See the Met's "Klinghoffer," Then Judge It

4th Nov 2014

I don’t understand what all the meshugas is about.

“Who could have imagined/Such a business/Such a meshugas?” cries Marilyn Klinghoffer, a passenger on the doomed Achille Lauro cruise ship coasting through the Mediterranean. Little does she know at the time that her husband, a 69-year-old wheelchair-bound New York Jew named Leon Klinghoffer, has just been shot by a Palestinian terrorist, his body thrown overboard into the Mediterranean.

Long before it even premiered at the Met last month, The Death of Klinghoffer, a 23-year-old opera dramatizing the 1985 hijacking, sparked a controversy normally reserved for major Supreme Court decisions or a Renée Zellweger plastic surgery disaster.

The reason for the brouhaha is not hard to decipher: the production, with music by the noted American composer John Adams and a libretto by Alice Goodman, memorializes a cruelly tragic episode in the fraught history between Arabs and Jews. And as is the case with practically anything concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict, debate has trailed the work ever since its first staging in Brussels in 1991. Critics have assailed it for glorifying terrorism; some have even said that the opera itself is anti-Semitic.

On opening night, hundreds of protesters, many of them sitting in symbolic wheelchairs, gathered outside the Met toassail tuxedo-clad theatergoers with cries of “Shame!”

Writing recently in this space, opera fan and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani argued that “this opera didn’t create but certainly contributed to a romanticized version of the Palestinian cause which led to the American administration giving them hundreds of millions of dollars meant for the Palestinian people but mostly taken by [former Palestinian Liberation Organization head Yasir] Arafat and his band of terrorist crooks.” That’s a pretty strong indictment against a mere opera.

Having reviewed anti-Israeli agitprop masquerading as theater, I was prepared to join critics in hating The Death of Klinghoffer. Beginning with the title—Klinghoffer did not merely “die,” he was brutally murdered—there was every reason to be suspicious of the opera and the motives of those who created it.

Goodman curiously converted from Judaism to Christianity halfway through writing the libretto; Adams, in an autobiography published years after the controversy erupted, wrote that “Israeli behavior on the world stage is off limits to criticism,” an oft-heard, histrionic plaint uttered by Israel bashers oblivious to the fact that there is probably no country on earth criticized more frequently, or ferociously, than the tiny Jewish State.

But unlike most critics of the opera, I wanted to see the production before commenting on it (reading the libretto and listening to the music, as Giuliani said he had done, would not suffice). “See it. Then decide,” the Met challenges skeptics on its mini-website devoted to The Death of Klinghoffer. I took the Met up on its offer.

The most troublesome aspect of The Death of Klinghoffer begins with its prologue, set in 1948, when the “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians,” relate their tale of displacement and woe in the aftermath of Israel’s independence. “Israel/Laid all to waste,” they intone.

The choir then transforms into a “Chorus of Exiled Jews,” whose grievances are more abstract, making no mention of the major precipitating factor of their (most recent) exile: the Holocaust. “When I paid off the taxi, I had no money left” hardly rivals “My father’s house was razed/in nineteen forty-eight/When the Israelis passed,” in terms of dramatic effect, never mind actual suffering.

The real problem with this juxtaposition, however, is not the balance of misery endured by Palestinians and Jews, an argument that could go on forever and does little to solve the current morass. Rather, it is the very linking of the Arab-Israeli conflict to Klinghoffer’s brutal murder that is morally specious.

The members of the Palestinian Liberation Front hijacked the Achille Lauro in hopes of convincing Israel to release terrorists held in captivity, but they murdered Leon Klinghoffer solely because he was Jewish. This crime was an early salvo in the worldwide campaign of terrorist attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions, which reached a frightening crescendo this past summer.

Some commentators tried to link these assaults to the most recent conflict in Gaza, arguing that Israel’s behavior towards Palestinians inspires anti-Semitism around the world. This is an anti-Semitic canard, blaming Jews for the hatred directed at them. It should not have to be reiterated that anti-Semites cause anti-Semitism, not Jews, just as racists, and not blacks, cause racism, and homophobes, not gays, are responsible for homophobia.

Though the terrorists who seized the ship and eventually killed Leon Klinghoffer are portrayed in all their brutal, anti-Semitic rage, the libretto repeatedly returns to the story of Palestinian exile as a way of explaining, if not necessarily justifying, their base actions. The opera’s conceit of linking the displacement of the Palestinians to the murder of Klinghoffer is objectionable in so much as it lends credence to the inherently anti-Semitic claim that Jews, or the Jewish State, are in some way culpable for the hatred directed against them.

Yet there is no mistaking perpetrators and victims on the Achille Lauro. The men who murdered Klinghoffer are portrayed as emotionally cold murderers. Here, for instance, is how one passenger uses the ordeal to remark upon the animal nature of mankind, as exemplified by terrorists who threaten to kill innocents as means of getting their way:

To see one’s fellow men become
Like beasts, diminished by each scream,
That, for me, is what shocks. How thin
The coat is: unlined velveteen,
And underneath, the monkey’s back.

It is not The Death of Klinghoffer’s poor, benighted Palestinians, kicked off their land and fighting back in the only way they know how (a frequent refrain of terrorism apologists) who emerge as the most sympathetic characters, but the opera’s namesake, a hero who summons the courage to confront his captors with their perfidy when no one else on the ship will, a feat all the more remarkable given his physical disability. Klinghoffer’s wife Marilyn, meanwhile, endears herself with small talk on the minutiae of aging:

Those replacement
Joints they have today,
They’re miracles. We
Have friends of eighty
Who have literally
Thrown walkers away

I understand the siege mentality felt by many friends of Israel and have sympathy for those who protested The Death of Klinghoffer. The Met’s production takes place against a real-life backdrop of rising anti-Semitic sentiment worldwide; the situation has become so perilous in Europe that a recent Newsweek coverfeatured a young Jewish woman holding a briefcase with the title “Exodus: Why Europe’s Jews are Fleeing Again.”

Several European Jewish friends, completely secular in their identity, have told me that they are considering emigration seriously for the first times in their lives, so intolerable has the climate become.

In light of all this, the restaging of a controversial production dramatizing a 30-year-old incident, and one that draws a connection, however tenuous, between the creation of the state of Israel and the murder of an elderly Jewish man, seems slightly out of place, particularly when there have been no shortage of more recent Islamist assaults on free society.

Why not an opera about the murder of Dutch artist Theo van Gogh, killed because he made a film criticizing Islam, and the hounding of his collaborator, the brilliant and beautiful Ayaan Hirsi Ali? Or what about the horrific, 2012 attack on a Jewish school in France, in which a 23-year-old Algerian Muslim murdered seven people, including a rabbi and his three children, aged 8, 6, and 3, executing them at point-blank range?

For reasons only its artistic team can explain, the Met decided to restage this work, surely knowing the outrage it would engender. But the response from prominent Jewish groups and leaders has been shortsighted. Ultimately it is liberty, of which artistic freedom is a key component, which distinguishes the Jewish State from its enemies.

Calls for boycotts and the disruption of an artistic performance, as some self-professed lovers of Zion did at Klinghoffer’s opening night, is the type of behavior usually employed by pro-Palestinian activists, whose repeated interruptions of a concert by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra at the 2011 London Proms were so unruly that the BBC eventually cut its live broadcast.

Those who criticize The Death of Klinghoffer as a work that “glorifies” terrorism or, even worse, encourages anti-Semitism, would do well to see the production, and pay particular attention to the opening scene.

As the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians concludes their tale of woe with a pledge to “break” the “teeth” of “the supplanter,” (an inkling of the debilitating hatred and lust for violence that afflicts their cause to this day), the actors morph into stateless Jews, who, after having suffered their own historic catastrophe, plant olive trees and begin the slow work of rebuilding an ancient homeland.

Naturally, this cheery resolve generates less of a visceral reaction in the audience than the embittered Palestinian lament, which hangs over the rest of the opera like a bloodcurdling battle cry. I’ll leave it to audiences to decide which response to national tragedy has been more productive.

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