The Klinghoffer Opera Controversy and the Limits of Public Discourse

It’s really not about art. Nor is it really about antisemitism. It’s about the self-imposed limits of civil discourse. And it’s also about actions so abominable that they simply have no place in that discourse.

The controversial opening of “The Death of Klinghoffer” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera this week has gotten many people angry. An unconventional treatment of the Palestinian high-jacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship and the murder of an elderly American Jew confined to a wheelchair, it is a work that has expectantly been engendered controversy from the get-go.

Unfortunately, the real reason for the righteous anger has been camouflaged by a tired debate over whether the play is or is not anti-Semitic. There is certainly room to think of this work as antisemitic, certainly anti-Israel. If providing a more nuanced, perhaps even sympathetic, portrayal of Palestinian terrorists should be categorized that way, then this opera would surely qualify. Moreover, many have pointed out that we could not imagine such a treatment of 9/11 or even of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But ultimately none of that is really the point.

Instead, we should stop intellectualizing and pay more attention to a much more basic and intuitive revulsion that many of us feel. That revulsion comes from the circumstances of Leon Klinghoffer’s murder in 1985 and how we expect all decent humans to relate to it. Rabbi Harvey Tattlebaum, Klinghoffer’s eulogist, said it best almost thirty years ago when he called the murder a “Holocaust of one.” For what ultimately defines the Holocaust as an aberration to all men is the unimaginably cruel acts preformed by its perpetrators. And it is this more than anything else which makes sympathy for the Nazis a taboo that legitimate artists dare not touch.

I am convinced that one should evaluate most acts according to their contexts. Accordingly, I upset quite a few readers when I wrote that suicide-killings are not intrinsically evil, noting that the first one in Jewish history was committed by Samson. But there are limits. Shooting a defenseless invalid and throwing him off a boat in his wheelchair speaks of such sub-human cruelty that no context can justify it. And when its creator, John Adams, does just that – and it seems hard to deny that the opera seeks to understand the killers as much as it does the victims – it should make us – all decent people and not just Jews – sick.

Hence “The Death of Klinghoffer” should not be seen as an affront to Jews. Rather it is an affront to humanity and to what it means to be human. Mankind is divided by many things and some of these things lead to legitimate conflicts. In turn, these conflicts can get out of hand. But one thing that Judaism (and other religions) teaches is that there is no situation that can legitimate the perpetration of inhuman acts. When art, or any other realm of the public square, challenges that, it actually violates its own very essence. For, ultimately, successful art is meant to make us more human, not less so.