Life Of The Artist: Antisemitism In Music

By: Yosef Rosenfield  |  July 10, 2020

By Yosef Rosenfield, Features Editor

To listen or not to listen — when it comes to antisemitic musicians, this is a question that has likely tested the moral integrity of many Jews across the globe. The issue is more pressing than ever before, with the increasing number of artists speaking out against Jews and Israel. As the antisemitic community continues to grow, it seems as if hating the Jewish people has become a socially accepted form of racism, granting musicians the license to associate with known enemies of the Jews.

Were I not Jewish myself, perhaps it would be easier for me to separate music from its composer and respect antisemitic artists’ freedom of speech. But for me, Jew-hate represents more than free speech; I see it as a personal attack. Roger Waters, for example, is a name that makes me want to puke, and not only because of his insufferable music. A former member of the British rock group Pink Floyd, Waters is arguably the most infamous living antisemite in the music world. He has strongly supported Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) for nearly a decade and even wrote a pretentious open letter in 2015 condemning the popular band Bon Jovi for performing in Tel Aviv. In 2018, Waters held a concert in London during which provocative slogans were displayed on the jumbotrons — including one that read, “Resist Israeli antisemitism,” a statement which is as dumb as it is offensive. But it gets worse: appearing at one of his 2013 concerts was a giant pig-shaped balloon that featured a Star of David and the image of someone giving the Nazi salute. Waters is clearly uninterested in distinguishing his musical career from his beliefs, so why should I?

If blurring the lines between art and personal opinion sounds familiar, that is because Waters is not the first antisemitic musician to do so. In 1850, German composer Richard Wagner notoriously published “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Jewishness in Music”), in which he claimed that Jews were biologically unfit to compose and that they contaminated the music scene in Germany. Wagner’s writings evoked a belief in an Aryan “master race” that would later be shared by — among other members of the Nazi Party — Adolf Hitler, who in fact adored Wagner’s operas and played his music at Nazi events. So 19th century German Jews must have steered clear from Wagner’s music and performances, right? Wrong. Many of Wagner’s friends and supporters were — bizarrely enough — Jews, including pianists Carl Tausig and Joseph Rubinstein, in addition to Wagner’s favorite conductor, Hermann Levi.

Unfortunately, the Jewish people have a long history of remaining silent in the face of hateful adversity, and it is up to our generation to decidedly resist repeating that same mistake. We live in unprecedented times when the powers of social media can popularize immoral ideology and behavior all too quickly. So when the next pop icon tweets “Free Palestine” (Zayn Malik, 2014) or the next singer backs out of performing in Israel under antisemitic pressure (Lorde, 2017), it is important that we the fans — the real force behind all influencers — speak up and hold them accountable for their actions instead of continuing to give free passes for “not knowing any better.” In a technological age where we have literally a world of knowledge at our fingertips, ignorance is not an excuse. If your favorite band makes a move with even the slightest hint of antisemitism, consider telling them to do their research before they alienate an entire demographic within their fanbase.

Song and songwriter, in my assessment, are nowadays inextricably linked. Recent social trends have demonstrated that nearly everything is becoming politicized, including the music industry. A contemporary artist’s public image is greater than the sum of his/her musical parts; it is a full package that includes the artist’s attire, mannerisms, social following and yes, political views. Singers are now associated with their stances on various issues, making it impossible for fans of their musical work to avoid affiliation with those positions. The matter of antisemitism in music is thus quite simple, as I view it. When someone seeks to banish you from your homeland, avoids your people like the plague, resents your existence or all of the above, he/she establishes grounds for becoming your arch nemesis. This is no different.


Photo: Roger Walters