Roger Waters has lashed out at a student newspaper after apparently being told he is “not allowed” to enter a venue belonging to a US university that is staging a Palestinian literary festival.
The British musician had been due to appear at Palestine Writes, which is being hosted this weekend by the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
Billed as a celebration of Palestinian culture, the event, which ends today on the eve of Yom Kippur, included Waters – who has been widely accused of antisemitism – on the roster of speakers.
Waters was due to appear as part of a panel discussion at the Irvine auditorium, a performance venue on the University of Pennsylvania campus, on Friday evening, but said that, on his way to the event he learned he would not be permitted on site.
The discussion, entitled “The Costs, Rewards and Urgency of Friendship”, also featured fellow Briton, Guardian journalist and broadcaster Gary Younge, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. There is no suggestion that these speakers hold antisemitic views.
According to the event’s organisers, the panel of “non-Palestinian distinguished personalities” would discuss “what it means to live ethically as writers, scholars, or creatives in the midst of empire”.
All of panellists “have publicly expressed solidarity with Palestinian liberation” and “will talk about what that friendship has meant in their professional and personal lives”, they said.
However, a video shared on Instagram by Waters, showed the musician saying: “I’ve been told that I’m not allowed into the Irving Arena [sic]" and complaining that a student newspaper had deployed "diversionary tactics" to stop readers thinking about Palestinians' human rights.
In the video, Waters, travelling in a car and holding a copy of university newspaper The Daily Pennsylvanian, reads aloud a headline: “Palestine Writes festival escalates into campus-wide controversy”.
He continues: "We’ve just come from the airport, where we just flew in, we’re going to the Penn state campus to the Ivring Arena [sic] where I was supposed to be taking part in a panel in a couple of hours’ time…but I’ve been told I’m not allowed into the Irving Arena [sic].”
Waters goes on: “The fact that I’ve come all the way here actually to be present, because I care deeply about the issues that are being discussed apparently cuts no ice with the campus police or whoever it is. So I’m not going to be allowed in.”
Instead, he says, “I’m just coming for a quick look round [the area] and then I will be going back to the… airport.”
From there, he says, he will try to participate in the panel discussion remotely. The event information was updated online to indicate that Waters would join the discussion via Zoom.
Waters adds in the video that he is “struck” how the newspaper article is “all about how I might be an antisemite”.
He claims this is a “diversionary tactic” so this becomes “the big news story”. This is because, he says, the newspaper wanted to “play down” that a festival about Palestinian literature is taking place.
“If they can get you thinking and talking about antisemitism then you won’t be thinking about the fact that Palestinians have no human rights in the occupied territories,” Waters says.
Slipping into the third person, he continues: “That is what we should be talking about in the Daily Pennsylvanian, not whether Roger Waters is an antisemite or not. And by the way, he’s not. I know he’s not. Shall I tell you how I know? I am Roger Waters and this is my heart, and it doesn’t have even the slightest flicker of antisemitism in it, anywhere.”
The JC contacted the Daily Pennsylvanian for comment.
Palestine Writes has proved a highly divisive on the Pennsylvania campus, and beyond.
Noa Tishby, who was until recently Israel’s special envoy for combating antisemitism, wrote about the event: “This festival has Roger Waters as a speaker for crying out loud. What does Roger Waters have to do with Palestinian literature? This entire event is an antisemitic dog whistle."
She added: “I’m not for cancel culture - I don’t want the festival to be cancelled. However, this conference is sponsored by university academic departments. It’s happening on campus and some students are forced to attend it.”
Pennsylvania’s provost has denied that the university itself is funding the event, but said: “As is routine in universities, individual faculty, departments and centres and student organisations are engaged as sponsors, speakers and volunteers at this conference intended to highlight the importance and cultural impact of Palestinian writers and artists.”
More than 16 per cent of the undergraduate student body at the university is Jewish, according to the Hillel International website, which lists the school’s Jewish student body as the 12th largest among private universities in the US.
Waters' fresh denial of antisemitism follows other previous statements to this effect. He has previously told the JC: “I have spent my entire life speaking out against authoritarianism and oppression wherever I see it.”
Palestine Writes has said: "No one at our festival is an antisemite."
It added: "We know the difference between Judaism and Zionism; Jews and Zionists. These are not synonymous terms.”
Pennsylvania University said: "We unequivocally - and emphatically - condemn antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values.
"As a university, we also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission. This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values."