Ever since he was a boy growing up in Millburn and attending Congregation B’nai Israel, Craig Balsam has had two loves — rock music and Judaism.
One group he enjoyed was Pink Floyd, the British psychedelic group that flourished from 1965 to 1985, and its lead guitarist, Roger Waters.
But with Waters emerging as an outspoken supporter of the movement to boycott Israel, that ardor has cooled. Last month, in an op-ed for the New York Post, Balsam condemned Waters for “trading in classic anti-Semitic stereotypes” and called out the music industry for giving the rocker a “free pass.”
Balsam, who lives in New York City, wrote the essay as a member of Creative Community for Peace, an organization of industry types that opposes the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS) and encourages artists to perform in Israel.
The one-time attorney, who is now co-owner of the independent Razor & Tie music label, sits on the CCFP’s advisory board. CCFP is the first group led by industry insiders to try to counter negative messaging about Israel targeted toward the artistic community.
Launched in 2011 with a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and with support from the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, the group’s usual tactic is to encourage and thank performers — from Elton John and Paul McCartney to Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber — who have resisted pressure to boycott Israel.
But after Waters spoke out against Israel in a December 2013 interview with Counterpunch magazine, Balsam felt he’d crossed a line from “misguided” support of an artistic boycott to something more insidious.
“I wrote the piece because I felt that somehow Roger Waters’s words are not falling on deaf ears,” Balsam told NJ Jewish News in a Feb. 27 phone interview. “He offers his opinions in a very kind of sheltered way, in safe interviews with people who aren’t going to challenge him. He protects himself against any criticism.”
In the interview, Waters accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and “systematic racist apartheid.” Waters also compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the oppression of the Jews before and during the Holocaust.
Waters also said that fellow artists were “terrified” to speak out against Israel because the “Jewish lobby is extraordinary powerful” in the music industry.
Waters spoke of the “myth that the popular entertainment industry was controlled by Jews, and I called him out on it. To me that is anti-Semitism,” Balsam told NJJN. “There are obviously a lot of Jews who hold prominent positions in the entertainment industry. There are also a lot of blacks, Catholics, and people of many other ethnicities and backgrounds. I don’t think anybody believes the entertainment industry is under the control of the Jews.”
Despite the fact that he “liked Pink Floyd’s music,” Balsam said, he “will stop listening to it because I feel there should be consequences to his hateful speech. What other people want to do is up to them. I am not calling for a worldwide boycott of Roger Waters’s music, no.”
He did wonder, in his op-ed, why Waters continues to tour extensively, was invited to perform at the high-profile concert for Superstorm Sandy victims, and was given the keynote spot at a recent Billboard magazine conference.
“I strongly urge Roger Waters to reconsider his bigoted and malicious words and opinions about Jews and the state of Israel, and hope others will join me in doing the same,” wrote Balsam.
Asked about CCFP’s politics, and especially observers who say StandWithUs is a right-of-center group, Balsam told NJJN he has “a lot of opinions about the occupation, the settlements, and the power of the Orthodox, but I don’t want to share them.
“I don’t see CCFP as a right-wing group,” he continued. “I don’t know what right wing or left wing is, especially as it relates to this issue. I am very much about discussion to go on publicly on the two-state solution. I have a lot of opinions, and most of them don’t align with what the Israeli government is doing.”
Back in Millburn, the music producer’s mother, Rita Balsam, told NJJN she couldn’t be prouder of her outspoken son.
“I am impressed that the Jewish background his dad and I instilled in him remains with him,” she said. “His feeling strongly about issues made me feel good about whatever I tried to instill in him from my head to his.”