Commentary Magazine


Topic: Richard Wagner

Is Wagner Worse Than the Nakba?

It was probably inevitable. When the Eretz Israel Orchestra announced plans last month to hold a concert of works by Richard Wagner in Tel Aviv it was likely that somebody would find a way to cancel it. The music of the great anti-Semite has not been played in the country since the 1930s, and the ire of Holocaust survivors as well as the often-hypocritical efforts of those attempting to enforce the informal ban on Wagner was bound to generate pressure to spike the event.

The ban is hypocritical and foolish. Yet the cancellation of the concert planned by the Israeli Wagner Society is interesting not so much because preventing Wagner from being played live in the territory of the Jewish state is ridiculous, but because it was the result of a decision by Tel Aviv University, whose auditorium had been rented for the occasion. TAU revoked its permission for the concert because it claimed the sponsors had not revealed their purpose when they paid for the hall. True or not, it showed that there are just some things the university will not allow to take place on their property. But coming as it did less than a month after the same institution granted its approval for anti-Zionist students to hold a “Nakba Day” commemoration in which the founding of Israel is treated as a “disaster,” it does call into question the judgment of those at the school about what is truly offensive to Jewish sensibilities.

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It was probably inevitable. When the Eretz Israel Orchestra announced plans last month to hold a concert of works by Richard Wagner in Tel Aviv it was likely that somebody would find a way to cancel it. The music of the great anti-Semite has not been played in the country since the 1930s, and the ire of Holocaust survivors as well as the often-hypocritical efforts of those attempting to enforce the informal ban on Wagner was bound to generate pressure to spike the event.

The ban is hypocritical and foolish. Yet the cancellation of the concert planned by the Israeli Wagner Society is interesting not so much because preventing Wagner from being played live in the territory of the Jewish state is ridiculous, but because it was the result of a decision by Tel Aviv University, whose auditorium had been rented for the occasion. TAU revoked its permission for the concert because it claimed the sponsors had not revealed their purpose when they paid for the hall. True or not, it showed that there are just some things the university will not allow to take place on their property. But coming as it did less than a month after the same institution granted its approval for anti-Zionist students to hold a “Nakba Day” commemoration in which the founding of Israel is treated as a “disaster,” it does call into question the judgment of those at the school about what is truly offensive to Jewish sensibilities.

Many denounced the decision to allow an event devoted to trashing the existence of the State of Israel (and, by extension to the existence of both the university and the city in which it is located) as treason. But TAU defended its approval for a gathering where activists read Yizkor (the prayer of mourning) to denote Israel’s founding as an expression of the country’s democratic values. The result was a travesty that speaks to the sickness at the heart of the country’s intellectual elites. By the standards of America’s free speech practices that are defended by the First Amendment, such a demonstration would not be noteworthy. But in Israel, holding such a demonstration at a state-funded institution was a big deal and rightly shocked many citizens. Nevertheless, so long as it was just talk, opposition to Zionism and sympathy with Israel’s enemies can be defended by democratic values even if cannot be justified morally.

But apparently, when it comes to the mere playing of compositions that are more than 130-years-old and are part of the standard classic repertoire wherever music is played around the world, TAU has more stringent standards. For the school, the sound of those denouncing the existence of the country that gave it life is more melodious than Wagner’s tunes.

It bears repeating that the arguments for Israel’s Wagner ban are based in emotion and do not stand up to intellectual scrutiny. I’ll reiterate some of what I wrote here last year about this touchy subject:

The question of whether or not it is appropriate to perform Wagner’s music is a complex one. There is no doubt he was an anti-Semite. His essays about the supposed role Jews had in undermining higher art and music are utterly despicable. They are even worse when you consider that far more people were exposed to them in print than probably heard live performances of Wagner’s music during his lifetime. To say he inspired a subsequent generation of Germans (the composer died in 1883) to think ill of Jews is probably an understatement. But that is not quite the same thing as saying he was a Nazi. The same cannot be said for his widow, children and grandchildren, some of whom allowed Hitler and his followers to hijack the Bayreuth Festival and turn it into a prop of the Nazi regime.

Yet to assert, as some do, that Wagner’s operas are anti-Semitic is simply not true.

While Wagner’s anti-Semitic screeds are today read only by scholars, his life-affirming music dramas continue to be enjoyed by audiences around the world who know little or nothing of his politics. Those who seek to project the composer’s racial and political opinions onto the broad canvas of his myth-based theater works are inevitably reduced to strained analogies and symbolism that never holds up to scrutiny. Attempts to classify any music as intrinsically good or evil always fail.

It is understandable that those who lived in Germany during the 1930s might think there was something about Wagner’s compositions that inspired mass murder. But the power of music is ethically neutral. As evidence, I would note that Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, was himself a great supporter of Wagner’s music. Herzl confided to his diary during the period when he was planning to write The Jewish State, “Only on those nights when no Wagner was performed [at the Paris Opera] did I have any doubts about the correctness of my idea.” He later insisted that music from Wagner’s “Tannhauser” be played at the opening of the Second Zionist Congress in 1898.

No one should be forced to listen to music that conjures up terrible associations with the Shoah for them, and it is likely the informal ban on the performance of Wagner in Israel itself will continue for a while. But this is not a restriction that can last. … Wagner is not the only great artist who can be credibly labeled an anti-Semite. So long as the work itself is not something that promotes hatred (as can be said of a play such as The Merchant of Venice even though we do not ban Shakespeare), those who love music must separate the man from his art.

The planned concert and discussions that were part of the event would have explored some of these ideas as well as the love of Wagner’s music on the part of Herzl and the anti-fascist conductor Arturo Toscanini who presided over the founding of the Israel Philharmonic.

The concert would have done no harm to anyone in Israel, and those who would have been offended by Wagner need not have attended. Its suppression will achieve nothing other than to satisfy a rule that honors neither the Holocaust nor Israel’s culture.

Can the same cannot be said for the Nakba event? It was part of a concerted campaign for whose adherentsthe goal is nothing less than the end of the State of Israel. One has to wonder about the sanity of a university or a country that would move heaven and earth to ban music but would allow the enemies of their existence free rein to advocate their destruction.

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