So New York’s Metropolitan Opera has decided to pull the plug on its worldwide simulcast of a live performance of The Death of Klinghoffer. Some observations:
First, an obvious but overlooked feature of the controversy is that virtually all of the complaints about the opera have emanated from the unexpected side. The work’s creators – composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman – chose as their subject matter the unfathomably cruel and cowardly murder of a defenseless, elderly wheelchair-bound Jewish man by Palestinian hijackers as a microcosm for examining the larger Middle East conflict. Nevertheless, Palestinian complaints about the way this event was chosen and how Palestinians are portrayed have been virtually non-existent. The debate has somehow focused on whether the opera is anti-Semitic and/or anti-Israel.
Of course, the opera does not condone the senseless murder in any way. Klinghoffer himself is given an eloquent aria condemning his tormentors, and the last words belong to Marilyn Klinghoffer as she berates the ship’s captain for “embracing” the hijackers who killed her husband. Nevertheless, critics of the opera find it problematical from the very beginning, where a Palestinian chorus sings: “My father’s house was razed—In nineteen forty-eight—When the Israelis passed—Over our street”, thereby instantly signifying that it would treat Palestinians as genuine human beings with recognizable motivations, instead of cartoon figure evildoers who act solely out of psychopathic nihilism. This effort to understand the motivations of the hijackers and acknowledge the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people as a whole is too much to bear for those who demand adherence to the strict black-white narrative depicting Americans/Westerners/Israelis/Jews as holy victims of Arab/Muslim killing machines.
Second, during the intense and quite successful effort to pressure the Met into reversing its position, perhaps the most comprehensive public complaint was authored by Myron Kaplan of CAMERA. Kaplan’s letter includes a litany of complaints, and he manages to cram into a single sentence a wide variety of long-discredited hasbara, complaining that the first lines of the opera, quoted above:
falsely suggest[s] that the Israelis, besieged by the armies of five Arab countries and Palestinian Arab “irregulars” bent on driving them into the sea, exacted widespread revenge upon Arabs residing in the ancient Jewish homeland.
Elsewhere, Kaplan descends into pure silliness, complaining that
The choice of the title, The Death of Klinghoffer and not “The Murder of Klinghoffer,” signals the work’s moral evasion and misrepresentation
as if the opera fails to make it clear that Klinghoffer’s death was not of natural causes, and he suggests that Alice Goodman is some sort of race traitor, as she
rejected her American Jewish heritage by joining the Anglican Church, the leadership of which is known for its hostility toward Israel. Goodman is now a parish priest in England.
Nothing new here, but Kaplan’s letter is noteworthy for one argument that exposes not only his own hypocrisy but that of the entire mainstream discourse on terrorism. Bemoaning the fact that one of the hijackers tearfully recounts how his mother and brother were slaughtered in the Sabra/Shatilla massacres, Kaplan complains:
This tear jerker falsely implies that Israelis, rather than members of the Lebanese Christian Phalange militia, massacred hundreds of Palestinian Arabs on Sept. 16-18, 1982 in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee districts. It gives no hint that the Phalangists acted in retribution for massacres of Christian Lebanese by the PLO and the September 14 assassination of the country’s Christian president-elect, Bashir Gemayel.
Put aside the historically false but quite familiar attempt to absolve Israel as an innocent bystander in the Sabra/Shattila massacre, and try not to gag on Kaplan’s reference to these horrifying massacres as a “tear jerker.” Most remarkable is that Kaplan actually complains that the opera does not explain the mass murder of 800 to 3500 defenseless civilians by including the supposedly essential explanation that the Phalangists were seeking revenge for their own grievances. So let’s get this straight. When the bad guys kill one victim, it is outrageous to examine their motives or even consider them to be members of the species homo sapiens. But when people Kaplan identifies with massacre a few thousand untermenschen, the outrage is in mentioning such barbarity without offering a justification for it.
Third, Met director Peter Gelb’s announced reason for canceling the simulcast
I’m convinced that the opera is not anti-Semitic. But I’ve also become convinced that there is genuine concern in the international Jewish community that the live transmission of The Death of Klinghoffer would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe
is absurd on multiple levels. Even assuming the truth of this alleged uptick in worldwide anti-Semitism (see here), what exactly is the danger in broadcasting this opera? As librettist Goodman told the Guardian: “The whole idea of pogroms emerging from the simulcast of a modern opera is more than faintly absurd.” One Guardian commenter named Gaiseric added wittily: “Obviously a cinema showing a live broadcast of an obscure modern opera is exactly the kind of place you’d expect neo-Nazi thugs to congregate.”
And that is the least of the flaws in the anti-Semitism excuse. As noted above, this opera is about Palestinians murdering a defenseless Jewish invalid in an unfathomably cruel and cowardly manner; how is that going to inspire and ignite a wave of anti-Semitism among Klinghoffer’s viewers? If the opera’s creators had chosen as their subject matter Deir Yassin, or Qibya, or Beirut 1982 (or 2006) or Gaza, the reasoning employed by the Met would at least be logical. Widely publicizing the most shocking incidents of Israeli mass murder of civilians might conceivably incite anti-Jewish sentiment, but the murder of Leon Klinghoffer? Seriously?
As for expressions of anti-Semitism in the opera itself, they apparently are limited to the rantings of one of the hijackers. Again, librettist Alice Goodman:
There is nothing anti-semitic in Klinghoffer apart from one aria which is sung by an anti-semitic character and is clearly flagged as such.
Such vile expressions of Jew-hatred from an unsympathetic (to say the least) character are as likely to incite anti-Semitism as “12 Years a Slave” is to unleash a wave of cruel treatment of black people.
Worst of all, if feeding anti-Semitism is the fear, having Jewish organizations like the ADL and CAMERA apply pressure to suppress a major artistic work surely is not the remedy. Their success in censoring Klinghoffer has become major news around the globe, and it is not just genteel opera lovers who planned to see the broadcast who will be outraged. Take a look at the NY Times comments most recommended by readers; the Guardian’s comments are similar. This morning, the Times weighed in with a very critical editorial. Won’t genuine anti-Semites (not to mention the rest of us) see this episode as confirmation of the outsized power of the numerically small Jewish community to act in a narrow-minded, self-serving fashion to the detriment of the much larger population? A genuine anti-Semite plotting to stoke the fires of his/her obsession could not have dreamed up a better scenario.
Fourth, the ADL and Myron Kaplan raised the question of sensitivity to the Klinghoffer daughters, who have been lobbying against the opera since its inception. (I wonder how Kaplan would react to anyone dismissing the Klinghoffers’ statements as “tear jerkers.”) These women are clearly deserving of deepest sympathy. In addition to the horrifying ordeal of hearing about their father’s fate, their mother was suffering from terminal cancer and died just a few months later. The question is not whether the daughters’ suffering is genuine but to what extent sensitivity to their feelings should influence a public decision such as this.
At the time the opera premiered, the Klinghoffers issued a statement complaining that the opera “appears to us to be anti-Semitic… Moreover, the juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the coldblooded murder of an innocent disabled American Jew is both historically naive and appalling.” This political opinion, which frankly is difficult to decipher as well as wrong-headed, is not afforded any credence by their personal ordeal. But their objection to anyone making a cause celebre of their private hell is a more complex issue. Still, the elder Klinghoffers unwillingly became public figures whose compelling story attracted artistic attention, not unlike Patty Hearst, the doomed passengers on United Flight 93, or the anonymous victims of Guernica. The daughters have absolutely no cause to complain that their parents were depicted unfairly or without dignity, or that private details of their lives were unnecessarily exposed.
Moreover, if sensitivity to families who have lost loved ones were to dictate public events, the Palestinians surely would prevail on every dispute with Israelis on the basis of sheer numbers.
Fifth, there is a long history of money shaping the decisions of those who refuse to acknowledge its influence, but in this case, the connection is even clearer than usual. Just two days before the Met’s reversal, the NY Times ran a piece on the sad state of the opera company’s finances, and the embarrassing revelation of director Peter Gelb’s very comfortable salary amidst the pay cuts he is seeking to impose on the company’s unionized workers. Could Gelb have been concerned with the loss of financial support if he refused to “compromise” with the ADL? Is it even possible that he was unconcerned?
Sixth, as awful as the murder of Klinghoffer was, it was no worse than, say, the wanton killing of the two Palestinian teenagers on Nakba day that, despite being captured on film, has not been deemed worthy of condemnation by many of those belly-aching over the Klinghoffer production. In fact, Michael Oren’s pronouncement on CNN that these recent murders might have been staged is reminiscent of, and as disgusting as, a PLO official’s initial “joke” that Marilyn Klinghoffer might have murdered her husband for the insurance money. Of course, the only thing that distinguishes the Nakba Day murders from thousands of other similar killings of Palestinians by Israelis over the last half-century plus is the video confirmation that the victims were cut down in cold blood. Simple decency demands revulsion at the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, but why does it not demand the same revulsion at the murder of untold numbers of Palestinians killed in a similarly cruel and cowardly manner?
The bottom line is that Klingoffer’s sin is not that it is remotely anti-Jewish or even anti-Zionist in any meaningful sense, or even that it is actually pro-Palestinian, but only that it does not conform to the anti-Palestinian ravings that are considered mandatory in a society so heavily influenced by boors like Abe Foxman and Myron Kaplan. While the Met’s decision to capitulate to these pressures is pathetic, the optimist would hope that the almost universal criticism of that decision portends well for the future.
Addendum: Here is the Met’s form letter issued in response to a letter of complaint issued in that very brief period that it tried to defend the simulcast:
Thank you for contacting us.
The Metropolitan Opera has championed the work of John Adams, one of America’s greatest living composers. This will be the third of his operas that the Met has presented over the last seven seasons. The Met is committed to presenting the finest works across the operatic repertory, as well as increasing the accessibility and relevance of the art form.
The Death of Klinghoffer is an opera about a terrible incident that has
become part of a pattern of violence that in the ensuing decades continues to repeat itself. Mr. Adams has said that in writing the opera he tried to understand the hijackers and their motivations, and to look for humanity in the terrorists, as well as in their victims. Tom Morris, the director of the Met’s new production, believes that the opera’s most important contribution is in providing an opportunity for the audience to wrestle with the almost unanswerable questions that arise from this seemingly endless conflict.
Since this opera dramatizes a horrific act of violence, the Met acknowledges that some members of its audience may disagree with the decision to present this work and the Met would like to assure its audiences that it is not endorsing any political views expressed in the libretto. However, the Met believes that in staging it, audiences are being given the opportunity to hear one of the best operas of the late 20th century.
Thank you for taking the time to share your concerns with us.
Met Opera Customer Relations