Over the course of the last century, whenever Jews rose up to protest anti-Semitism, they were invariably told that they were doing more harm than good. Whether it was in pre-Holocaust Europe or even in the United States, Jewish leaders were often counseled by those in power that their complaints would provoke anti-Semitism rather than repress it. While the lessons of history should have consigned this sort of advice to the unhappy history of prejudice, it appears that it has been resurrected by the head of the Metropolitan Opera when confronted with criticisms of his decision to stage an opera that rationalizes both terrorism and Jew hatred. As such, it has raised the stakes in the debate about The Death of Klinghoffer and the specious claim that the opera’s critics are seeking to suppress freedom of expression.
As I wrote last week, the controversy over the Met’s upcoming production of Klinghoffer heated up with the start of the 2014-15 opera season in New York. Armed with the support of the New York Times and an arts world that has closed ranks around the opera company, composer John Adams, and his controversial creation, Met General Manager Peter Gelb stood his ground on going forward with the new production of the opera that debuts on October 20. He agreed back in June not to include the piece on the roster of operas that will be broadcast to theaters around the world because of its possible role in fomenting anti-Semitism at a time when hatred for Jews is on the rise. But Gelb is unmovable about going ahead with the staging on the famed stage in New York. And in defending that stance in a private meeting with New York Jewish leaders, he not only displayed the arrogant stubbornness that has marked his tenure at the Met; Gelb also chose to lecture them about what was good for the Jews.
As the New York Jewish Week reports, a broad coalition of mainstream Jewish organizations sent leaders to meet with Gelb earlier this month prior to the opening of the opera season. While the demonstration at the opera’s Lincoln Center home that greeted those attending the Met’s opening night last week was the work of groups that are often considered right-wing, the meeting was very much a broad-based affair and included the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, and the New York Board of Rabbis. But rather than demonstrate any sensitivity for the concerns of those who met with him, Gelb doubled down on his decision.
According to one of the participants, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of the Board of Rabbis,
“He took the outrageous position that challenging this opera would increase anti-Semitism because it would appear that Jews were controlling the arts,” the rabbi recalled. “We said this opera is an affront not only to Jews but also to all decent people, especially those victimized by terrorists. Many 9/11 families have spoken against it. Given this mentality what’s next, an ISIS love story?”
Heretofore, Gelb’s position merely reflected the tone-deaf attitude of many in the arts world that views any protests against their work as evidence of Philistinism or a desire to censure artists and deny them the right to freely express themselves. As I have previously explained, this is an absurd distortion of the facts of the case since no one is trying to deny the Met’s right to stage anything it likes or to repress art. Rather, the protests are based, as I have written, on the recognition that there are always limits observed even in the world of the avant-garde. The Met would never dare stage an opera rationalizing, let alone glorifying in part the Ku Klux Klan or apartheid but somehow thinks there’s nothing wrong with one that treated the terrorist murder of an old man because he was a Jew as merely a debatable concept rather than something that is beyond the pale of civilized behavior.
However, Gelb’s comments escalate the argument here from one about a lack of sensitivity and double standards to something even more shocking. Instead of merely attempting to defend the indefensible, Gelb has apparently switched to offense and is seeking to shut the Jews up. But the opera executive, who has often provoked the anger of the Met’s employees and subscribers, should understand these sorts of comments would not make the debate go away.
It is true that anti-Semites believe Jews control the arts. They also think they control the media, Congress, and the government in general and are guilty of promoting both capitalism and socialism. The fact that none of this is true and that the smears are largely self-contradictory does not deter them. Nothing the Jews do or don’t do is responsible for any of these allegations since they reflect the conspiratorial mindset and delusions of Jew-haters rather than reality.
But that has also never stopped those who wish to pursue agendas that benefit anti-Semites from playing off these fears in order to silence criticism. That is exactly what Gelb is doing. Having committed himself to staging Klinghoffer at all costs, he is now ready to cross the line that ought to separate debate between civilized persons and hateful arguments aimed at suppressing criticism of prejudice.
The question now is whether New York elites—including many Jews who support the opera—are willing to cross it with him. It is now up to those philanthropists and agencies that support the Met—a rightly beloved institution that is a central pillar of the arts community in one of the musical capitals of the world—to step in and tell Gelb he has gone too far.
The decision to stage Klinghoffer was egregious to start with and reflected the willingness of the arts world to accept the delegitimization of Israel and the Jews as legitimate fodder for art. But it must be understood that the stakes in this controversy have now been raised. This is no longer merely an argument about a despicable opera. It is now also about whether the Metropolitan Opera will be led by a man who, despite his Jewish origins, is prepared to use statements that are redolent of the rationalizations that were offered by those in the past who counseled Jews to be silent about a host of evils including the Holocaust. Even in the arts, this is unacceptable under any circumstances.
As Judea Pearl, father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, wrote in a letter-to-the-editor to the New York Times protesting its endorsement of Klinghoffer:
We might someday be able to forgive the Met for decriminalizing brutality, but we will never forgive it for poisoning our music, for turning our best violins and our iconic concert halls into megaphones for excusing evil.