Rhetoric Rising As ‘Klinghoffer’ Opera Nears
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Rhetoric Rising As ‘Klinghoffer’ Opera Nears

Wheelchair protest set for opening night as sides dig in.

In the face of overwhelming condemnation by the Jewish community over what it considers to be an anti-Semitic opera, The Metropolitan Opera, in a strategy unveiled in recent days, is asking people to come to the opera’s premiere performance Monday night and decide for themselves.

“See it, then decide,” the Met’s website implores the public, making the case that works of art — perhaps even controversial and disturbing ones — should be seen and not shuttered, as some in the Jewish community are demanding. “Join the conversation on Oct. 21,” the website says. “Read audience reactions and share your own comments about the production.”

The opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” tells the story of four Palestinian terrorists who in 1985 hijacked the Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro, shot and killed an American Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, and then threw his body and wheelchair overboard.

A wheelchair — 50 of them — has become the symbol with which demonstrators plan to protest the opening night performance of the opera. The wheelchairs are to be assembled at the base of the entrance to the Met and people in the chairs will be wearing a sign saying, “I am Leon Klinghoffer,” according to one of the protest organizers, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld.

A coalition of groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Zionist Organization of America and the Catholic League, have organized the protest, which is slated to begin at 5:30 p.m. across the street from the Met at Broadway and West 65th Street.

“This is a game changer,” said Wiesenfeld. “When anti-Semitism reaches the pinnacle of American high culture, a Rubicon has been crossed. … This opera is not just anti-Semitic but there is gratuitous anti-Semitism that is repeated and repeated.”

In the contemporary opera by John Adams, one of the Palestinian terrorists sings an aria about Jews: “You are always complaining of your suffering, but 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. America is one big Jew.”

In the prologue, a chorus of exiled Palestinians sings: “My father’s house was razed in 1948 when the Israelis passed over our street. … Of that house, not a wall in which a bird might nest was left to stand. Israel laid all to waste. … Our faith will take the stones he broke and break his teeth.”

Leon Klinghoffer himself addresses one of the terrorists, singing: “Was it your pal who shot that little girl at the airport in Rome? You would have done the same, there’s so much anger in you. And hate. I know how the children in the Promised Land learn to sleep underground because of your shelling. Old men at the Wailing Wall get a knife in the back. You laugh. You pour gasoline over women passengers on the bus to Tel Aviv and burn them alive. … You just want to see people die. You’re crazy.”

In response to concerns in the Jewish community about the opera, Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, agreed with what Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called a “compromise” — to proceed with the opera performance at the Met but to cancel its Nov. 15 simultaneous satellite broadcast to 2,000 movie theaters in 66 countries.

“I’m convinced that the opera is not anti-Semitic,” Gelb explained in a press release. “But I’ve also become convinced that there is genuine concern in the international Jewish community that the live transmission of ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.”

Despite that concession, leaders of most major American Jewish organizations — including UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York — signed a letter saying they were “deeply disturbed” by the Met’s decision to go ahead with the opera.

Eugene Grant, a real estate developer and member of the board of the Metropolitan Opera, said he had opposed the simulcast and told Gelb of his concern in terms of fundraising from board members and the community.

Grant, who is honorary president of The Jewish Week, said he believes the opera is “anti-Semitic” but does not oppose the staging of it at the Met. He noted that there will be “just eight performances” and after that, “let it die of its own dead weight.”

Foxman said Monday that he does not believe he made a mistake in agreeing to sanction the opera’s performance at the Met.

“We cannot dictate to a public institution,” he said. “They have the right to make a decision and we can exercise our right not to see it. We’re not going to force them not to do it. It was a bad judgment call by the Met, but I don’t think the Met is an enemy of the Jewish people, nor is Peter Gelb. Let’s not make them one. … It is not being done to be offensive to Jews or the Klinghoffer family.

“Would I have liked the Met to cancel it? Yes. And if it did, we would be accused of controlling not only the media but also the arts of this country.”

But Charles Asher Small, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy, the first interdisciplinary center dedicated to scholarly research about anti-Semitism, said he was distressed to learn that the South African Tourism Ministry had taken out a full-page ad in the opera Playbill that encourages travelers to visit and “retrace the eternal footsteps of Nelson Mandela.”

“The canard of the Muslim Brotherhood is that Israel is an apartheid state and it would be morally mandated to dismantle the State of Israel,” he explained. “Mandela represents the triumph over the apartheid racist system.”

In addition, he said he was upset that one of the sets in the opera has the words “Warsaw 1943” and “Bethlehem 2005.”

“To compare Israel to a Nazi state and an apartheid state — this is a sophisticated attack on the Jewish people,” he insisted.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform movement in North America, said his organization chose to issue a statement of protest instead of joining Monday’s demonstration.

“We believe that the Met has the right to put on an opera of their choosing and that we have the right to protest it,” he told The Jewish Week. “It is important that artistic expression be upheld, and at the same time it is important to understand that the expressions of anti-Semitism throughout Europe … [make it] unwise for the opera to be shared at this time.”

He said he hoped protesters would act with “civility and respect,” and that those who choose to attend the opera “should not be vilified nor … aggressively challenged.”

Wiesenfeld said he understood from police sources that only 30 to 40 percent of the Met’s tickets to the opera have been sold. He said he had heard that some attendees plan to walk out or otherwise disrupt the performance. The Met has slashed the price of tickets, offering an orchestra seat that normally is sold for $125 for as low as $80.

One former Met season ticket holder, Eve Epstein, said has “never seen special pricing with costs this low for any premiere of a Met opera.” And she noted that the Met, citing a scheduling conflict, canceled an Oct. 15 talk about the opera. It would have featured the director and stars of the production.

Instead, the Met posted a video on its website of Adams’, the opera’s author, explaining his motivation for writing the opera.

“The opera tries to look at the terrorists and the passengers and see humanity in both of them,” he said. “For some people that is an egregious mistake. I don’t feel it is. I feel that for all of the brutality and moral wrong that they perpetrated in killing this man, they are still human beings and there still have to be reasons why they did this act.”

But several participants at a teach-in about the opera that was to be held this week under the auspices of a coalition of groups led by Small’s group saw it differently.

One of the participants, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, said he understands that “art is always pushing the envelope, but I do believe it has to have some sort of moral foundation. An opera that romanticizes terrorism — especially in a city with the most Jewish citizens in the world — is deeply offensive. What will people say in 10 years about the ISIS terrorists? Just imagine if there were an opera with a singing freedom fighter who then chops off the head [of a captive]. … The Klinghoffer family condemned the opera and spoke of the grotesque insensitivity of having to watch murderers of their father portrayed as freedom fighters.”

Another participant, Betty Ehrenberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, North America, said her organization opposed the staging of the opera “because we feel it sympathizes with terrorists and tries to equate the arsonist with the firefighter by ostensibly bringing in both sides. But both sides are not equal. … They should cancel the opera.”

Another panelist, author Phyllis Chesler, author of the book “The New Anti-Semitism, ” said that after listening to the opera, studying the libretto and watching the movie of the opera, the Met’s “showcasing of this opera is, in a sense, equivalent to a college president’s decision to allow the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS Hamas or the Ku Klux Klan to speak on campus because ‘all sides must be heard’ or because ‘everyone has their point of view.’”

“In The Death of Klinghoffer, the emotional deck is loaded against both Jews and Jewish Israel and in favor, not merely of Palestinians, but in favor of Palestinian terrorists,” she added. “They are meant to be pitied, understood, perhaps forgiven — but not the Jews, who are seen as greedy, thieving colonizers.”

editor@jewishweek.org

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