Roger Waters and the Gish Gallup

Roger Waters is on tour, and that means, unfortunately, that he’s back in the public eye. Rolling Stone has done a wide-ranging interview with him, that, to the magazine’s credit, pushed back on many of Waters’s most bizarre claims. (Roger Waters: A Contentious Political Discussion, October 4 on Apple Podcasts.) Both the print version and the podcast also included introductions that put some of those claims into context. Because, podcast host Brian Hiatt said, Waters’s tour provides him the opportunity to propagate his views to large audiences, the magazine felt they should take him seriously. Hiatt makes clear, however, “it’s not that we’re presenting this as something we endorse.”

Hiatt and journalist James Ball spent more than ten minutes introducing the podcast. Hiatt called Waters’s politics “fringe,” and said that, “sometimes he refuses to acknowledge what, I would think, the majority of experts agree to be facts on certain subjects.”

During the interview, Ball did an adequate job pushing back on some of Waters’s most outrageous claims, including that American and British Jews are responsible for Israeli actions “because they pay for everything.” And in the introduction, Ball notes that this assertion “ties into some very old and very dark tropes,” while Hiatt flatly says that Waters’s assertion that Jews don’t have ancestral ties to the region of Israel is “of course not true.”

Ball brings up the term “Gish Gallup,” which he calls “a form of argument … [in which] you throw out so many bad arguments quickly that the person arguing against either needs far more time and also a lot of knowledge to unpack it, [and] it won’t be very convincing to someone just coming to it cold.” This is something that anyone who spends time online advocating for Israel has likely experienced. Hiatt and Ball noted, however, that “it’s an interview, ultimately, not a debate,” so there were points at which it was necessary for them to simply move on. That’s where CAMERA picks up.

Waters’s Fundamentally Flawed Worldview

As the interview moved from discussions of Ukraine and Syria to a more general discussion of Waters’s philosophy, Waters brings up UK politician Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, who was recently suspended from the British Labour Party for speaking at an event hosted by a group that was “banned by Labour … for downplaying claims of systemic antisemitism within the party.” After Waters described his letter in defense of Wimborne-Idrissi, Ball asked him, “it felt to me there was a sense that when there are clashing narratives, as you research, is your first principal, believe the less powerful, the less privileged group? Would that be fair?” Waters responded, “partially, I suppose, but mainly that is because the oppressor normally has a closer grip on the narrative, so they can write the narrative, but at a certain point sometimes things become much more graphic and clearer and the narrative starts to slip from their grasp, again like I would say like Israel Palestine now, but even when it does it’s still very difficult for the oppressed to get out from under the heel of the jackboot.”

This is an important insight into Waters’s views, and shows how Waters’s entire view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is based fundamentally on a flawed perception of reality. Although Waters clearly considers Israel the “oppressor,” it is Israel that has a free press, and Israel whose citizens have free speech and freedom to participate in organizations critical of the government. In the West Bank and Gaza, in contrast, it’s the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, respectively, that keep a “close grip on the narrative.” But Waters proceeds on a faulty assumption that privileges the Palestinian narrative. In other words, he’s got everything backwards.

He exemplifies this backwardness immediately, as he goes on to say of the Palestinians, “we were sort of living here and then you came along and tried to throw us all out and now you’re killing us all, and we have no recourse to the law… Palestinians … don’t even have a right to life.” Can you count the number of outright falsehoods in that passage?

Ball does make an admirable attempt to put Waters into context, but his interview is not error-free either. For example, he refers to “Israel and Palestine,” seemingly unaware that there is not, and never in history has been, any sovereign entity known as “Palestine.”

In addition, Ball refers tangentially to the “absolutely appalling killing of Shireen” Abu Akleh. This is an example of an incident in which it was the Palestinians, and not the Israelis, that had the “close grip on the narrative.” As CAMERA has detailed at great length, the actual facts were far more complicated than the narrative that was widely presented.

Waters, however, takes off from Ball’s comment about Abu Akleh, saying, “every Palestinian shot to death by the IDF is appalling.” In every modern, western system of law, killing in self-defense or defense of another is considered justified. But for Waters, Israelis alone lack the right to self-defense. And later on in the interview, Waters claims Israelis “are trying to force the Palestinians into another intifada. … they’re murdering so many Palestinians every day now, the time will come when there will be another armed uprising.” So he engages in victim-blaming, claiming that Palestinian violence against Israelis is the fault of Israelis, even while describing Israeli defense against that violence as “murder.”

Waters on Antisemitism

When Ball asks Waters, “where is the gap between being very critical of Israel and being antisemitic?” Waters responds, “nowhere near the IHRA definition.” He then goes on to attribute the definition to someone called “George Steven, George somebody or other, who wrote it,” who has since come out against it. Waters appears to be thinking of Ken Stern, a critic of the IHRA definition who has attempted to take much of the credit for it. But as the actual drafters have written, “this is simply not true.” (Fifty-one out of the 53 members of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish organizations, including CAMERA, have endorsed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, as have 38 countries, the U.S. Education Department, and a majority of U.S. states.)  

Ball then asks what it is about the IHRA definition Waters objects to, and Waters replies, “well, that it says that criticism of Israel is antisemitic, it’s simple.” This is just another of Waters’s flights from reality; in fact, the definition says the exact opposite: “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

Ball does attempt to push back here, distinguishing between criticism of Israel and criticizing “the right of Israel to exist.” Waters’s contempt for Israel comes through in his voice as he says, “the right of Israel to exist as an apartheid state, complaining about that, saying Israel does not have a right to exist as an apartheid state any more than South Africa did, or anywhere else would, is not antisemitic.” Waters claims, “it’s not disapproving of the people who live there, or the Jewish faith … it’s disapproving of the fact that they are a supremacist settler colonialist project that operates a system of apartheid.” But, again as CAMERA has detailed at great length, calling Israel a supremacist and/or an apartheid state is itself an antisemitic libel. Israel is a multi-ethnic democracy in which all citizens have equal rights.

When Ball attempts to push back on the term “settler,” Waters sounds as if he is frothing at the mouth: “There are seven hundred thousand settlers!” He seems to be referring to Jews who have bought land and built homes in the disputed territory of Judea and Samaria, frequently called the West Bank. Waters is quite angry at Jews for daring to live in a place where some people think they shouldn’t. But there’s no legitimate legal or moral reason that Jews shouldn’t live in the West Bank.

At one point, Waters tries to rely on the ADL to claim that he is not antisemitic. But the ADL has written of him, “his activism has increasingly been characterized as playing into antisemitic tropes, including those about Jewish or “Zionist” power; comparing Israel to Nazi Germany; and disparaging anyone who conveys even tangential support for Israel’s existence.” It then goes on to provide examples of “inflammatory and/or antisemitic statements from Waters.” And when Ball brings this up, Waters replies that he doesn’t “waste his time reading the ADL.”

The Gish Gallup Continues

Jews have lived there “no longer than Arab people have,” Waters claims, and “those people are not from there, they are not the descendants of indigenous people who’ve ever lived there, they’re all from Northern Europe or America, or somewhere else, so that people of the Jewish faith from other places who’ve come to Israel and then gone over the border into a country that is not Israel, contravening the Geneva Conventions and the UN Charter and settled the land, in absolute contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention and all international law, they are settlers and occupiers of the land. It is not theirs, they have no right to it historically, whatever is written in the Old Testament or the New Testament.” Again, try to count the number of false statements (for hints, click the added links).

Model of the Second Temple, which was destroyed in the year 70 C.E.

Waters, like many people, is completely ignorant of the history of the region so it must be reiterated here: the Arabs conquered and occupied the Levant in the seventh century, roughly two thousand years after the Jewish tribes established their first kingdom there. Jews have been living on that land continuously for 3,500 years.

Twice, Waters argues that non-Jews living in Israel should have equal rights – seemingly unaware that they already do. In the second of those instances, he misquotes the Balfour Declaration, which refers to “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities,” and does not even use the word “indigenous” as he claims it does, to refer to Palestinians.

Waters responds “yes,” when asked whether Israel should be able to continue to exist if it were to find a two-state solution or a negotiated solution that, in Waters’s view, would no longer qualify it as an “apartheid state.” Later on, however, he says that the two-state solution is “gone … and everybody with half a brain agrees that there is no two-state solution.” But Waters ignores, or perhaps is actually oblivious to, the fact that it was the Palestinians who repeatedly rejected plans that would have created the “two-state solution”: in 1948, in 2000, in 2008, in 2014, and again in 2020. If indeed the two-state solution is dead, it was the Palestinian leadership that killed it. Yet Waters would have Jews give up their own autonomy in retribution for Palestinian actions.

The only conceivable solution, Waters claims, is “a single state where everybody is a citizen and everybody has equal political rights.” So in Waters’s view, Israel should be able to continue to exist only if it ceases to be the world’s only Jewish state, and becomes, instead, the world’s 57th Muslim majority state. That’s just a semantic game. His goal is to eliminate the Jewish state.

In the Muslim-majority state that Waters envisions in what is now Israel, Israeli Jews will “just have to get on with it.” He continues, “no one is suggesting that they all have to leave, which is what they suggested to the indigenous people.” Of course, to repeat, it’s the Jews, and not the Arabs, who are indigenous. More importantly, the assumption that if Jews return to minority status, they will be able to “just … get on with it,” is divorced from history. For most of the time that Jews lived as minorities in Arab lands, they were subjected to second-class or “dhimmi” status; a kind of Middle Eastern Jim Crow. As dhimmis, Jews, as well as Christians and other religious minorities for that matter, among other restrictions, “were excluded from public office and armed service … were forbidden to bear arms. … not allowed to ride horses or camels, to build synagogues or churches taller than mosques, to construct houses higher than those of Muslims or to drink wine in public. … not allowed to pray or mourn in loud voices-as that might offend the Muslims. The dhimmi had to show public deference toward Muslims-always yielding them the center of the road.” Jews living as dhimmis in Arab lands were periodically subjected to violence with no recourse. 

When Ball asks whether, in light of the Holocaust and the “incredibly traumatic birth of Jewish Israel,” Waters can sympathize with the need for a Jewish-majority state, Waters briefly concedes that point but then, shouting, claims, “their way of going about not letting that happen is criminally insane! And we can all see it from here!” Here, again, it’s Waters’s outsized anger that gives him away.

Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State in 1896, in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair.

Regarding Waters’s use of the phrase, “from the River to the Sea,” Ball asks, “are you aware it’s used as a shorthand for either the annihilation of Israel or to suggest Jewish people have no claim to any of the land on which Israel sits.” Waters responds, “bollocks, it’s just a geographical description of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, it has no connotation to me apart from that.” Can you imagine Waters telling African Americans that blackface is “just make-up,” and that they should forget the historical context that makes it so offensive to them, because “it has no connotation to me apart from that”? That’s roughly the equivalent of what he’s saying to Jews.

The creation of Israel was not predicated on the age-old persecution of the Jews; the founding of Israel is established in international law, based on Jewish indigeneity in the land, and won in a defensive war against multiple Arab states. But some history is instructive: In the wake of the Dreyfus affair, Jews began to realize that without a state of their own, they would never be safe from antisemitism. In the wake of the Holocaust, the nations of the world agreed. Waters claims that he’s “absolutely not” antisemitic, yet he uses euphemistic language to argue against the existence of one tiny state in which Jews control their own destiny and can find refuge from persecution. This is either denying the extent and depth of antisemitism, or denying Jews the right to determine their own response to it. That in itself is antisemitic.

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