The ex-Pink Floyd front man’s passionate calls for a cultural boycott of Israel are the subject of a new documentary. Director Ian Halperin says Waters must be held to account for his actions
He’s written some of the greatest songs of all time, fronted one of the most influential and successful groups in the history of rock’n’roll and his “The Wall Live” tour was the highest-grossing for a solo artist. Yet despite this, Roger Waters infuriates a lot of people.
The decision by the former Pink Floyd singer-bassist to become a political personality and exploit his fame and status to fight Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians drives ardent Zionists crazy – they see him as an enemy of Israel who is damaging the Jewish state’s reputation.
Now, a Jewish-Canadian filmmaker has decided to take off the gloves and go head-to-head with the venerable musician, stating unequivocally that Roger Waters is an anti-Semite.
Investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker Ian Halperin, 53, calls his new film “Wish You Weren’t Here,” riffing on one of Pink Floyd’s biggest hits while launching an unapologetic, all-out assault on a member of one of the most respected rock bands ever.
In the documentary – which just toured select Canadian cinemas – Halperin conducts a long series of interviews with subjects who each explain why Waters isn’t a performing artist touring the world with a legitimate political agenda, but instead is an anti-Semite who uses the stage to spread hatred and lies about Israel, and about Jews in general.
The documentary also tries to sketch a contemporary portrait of global anti-Semitism, which is raising its head in various countries, marking Waters as the undisputed leader spearheading this focused assault.
One of the talking heads, David Renzer, says Waters must be taken seriously because he remains one of the most important performing artists in the world, and comes from a legendary band that still gives him an abundance of credibility.
Renzer is the former head of Universal Music Publishing Group (the second largest music company in the world) and one of the founders of Creative Community for Peace, a group established by members of the U.S. entertainment industry to combat the cultural boycott of Israel.
Renzer says he can’t judge Waters’ personal motives, but can relate to things he’s said and actions he’s taken. The music exec accuses Waters of saying “some extreme things,” like how Israel treats the Palestinians worse than the way the Nazis treated the Jews. Renzer adds that someone with such an extreme viewpoint is not a “credible person.”
In recent years, Waters has become one of the art world’s central figures in the fight to persuade other artists to join the cultural boycott of Israel. Indeed, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement obtained Waters’ permission to use his name on letters they send out to various artists, according to Halperin.
When the director asks former British Prime Minister Tony Blair whether the comparison Waters makes between Israel and Nazi Germany is an anti-Semitic act, Blair answers in the affirmative. Blair says the criticism Waters directs at Israel is so ridiculous, it reaches the point where it expresses a basic hostility to the idea of a homeland for the Jewish people.
Halperin first rose to prominence in December 2008, when he was one of the first to claim Michael Jackson was suffering from a serious medical condition. He predicted that Jackson had only six months to live, and the singer indeed died in June 2009. Halperin’s biography, “Unmasked: The Final Years of Michael Jackson,” topped the New York Times bestseller list.
Halperin also wrote “Hollywood Undercover,” in which he pretended to be a gay actor and also infiltrated the Church of Scientology (becoming one of the first journalists to do so). He also wrote two books examining the death of Kurt Cobain, exploring the theory that the Nirvana front man was murdered rather than committed suicide, as well as books about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Celine Dion and others.
In recent years, he’s turned his eye toward making documentaries. In a phone interview with Haaretz, Halperin explains that the impetus for his film came after he heard Waters comparing Israel to the apartheid regime in South Africa.
“When I first heard that Waters was singling out Israel and calling for boycotts,” Halperin says, “I was appalled – because I knew that Israel was by far the most democratic country in the Middle East; that it respects women’s rights, gay rights; there’s over 2 million Israeli Arabs and they all have votes, some sit in the Knesset.
“I was just wondering why he is comparing the two countries when South Africa was a two-class system and Israel is not. Sure, the policies of Israel you can criticize, but to call for a boycott against the most democratic country in the Middle East to me is misleading – and he has to be held accountable for it.”
Halperin admits he’s no expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but says he is an expert “about being the son of a Holocaust survivor. And my father hid in a hole in the ground for seven years [in Poland] when he was 6 years old. To have somebody like Roger Waters compare Israel to Nazi Germany was the biggest insult to the memory of 6 million innocent Jewish people who died. It really shows to me that he’s an anti-Semite and that he has an agenda not only against Israel, but against the Jewish people.”
Halperin wouldn’t let Haaretz view the entire film and instead sent a video link showing the first 32 minutes; he claims this was an instruction from the producers (the complete documentary is 96-minutes). He also plans to screen the documentary in Israel and is set to visit these shores next month for a private screening. No date has been set for a public Israeli screening.
The opening scene in “Wish You Weren’t Here” makes for uncomfortable viewing, being reminiscent of propaganda techniques that don’t shy away from using any means necessary to frighten viewers.
“Global harassment of Jews has reached a seven-year high,” say captions that appear on the screen in blazing red, bloodlike colors, sprayed onto the screen, flashing the words “Paris,” “Hollywood,” “Iran” and “BDS” in rapid succession. It’s hard not to imagine that a certain prime minister who would have been only too happy to screen this during his speech at the UN General Assembly.
This intro is followed by an array of news reports about anti-Semitic attacks worldwide, as captions present the numbers of anti-Semitic attacks in different countries in 2016: 1,309 in the United Kingdom; 1,266 incidents in the United States; 644 in Germany and 294 in France.
“What is it about Roger? Why is he so bugged about Israel?” wonders the narrator. Then in a speech at an UN conference, the veteran rock star is seen talking about violations of international law that Israel is committing and how it prevents Palestinians from obtaining their rights. He calls for an end to the Israeli occupation in the territories and for granting the Palestinians the right to self-determination.
Waters is clearly investing great efforts to promote a cultural boycott of Israel – but without much success, according to this documentary. As proof, we are offered a long list of artists who performed in Israel over the summer months, including Aerosmith, Justin Bieber, Tears for Fears and Guns N’ Roses. And in order to present arguments for and against the boycott, Halperin’s film dwells on this summer’s highly publicized spat between Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Waters, who tried to dissuade the singer and his band from performing in Tel Aviv.
Flying pigs with Stars of David
Halperin says that when he started researching Waters, “I found out that he had pigs floating around at his concert with the Star of David emblazoned upon them. If he’d been doing that at his concerts with a Muslim crescent, he wouldn’t get out of the arena alive.
“But for some reason, this guy’s able to get away with it when it comes to the Jewish people. I’ll be honest, all kidding aside, I’m not a proctologist but I know an asshole and jerk when I see one – and Roger Waters is that.
“He’s making a huge mistake, [and] he owes Israel and the Jewish people a huge apology. Because what he’s doing is bringing hatred and negative stereotypes of Israel and the Jewish people to masses. He’s the highest-grossing solo artist of all time on this tour – more than Madonna, Bruce Springsteen or Michael Jackson.”
The flying pigs are in fact a motif that has accompanied Pink Floyd’s live shows since 1977: gigantic, pig-shaped inflatables that float above the stage and audience. After he left the band in 1985, following bitter arguments and prolonged legal disputes with the other members, Waters continued using the pigs in his solo shows.
At a July 2013 concert in Belgium, the pigs were stamped with a Star of David – leading to a huge public outcry, with many people accusing Waters of anti-Semitism. On the other hand, the pigs have over the years also previously borne such diverse symbols as the hammer and sickle, the U.S. dollar sign, the McDonald’s logo and even the image of U.S. President Donald Trump.
It’s OK for someone to have different political opinions than yours. Where do you draw the line between anti-Semitism and somebody who just sees Israel in a different light?
“I’m a big proponent of the First Amendment. I’m the first person to say, ‘Hey, if you want to criticize Israel and its policies, no problem.’ But if you call for a boycott against Israel, which is by far the most democratic country in the Middle East, and if you have pigs flying around with the Jewish symbol, the Star of David, and if you make all these crazy statements that Israel has to be given back and stuff like that, I have a big problem with it. I think there are bigger human rights violators than Israel in the world – if [Waters] is so concerned about human rights, why doesn’t he target Iran, Syria, China, Russia?
“The [other] problem I have is when he calls Israel an apartheid system – and that to me is completely false, because I am an expert on that subject. I was very instrumental in the campaign to free Nelson Mandela, and it is completely apples and oranges. South Africa was a two-class system; Israel is not. In Israel, everybody has a vote, everybody can run for office.”
Except for the Palestinians.
“There’s more than two million Israeli Arabs living in Israel. They all have votes, and some sit in parliament. That’s not what South Africa was about.”
The good Arab
The world premiere of “Wish You Weren’t Here” took place in Toronto on October 2, in association with B’nai B’rith Canada. Together with Halperin, the organization decided that the film’s critical content in itself wasn’t enough, so they turned the screenings themselves into acts of protest.
Since Waters was in Canada on his latest world tour in October, the organizers decided to follow him and screen the documentary everywhere he was performing, showing it on the same evening, in the same city. Six such screenings have taken place, including in Quebec City, Ottawa and Montreal. Halperin says the crowds at these screenings have been “mixed,” with Jews, Palestinians and “some people who are curious about it.”
The movie includes interviews with Pope Francis, the Jewish-American billionaire Ronald Lauder, the Jewish-American jurist Alan Dershowitz and many others. Some have thought-provoking things to say: Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, for example, questions the decision to boycott Israel, of all countries, pointing to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
By contrast, other parts of the film provoke discomfort and embarrassment. One cabdriver, supposedly representing a typical Palestinian, defends Israel, saying that it isn’t just killing Palestinians randomly, but is only doing so to defend Israeli homes.
A psychologist is called upon to comment on the fact that Waters’ father was killed while serving as a British soldier in Italy during World War II, when Waters was only 5 months old. She offers a particularly excruciating psychological analysis: Apparently, this trauma makes Waters identify with victims, not wanting to believe that his father died in vain. This then leads him to conclude that the Nazis were right when they set out to kill the Jews. Come on, really?
Waters himself is not interviewed in the film, but many minutes are devoted to excerpts from old recorded speeches. Halperin says he approached Waters for an interview or for comments, but that nobody from Waters’ camp responded. The director claims, though, that critics who’ve seen the film tell him it was very fair, since he also presents Waters’ side of the story – even interviewing people like Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky who support Waters’ views. “It’s not a hatchet job at all,” says Halperin.
The director insists that when Waters ends the Canadian leg of his tour this month, he won’t be pursuing him elsewhere with his documentary, noting that he’s already in production on two other films. “I’m not obsessed with Roger Waters,” he laughs.
Halperin and B’nai B’rith’s protest against Waters over the past month joined the pro-Israel protest that has been accompanying the musician’s North American tour. In June, the Zionist Organization of America tried to arrange a counter-boycott – turning to several stadium-owning U.S. companies with a request not to allow Waters to perform in them. This failed.
Subsequently, several attempts were also made through the courts to prevent Waters’ performing in Long Island, claiming this contravened a local law against the BDS movement. This attempt also failed, though, and the performance was held last month as scheduled.
A few days later, pro-Israel demonstrators were stationed outside two Waters performances in Brooklyn and New Jersey. The protesters paraded 12-foot-high inflatable Pinocchio dolls, bearing signs paraphrasing a classic Pink Floyd song: “Roger Waters: We don’t need your lies about Israel.”
Halperin says he has no link to these demonstrations. “I have no time to hold a picket sign against Roger Waters, who I do consider a good artist, I gotta be honest,” he says. “I like his show, except for his politics. I mean, I respect anybody who’s 74 years old who is jumping around on stage for three hours with a decent show. But no, I’m not in front of his house every day with picket signs.”
What about your film’s funding? Did Jewish organizations help finance it?
“I like when people mention the funding,” he laughs, “because I could be a prick and say, ‘Hey, who funds your life? Who buys your groceries?’ Look, fortunately I’ve sold millions of books; my films have been seen in 180 countries so most of it I funded myself. There isn’t one main Jewish organization or anything, I have no time for that.
“I’m a person that puts my money where my mouth is, and usually when I get behind something, I’m not afraid to take a financial risk. Usually it pays off, because I’m respected in my business and people want to work with me, and I’ll recoup it.”
Your film deals with Waters, but also attempts to paint a contemporary picture of anti-Semitism worldwide. Would you say anti-Semitism is growing or declining right now?
“Unfortunately, it’s thriving, and that’s what concerns me the most. Face it, Waters is 74; he has his own platform, but he’s [probably] not going to be around too much longer. But with contemporary anti-Semitism, it’s extremely dangerous because in Europe there’s less than 2 million Jews left today. That is astounding and very concerning. Jews are leaving in droves, and [anti-Semitism] is spreading everywhere.
“The U.K. last year had the most recorded number of anti-Semitic attacks; the U.S. number two,” he continues. “Incredibly, my research shows that in France, the government clamped down after the Charlie Hebdo, kosher market and Bataclan [attacks, in January and November 2015, respectively], so in 2016, recorded anti-Semitic incidents decreased 50 percent in France. The French government at least has made a concerted effort to combat it, and I think that’s a good sign. But in the U.K., the U.S. and Germany, it’s thriving.”