Protestants increasingly believe a potted and anti-Semitic Palestinian narrative of Middle Eastern history.
Manger Square was bedecked with huge photomontages of classic artworks featuring Christian imagery superimposed with images from the Palestinians’ modern reality. Caravaggio’s “Ecce Homo” merged with a photograph of Palestinians crossing an Israeli checkpoint on their way to Jerusalem, equating Palestinians with Jesus and his suffering.
—The New York Times, May 25, 2014, reporting on Pope Francis’s visit to the West Bank
Within the Protestant world, many churches are deeply hostile to the State of Israel. They present the Palestinians as victims of Israeli oppression while ignoring the murderous victimization of Israeli citizens at their hands. This much is generally known. What is less known is the even more disturbing fact that this perverse animus is increasingly fed not by the politics of the present moment but by theology.
This is all the more striking because millions of evangelical Christians are among the most passionate supporters of Israel in America and elsewhere. These Christian Zionists believe the Hebrew Bible’s account of how God chose the Jewish people to form a kingdom of priests and promised them the land of Israel. That religious belief has turned Christian Zionists themselves into a key target for evangelization on the part of those churches that have Israel in their crosshairs—and those evangels are bearing fruit.
The Christian world likes to forget it, but the history of its relationship with the Jews is terrible. In medieval Europe, the Catholic Church used blood libels to incite the population against the Jews, converted them at knifepoint, and murdered them in great number.
These pogroms were driven by a particular demonology called replacement theology, also known as supersessionism. Going back to the early Christian father Origen (182–254 C.E.), this idea holds that, because the Jews denied the divinity of Jesus, all the promises God had made to them now belong to Christians. Exiled from God’s love, the Jews had become the party of the Devil.
After Auschwitz, this vicious theology unsurprisingly disappeared from view. But it turns out that it only went underground. For now it has returned with a fresh geopolitical impetus furnished by “Palestinian liberation theology,” itself a fusion of Palestinian political aspirations and Christian thinking.
It is a variant of liberation theology, the doctrine propounded in the 1960s to suggest that socialist revolution was the proper fulfillment of the Christian duty to the poor. In this iteration, Jesus becomes a Palestinian persecuted by the Jews while Jesus’s descendants—who knew he had any?—become today’s Palestinians, crucified in the very land that was promised to them. Their liberation would, of course, require the dissolution of the Jewish state.
These malevolent concepts, spreading from Palestinian Christians to churches in the West, are rooted in an audacious strategy adopted by the Palestinian Authority to deny Israel’s right to exist by changing Jewish history to suit its own end. Part of this strategy involves denying that Jesus was a Jew from Judea and turning him into a Palestinian who preached Islam.
Clearly, this is a tall order: Rome didn’t change the name of Judea to Palestine until 136 C.E., and Islam first surfaced in the seventh century C.E. Nevertheless, the Palestinian leadership repeatedly claims that Jesus was a Palestinian.
In his Christmas message last year, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, described Jesus as a “Palestinian messenger.” In the same month, the PA’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, who had described Jesus as “Palestine’s first martyr,” said that Jesus was “the first Palestinian after the Canaanite Palestinians.”
A Fatah adviser who publishes under the name Adel Abd al-Rahman wrote:
Jesus, may he rest in peace, is a Canaanite Palestinian. His resurrection, three days after being crucified and killed by the Jews…reflects the Palestinian narrative, which struggles against the descendants of modern Zionist Judaism, in its new colonialist form, that conspires with the Western capitalists who claim to belong to Christianity.
While Jesus is represented as a Palestinian Arab, the Jewish people of today are apparently not Jews at all. As Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem, said in 2010: “I’m sure if we were to do a DNA test between David, who was a Bethlehemite, and Jesus, born in Bethlehem, and Mitri, born just across the street from where Jesus was born, I’m sure the DNA will show that there is a trace. While, if you put King David, Jesus, and Netanyahu [together], you will get nothing, because Netanyahu comes from an East European tribe [the Khazars] who converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages.”
Accordingly, the true inheritors of Israel are not the Jews but the Arabs. As the former Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, Riah Abu el-Assal, claimed of Palestinian Christians:
We are the true Israel…No one can deny me the right to inherit the promises, and after all the promises were first given to Abraham and Abraham is never spoken of in the Bible as a Jew…He is the father of the faithful.
Such fantastic claims come from interpreting the Bible as a Palestinian supersessionist manifesto. The crucible of these claims is the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, located in East Jerusalem and founded in the early 1990s by Father Naim Ateek. A major resource used by Anglican clergy, aid agencies, and companies that bring Christian pilgrims to tour the Holy Land, this center produces systematic, theologically based lies and libels about Israel.
Ateek, who is a close friend of many senior Anglican bishops, has redirected at Israel the ancient charge of deicide. In December 2000, he wrote that Palestinian Christmas celebrations were “marred by the destructive powers of the modern-day ‘Herods’ in the Israeli government.” In his 2001 Easter message, he wrote: “The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull.” In a sermon in February of the same year, he likened the Israeli occupation to the boulder sealing Christ’s tomb. With these three images, Ateek has figuratively blamed Israel for trying to kill the infant Jesus, crucifying him, and attempting to prevent his resurrection. Ateek’s book Justice and Only Justice inverts history, defames the Jews, and sanitizes Arab violence. Modern anti-Semitism is addressed in one paragraph; Zionism is portrayed as an aggressive colonial adventure. Courageous Jews are those who confess to “moral suicide” and believe Judaism should survive
without a state.
In a similar vein, Jewish statelessness has been turned into a theological imperative by those using the Bible to delegitimize Israel. In 1967, a group of Arab Christians issued a memorandum entitled “What is Required of the Christian Faith Concerning the Palestine Problem.” As the Christian analyst Dexter Van Zile has observed, this document suggested that Jewish statelessness was a necessary precursor to the salvation of humanity. Stating that “the vocation of the Jewish people is universal not particularist,” the document goes on: “It is clear from this that the creation of an exclusively Jewish state of Israel goes directly against God’s plan for the Jewish people and the World.” The end of the Jewish people as a political entity was a sign of the first coming of the Son of Man and the advent of the Kingdom of God.
In 2009, a group of Palestinian Arab Christians published the Kairos Document—a manifesto named for a Christian resistance statement published in South Africa in 1985, with the clear purpose of likening Israel to the apartheid regime. While purporting to be a momentous solution to the Middle East impasse, the Kairos Document simultaneously claimed that Jewish sovereignty was an affront to God’s plan for humanity, this time based on secular notions of human rights.
Increasingly, such claims are making inroads into Western churches, whose hostility toward Israel has long been fueled by their relationship with churches in Arab countries. This hostility has been heavily influenced by the World Council of Churches (WCC), which was founded in 1948, within months of Israel’s own founding. The Middle Eastern churches that belonged to the WCC had learned to adapt their message over the years to placate the Islamic rulers of the Arab countries where they were situated. As a result, the WCC hardly ever mentions the persecution of Christians around the world. Instead, it displays an institutionalized obsession with demonizing Israel. A WCC insider told Paul Merkley, professor emeritus of history at Carleton University, Ottawa, and a noted authority on Christian attitudes to Israel, that in general “the critique of some Israeli sin would be severe, while Arab countries were spared any kind of condemnation in order not to jeopardize Christian missionary interests there.”
The WCC played a key role in bringing about the UN Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance—the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish meeting convened in Durban, South Africa, a few days before 9/11. WCC representatives demanded that the UN denounce Israel for “systematic perpetration of racist crimes including war crimes, acts of genocide, and ethnic cleansing.” Merkley observes:
This Durban Declaration was achieved in large part by the active lobbying of the World Council of Churches serving as brokers between the Muslim states and Western opinion in August 2001. Today, the Durban Declaration serves as the source of the mottoes with which respectable people in our part of the world shape their campaigns to deprive Israel of her right-to-life. WCC statements on this theme are parroted by the official journals and newsletters of the major Protestant denominations in the United States and elsewhere around the world.
The WCC is particularly influential over progressive Western churches, which subscribe to its advocacy for the world’s poor and dispossessed and which have therefore also absorbed its narrative about Israel. As Van Zile has observed, for many years now a group of five American Protestant churches—the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—have legitimized the increasingly virulent anti-Israel movement in the United States. The general narrative presented by these churches is that Israel could unilaterally bring an end to the Arab–Israeli conflict but chooses not to because of flaws in its national character.
Some of their adherents have protested their attacks on Israel. At the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in June 2006, three bishops tabled a resolution calling on the church to apologize for its “consistently unbalanced approach to the conflict in the Middle East.” An explanation accompanying the resolution stated that “virtually all General Convention resolutions concerning the Middle East—and all public policy statements by Episcopal agencies—have relentlessly criticized the State of Israel, portraying the Jewish state as an oppressor nation and the Palestinian people as victims of Israeli oppression.”
In July 2005, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ passed a “Tear Down the Wall” resolution that called on Israel to take down its security barrier but did not call upon the Palestinians to stop the terror attacks that prompted its construction.
That same year, the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America passed a resolution affirming a “Peace Not Walls” campaign. While exhibiting less animus toward Israel than other Protestant churches, it still placed the onus for ending the Arab–Israeli conflict on Israel.
There have been repeated attempts to get these churches to withdraw their investments from companies connected to Israel. In 2005, the Virginia and New England conferences of the United Methodist Church passed resolutions calling for divestment. In 2004, a divestment resolution singling out Israel as a target was passed by the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). That resolution also claimed that Israel’s “occupation” had “proven to be at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict.”
Although the Presbyterians subsequently rescinded their policy of singling out Israel as a target for divestment, in 2012 they voted for boycotting products manufactured in the West Bank.
This June, the PC(U.S.A.) biennial general assembly will feature yet another attempt to divest from Israel in the wake of a document called Zionism Unsettled, a “study guide” published earlier this year by the Israel-Palestine mission of the Church. It attacks “the theological and ethical exceptionalism of Jewish and Christian Zionism, which have been sheltered from open debate despite the intolerable human-rights abuses rooted in their core beliefs.” Zionism, it suggests, has destroyed both indigenous Palestinian lives and Jewish communities across the globe in a supremacist misinterpretation of God’s word on par with “Christian exceptionalist beliefs [that] contributed to the Nazi Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, and countless other instances of tragic brutality.”
As for the Church of England, Canon Andrew White, formerly the archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy to the Middle East and now the vicar of Baghdad, is a Christian Zionist. According to White, Palestinian-influenced replacement theology has now gone viral within the Church of England. The biblical God is viewed as the God of the oppressed; the Palestinians are the oppressed; and the Church must therefore fight for justice against their oppressor, the Jews, so the Palestinians can enter their promised land. This analysis, says White, in which politics and theology thus became inextricably intertwined, has influenced entire denominations, the majority of Christian-pilgrimage companies, and many of the major mission and aid organizations.
The British theologian Colin Chapman’s highly influential 2002 book, Whose Promised Land? sets out the theological delegitimization of Israel. Chapman wrote: “The coming of the kingdom of God through Jesus the messiah has transformed and reinterpreted all the promises and prophecies in the Old Testament.” Jews and Christians had become, in his phraseology, one “new man” made of both Jew and Christian, and so this new category of person therefore did not warrant a Jewish state.
“Christian Palestinianism” is spearheaded in the UK by Stephen Sizer, the vicar of Christ Church, Virginia Water, in Surrey. Sizer’s book Christian Zionism: Road-Map to Armageddon? has been endorsed by many leading British and American bishops and theologians. In it Sizer wrote: “To suggest therefore that the Jewish people continue to have a special relationship with God, apart from faith in Jesus or have exclusive rights to land, a city, and temple is, in the words of John Stott [a leading British evangelical], ‘biblically anathema.’”
Church of England bishops and archbishops systematically present Israel as brutal oppressors and the Palestinians as their victims. In June 2005, a report by the Anglican Peace and Justice Network—which underpinned a short-lived divestiture move—compared Israel’s security barrier to “the barbed-wire fence of the Buchenwald camp.” In 2012, the General Synod of the Church of England voted overwhelmingly to strengthen ties with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), a group that supports the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against Israel and brings people to the West Bank to experience what EAPPI calls “life under occupation.”
The chief Christmastime decoration this year at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, in the heart of central London, was in front of the building: a wall 24 feet tall and 100 feet long. This, the church informed the public, was a replica of the Israeli wall that surrounds Bethlehem.
But there is no wall that surrounds Bethlehem. Israel’s security barrier, much of which is a simple chain-link fence, takes the form of a wall merely along the area where the risk of terrorist infiltration into Jerusalem is very high. Indeed, the sole purpose of the security barrier is to prevent terrorist attacks on Israelis. The wall is credited with having significantly reduced attacks while attempts to perpetrate them remain persistent.
Yet this key consideration was all but obliterated by St. James’s Church, whose wall was the centerpiece of a two-week-long presentation about Israeli oppression of the Palestinians called Bethlehem Unwrapped. The progressive churches have turned Bethlehem, that iconic Christian town, into a symbol of Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israel.
This shows breathtaking disregard for the facts. Located a few minutes’ drive down the road from Jerusalem, Bethlehem was once predominantly Christian. In 1948, some 80 percent of its population was Christian; now, it is estimated at between 20 and 40 percent. According to Justus Weiner, a legal scholar at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the number of Christians in Bethlehem declined precipitously under Jordanian occupation from 1949 to 1967, when thousands of Muslims were settled in the town.
“Christian Arabs have been victims of frequent human-rights abuses by Muslims,” Weiner has written. “There are many examples of intimidation, beatings, land theft, firebombing of churches and other Christian institutions, denial of employment, economic boycotts, torture, kidnapping, forced marriage, sexual harassment, and extortion. Palestinian Authority (PA) officials are directly responsible for many of the human-rights violations. The situation of these Christians has become grim.”
Naim Khoury is the pastor of Bethlehem’s First Baptist Church. He and his family have been systematically harassed and attacked by Muslims. The church has been firebombed 14 times, and Khoury has been shot at several times in the last decade. Bethlehem’s Christians believe this hostility has worsened in recent years. “People are always telling them, ‘Convert to Islam. Convert to Islam,’” Khoury has said. “’It’s the true and right religion.’”
The one place in the Middle East where Christians are safe and are thriving is Israel. According to Merkley, the Christian population of Israel rose sixfold from about 34,000 in 1948 to nearly 180,000 in 1998. It is the only country in the Middle East where, over the last half century, the number of Christians has grown in absolute numbers and has remained stable as a proportion of the whole population. Everywhere else Christian populations are in decline, in many cases precipitously.
And yet, astoundingly, the churches blame Israel for this decline. Shortly before Christmas 2006, the then archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, assigned responsibility for the flight of Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem to Israeli policies and the security barrier. He asked rhetorically: “I would like to know how much it matters to the Israeli government to have Christian communities in the Holy Land. Are they an embarrassment or are they part of a solution? That’s a question.”
This scapegoating of Israel is all the more astonishing considering the persecution of Christians at the hands of Islam. According to Open Doors, a nondenominational Christian group, about 100 million Christians are currently being persecuted around the world in more than 65 countries. Of the top 10 countries on the list—North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Maldives, Mali, Iran, Yemen, and Eritrea—eight are majority-Muslim states threatened by what Open Doors called Islamic extremism.
In Egypt, Coptic Christians have been attacked, murdered, and driven out. In Syria, whole towns have been emptied of their Christian populations. In December 2013, at least 1,000 Christians were killed in clashes with Muslims in the Central African Republic. “They are slaughtering us like chickens,” one Christian said. In the same year, seven Christian churches were torched by Muslims in Russia.
In February 2014, jihadists bombed churches in Zanzibar for being “dens of non-believers.” In March 2014, members of Somalia’s Al-Shabaab militia publicly beheaded a mother of two girls and her cousin after discovering they were Christians. The same month in Nigeria, more than 150 Christians were butchered in a massacre in Kaduna, one of innumerable attacks on Christians there. In Sudan, Christians have been hacked to death for refusing to convert to Islam or burned alive inside their churches. In Eritrea, more than 3,000 Christians are in jail. There are innumerable similar instances. Yet on all this carnage among their own flock, the churches are almost totally silent.
There are two main reasons that progressive Protestant churches have adopted an anti-Israel narrative. The first is the hemorrhaging of their base. Churches that were once in the forefront of social reform in both America and Britain have seen their influence dwindle along with their congregations. Championing the “poor and oppressed” Palestinians seems to offer a significant role in the national conversation.
The second reason is the eclipse of faith among the progressive clergy. Increasingly unwilling or unable to preach the literal truth of scripture, they have turned themselves into campaigners for the poor and oppressed. As a result, the sociological and theological positions struck by the WCC penetrated the Western churches and became their orthodoxy, too. This was the context that allowed both Palestinian and Western Christians to fuse the political and the theological and revive the murderous calumny of deicide against the Jews, with Jesus resurrected as the ultimate suffering Palestinian.
Now there is an even more alarming development. The latest Christians to succumb to this delegitimization of Israel and the return of replacement theology are among the evangelicals, the very bedrock of Christian Zionism. This is all the more devastating precisely because these Christians take scripture very seriously. Whereas the progressive churches have absorbed the Palestinian theological calumny against the Jews almost as an afterthought, some evangelicals are rewriting the theology that inspires their every action. They are not just anti-Zionists. They are religiously inspired, anti-Jewish supersessionists.
An early harbinger of this change was a meeting in London in 1986 hosted by John Stott. The Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization set up a group called Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding to oppose the view that Israel was the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Such people subscribe to a movement that the Christian analyst Paul R. Wilkinson has termed “Christian Palestinianism.”
In his book Who are God’s People in the Middle East?, Gary Burge recounted how he converted from Christian Zionism after being told by Father George Makhlour of St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church in Ramallah: “The Church has inherited the promises of Israel. The Church is actually the new Israel.” Burge came to believe that “followers of Jesus were the new people of God. And they would inherit the history and the promises known throughout the Old Testament…Whatever the ‘land’ meant in the Old Testament, whatever the promise contained, this now belonged to Christians.”
In March this year, some 600 or so evangelical Christians attended a four-day event in Bethlehem called Christ at the Checkpoint. The subtext of this conference was a fusion of theologically based Christian Jew-hatred, Palestinian victimology, and a wholesale rewriting of history. One witness, Brian Schrauger, wrote: “Except for explicit calls to violence, every part, every aspect of rhetoric by Islamic Fatah and Hamas was brilliantly, horrifically ‘Christianized.’ In the aftermath of attendance, I find myself nauseous, shocked, and soiled in my soul.”
This was the third high-profile conference under the title of Christ at the Checkpoint (or CatC, as the organizers call it). These gatherings bring together evangelical Christians from around the world, according to its manifesto, to “reclaim the prophetic role in bringing peace, justice, and reconciliation in Palestine and Israel.”
What this actually means is that participants tell each other about the “brutal Israeli occupation” and “oppression” of the Palestinians, which they cast as a living reenactment of the suffering of Jesus at the hands of none other than the forerunners of those very same Israeli oppressors, the Jews. They then return home and spread the word among evangelical churches. Some dismayed observers have dubbed this the “evangelical intifada.”
For many Christians, both evangelical and progressive, this particular demonization of Israel is irresistible. Through the suffering Palestinians, they can live Jesus’s story in the modern world. They don’t need to believe in God. They merely need to see the Palestinians as suffering as Jesus suffered.
And of course the geography is crucial. Those promoting Palestinian liberation theology play on the fact that the “Holy Land” is the most important place in the world for Christians. As Van Zile says:
They bring Christians in to walk the Via Dolorosa; they feel they are walking in the path trodden by Jesus as a suffering Christian. The Palestinians fawn over them, but the Christians feel they are living the Gospel. They get off on Palestinian suffering and Jewish misdeeds. Even though Israel is the one country in the Middle East where Christians are increasing, they find Israel intolerable because the Jews are supposed to have been wiped off the moral map. So they have to turn them into Nazis.
For the young evangelicals lapping up the lies at the CatC conference, there is an additional dynamic. They hate being tarred with the same uncool brush as their parents’ generation. In their book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons conclude that young evangelicals, just like their secular peers, find conservative Christianity to be too anti-homosexual, too judgmental, and too political. Like John Lennon, they imagine a world with no barriers to peace and love. They don’t think of themselves as anti-Israel, because to be “anti-” is not very loving. They tell themselves they are instead pro-Palestinian, pro-peace, and pro-love.
According to Robert W. Nicholson, a young Christian who has written bravely about the turn among evangelicals: “Love now trumps all amongst the millennials at CatC. The young don’t want to be seen in the same hateful light as their parents. They say in relation to same-sex marriage, I just love everyone. So, at CatC Israel is represented as a killing machine. It’s such an easy jump to make. Jewish wrongdoing played a big role in the early Christian story—so if you give people a sense they are targets of Jewish wrongdoing, they feel like Jesus.”
The young CatC participants are taken on field trips to the “segregation wall,” the checkpoints, and the Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem. They are not taken to Jewish neighborhoods. They do not meet Jewish victims of Palestinian terrorism. And they do not visit hospitals where Arabs and Jews are treated alongside each other by Arab and Jewish doctors.
The CatC conferences are run by the Bethlehem Bible College and Holy Land Trust (HLT). Sami Awad, founder and executive director of HLT, has said the trust has “done training in nonviolence for Hamas leaders and other militant groups” and that nonviolent demonstrations are “not a substitute for the armed struggle.”In an interview with Nicholson, Awad’s uncle Alex, pastor of the East Jerusalem Baptist Church, a professor at the Bethlehem Bible College, and a prime CatC organizer, said:
The message of Christianity is a universal one that is not interested in ethnicity or territory. The new covenant ushered in by the coming of the messiah made the old covenant obsolete…What happened in 1948 and 1967 was not moral, and I personally don’t believe it had any divine significance. Anyway, there doesn’t necessarily need to be a “state” of Israel for the re-gathering of the Jews to be fulfilled… I am not anti-Semitic whatsoever. God saved me from that long ago. The Jews are still special to God… But so are all people.
Sweeping Jews out of the land of Israel also means sweeping them out of their own history.
According to Nicholson, there were claims at this year’s CatC conference that the “first naqba” was in 587 B.C.E. when “Palestinians” were “exiled to Babylon,” and the “first intifada” was in 70 C.E. when Titus destroyed the Temple. But, of course, it was the Jews who were exiled from the land of Israel in those years. He says he also heard claims that the Jews of today were really all Khazars, and that it was morally and theologically wrong to say Israel was a Jewish state.
Nicholson was distressed by the reaction of the conference participants to these absurdities. “You look around and you see well-meaning Americans nodding along,” he said. “They don’t know what did happen in history, they don’t know what it means so they just go along with it.” When someone linked terrorism with either Yasir Arafat or Israel’s security barrier, people started booing.
What so deeply alarms close observers such as Nicholson and Van Zile is the insidious, mind-bending manipulation of this approach and the bizarre and poisonous beliefs that are being swallowed as a result. Prejudice against the Jews, a negation of Jewish suffering, and the demonization of Israel are carefully disguised by a mantra of peace’n’love. This, the idealistic, naive, and ignorant CatC participants are told, is what Christianity is all about.
Hand in hand with Christian Palestinianism has come the steady Islamization of the Church. Increasingly ignoring its Jewish roots, the Church has reached out instead to Islam. In a paper published in 2007, Margaret Brearley, a British scholar of interfaith relations and former adviser to the archbishop of Canterbury, wrote that Anglicanism as a whole seemed to be gradually uprooting itself from its Judaic heritage. It was no longer normative for Anglican clergy to know Hebrew, and, if clergy studied another religion at theological college, it was now more likely to be Islam than Judaism.
The Church, she wrote, had taken major steps to affirm Islam as a fellow “Abrahamic faith.” The most important of these initiatives was a Christian-Muslim seminar called Building Bridges, convened by the archbishop of Canterbury in January 2002. The proceedings of the inaugural meeting stressed “the shared journey of Christians and Muslims” and the “importance of deepening our dialogue and understanding,” especially following 9/11. Papers presented by some Muslim and Christian scholars suggested equivalence, even unity, between Islam and Christianity. Bishop Kenneth Cragg, for example, stated that the “Magnificat and Allahu akbar are the sure doxologies with which our two faiths begin” and that “in the mystery of our created human trust…two faiths are one,” while Professor David Kerr explained radical Islam “as a form of liberation theology.” Brearley wrote: “The rapprochement of Anglicanism and Islam has encouraged a process in which any critique of Islamic nationalism or Islamism is either extremely muted or completely absent.”
The essential problem, says Canon Andrew White, is the lack of will in the church to face the difference between Judaism and Islam. “They don’t want to recognize that their faith comes from Judaism,” he said. “They talk instead of the ‘children of Abraham’ as if we are all in it together. The reality is, however, that although Islam and Judaism have a lot in common in terms of customs, they are as far apart as Christianity is from heathenism.”
As a result, the Church of England is conniving at an obnoxious historical revisionism. Muslims claim not only that they inhabited the land of Israel before the Jews but also that Islam was somehow the real Judaism before the Jews corrupted their own religion. The Koran says Islam came before Judaism and Christianity, and was the faith practiced by Abraham, who was a Muslim (3:67–68). It refers to Islam as the religion of Abraham many times (2:130, 135; 3:95; 4:125; 6:161). Islamic tradition teaches that it is Ishmael, not Isaac, whom God orders Abraham to sacrifice. It teaches that Jews and Christians corrupted their scriptures, so Allah sent a fresh revelation through Mohammed. This cancelled out Judaism and Christianity and brought people back to the one true religion of Islam that Abraham had practiced.
The existence of Israel as a Jewish state is thus anathema because Islam teaches that the Muslims are in fact the real, authentic Jews. As Osama bin Laden declared in his “Letter to the American People”:
It is the Muslims who are the inheritors of Moses (peace be upon him) and the inheritors of the real Torah that has not been changed. Muslims believe in all of the Prophets, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon them all. If the followers of Moses have been promised a right to Palestine in the Torah, then the Muslims are the most worthy nation of this.
Christians would seem increasingly to agree.
The really difficult problem is that supersessionism is not some fringe theology but is deeply rooted in Christian thinking. At the most basic level, the Church believes that Christianity superseded Judaism. The Holocaust caused Western churches to rethink this, although those in Eastern countries remained unmoved. But whereas in the 1965 Papal encyclical Nostra Aetate, the Catholics tried openly to face up to and repudiate their own anti-Jewish thinking, the Protestant churches quietly brushed supersessionism under the carpet.
This failure to address the theological roots of Christian anti-Jewish prejudice left the Protestant churches open to the politically opportunistic and revisionist Palestinian application of the doctrine and its use as a weapon against the State of Israel.
In all the uproar over the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement and the campaign to delegitimize Israel, the role of Protestant churches has received scant attention. This is a terrible mistake. The return of replacement theology is of the greatest possible significance to the way Israel is regarded in the West. The Church still has great influence over Western culture. Even in Britain, people think Christian clerics embody integrity, conscience, and truth-telling; when they assert that Israel is a racist, oppressive, aggressive state, they are believed. And in the United States, such is the centrality of Christianity and the Hebrew Bible that if this theological and political slide into untruth and hatred is not stopped, there will be drastic consequences—not just for support of Israel but for American society.
As Christians are murdered by Islamists across the world, some of their churches are directing their passions elsewhere. They are busily rewriting history, constructing a theology out of gross political distortion and lining up once again with historic forces of unfathomable darkness. It is not just the State of Israel that is being threatened as a result. Stamping upon its parent, the Church is embracing its own assassin—and the West’s potential nemesis.
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‘Jesus Was a Palestinian’: The Return of Christian Anti-Semitism
Must-Reads from Magazine
Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
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The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
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Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.
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Is American opera in terminal condition?
At the Met, distinguished singers and conductors, mostly born and trained in Europe, appeared in theatrically conservative big-budget productions of the popular operas of the 19th century, with a sprinkling of pre-romantic and modern works thrown in to leaven the loaf. City Opera, by contrast, presented younger artists—many, like Beverly Sills, born in this country—in a wider-ranging, more adventurously staged repertoire that often included new operas, some of them written by American composers, to which the public was admitted at what were then called “popular prices.”
Between them, the companies represented a feast for culture-consuming New Yorkers, though complaints were already being heard that their new theaters were too big. Moreover, neither the Met nor City Opera was having any luck at commissioning memorable new operas and thereby expanding and refreshing the operatic repertoire, to which only a handful of significant new works—none of them, then or since, premiered by either company—had been added since World War I.
A half-century later, the feast has turned to famine. In 2011, New York City Opera left Lincoln Center, declaring bankruptcy. It closed its doors forever two years later. The Met has weathered a nearly uninterrupted string of crises that climaxed earlier this year with the firing of James Levine, the company’s once-celebrated music director emeritus. He was accused in 2017 of molesting teenage musicians and was dismissed from all of his conducting posts in New York and elsewhere. Today the Met is in dire financial straits that threaten its long-term survival.
And while newer opera companies in such other American cities as Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Seattle now offer alternative models of leadership, none has established itself as a potential successor either to the Met or the now-defunct NYCO.1
Is American opera as a whole in a terminal condition? Or are the collapse of the New York City Opera and the Met’s ongoing struggle to survive purely local matters of no relevance elsewhere? Heidi Waleson addresses these questions in Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America.2 Waleson draws on her experience as the opera critic of the Wall Street Journal to speculate on the prospects for an art form that has never quite managed to set down firm roots in American culture.
In this richly informative chronicle of NYCO’s decline and fall, Waleson persuasively argues that what happened to City Opera (and, by extension, the Met) could happen to other opera companies as well. The days in which an ambitious community sought successfully to elevate itself into the first rank of world cities by building and manning an opera house are long past, and Mad Scenes and Exit Arias helps us understand why.As Waleson reminds us, it was Fiorello LaGuardia, the New York mayor who played a central role in the creation of the NYCO, who dubbed the company “the people’s opera” when it was founded in 1943. According to LaGuardia, NYCO existed to perform popular operas at popular prices for a mass audience. In later years, it moved away from that goal, but the slogan stuck. Indeed, no opera company has ever formulated a clearer statement of its institutional mission.
Even after it moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, NYCO had an equally coherent and similarly appealing purpose: It was where you went to see the opera stars of tomorrow, foremost among them Sills and Plácido Domingo, in inexpensively but imaginatively staged productions of the classics. The company went out of its way to present modern operas, too, but it never did so at the expense of its central repertoire—and tickets to its performances cost half of what the Met charged. Well into the 21st century, City Opera stuck more or less closely to its redefined mission. Under Paul Kellogg, the general and artistic director from 1996 to 2007, it did so with consistent artistic success. But revenues declined throughout the latter part of Kellogg’s tenure, in part because younger New Yorkers were unwilling to become subscribers.
In those days, the Metropolitan Opera, NYCO’s next-door neighbor, was still one of the world’s most conservative opera houses. That changed when Peter Gelb became its general manager in 2006. Gelb was resolved to modernize the Met’s productions and, to a lesser extent, its repertoire, and he simultaneously sought to heighten its national profile by digitally simulcasting live performances into movie theaters throughout America.
Kellogg was frustrated by the chronic acoustic inadequacies of the New York State Theater and sought in vain to move City Opera to a three-theater complex that was to be built (but never was) on the World Trade Center site. He retired soon after Gelb came to the Met. Kellogg was succeeded by Gérard Mortier, a European impresario who was accustomed to working in state-subsidized theaters. Mortier made a pair of fateful decisions. First, he canceled City Opera’s entire 2008–2009 season while the interior of the State Theater underwent much-needed renovations. Then he announced a follow-up season of 20th-century operas that lacked audience appeal.
That follow-up season never happened, because Mortier resigned in 2008 and fled New York. He was replaced by George Steel, who had previously served for just three months as general manager of the Dallas Opera. Under Steel, NYCO slashed its schedule to ribbons in a futile attempt to get back on its financial feet after Mortier’s financially ruinous year-long hiatus. Then he mounted a series of productions of nonstandard repertory that received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office.
The combined effect of Gelb’s innovations and the inept leadership of Mortier and Steel all but obliterated City Opera’s reason for existing. Under Gelb, the Met’s repertory ranged from such warhorses as Rigoletto and Tosca to 20th-century masterpieces like Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and tickets could be bought for as little as $20. With the Met performing a more interesting repertoire under a wider range of directors, and in part at “people’s prices,” City Opera no longer did anything that the Met wasn’t already doing on a far larger and better-financed scale. What, then, was its mission now? The truth was that it had none, and when the company went under in 2013, few mourned its passing.
As it happened, Gelb’s own innovations were a mere artistic Band-aid, for he was unwilling or unable to trim the Met’s bloated budget to any meaningful extent. He made no serious attempt to cut the company’s labor costs until a budget crisis in 2014 forced him to confront its unions, which he did with limited success. In addition, his new productions of the standard-repertory operas on which the Met relied to draw and hold older subscribers were felt by many to be trashily trendy.
The Met had particular difficulty managing the reduced circumstances of the 21st century when it came to opera. Its 3,800-seat theater has an 80-foot-deep stage with a proscenium opening that measures 54 feet on each side. (Bayreuth, by contrast, seats 1,925, La Scala 2,030, and the Vienna State Opera 2,200.) As a result, it is all but impossible to mount low-to-medium-budget shows in the Metropolitan Opera House, even as the company finds it is no longer able to fill its increasingly empty house. Two decades ago, the Met earned 90 percent of its potential box-office revenue. That figure plummeted to 66 percent by 2015, forcing Gelb to raise ticket prices to an average of $158.50 per head. On Broadway, the average price of a ticket that season was $103.86.
Above all, Gelb was swimming against the cultural tide. Asked about the effects on audience development of the Met simulcasts, he admitted that three-quarters of the people who attended them were “over 65, and 30 percent of them are over 75.” As he explained: “Grand opera is in itself a kind of a dinosaur of an art form…. The question is not whether I think I’m doing a good job or not in trying to keep the [Metropolitan Opera] alive. It’s whether I’m doing a good job or not in the face of a cultural and social rejection of opera as an art form. And what I’m doing is fighting an uphill battle to try and maintain an audience in a very difficult time.”
Was that statement buck-passing defeatism, or a fair appraisal of the state of American opera? Other opera executives distanced themselves from Gelb’s remarks, and it was true—and still is—that smaller American companies have done a somewhat better job of attracting younger audiences than the top-heavy Met. But according to the National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of U.S. adults who attend at least one operatic performance each year declined from 3.2 percent in 2002 to 2.1 percent in 2012. This problem, of course, is not limited to opera. As I wrote in these pages in 2010, the disappearance of secondary-school arts education and the rise of digital media may well be leading to “not merely a decline in public interest in the fine arts but the death of the live audience as a cultural phenomenon.”3D oes American opera have a future in an era of what Heidi Waleson succinctly describes as “flat ticket income and rising expenses”? In the last chapter of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias, she chronicles the activities of a group of innovative smaller troupes that are “rethinking what an opera company is, what it does, and who it serves.” Yet in the same breath, she acknowledges the possibility that “filling a giant theater for multiple productions of grand operas [is] no longer an achievable goal.”
If that is so, then it may be worth asking a different question: Did American opera ever have a past? It is true that opera in America has had a great and glorious history, but virtually the whole of that history consisted of American productions of 18th- and 19th-century European operas. By contrast, no opera by an American classical composer has ever entered the international major-house repertoire. Indeed, while new American operas are still commissioned and premiered at an impressive rate, few things are so rare as a second production of any of these works.
While a handful continue to be performed—John Adams’s Nixon in China (1987), André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1995), Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998), and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000)—their success is a tribute to the familiarity of their subject matter and source material, not their musico-theatrical quality. As for the rest, the hard but inescapable truth is that with the exception of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), virtually all large-scale American operas have been purpose-written novelties that were shelved and forgotten immediately after their premieres.
The success of Porgy and Bess, which received its premiere not in an opera house but on Broadway, reminds us that American musical comedy, unlike American opera, is deeply rooted in our national culture, in much the same way that grand opera is no less deeply rooted in the national cultures of Germany and Italy, where it is still genuinely popular (if less so today than a half-century ago). By comparison with Porgy, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, or My Fair Lady, American opera as a homegrown form simply does not exist: It is merely an obscure offshoot of its European counterpart. Aaron Copland, America’s greatest composer, was not really joking when he wittily described opera as “la forme fatale,” and his own failed attempts to compose an audience-friendly opera that would be as successful as his folk-flavored ballet scores say much about the difficulties facing any composer who seeks to follow in his footsteps.
It is not that grand opera is incapable of appealing to American theatergoers. Even now, there are many Americans who love it passionately, just as there are regional companies such as Chicago’s Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera that have avoided making the mistakes that closed City Opera’s doors. Yet the crises from which the Metropolitan Opera has so far failed to extricate itself suggest that in the absence of the generous state subsidies that keep European opera houses in business, large-house grand opera in America may simply be too expensive to thrive—or, ultimately, to survive. At its best, no art form is more thrilling or seductive. But none is at greater risk of following the dinosaurs down the cold road to extinction.
1 The “New York City Opera” founded in 2016 that now mounts operas in various New York theaters on an ad hoc basis is a brand-new enterprise that has no connection with its predecessor.
2 Metropolitan Books, 304 pages