01 July 2014
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The Klinghoffer Opera and the American Jewish Establishment

The debate over the New York Metropolitan Opera’s performance of “The Death of Klinghoffer” raises serious questions about the functioning of American Jewish leadership.

Over the past 40 years one of the most positive features of American Jewish leadership has been its uninhibited self-confidence, assertiveness and willingness to raise its voice with courage and dignity on behalf of Israel and Jewish causes. American Jewish leaders prided themselves on having rejected shtadlanut – reliance on silent diplomacy in lieu of public action.

Alas, there are now grounds for concern that this is changing, maybe as a consequence of the adverse pressures emanating from the Obama administration.

How else can one ascribe the pitifully subdued response to the New York Metropolitan Opera’s decision to perform an opera that not merely incorporates vicious anti-Israeli diatribes but which is blatantly anti-Semitic and seeks to romanticize and provide rationalization for the cold-blooded murder of a disabled person solely because he was Jewish. And this is an institution that is disproportionately funded by Jews, in the city with the greatest concentration of Jews in the Diaspora.

Leon Klinghoffer was a 69-year-old wheelchair-bound American Jew who, in 1985 with his wife and 11 friends, celebrated his 36th wedding anniversary on the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro when it was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. Klinghoffer was taken aside, brutally shot to death and dumped overboard in his wheelchair.

The opera based on these events was composed by John Adams and the librettist was Alice Goodman, a convert from Judaism who is now a priest in the Anglican Church.

The opera was intentionally titled the “death” – not murder – of Klinghoffer and purported to present “both sides of the equation.” The Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, Peter Gelb, said that John Adams sought “to understand the hijackers and their motivations, and to look for humanity in the terrorists, as well as in the victims” and enable the “audience to wrestle with the almost unanswerable questions that arise from this seemingly endless conflict and pattern of abhorrent violent acts.” In other words: present the murderers and their victims with moral equivalence. Indeed John Adams was open about his belief that “in this country, there is almost no option for the other side, no space for the Palestinian point of view.”

The opening scene honors terrorists. With a backdrop of graffiti on a wall proclaiming “Warsaw 1943, Bethlehem 2005,” Jews wearing kippot and headscarves enter the stage and plant trees on what is conveyed to the audience as plundered Arab territory. The Palestinian chorus sings, “My father’s house was razed in 1948 when the Israelis passed over our street.” The Palestinians sing, “We are soldiers fighting a war. We are not criminals and we are not vandals but men of ideals.”

Aside from the rabid anti-Semitism/anti-Israelism encapsulated by the brutal murder of an American Jew, the principal terrorist says, “Wherever poor men are gathered, they can find Jews getting fat. You know how to cheat the simple, exploit the virgin, pollute where you have exploited, defame those you cheated, and break your own law with idolatry.” At one stage, the terrorist leader snarls at Klinghoffer, “America is one big Jew.” What is the relationship between a crippled American Jew and Palestinian terrorists’ grievances against Israel?

After seeing the opera, Klinghoffer’s daughters, Ilsa and Lisa, were “outraged at the exploitation of our parents and the cold-blooded murder of our father.” They claimed that the opera “perverts the terrorist murder of our father and attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize and explain it.”

How can any decent human being justify the performance of an opera that romanticizes the case for the perpetrators of such a hideous hate crime? It is beyond belief that such a production can be performed in 2014 in “civilized” New York without major protest. The anti-Semitic outbursts it contains could well qualify for insertion in Der Sturmer, the Nazi Jew-baiting publication.

Could one visualize the New York Metropolitan Opera presenting a performance that, in the name of artistic freedom, humanizes or rationalizes the bigotry of white supremacists or homophobes? Or an opera in which African-Americans are lynched alongside a validation and humanization of the Ku Klux Klan perpetrators? Or even perhaps an opera recounting Kristallnacht while rationalizing the anti-Semitic frenzy of the Nazis?

It is inconceivable that any other ethnic or religious group would be subject to such treatment. But alas, when it comes to Israel or the Jews, even in the U.S. today anything is permissible.

The opera premiered in Brussels in 1991 and in various locations in the U.S. It was cancelled after 9/11 in Boston but in 2014 the Metropolitan Opera scheduled a major global launch. In addition to the performances in New York and more than 70 U.S. theaters, the plan was to globally simulcast the production to 2,000 theaters in 66 countries — a potential audience of millions.

Amazingly, the leading American Jewish organizations failed to protest. Were it not for the vigorous remonstration of the Zionist Organization of America, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other smaller bodies and individuals, nobody seemed to care.

Indeed, prominent Jewish “liberals” even praised the opera. Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, vice president for philanthropy of the global Reform Jewry movement, stated that “trying to portray both sides and show that they are not monsters but human beings who did awful things to advance their cause, shows it was a horrific event. If by producing this, these questions are raised again, is that a bad thing? Discussions need to be had.” Wow! God help us if we are burdened with Jews purporting to be spiritual leaders who can utter such obscenities about Jew-killers.

The Anti-Defamation League became “engaged” but stressed that it did not resort to protests. Ultimately, it triumphantly claimed to have achieved a “compromise”: The program would incorporate a statement expressing the indignation of the Klinghoffer daughters for the manner in which the opera exploited the memory of their father and it was agreed that the simultaneous productions would not proceed, on the grounds that the opera contained “sensitive” content which could exacerbate anti-Semitism, especially in Europe.

The ADL proudly reiterated that it had not interfered with artistic freedom or called for the performances to be cancelled, but was pleased that the Metropolitan Opera had reviewed the position and decided of its own accord (sic!) not to extend the performance to a potentially huge global audience.

This is unfathomable. Why did the ADL not call for the cancellation of performances in New York? If an anti-Semitic opera glorifying murderers is inappropriate for wider audiences, why should it be performed in New York?

For the Jewish establishment, and expressly an organization like the ADL, to feel inhibited about condemning such a performance because it interferes with artistic freedom is descending to the lowest level of pseudo-liberal political correctness. How can one reconcile entertainment with justifying outright murder and hate crimes?

This opera is an abomination and an offence not only to Jews but to all Americans and all decent people who oppose terrorism and racism. It has no bearing on the rights or wrongs of the Arab-Israeli conflict or alleged grievances of Palestinians which can be debated at other levels.

If Jewish leaders feel inhibited from raising their voices on such issues, they are betraying their mandate and moving backward to the “trembling Israelite” role that American Jews assumed in the 1930s.

The writer’s may be contacted at ileibler@leibler.com.

This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom

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Footage of excerpts of the Opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” produced in the UK  by Channel 4 in the UK: Both Adams and Goodman collaborated to produce the film version of their opera.

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Isi Leibler

Isi Leibler is a veteran international Jewish leader with a distinguished record of contributions to the Jewish world and the cause of human rights, including the struggle for Soviet Jewry. He was head of the Jewish community in Australia for many years and made aliya in 1999. Leibler has held senior roles in the World Jewish Congress, including chairman of the governing board and senior vice president. Today, he writes prolifically and is a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post and Yisrael Hayom.

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