Now that ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ has opened and people are learning what the opera is actually about, the outraged claims made against it are being exposed as hot air.
Until Monday night, when the “The Death of Klinghoffer” opened at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, people knew it was being attacked by many Jews for supposedly being anti-Semitic and for defending terrorists, and they didn’t know if the accusations were true or false. But now that the opera has opened, and it’s been widely reviewed, and audience members have been interviewed, it’s becoming clear to the mainstream public that pays attention to such issues – and this controversy has attracted a lot of attention – that these claims are total bullshit.
And what should be clear, though it probably isn’t, is that the protest against the opera, the raging campaign to prevent it from being staged at the Met, was not made by “American Jews” or even “New York Jews,” but by the anti-Muslim, anti-liberal, pro-war American Jewish right based in New York – the same people whose word should never be taken for anything.
As the right-wing Orthodox Jewish Press noted helpfully in an article titled “For Grass Roots Klinghoffer Protest, Jewish Establishment MIA”:
Not one mainstream Jewish organization has lent its name or its resources to this effort. …
The mostly small, and some quite tiny pro-Israel organizations which have been working tirelessly to fight the Met’s decision to stage “Klinghoffer” are (this is all of them): Advocates for Israel, AMCHA, Americans for a Safe Israel, the Bridge Project, Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, Catholic League, Christians’ Israel Public Action Campaign, Congregation Oheb Zedek, Congregaton Or Zarua, Endowment for Middle East Truth, Hasbara Fellowship, Human Rights Coalition Against Radical Islam, International Committee for the Land of Israel, Israel Forever Foundation, Israel’s Voice, JCCWatch.org, Jewish Action Alliance, Jewish Political Education Foundation, MERCL, Mothers Against Terrorism, One Israel Fund, Rambam Mesivta High School, Shalhevet High School for Girls, Simon Wiesenthal Center, StandWithUs, Strength to Strength, Westchester Hebrew High School, Zionist Organization of America.
This is not to say, though, that it was entirely a fringe effort; a former New York governor and a few local politicians lent their names to the protest. Ronald Lauder, one of the biggest right-wing machers in the world, was on the podium at the rally across from Lincoln Center. Rudolph Giuliani, possibly this crowd’s single favorite gentile, was the guest of honor, and while he argued against forcing “Klinghoffer” to shut down and didn’t accuse it of anti-Semitism, he complained that it was guilty of “historical inaccuracy and historical damage.” In an article in the Daily Beast, he lamented that the opera, first staged in 1991, was partly responsible for the Oslo Accords.
But the giveaway that the attacks on “The Death of Klinghoffer” were the product of the most closed-minded, ultra-nationalistic, bigoted reaches of organized New York Jewry was that the emcee at Monday night’s protest rally was Jeffrey Weisenfeld. Weisenfeld came to fame a few years ago when he blocked a New York college from giving playwright Tony Kushner an honorary doctorate because Kushner wrote (correctly) that Israel carried out ethnic cleansing in the War of Independence. At the time Weisenfeld said, “My mother would call Tony Kushner a kapo.” He also said Palestinians were “not human” because they “worship death for their children.” A couple of years ago he told me in an interview that it wasn’t enough for Israel to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons, it had to destroy all its enemies’ conventional missiles, too. ”Israel can’t go on living with 200,000 missiles pointing at it,” he said.
Another star of the protest was, inevitably, “America’s rabbi,” Shmuley Boteach, scourge of Israel’s critics and sycophant to the rich and famous.
In retrospect, it should have been obvious from the names associated with the protest that the claims against the opera were nonsense. Furthermore, even Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman said the opera “is not anti-Semitic” (though he did harrumph that it is “highly problematic and has a strong anti-Israel bias …”) One just has to ask himself: Would New York’s Metropolitan Opera put on an anti-Semitic production? Would it glorify terrorism? And if anybody were going to glorify terrorism, would they do it by showing terrorists on a hijacked cruise ship shooting an old man in a wheelchair and throwing him overboard?
But again, nobody had seen the opera. People were not aware that this wasn’t American Jewry making accusations, this was hysterical right-wing American Jewry making accusations. And finally, the protest was given legitimacy by the moral leadership provided by Leon Klinghoffer’s daughters, Lisa and Ilsa. In a letter included in the playbill given to members of the audience, they wrote that the opera “presents false moral equivalencies without context, and offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew. It rationalizes, romanticizes and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father.”
Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer’s motives are pure; they’re acting out of personal anguish and whatever they say or do with regard to the opera is understandable and irreproachable. Not so at all for the protest’s rank and file, though, and unfortunately the Klinghoffer daughters’ immunity from criticism was transferred, to a large degree, to the protest itself. Whether or not the Klinghoffer daughters or the protesters intended it, the effect on the public watching the controversy play out was a kind of emotional blackmail: If the victim’s daughters say the opera glorifies terrorism, who am I to say it doesn’t, especially when I haven’t seen it?
But again, this changed after Monday night when the reviews came in, and when audience members who’d actually seen the play (unlike the protesters) began talking about it. Here’s Jordan Hoffman’s review in the Times of Israel, a centrist website:
The [protesters’] problem with the work … seemed to stem from the fact that the opera does not portray the hijackers as mindless bloodthirsty monsters, but dares to give the men and their cause a degree of backstory.
That it also shows these men shooting an innocent elderly man in cold blood and concludes with a heartbreaking aria from his widow didn’t seem to carry much weight with this bunch, nor did any discussion of whether representation in a work of fiction automatically means endorsement.
Here’s Adam Langer in The Forward, a liberal Zionist publication, after seeing a dress rehearsal:
Does the opera, as some protesters have contended, idealize terrorism or condone murder? Of course not. If anything, it seems to be an impassioned and perhaps naive plea for dialogue and mutual understanding.
That’s from the Times of Israel and the Forward, there’s no need to quote New York Times reviewer Anthony Tommasini’s dismissal of the protesters’ claims. But what the hell:
In the libretto, the murder takes place offstage. Here, it is depicted explicitly, which should silence detractors who charge that “Klinghoffer” explains away a vicious murder.
For the reactions of audience members, see here and here. The opening-night performance got “tremendous” ovations at the end, according to the Times. A lot of the people cheering – maybe even most of them – were New York Jews, which is important to remember.
Myself, I didn’t see the opera but I did read the libretto (the words), and I have to say that from that alone, I didn’t understand the opera’s message; the lines are written in lyric poetry, and most of it I couldn’t make heads or tails of. But there were some parts literal enough for me to understand, such as the “heartbreaking aria from [Klinghoffer’s] widow” that ends the opera, and the crudely anti-Semitic remarks spoken by a killer named “Rambo.” Plus, of course, I knew that the opera shows Palestinian terrorists murdering an old Jewish man in a wheelchair. So while I still don’t know what the opera’s message is, I damn sure know what it isn’t.