From Richard Wagner to Roger Waters

How can it be possible that I admire a man who has so influenced me but who, had he met me, would have despised me?

Legendary rocker Roger Waters 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Legendary rocker Roger Waters 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Fyodor Dostoevsky received a strange letter in the early months of 1877. The celebrated Russian author was scolded by a Jewish journalist for the anti-Semitism that permeated Dostoevsky’s novels and short stories.
The Jewish journalist – Abraham Uri Kovner – confessed his own past sins to Dostoevsky in a bizarre fashion. But toward the letter’s end, Kovner arrived at the reason why he wrote to Dostoevsky: “I would like to know why you are against the Jews and not against exploiters in general. I hate the deficiencies of my people no less than you and I have suffered enough under them, yet I would never concede that unscrupulous exploitation is in their blood.”
Dostoevsky appreciated the letter and praised Kovner as a “highly educated Jew.” But his response could not have pleased the Jewish journalist. The Russian author simply dismissed the Jews as killers of Christ and exploiters of the Russian peasant. Not surprisingly, Kovner turned to apostasy toward the end of his life.
This particular letter to an author I greatly admire has always interested me. One of the books that influenced me most as an undergraduate student was Dostoevsky’s early classic Notes from Underground. This is one of the Russian master’s shorter works – but it is simply brilliant, especially the first half of the book in which Dostoevsky produces a damning criticism of modernity through the lens of a loser on the margins of St. Petersburg society.
Yet, like Kovner, I am troubled by Dostoevsky’s embrace of the hatred of Jews. How can it be possible that I admire a man who has so influenced me but who, had he met me, would have despised me? How can genius – literary or artistic – be permeated with anti-Semitism? How can such “creativity” be defended or simply dismissed as “free artistic expression”?
These questions are not simply academic or intellectual – they go to the heart of our attempt to understand the role of Jews as the subjects of hatred in the intellectual and social history of the civilization of the West. These questions also lead us to the anti-Zionist attempts to delegitimize Israel that permeate our popular culture.
The cultural icon who I both admire and detest is Roger Waters, a founding member and driving force behind the creation of one of rock’s legendary bands, Pink Floyd. In a recent letter to other popular rock musicians, Waters – one of the most outspoken advocates of condemning Israel through the movement to boycott the Jewish state – called on fellow artists not to perform in Israel.
WATERS’ MOTIVATIONS are highly suspicious. He claims he is defending the human rights of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. But Waters has performed in China and Russia, flagrant abusers of human rights.
No, this is not Waters’ protest against “Israeli apartheid.”
What this is all about is good old-fashioned anti-Semitism dressed up in modern garb.
Waters has incorporated unusual – and very insulting – images into his concert tours around the world. Playing on the phrase “when pigs fly,” Waters trots out a floating image of a pig that is covered with a variety of symbols – the dollar sign, the Soviet hammer and sickle, corporation logos and, of greatest interest to me, a Star of David.
What message does Waters want to convey to his audience? Is it the idea that Jews are greedy capitalists or oppressive Communists? I really have no idea. This is truly bizarre. And offensive.
In fact, Waters’ placement of the Star of David on an image of a pig is not far removed from the medieval Judensau – the iconic image portraying Jews sucking at the teats of a female pig and eating her excrement.
This disgusting image was a staple of medieval and early modern art in Europe. Often, it was associated with the “blood libel” – the false and outrageous charge that Jews ritually murdered Christian children to siphon their blood for the baking of matzah.
Waters is tapping into popular images of Jew-hatred that permeate Western culture, and promotes a modern “blood libel” in which Jews are accused of “ethnic cleansing” and genocide. His placement of a Jewish symbol on an animal repugnant to most Jews is meant to send a message to the world – divest from Israel because the Jewish state is an apartheid and racist entity that has no right to exist.
Waters’ blatant anti-Semitism leaves me uncomfortably numb.
Waters is a rock genius. But musical or artistic genius and creative expression are no excuse for anti-Semitism.
No opera lover would deny the brilliance of German composer Richard Wagner. But Wagner’s hatred of Jews was notorious. He was, without doubt, an inspiration to Hitler and to Nazism. His anti-Semitic screed – Jewry in Music – was as much a part of the man as was his musical genius.
To this day Jews, and survivors of the Holocaust in particular, still debate whether Wagner’s music should be preformed publicly in Israel. This is not about denying his genius. This is a condemnation of his racism and his successful attempt to legitimize hatred of Jews.
Is Roger Waters any different from Richard Wagner? His leadership in the movement to isolate Israel as a pariah state is not about his criticism of a particular Israeli policy. It is all about the Star of David on the floating image of a pig.
It is about legitimizing hatred of Israel and Jews. He teaches through his musical presentation, in a way similar to Wagner, that branding Jews as pariahs is acceptable and should be welcomed by his fans and fellow musicians.
It is as much an expression of hatred of Jews as was the icon of Jews eating the excrement of the Judensau.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.