Commentary Magazine


Keeping an Open Mind About Murder

The decision of the Metropolitan Opera to continue with its plan to produce The Death Of Klinghoffer but to cancel the simulcast of the piece to theaters around the world has pleased no one. Critics of the piece, which rationalizes the cold-blooded murder of Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly Jew in a wheelchair by Palestinian terrorists, are still rightly outraged that one of the world’s premiere arts organizations will still be performing the opera. Defenders of the piece and critics of the state of Israel are dismayed that General Manager Peter Gelb succumbed to pleas from the Klinghoffer family and the Anti-Defamation League, to move out off of the Met’s prestigious broadcast schedule. Predictably, one voice that falls into the latter category spoke up today to express dismay at the unsatisfactory compromise: The New York Times editorial page.

It termed Gelb’s move “lamentable” and not only dismissed the ADL’s fears about the opera helping promote anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe, but defended the piece as a fair-minded and even-handed approach to a divisive issue. While anything that smacks of censorship is bound to raise hackles among the elites in America’s arts capital, the paper’s decision to not only trash the opera’s critics as uninformed but to speak up for John Adams’ opera speaks volumes about its animus for Israel and soft approach to terrorism directed at Jews. As I noted previously, The Times is right to assert that one of the purposes of art is to challenge its audience. Many great works of art, including many operas, have their origins in issues that were, in their day, deeply controversial but were eventually transcended by the value of the piece. But what we are discussing here is not so much a question of art versus politics but the decision on the part of the artist to view atrocities as simply a matter of opinion.

The Times is right that, to some extent, The Death of Klinghoffer is even-handed about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The Jews, and specifically the Klinghoffers are allowed to denounce their captors as cowardly terrorists and murders. But the balance of the piece is tilted in favor of the alleged grievances of the Palestinians, which are not only exaggerated and taken out of context, but put forward in the most prejudicial manner possible and backed by some of the most inspired and powerful music in the opera. You don’t need to read the program or do much research to see where composer John Adams’ sympathies lie.

Moreover, the entire premise of the piece, that even the most atrocious and callous act of murder may be rooted in the complaints of the perpetrators — the alleged theft of the Palestinians’ homes by the Jews — is to frame the issues in a manner in which Israel’s existence is treated as the real crime. But while it is possible to debate the rights and wrongs of the complex Middle East conflict, surely the morality of terrorism and the murder of a helpless old man are not debatable. Such a crime does not cry out for an even-handed analysis of the two sides but Adams’ choice of Klinghoffer’s murder as the focus of his art, places his opera in a context that is not merely controversial but fundamentally ammoral.

New Yorkers who view this fuss from the perspective of the Times may think the Jews and friends of Israel complaining about the opera are merely narrow-minded censors. But they need to ask themselves whether they would stomach the Met’s production of an opera about 9/11 in which the positions of the hijackers and their thousands of victims were treated as two moral equivalent sides of the same question? Would even ultra-liberal New York tolerate an even-handed artistic approach to al-Qaeda’s mass murder? Would the same arts world that lionizes John Adams’ and proclaims it a “masterpiece” be equally willing to stand up for an opera or play that justified the actions of the Ku Klux Klan or other racists who committed acts of violence against African-Americans?

The answer to these questions is more than obvious. But if they wouldn’t tolerate a pro-al-Qaeda or Klan opera, why is it that they think the Met is right to produce one whose purpose is to put a Jewish victim on the same moral plane as his terrorist murderer whose goal is not some abstract plea for justice for the downtrodden but the destruction of the only Jewish state on the planet? The willingness to countenance such even-handedness only when it comes to attacks on Jews is indistinguishable from the rising tide of anti-Semitism that the ADL and the U.S. State Department have both said is gripping Europe.

What the Times doesn’t understand is that the problem with the Klinghoffer opera is not that it is controversial but that it is even-handed about a subject about which no decent person ought to be neutral. Indeed, Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for his choral piece commemorating 9/11, On the Transmigration of Souls that managed to discuss that atrocity without giving equal time to al-Qaeda. To, as the Times put it, “give voice to all sides in this terrible murder but offer no resolutions” as this opera does, is to implicitly endorse the cause of the murderers and to degrade their victims. Just as no New Yorker thinks it necessary to keep an open mind about 9/11 or the Klan, the rights and wrongs of Klinghoffer’s murder is not a matter of opinion. But it is hardly surprising that a newspaper whose record of slanted coverage and biased opinion against Israel would think that this is the sort of issue about which informed people may disagree. The Met had no business producing this amoral piece. It is to be hoped that, by one means or another, it never disgraces the stage of America’s leading opera company.

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