troubling is how quickly these claims made it into mainstream media with little fact-checking. Now even politicians and law enforcement are taking them up.

The campaign against Waters was not just the work of low-level, hate-mongering trolls who have come to define everyone’s user experience online. The official Twitter accounts of the states of Israel and Ukraine have amplified them with surreal, juvenile tweets: “Roger Waters . . . Started out as a rock idol — ended up as a rock bottom,” the official account of the Ukrainian government tweeted at the Twitter account of the Israeli government.

US State Department and European Union officials have also taken to official social media accounts to blast Waters and parrot the claims against him. Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Commission’s coordinator on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life,  accused Waters of deliberately trivializing the Holocaust, noting she felt sickened by the “sarcastic way in which he delights in trampling on the victims, systematically murdered by the Nazis.” Holocaust trivialization, Von Schnurbein noted, was a crime across Europe.

Ambassador Deborah E. Lipstadt used the official Twitter account of the US Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism to retweet the European official, including her not-so-subtle call for prosecution. She wrote, “I wholeheartedly concur with @EUAntisemitism’s condemnation of Roger Waters and his despicable Holocaust distortion.”

The campaign against Waters soon jumped from social media into mainstream media. In early reports, Waters critics’ key claims were parroted without any fact-checking. Some of the articles included pictures of the pig-shaped balloon with a Star of David that allegedly was flown in the Berlin arena. As a result, Berlin police have opened a criminal investigation into Waters. British Labour MP Christian Wakeford is calling for Waters’s performances to be banned, explicitly citing the pig balloon as justification. (Wakeford has since blocked Nunns on Twitter after the writer pointed out that the photo in question was not from the Berlin performance.)

The only word to describe what is happening is disinformation. The impetus behind it is not a specific Waters performance, but an attempt to destroy his character made by those with larger disagreements with his political commitments. Mainstream media, far from acting as fact-checkers, have helped to aid the spread of lies with its early uncritical reporting on Waters’s attackers. Although panic about disinformation has spurred calls for censorship and spawned a cottage industry of experts, the campaign against Waters has conveniently not been viewed through the lens of disinformation.

A Statement Against Fascism

It’s important to understand what really happened during Waters’s Berlin performances and how the reaction fits into the wider campaign against him. During both the May 17 and May 18 Berlin concerts, Waters performed the song “The Powers That Be.” At the start of the song, comic-book dialogue appeared on the screen depicting a conversation about oligarchs, before shifting to images of police violence. At the end, the comic-book dialogue returned: “Wow. Why are they so brutal?” “Because they want to crush our resistance and continue ruling.”

Throughout this song, the names of victims of state violence were interspersed between images of police brutality. The locations of their deaths, “crimes,” and “sentences” also appears. In each case, the “sentence” is death, and the “crime” makes clear they are victims of racist or political violence (for example, George Floyd’s crime is described as “being black”).

The names listed included, among others, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Philando Castile, all black Americans murdered by US police; Adama Traoré, a black man murdered by French police; Mawda Shawri, a two-year-old Iraqi-Kurdish refugee murdered by Belgian police; Stanislav Tomáš, a Romani man murdered by Czech police; Marielle Franco, a Brazilian politician assassinated by two former police officers; Shireen Abu Akleh, the Palestinian American journalist murdered by an Israeli army sniper; Mahsa Amini, murdered by Iranian morality police; Rachel Corrie, a US activist crushed by an Israeli army bulldozer; Sophie Scholl, the antiwar, anti-Nazi activist beheaded by the Third Reich; and Anne Frank, the young Jewish teenager who perished at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

The inclusion of two victims of Nazism is fitting. It is in line with Water’s universalistic message that ties together victims of state violence across countries and time periods. It is a left-wing vision that embraces solidarity in the face of state, racist, and political violence.

On both nights in Berlin, when Waters returned to the stage after an intermission, he began the second half of his set with “In the Flesh.” Waters originally wrote the song for The Wall; the song depicts a fictional singer named Pink who experiences a psychotic break and envisions himself as a fascist demagogue.

This storyline was put to images in a disturbing but unforgettable sequence in the 1982 movie adaptation of the album. The movie’s scenes clearly drew from a number of real-life far-right and fascist movements. It features conical hats like those of the Ku Klux Klan, armbands like those of the Nazis, and skinheads. The bulk of the imagery, however, seems to be drawn from Britain’s homegrown fascist Oswald Mosley. The film also added its own imagery, crossed hammers used to represent the fictional authoritarian movement.

Waters has performed the song over six hundred times in concert. As part of a performance Waters has been doing since 1980, during the song he adopts, in his own words, the persona of “an unhinged fascist demagogue.” Berlin was no different. During the song, Waters took to the stage in a long leather trench coat with the crossed-hammer insignia made famous by the 1982 film. At his side were two men in black military-like uniforms wearing helmets. Banners just like those featured in The Wall movie dropped from the ceiling, and an inflatable pig floated above the audience. One side read “Steal from the Poor. Give to the Rich.”; the other side, “Fuck The Poor.” The slogans were clear caricatures of right-wing sentiment.

The pig first appeared on the cover of the 1977 Pink Floyd album, Animals, at which point the band incorporated the floating animal into its stage show. On their tour for The Wall, the pig began to make its appearance during those parts of the show dealing with fascism. Following Waters’s notoriously contentious departure from Pink Floyd, an out-of-court settlement with the band gave Waters the exclusive right to use the pig in his stage show. As BBC documented, Waters and Pink Floyd’s use of the pig has transformed into a wider icon, a symbol of protest against dystopian authoritarianism and violence larger than a single album cover.

During a 2013 leg of Waters’s tour, the pig balloon did include a Star of David. At later dates, it would also include a Christian cross and Muslim crescent. The imagery unsurprisingly garnered significant controversy, including from many of the same groups currently attacking Waters. Yet while the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has repeatedly attacked Waters for his support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), it was adamant that the imagery was not antisemitic. In making this conclusion, they stressed the fact that the use of the pig was part of a “concert tradition” where Waters performed a series of songs from The Wall “written from the point of view of the anti-hero, ‘Pink,’ during a hallucination in which he becomes a fascist dictator and turns a concert audience into an angry mob. True to form, Waters appears dressed for the part.”

Attacking Advocacy for Palestinian Rights

The current campaign against Waters has nothing to do with this specific theatrical performance. In 2006, Waters was asked to perform in Tel Aviv, Israel. At the urging of Palestinians, Waters visited the occupied Palestinian territories, and as a result of what he saw, he heeded their call not to perform in Tel Aviv. Waters publicly urged other artists to follow suit. Since then, he has become one of the most high-profile celebrity supporters of the growing BDS movement.

Waters was involved with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as a teenager, recorded an entire album of songs against the Falklands War, led a campaign to close Guantanamo Bay, supported Occupy Wall Street, and has called for freedom for Julian Assange. But supporters of Palestinian rights face heightened harassment. In 2017, public officials in Nassau County, New York, citing a local anti-BDS law, attempted to have his concert canceled. That same year, a number of German broadcasters refused to carry a Waters concert over his BDS stance. On his current tour, the city of Frankfurt tried to ban Waters from performing over his alleged antisemitism. A court ruled in Waters’s favor.

In addition to inspiring the ire of pro-apartheid, anti-Palestinian forces, Waters has recently come under fire for his statements on Ukraine. Waters has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine as illegal, but has also accused Joe Biden of fueling a horrendous war by refusing to negotiate, and has criticized the role of NATO expansion in setting the stage for the conflict. Earlier during the tour, when a CNN interviewer pushed Waters about why he included Joe Biden in the montage of war criminals in his performance (during the song “The Bravery of Being Out of Range,” in which Waters profiles the war crimes of all US presidents since Ronald Reagan), CNN aired a heavily redacted version of his comments on Ukraine. Waters has in the past been criticized directly by the Ukrainian government and has said he’s been added to a Ukrainian kill list. His concerts in Poland were canceled over his views on Ukraine.

Like everyone in a free society, critics of Waters’s political views are welcome to disagree with him. Repeatedly, however, they have sought to censor him; in order to achieve these ends, they have turned to a campaign of disinformation. Although disinformation has been a continuous source of panic in the United States since the 2016 election, disinformation campaigns against critics of US policy seem to get a free pass.