Now I will be the first to admit that I don’t know much about opera. I do love most genres of music, but somehow opera never grabbed me. I remember officiating at a wedding many years ago for a rabbinic colleague and the bride and groom gifted me a three album set of the 33 rpm recording of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” I listened to it for about ten minutes before replacing the album with the sound track from West Side Story.
So, why is it that now, I am particularly interested in an opera that has made headlines, not just these last months, but for more than twenty years since it debuted on the stage? A bit of background: “The Death of Klinghoffer” is an American opera, with music composed by John Adams to an English-language libretto by Alice Goodman (more about Alice Goodman in a moment). The opera was first produced in Brussels and New York in 1991 and it is based on the hijacking of the passenger cruise ship, Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists on October 7, 1985, and the murder of a Jewish-American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer by throwing him overboard. I remember that incident well. I was living in Israel with my family while studying at a rabbinical seminary when we heard the news. On October 8, after being refused permission by the Syrian government to dock at Tartus, the hijackers murdered Klinghoffer, a retired, defenseless, wheelchair-bound Jewish American businessman, shooting him in the forehead and chest. They then had his body and his wheelchair thrown overboard.
The opera has drawn considerable controversy; many have asserted that the opera is anti-Semitic, including the daughters of the Klinghoffer family who have expressed outrage at what they say is the exploitation of their parents and the cold blooded murder of their father because he was Jewish. An excerpt from the lyrics certainly supports that allegation sung and spoken by “Rambo” who is, in reality, not Sylvester Stallone, but terrorist Mohammed Zaidan:
“You are always complaining of your suffering but wherever poor men are gathered you can find Jews/getting fat./You know how to cheat the simple/Exploit the virgin,/Pollute where you have exploited/Defame those you have cheated/And break your own law with idolatry. America is one big Jew.”
Now fast forward to New York in February, 2014. The World Famous New York Metropolitan Opera scheduled “The Death of Klinghoffer” to be performed live on October 20th with seven additional performances through the month of November. Because of protests, the opera company cancelled an international simulcast and radio broadcast of the opera to theatres throughout the world due to an outpouring of concern that it would fuel the flames of global anti-Semitism.
Now, I certainly understand that concern. With the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and in other continents throughout the world, the opera company is doing just that. In September and October there have been protestors who have picketed outside of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. On October 20th, the opening night of the opera, hundreds stood outside the opera house, many in wheelchairs to protest the opening night of the opera’s performance.
What is of great concern to me is the fact that the opera presents a moral equivalence between the terrorists and their victims. Maybe that is one of the reasons that many opera houses in the US have refused to allow “The Death of Klinghoffer” to be presented. Even New York Times music columnist and critic Richard Taruskin criticized Adams and the opera for “romanticizing terrorists.”
It appears that Mr. Adams and Ms. Goodman, creators of this opera, wanted to humanize the terrorists who murdered Klinghoffer by delving more deeply into justifying their acts of terror for ‘their cause.’ But regardless of ‘their cause,’ civilized human beings do not hijack ships or planes and murder innocent people as those Palestinian terrorists did to Leon Klinghoffer. To create a moral equivalence between the victim and the terrorist essentially attempts to portray the terrorist with a human heart. He may have a heart in the physical sense, but his acts of terror clearly demonstrate that he is devoid of a heart in the moral sense. Terrorism is immoral. To compare terrorists with their victims is immoral and reprehensible. Imagine doing this for the Islamic State, Boko Haram, or Al-Qaeda. Imagine the expression of moral revulsion of people throughout the world.
Now to Ms. Goodman. More than two decades ago Alice Goodman, who wrote the libretto to “The Death of Klinghoffer” was quoted in an interview about Leon Klinghoffer’s murder. This is what she said: “I think in many ways he was killed as a wheelchair user more than anything else.” Goodman, who converted from Judaism to become a Church of England Parish Priest, rejected her Jewish heritage and joined a church whose leadership has been consistently known for its animosity toward Israel. For Goodman to publicly state that Leon Klinghoffer was murdered because of his disability rather than because he was a Jew is a gross misrepresentation and speaks for itself.
To those who suggest that the cancellation of the simulcast is an affront to free speech and censoring the cultural arts, I certainly do understand the slippery slope argument. But I also think that sometimes there are situations where a moral stand ought to be taken, even though it may go against our inclination to allow everything. We still cannot yell “fire” in a theatre although some would argue that is a ‘right.
I would ask those who feel strongly about the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to allow the live performances of the Klinghoffer Opera to go on, what would those people feel if Adams and Goodman had written an opera about 9/11, romanticizing the terrorists who hijacked those passenger planes which intentionally crashed into the two World Trade Center towers and the ones that crashed in Pennsylvania and into the Pentagon? How would the victims’ families feel if an opera was written and performed suggesting a moral equivalence between their murdered loved ones and the terrorists? For the Met to cancel the simulcast and radio broadcasts but to allow the live performances in New York City is just incomprehensible.
Jonathan Tobin hit the nail on the head when he wrote in “Commentary”: “To say that art should challenge its audiences to rethink their positions on issues or values is one thing. But to rationalize terrorism and the murder of a helpless old man simply because he was a Jew and spoke up against his tormentors does more than push the envelope of conventional tastes. It treats the indefensible as arguable. It portrays actions which are, in any civilized society, considered immoral and base and treats them as merely a question of one’s point of view. As such, ‘Klinghoffer’ must be considered as not merely offensive but morally corrupt.”
The New York Times in a September editorial defended the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to allow the live performances of the opera to go on. I applaud Judea Pearl, father of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan. Dr. Pearl responded to the editorial in a letter to the editor when he wrote: “What we are seeing in New York is not an artistic expression that challenges the limits of morality but a moral deformity that challenges the limits of the art.”
Mark Arnold who lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts summed up what I and so many people feel about the opera house’s decision to allow the live performances of this controversial opera. His letter to the New York Times eloquently stated: “Certainly, the Metropolitan Opera has a right to stage the opera, but for what purpose? And why now? Some events are too raw, too sensitive, too wrenching, too immoral to be depicted evenhandedly and without judgment. And if this opera seeks to communicate some larger truth, some cosmic message for our times that justifies its being performed now, trumping the pain that it causes, what is it?”
The New York Metropolitan Opera did the right thing by cancelling the simulcast and radio broadcast of “The Death of Klinghoffer” throughout the world. Now the Met should do the right thing by cancelling the remainder of live performances of the opera. Failure to cancel the opera will be viewed by many as a breach of the obligation to foster the moral quality of what is perhaps one of the most influential of all art forms.
(A portion of this article was published as an op-ed in the October 21st edition of the Sacramento Bee).