by Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League
Since the Metropolitan Opera's announcement that it would cancel plans for a global simulcast of the controversial John Adams opera, "The Death of Klinghoffer" in response to concerns that the opera's broadcast to 66 countries around the world could promote anti-Semitism and legitimize terrorism, there have been impassioned arguments on both sides of the debate. Some music critics and fans have misunderstood -- or mischaracterized -- our concerns about the opera, while others have questioned why so many in the Jewish community, particularly the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer, continue to object to performances of this flawed and biased work.
Here is my attempt to answer some of the most common questions, and to clear up some misconceptions surrounding the Anti-Defamation League's advocacy on behalf of the Klinghoffer family in working to convince the Met that, given the subject matter at hand, a simulcast of this opera in more than 2,000 theaters worldwide would be ill-advised at this time of rising anti-Semitism around the world.
- Who was Leon Klinghoffer, and what exactly happened to him?
The terrorist murder of the 69-year-old, wheelchair-bound American Leon Klinghoffer in 1985 was a watershed event for Americans and American Jews who were then mostly unaffected by terrorism. Klinghoffer's death was senseless and horrific. Palestinian terrorists took over the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro on October 7, 1985. The terrorists, affiliated with the Palestinian Liberation Front, separated the Americans and the British citizens from the more than 400 people on board. Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, were on the cruise with a group of 11 friends celebrating the couple's wedding anniversary. The following day, on October 8, the terrorists viciously shot Leon in the head and pushed him in his wheelchair overboard into the Mediterranean Sea.
- Why is the John Adams opera such a lightning rod?
The opera juxtaposes the plight of the Palestinian people with the cold-blooded murder of an innocent disabled American Jew, and attempts to take this brutal act of terrorism and rationalize, legitimize and explain it. The opera has been a source of great distress for the Klinghoffer family and particularly his daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, who co-founded a memorial foundation at the Anti-Defamation League that works to combat the threat of terrorism. They strongly believe that the opera is a terrible distortion and trivialization of their father's death.
- Do you believe the opera is anti-Semitic?
No. While the opera is highly problematic and has a strong anti-Israel bias, it is not anti-Semitic. A scene featured in the opera's 1991 premiere, in which some of the Jewish characters exhibited stereotypical behavior, was removed by the composer and to our knowledge has not been featured in any production since that time.
- Is it true that one of the characters in the opera makes anti-Semitic remarks?
Yes. In Act 2, Scene 1, the character of "Rambo," the terrorist who subsequently shoots Leon Klinghoffer, sings an aria in which he taunts Leon with anti-Semitic invective. We do not view this openly articulated animus toward Jews as promoting anti-Semitism; rather, it exposes Rambo's and the hijackers' entrenched and destructive anti-Semitism. Other operas, films and plays feature characters whose anti-Semitism is part of their character and part of the plot's development. In such cases, the character is anti-Semitic, but the opera, film or play is not.
- If the opera is so offensive, why didn't you ask the Met to cancel the entire production?
We reached a compromise. In my discussions with Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, I emphasized that our greatest concern would be that the opera, in reaching such a large audience through the Met's high-definition simulcast, would reach into countries where anti-Israel attitudes are at an all-time high and anti-Semitism is resurgent. Mr. Gelb understood this, but defended the work on its artistic and musical merits.
While not everyone will be pleased with the outcome, I believe that this was the best solution given the fact that the opera will now only be seen by patrons attending the production at Lincoln Center in New York. Moreover, the Met has volunteered space in the Playbill program for an essay by the Klinghoffer daughters explaining their point of view. It should be noted that other recent productions, such as one staged earlier this year by Long Beach Opera in California, have made similar accommodations to the Klinghoffer family.
- Isn't this a form of censorship?
We don't believe so. In America, the First Amendment guarantees the right to freedom of expression, and the composer John Adams certainly has the freedom to write any opera of his choosing. But the First Amendment also gives us the right to raise our voice, and to appeal to the conscience of those who mount productions of the opera or any work of art, to do so respectfully and responsibly.
- What conditions globally have made the airing of this opera in theaters so fraught with risk? Isn't anti-Semitism largely a thing of the past?
In the United States, it is true that anti-Semitism is at its lowest recorded levels in history. But conditions are much different in other parts of the world. In Europe, a terrorist who said he wanted "to kill Jews" recently opened fire in the Jewish Museum, killing four people, and we have recently seen a rise in the number of anti-Semitic attacks against Jewish communities. Our recent Global 100 survey of anti-Semitic attitudes in 100 countries around the world found that 24 percent of the population of Western Europe harbors anti-Semitic attitudes; the number was even higher, in Eastern Europe, at 34 percent.
The continued election success of far-right parties in the recent European Union elections has also heightened concerns about the rise of xenophobic and anti-Semitic political parties. Playing into this dangerous environment, we feared that the opera could reaffirm hateful views of Israel and of Jews, particularly among those who already are infected with anti-Semitism.
- I heard you haven't seen the opera. How can you comment on a production you haven't seen?
While I haven't personally seen the opera, numerous experts on anti-Semitism and the Arab-Israeli conflict on the ADL staff have, and our objections are based on their analyses and a full reading of the libretto.
- So why object to this opera, and not to performances of others in the canon, such as Richard Wager's "Der Meistersinger," which some say embraces common anti-Semitic stereotypes once prevalent in 19th Century Germany?
Wagner's operas are undeniable masterpieces. He was a flawed genius whose anti-Semitism came through in his voluminous writings and may have been woven into the ideological framework of some of his operas. But Wagner's opera are fictional and modern performances are contextualized with commentary, and his operas are no longer controversial or contentious. "The Death of Klinghoffer," however, portrays a real and practically current event that is, even by the composer's own admission, used in the opera to make a larger political point that many Jews find offensive. The fact that some have taken to twitter to make anti-Semitic and anti-Israel remarks in the wake of the Met's announcement shows how this opera still has the potential to bring out manifestations of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes.