A few days ago, the Public Radio of Israel (KAN) broadcast part of German composer Richard Wagner´s opera Götterdämmerung. As audience protest soon arose, radio authorities had to apologize for what they said was an “error”. The work of Richard Wagner has been marred in controversy for a very long time in Israel. One has to go back to the late 1930s, when the Jewish state had not yet been established as a state, to find an instance in which Wagner was performed free of polemics in what was then British Mandatory Palestine and is today modern Israel.
Three days after the Kristallnacht, in November 1938, the third season of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, the precursor of the current Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, was set to begin. Maestro Arturo Toscanini planned to direct wagner´s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. In light of the events in Austria and Germany, the orchestra’s board asked the Italian musician to remove that piece from the repertoire. Toscanini accepted. Thus was set the first precedent of what was to become a protracted conflict between Wagnerians and anti-Wagnerians in the Jewish state.
In his time, Wagner was a prominent anti-Semite. Not just a consumer of anti-Semitism, like other musicians were -Liszt, Chopin-, but a promoter of anti-Semitism. He published, under a pseudonym in 1850 and using his real name nineteen years later, Das Judenthum in Der Musik, a notorious Judeophobic tract in which he called for the annihilation of the Jewish people. In 1881, he applauded a pogrom in Warsaw (“That’s the only way it can be done, throwing these people out and giving them a good beating”) and expressed joy when a fire in a famous Vienna theater caused the death of many Jews (“All Jews should end up burned in Nathan’s work”). He rubbed shoulders with famous racial theorists of the time -Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain- and recorded his virulent hatred of the Jews in his memoirs, letters and writings. His second wife Cosima added evidence of his anti-Semitism in her private diaries, which cover 5,150 days of life together, from January 1869 until Wagner’s death in February 1883.
Although Wagner died half a century before the Nazis took power in Germany, during the Third Reich he reigned supreme. Many TV news programs accompanied images of the air force with Die Walküre. Segments of Rienzi anticipated speeches in Nazi rallies throughout Germany. His music was played in Nazi galas. When Hitler committed suicide, the radio broadcast the funeral march of Siegfried. Wagner’s music was played at concentration camps and it was attributed to Josef Mengele to listen to Wagner´s compositions while performing his monstrous medical experiments. Leni Riefenstahl included excerpts from a Wagner opera in her film The Triumph of Will. The Fuehrer said that it was upon hearing Rienzi that he found the conviction to unite Germany and expand the Third Reich. “It’s on Parsifal that I build my religion,” he said. “In Siegfried, Parsifal, Stolzing, Lohengrin we recognize that eternally German principle of life,” he opined. One of his most famous sayings about Wagner was: “To understand what National Socialism is, one must read Wagner.”
The Wagnerians do not deny or minimize the atrocious anti-Semitism of the German composer, or his protonazism. “Wagner was 110% anti-Semitic,” admitted Zubin Metha. But they are, nevertheless, willing to promote his operas given the fascination they evoke in them. “I hate Wagner,” proclaimed director Leonard Bernstein, “but I hate him on my knees.” Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim, Mendi Rodan and Roberto Paternostro, among several others, offer valid arguments by pointing out that musicians who collaborated with the Nazis -Richard Strauss, Carl Orff, Franz Lehár- no longer cause controversy in Israel. Or that companies like Bayer, Mercedes-Benz and Hugo Boss (all of them involved in the German industry during the war) sell their products in the Jewish state without problems. However, these musicians seem to have difficulty in grasping the symbolic value of Richard Wagner as a cultural emblem of Nazism in general, and as a personal fetish of Adolf Hitler in particular. No law in Israel prohibits Wagner’s music. Rather, it has become traditional to reject the public performance of his works so as not to relate a cultural symbol of Nazism with a cultural symbol of the Jewish state, such as a state orchestra or radio.
Music critic David Goldman offered a pertinent appreciation of the heated debate. “In a Jewish state,” he wrote in Tablet, “the public has the right to ask of Jewish musicians to be Jews first and musicians second.” Critic Alex Ross added a powerful observation. “If there is a place where only Wagner is allowed to be heard,” he wrote in The New Yorker in relation to the Bayreuth sanctuary, “there should also be a place where Wagner is asked to remain silent.” Can anyone imagine a better place for that than the state of Israel?