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'We need more education': Roger Waters’ tour exposes Germany's struggles with antisemitism

Roger Waters performs at the United Center in Chicago, 26 July 2022
Roger Waters performs at the United Center in Chicago, 26 July 2022 Copyright Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP
Copyright Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP
By Una Hajdari
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The Pink Floyd co-founder is threatening to sue Germany over cancelled tour dates while the country continues to grapple with how to fight antisemitism.

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Roger Waters, the legendary Pink Floyd member, has caused quite a stir in Germany.

The rockstar is set to perform on the German leg of his 2023 tour, but the cities of Frankfurt, Hamburg and Cologne have been trying to cancel his shows due to accusations of anti-Semitic rhetoric. Waters denies he is antisemitic and has threatened the cities with legal action if they halt his performances.

Waters is a prominent member of the global pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement, or BDS, which aims to force Israel to withdraw from occupied territories and increase protections for Palestinians by isolating it from the global community on the economic, cultural and diplomatic level.

His views have led to the cancellation of his concerts and speaking engagements across Europe and the United States.

However, the situation in Germany is different. Munich, the former capital of the Nazi movement, has particular sensitivity towards the BDS movement that Waters supports, which calls for the boycott of Israel.

On 22 March, Munich Mayor Dieter Reiter announced that the city had failed to mount a strong legal case for the concert to be cancelled and confirmed the concert on 21 May would take place.

Reiter said: "We do not currently see any legally secure possibility ... to reverse the decision already made."

"I do not want to have him here, but now we're going to have to endure it," he continued, emphasising that the venue is close to the site of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinians.

Felix Klein, Germany's commissioner for the fight against antisemitism, explains there is a specific context that needs to be considered when the BDS movement and Waters are active in Germany.

“In Germany we are particularly vigilant because the BDS movement that Roger Waters supports calls for the boycott of Israel – and this reminds us, of course, of the boycott of Jews propagated by the Nazis," Klein told Euronews.

'Awful but lawful'

Klein’s office was established in 2018 in response to an increase in anti-Semitic incidents and rhetoric in the country. A year later, a far-right shooter attempted to break into a synagogue in the city of Halle during Yom Kippur, marking the most significant recent attack to be clearly motivated by antisemitism.

Despite acknowledgments both in the country and in Europe that antisemitism was on the rise, Klein explains that it remains painfully difficult to define and, subsequently, prosecute.

“Antisemitism per se is not illegal and is generally protected by freedom of speech. The border where you cross over into illegal hateful speech that violates the dignity and rights of a community has not been clearly defined in Germany,” said Klein.

While denying or distorting the Holocaust is clearly punishable by law in Germany, antisemitism is not a precisely defined crime.

“So while many members of the Jewish community in Germany and my office and other artists criticise Roger Waters and the statements of the BDS, it is hard to legally ban their activities. The authority that wishes to do so would have to prove that their activities constitute a breach of the peace,” said Klein.

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
Local resident Juergen Schulz lays down a flower on the 'Stolpersteine' commemorating people deported and killed by the Nazis in front of his house in Berlin, November 2021AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

A lack of clarity on this issue is not limited to the artistic scene. Klein explains that his office has found that judges and prosecutors often fail to recognise anti-Semitic crime in the country, including the specific role that was played by the legal system and the judiciary during the Nazi period.

“We have discovered that the fight against antisemitism is often not successful because the police or judges do not discern it,” he explained.

The fact that his office now exists, and that 15 out of 16 German federal states also have antisemitism commissioners is a step in the right direction. They organised trainings for the judiciary and the police on these issues, hoping to have positive influence on prevention.

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Klein’s statements would surprise many, especially in Europe, for whom Germany’s tough stance on the culture of remembrance – known widely by its German term, Erringerungskultur – has often been cited as a rare example of a European nation forcing itself to admit and process its past crimes.

“Well, unfortunately, antisemitism didn’t stop in Germany after 1945,” remarks Klein. “It was assumed that the country would be immune after the extreme experience we had. It was thought that once the Nazis were gone antisemitism would be gone too, but this obviously was not true.”

Dog-whistle for racists or freedom of speech?

For researchers of radicalism online and in the public sphere, anti-Semitic rhetoric is tightly woven into far-right narratives that claim to promote anti-elite or anti-authoritarian themes.

“Antisemitism has somewhat of a glue factor, in that it unites and mobilises different scenes from both the far right spectrum but also among more mainstream milieus,” explained Una Titz, a researcher at the Amadeo Antonio Stiftung, a leading German NGO covering extremist activity and beliefs.

“Unlike some of the stuff you can find online, German antisemitism is more coded or cyphered, and use dog-whistles to soften the blow or make it appear less extreme,” Titz told Euronews.

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Perhaps the most prominent source of anti-Semitic rhetoric witnessed in Germany in the past couple of years has been the tendency of far-right deniers of the coronavirus pandemic to compare lockdowns and restrictive measures to the plight of the Jewish community during the Holocaust.

DPA via AP/Fabian Sommer
A demonstrator walks through Berlin-Charlottenburg with a plastic bucket placed on his head reading 'Absolutely safe against the stupidity virus', in Berlin, August 2021DPA via AP/Fabian Sommer

Many wore armbands with the Star of David during protests in central Berlin that took place throughout 2020 and 2021. Alternatively, there are German far-right influencers who claim that coronavirus was invented by the Jewish community and that it represents the culmination of attempts by “secret Jewish groups” to subvert Germany and other white European nations.

“Things that were somewhat unspeakable in the past have become much more acceptable and prevalent in the public sphere, such as denying the Holocaust, despite it being a state offence in Germany,” said Titz.

On top of that, in some circles there seems to be a level of fatigue with Germany’s constant association with the brutal Nazi regime that caused the deaths of millions across Europe, including 8 million European Jews.

Titz highlighted that some, and not just the far-right, balk at Germany’s perceived need to constantly apologise for Nazi crimes.

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“Many people in Germany have a defensive stance whenever they are confronted with their antisemitic behaviour, they say we did our bit, and they ask ‘When will we overcome this, when will we stop being called Nazis?’”

BDS and progressive values

Waters and his supporters, who include fellow musicians such as Brian Eno and Eric Clapton, claim that the BDS movement is the last resort for a peaceful, two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.

The argument goes that if Israel is isolated economically, as well as on the level of cultural and political cooperation, then it will have to sit down with the Palestinian authorities and iron out a deal.

“Someone like Roger Waters possibly lacks ambiguity tolerance and perceives the world as either black or white. He compares the treatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis as being akin to the Holocaust, which perpetuates harm in its own way,” said Titz.

DPA via AP/Fabian Sommer
A demonstrator walks through Berlin-Charlottenburg with a plastic bucket placed on his head reading 'Absolutely safe against the stupidity virus', in Berlin, August 2021DPA via AP/Fabian Sommer

Even fellow dissident progressives such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, frequent critics of Israel’s military campaigns, are wary of the total ban on any kind of cooperation with Israel.

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Waters has tried to stop other artists, such as Nick Cave, from performing in Israel.

Titz warns that his attempts to position himself as the only true freedom of speech activist makes him alluring for the most dangerous corners of the internet, where both the far-right and the far-left see him as an inspiration for hateful rhetoric, or even hateful acts.

“So all of a sudden Roger Waters has become this larger-than-life symbol for freedom of speech and against cancel culture. Both the far right and the far left use him to rally around him as the latest victim in the ongoing culture war,” she concluded.

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