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Topic: The Death of Klinghoffer

Teach-in on Klinghoffer Opera at Lincoln Center Tonight

The Metropolitan Opera will debut its new production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer next week. I have written several times here about the way the opera treats the war on Israel and the Jews as a debatable concept rather than an immoral manifestation of Jew hatred. Tonight, I will be joined by an all-star panel of scholars and writers to discuss both Klinghoffer and the rise of a new wave of anti-Semitism around the globe at a teach-in just across the plaza from the opera house at New York City’s Lincoln Center.

The event is sponsored by The Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy (ISGAP.org) and will be held at 7:00 PM at the Walter Reade Theater of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, 165 West 65th Street in Manhattan. Other speakers will include Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Phyllis Chesler, COMMENTARY contributors Omri Ceren and Ben Cohen, Sudanese Human Rights Activist Simon Deng, playwright Dahn Hiuni, the World Jewish Congress’s Betty Ehrenberg, and ISGAP executive director Charles Asher Small.

To RSVP, email [email protected] or call 212-230-1840.

The Metropolitan Opera will debut its new production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer next week. I have written several times here about the way the opera treats the war on Israel and the Jews as a debatable concept rather than an immoral manifestation of Jew hatred. Tonight, I will be joined by an all-star panel of scholars and writers to discuss both Klinghoffer and the rise of a new wave of anti-Semitism around the globe at a teach-in just across the plaza from the opera house at New York City’s Lincoln Center.

The event is sponsored by The Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy (ISGAP.org) and will be held at 7:00 PM at the Walter Reade Theater of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, 165 West 65th Street in Manhattan. Other speakers will include Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Phyllis Chesler, COMMENTARY contributors Omri Ceren and Ben Cohen, Sudanese Human Rights Activist Simon Deng, playwright Dahn Hiuni, the World Jewish Congress’s Betty Ehrenberg, and ISGAP executive director Charles Asher Small.

To RSVP, email [email protected] or call 212-230-1840.

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Will the Met Opera Silence the Jews?

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.

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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.

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The ‘Klinghoffer’ Opera and the Mainstreaming of Jew Hatred

The Metropolitan Opera celebrates its annual opening night on Monday but most of the discussion about the 2014-15 season centers on a performance that won’t happen for another month. The debut of its production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer will not occur until Oct. 20, but the year-long debate about the Met’s questionable judgment in staging an opera that treats the victim and the perpetrators in a terrorist murder as morally equivalent is heating up with predicable and utterly unpersuasive arguments arrayed in favor of the decision to ignore critics and move ahead with the performance.

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The Metropolitan Opera celebrates its annual opening night on Monday but most of the discussion about the 2014-15 season centers on a performance that won’t happen for another month. The debut of its production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer will not occur until Oct. 20, but the year-long debate about the Met’s questionable judgment in staging an opera that treats the victim and the perpetrators in a terrorist murder as morally equivalent is heating up with predicable and utterly unpersuasive arguments arrayed in favor of the decision to ignore critics and move ahead with the performance.

It should be recalled that back in June, the Met attempted to compromise with those outraged by its plan to run Klinghoffer by cancelling the HD broadcast of the opera around the world in theaters and on radio. But it refused to back down on producing the opera. At the time, the New York Times criticized the Met for implicitly acknowledging that a broadcast of an opera that depicts and rationalizes both anti-Semitism and murder of Jews would be problematic at a time when Jew hatred is on the rise around the globe. But in an editorial published Friday, the paper expressed its satisfaction at the Met’s decision to keep the performances of Klinghoffer on its schedule. The fact that, if anything, the plague of anti-Semitism has grown even worse over the summer as Israel-haters bashed the Jewish state for defending itself against Islamist terrorists with similar attitudes toward Jews as the ones in Klinghoffer means nothing to the Times; it praised Met general manager Peter Gelb for being “true to its artistic mission.”

The Times dismisses concerns about the opera’s content and its potential role in fomenting more hate with facile arguments defending artistic freedom against political pressures that don’t stand up to scrutiny. No one is saying that the Met doesn’t have the right to put on Klinghoffer. What its critics are pointing out is that by putting on a piece that treats terrorism and hate for Jews, the Met is coming down on the wrong side of a moral question.

A more nuanced defense of the opera comes from Opera News, the most widely read publication about the art form in North America that also happens to be the Met’s house organ (although it is allowed to critically review Met performances much to Gelb’s ongoing dismay). In the September issue of the magazine, Phillip Kennicott, the Washington Post’s chief arts critic, attempts to take up the cudgels for Klinghoffer but in doing so without the sort of cant and generalizations that the Times has indulged in, he unwittingly helps make the case for the opera’s detractors.

Rather than merely attempt to pretend that the opera doesn’t justify the motivations and the actions of the murderers of Leon Klinghoffer during the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, Kennicott acknowledges that there is a clear imbalance in the way Palestinians and Jews are depicted by composer John Adams. In discussing the two opening choruses of members of the two groups, Kennicott admits that there is a clear difference in both the text and the musical language deployed by the artist:

There is a powerful musical difference between the choruses, and that difference helps trace the moral trajectory of the opera. The Palestinian chorus begins in a dream-like phantasmagoria, but as the memory of grievance becomes more powerful, it ends in a paroxysm of rage: “Our faith will take the stones he broke / and break his teeth.”

The Jewish chorus, by contrast, remains vague and undirected, full of the detail of memory, but without the clear trajectory of anger that preceded it in the Palestinian song.

He then acknowledges the crux of the matter:

How you interpret these choruses becomes key to how you interpret the opera. Many of the work’s critics found the mix of lyricism and anger in the Palestinian music (including long parlando passages from the four terrorists later in the work) to be too seductive, essentially a humanizing musical language that romanticized or in some way justified their violence. And they found the Jewish characters (including a scene that was later dropped from the opera that depicted a family at home in America chatting, sometimes ironically, about travel) antiheroic, scattered and pallid representations bogged down in the material world.

In other words, the Palestinians are real people with justifiable grievances while the Jews are shown in a distinctly unfavorable light. Kennicott is then forced to perform linguistic back flips in order to try to argue that the unflattering portrayal of the Jews is somehow indicative of the “real world” in which the Jews live and therefore a more compelling and complex narrative than the palpable anger of the Palestinians that the music keeps telling us is more attractive and more deserving of support. It’s a nice try but it doesn’t work.

More to the point, Kennicott claims the point of the opera is to criticize the whole idea of “forward-driven narratives of heroism and anger” and to choose instead more “wandering narratives” that leave us with no satisfying conclusions about events. That’s just a rather complicated way of saying that Adams views one of the most callous acts of international terrorism as one that no one should view as a simple matter of murder driven by hatred of Jews. Which is to say that he is doing exactly what his critics allege when they say the whole point of the piece is moral relativism. Indeed, as Kennicott admits, Adams’s goal is to “posit a continuity of humanity between the terrorists and their victims.”

In defense of this position, Kennicott argues, “A continuity of humanity is the only hope for peace.” That’s true. But while both sides in the Achille Lauro hijacking are, of course, human beings, a piece whose purpose is to put the terrorist and their victims on the same plane is one that is not merely depicting hate, as the opera’s defenders claim, but implicitly endorsing it as being no more objectionable than the position of those who are the objects of hatred.

The critic defends the piece because he thinks it is a good thing that we have discussions about serious issues in the opera house, a position that few would dispute. Yet in making that argument, Kennicott and the Met itself are being more than a little disingenuous. There are, after all, a lot of issues that no one wants debated in the public square, let alone in the opera house or concert hall. No one, or at least no one who had any hope of getting their work produced at the Met or any other respected arts institution, would seek to make similar comparisons between say, African-American victims of lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan or between blacks subjugated by apartheid and white South Africans. That is true despite the fact that a composer could give us choruses depicting the suffering of Confederates during and after the Civil War or the wrongs done to Afrikaners in the past, much like that of the Palestinians who are meant to humanize the terrorists who shoot the old Jew Klinghoffer and throw his body overboard. Nor did John Adams choose to use his much praised choral work commemorating the 9/11 attacks, On the Transmigration of Souls, to explain the reasons why Islamists think they have a bone to pick with the West.

The reason why the Met doesn’t produce operas rationalizing Jim Crow or apartheid and the classical music world doesn’t celebrate al-Qaeda is not because the arts world doesn’t embrace works that stir up emotions or are controversial. Kennicott is right when he says there is a consensus about that being the business of artists. We don’t hear such pieces because there is also also a consensus that racism is beyond the pale of such discussions and may not be justified even in the guise of high art. What Klinghoffer’s critics have noticed and its defenders seek to ignore is that the opera’s embrace by arts and media Mandarins illustrates that they consider Jew hatred to fall under the rubric of those expressions that may be debated rather than one that should be merely condemned by members of decent society as they would racism.

It is an unfortunate fact that in recent years forms of anti-Semitism have crept in from the margins of society and been mainstreamed. That is exactly what an opera that rationalizes the murder of an old man merely because he was a Jew does. This is not an issue on which intellectuals should think themselves free to agree to disagree. That is why those who are angry about the Met’s decision are right and the arts community and anyone else who embraces this deplorable decision are not merely wrong but opening the door to a new era of anti-Semitism.

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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.

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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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