On Monday, October 20, The Death of Klinghoffer opened at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Many came out to protest it, claiming that it whitewashes terrorism, paints the perpetrators as victims and desensitizes people to hate. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and scores of others came to show their displeasure at the Met’s decision to feature this opera. The daughter of the late Klinghoffer stated, “It rationalizes, romanticizes, and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father.” And in an earlier statement she writes, “Terrorism cannot be rationalized. It cannot be understood. It can never be tolerated as a vehicle for political expression or grievance. Unfortunately, The Death of Klinghoffer does all this, and sullies the memory of a fine, principled, sweet man in the process.” According to many, the opera romanticizes terror, breeds hate, perpetuates moral myopia and desensitizes people (in this case) to antisemitism. According to the Klinghoffer family, the terrorists are portrayed by four distinguished opera singers and given a back story, “an ‘explanation’ for their brutal act of terror and violence,” while the Israeli narrative is diminished, if not ignored.
Klinghoffer is an opera depicting certain events during the Achille Lauro hijacking by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985. During this hijacking, the terrorists killed an elderly wheelchair-bound Jewish man, Leon Klinghoffer (above) shooting him in the head then throwing him off the side of the ship. The claims of this opera being antisemitic or, at the very least, fanning the flames of antisemitism, are not unfounded. In the opera, a character, one of the hijackers named Rambo, has this to say about Jews: “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.” Another terrorist is portrayed contemplating life and meditating on the following: “The day that I—And my enemy—Sit peacefully—Each putting his case—And working towards peace—That day our hope dies—And I shall die too.”
Every State for Israel was present at the protest and asked a few people their reasons for attending. They also asked them what they would like to see from the Christian community. Martin, a Jewish man who had tickets to the opera said that it is antisemitic and glorifies murder. For Martin, and many at the protest, the Klinghoffer opera justifies the murder of Jews. He went on to say, “It is no different than listening to James Earl Ray explain why he assassinated Martin Luther King.” Those protesting felt that the reasons for these murders should not be romanticized. Martin finished by saying that even Cain had a reason for murdering Able, but that does not make it right. When asked what he feels the Christian response to this opera should be, Martin said that they should also come out and protest. Christians should follow the teachings of Jesus, who taught from the Prophets and the Writings, and all of whom stressed that we should love our neighbors. This play muddies the facts when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict and justifies violent action against Jews.
Scott, another protester living Israel, and a son of a mixed (Christian and Jewish) marriage, said he was there because he feels Jews should standup and oppose antisemitism in any form. For Scott it was an issue that crosses religious and ethnic lines. Antisemitism is a human problem, a world-wide issue that must be opposed by all people.
One of the Christians that we spoke to was Mark W., a Presbyterian, who, after researching the play came out, as a Christianand specifically as a Presbyterian, to show solidarity with the Jewish community and to reach his hand out in friendship. Mark commented on the recent vote by the Presbyterian Church to divest from Israel as something that he was appalled by and wishes that Christians would seek to pray and dialogue with the Jewish community.
While many came out to show their outrage at the Met for allowing this opera on its stage, Tablet Magazine reported that some of the patrons were completely unaware–willfully or not is yet to be determined—of the controversy. One quipped he thought “the labor issues had been settled already.” He was referring to a recent agreement on a new labor contract between the Met and two of its unions.
During a time when antisemitism is on the rise globally, and in great numbers, it is questionable why the Met would allow this opera. Some would undoubtedly say that the opera offers a voice to Palestinian suffering. However, as Rabbi Boteach in a recent blog post reminds us, it is in the manner which is it done that is objectionable. He writes that the Palestinians are given a voice “within the context of a horrific historical event in which a completely innocent wheelchair-bound Jewish-American passenger… was shot in cold blood, in the forehead and chest, as he sat in his wheelchair, his body then being dumped into the sea at the command of the terrorists by the ship’s barber and waiter. One can hardly imagine a more wicked crime than the brutal murder of a truly helpless victim who had taken his wife on a cruise to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary. If that is not evil then the word has no meaning.”
Despite the Met allowing this opera to run, people are being made aware of its message. It is as Mayor Giuliani said, “We recognize that people differ, and that the First Amendment gives us the answer: the marketplace of ideas … It would be hypocritical and anti-American for us to interfere with that … but we also have a right, just as strong, and just as compelling, to point out the historical inaccuracy.” Dr. Phylliss Chesler in her NY Post piece writes, “The villain in Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ is unmistakable: He is Scarpia, the police chief of Rome who tortures political prisoners and attempts to rape the great singer, Floria Tosca. We don’t get a backstory about Scarpia’s dysfunctional childhood, nor do we sympathize or identify with him. He is a heartless villain and the opera doesn’t allow (let alone ask) us to pity or sympathize with him. We are meant to fear and despise him, perhaps even hate him.” However, in Klinghoffer we are asked to sympathize with the villains – the terrorists.
One protester said it best (see video here), “Klinghoffer did not die, he was murdered …”