Next month the Metropolitan Opera in New York City will stage “The Death of Klinghoffer,” a production that revolves around the tragic Achille Lauro hijacking by the Palestine Liberation Front of October, 1985. I have personally only seen Penny Woolcock’s TV-film adaption, and I’m guessing that this column isn’t going to score me any free tickets to the upcoming production. But I write here not about the artistic merit of the production but about its much-discussed content. Why this production and why now?
The Western world is currently engulfed in a global war against terror that has at its center the following two questions: first, are civilian non-combatants fair targets in a guerrilla war waged by aggrieved terrorists, and second, is there a moral equivalence between democratic powers killings these terrorists and terrorists killing civilians?
The morality of Western democracies pivot around the answers to these questions being no and no. If civilians are fair game and if terrorists targeting children can claim to be as moral as, say, American marines targeting the Taliban, then morality has no meaning and values-based democracies are nothing but a cruel farce. Once ‘militants’ murder civilians they are terrorists.
And yet this is precisely the objection that has been raised against “The Death of Klinghoffer” ever since its first performance in Brussels in March, 1991. Composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman repeatedly claimed that their purpose in the production was to afford equal voice to both Palestinian and Israeli suffering. What they forgot, however, was that they were doing so within the context of a horrific historical event in which a completely innocent wheelchair-bound Jewish-American passenger, with no connection to the political events purportedly behind the highjacking, 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.
Whatever points could be raised here over the rights and boundaries of art, one question is begged: what value is derived from reliving this horrific event, albeit in a beautified form? Is the murder interesting or simply monstrous? Is it taboo-busting or voyeurism? The opera has been written. It has been performed. Was that not enough for Adams to resurrect the amorality of a play that equates murderers and victims? Why go through it all again?
I write this not as an advocate for censorship, something I passionately oppose. But let people be educated about its glaring flaws lest they fall into the trap of the moral equivalence between those who live to kill and those who are forced to kill because they wish to live.
When the Brooklyn Academy of Music (which, incidentally, is run by a highly respected friend of mine) first staged Klinghoffer in 1991, Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer, attended anonymously. Disgusted at the idealistic portrayal of their father’s killers, they issued a statement:
We are outraged at the exploitation of our parents and the coldblooded murder of our father as the centerpiece of a production that appears to us to be anti-Semitic. While we understand artistic license, when it so clearly favors one point of view it is biased. 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, of course, was written a full decade prior to the unforgettable events of September 11, 2001. And here we are, two decades later, about to embark on the artistic enterprise of once-again providing a lyrical justification for murder from the standpoint of terrorists. I find it inexplicable that a full opera, the result of months and years of writing, planning and performance, is being welcomed by a highly respected institution into the post-9/11 cultural landscape. And here in New York City!
Writing just three months after 9/11 in The New York Times, Richard Taruskin powerfully captured this pivotal criticism of the production:
If the events of Sept. 11 could not jar some artists and critics out of their habit of romantically idealizing criminals, then nothing will… If terrorism — specifically, the commission or advocacy of deliberate acts of deadly violence directed randomly at the innocent — is to be defeated, world public opinion has to be turned decisively against it. The only way to do that is to focus resolutely on the acts rather than their claimed (or conjectured) motivations, and to characterize all such acts, whatever their motivation, as crimes. This means no longer romanticizing terrorists as Robin Hoods and no longer idealizing their deeds as rough poetic justice.
Then there is the question of Israel and the plight of Jews in all this. For eleven year I served as rabbi to the students of Oxford University where I hosted five Israeli Prime Ministers and countless pro-Israel speakers. To be sure, they were protested against and the sympathies of the students — always championing the perceived underdog — were primarily with the Palestinians. Nevertheless, our speakers were accorded the basic decency of being heard. And when their arguments were perceived to be convincing, they were even given standing ovations. No longer. Pro-Israel speakers on British campuses are lucky to make it out whole, that is, if they are ever afforded an opportunity to speak in the first place. There is an outpouring of open anti-Israel hostility that belies the simple truth of the Middle East, which is that Israel remains its only open and fully functioning democracy, albeit with a seemingly intractable problem of having a large and hostile Palestinian population who of course deserve full rights but who seem intent on using those freedoms to ensure that Israel no longer exists.
But whatever one’s feelings are on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not much matter. There is no excuse to ever target civilians as part of one’s terror war. And one can only imagine how the coming production of Klinghoffer will serve to further distort the simple message that only pathetic cowards shoot a man in a wheelchair, however justified they feel their rage to be.