Wagner in Israel: Promoting Anti-Semitism or Fighting Censorship?

Should the music of Wagner be played in Israel?

There is, in fact, an Israeli Wagnerian Society, but attempts to play the music -- by Zubin Mehta in 1981, by Daniel Barenboim in 2001, and most recently in June 2012 at Tel Aviv University -- have been opposed by groups in Israel.  The TAU president stopped the private concert on his campus, arguing that it would offend the public, especially Holocaust survivors, of whom 200,000 remain alive in Israel.

Wagner was an unremitting anti-Semite, as shown both in his prose and in his music expression.  His article Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music), written in 1850 under a pseudonym, is a strong criticism of the role of Jews in German culture and society in general, and a more personal attack on the composers of Jewish origin, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn, of whose success he was jealous.

More pertinent to the issue than his anti-Semitic writings is the fact that the music of Wagner and the persona of Wagner became linked with and embedded in Nazi propaganda.  Hitler, at least in official pronouncements, spoke of the Wagnerian opus as the best expression of the German soul and in his Table Talk expressed admiration for Wagner.  Indeed, the composer became a symbolic and even mythological figure in the Nazi regime, with its racial and genocidal anti-Semitism.  Hitler had a special seat at the opera house in Bayreuth, which Wagner built.  Recordings of Wagner's opera Rienzi usually opened the Nazi Party conferences.

The case of Wagner is unique.  No one objects to hearing the music of Chopin, who disliked Jews and also made anti-Semitic utterances, though they were casual rather than virulent.  The piece Carmina Burana by Carl Orff has been played in Israel, though Orff was close to the Nazi Party and obliged the Party by writing new incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream to replace the original music of Felix Mendelssohn, who had been banned as a Jewish composer.  More difficult to assess politically was the pragmatic Richard Strauss, who was not a Nazi but who was president of the Reichsmusikkammer (German State Music Chamber), 1933-35, a period during which Jews were prevented from performing, and then president of the Nazi-controlled Permanent Council for the International Cooperation of Composers.

The difference between these other composers and Wagner was not only the prominent use made of him in Nazi ideology but also the claim, which may be unfounded, that his music was played in Dachau and in the death camps to accompany the murders.  He is thus regarded as a key player in the Holocaust.  In his famous 1850 article, Wagner wrote that the German people disliked the alien appearance and behavior of Jews and were repelled by actual contact with them.

But it is the conclusion of his article that is most disconcerting: Wagner wrote about Jews that the "only thing that can redeem you from the burden of your curse, the redemption of Ahasuerus, going under."  Presumably Wagner was referring to the Wandering Jew.  The crucial question is how to interpret this.  Did he mean that what he thought was Jewish separateness should be ended, and that Jews should be assimilated into the mainstream, or that Jews should be physically eliminated?  Wagner's last words in the article, referring to Untergang for the Jews, may mean "decline" or "going to one's doom" or "destruction."

The music of Wagner was originally part of the repertoire of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra).  On November 12, 1938, the overture to Wagner's opera Lohengrin was deleted from its program as a protest against Kristallnacht, which had occurred three days earlier in Germany.  Since then, Wagner's works have not been performed in public places during the Jewish settlement in Palestine or after the establishment of the state of Israel, though there is no governmental coercion or prohibition, nor is it illegal to play his music in private.  Not performing Wagner is a matter of custom.

The essential question is whether playing Wagner's music will be offensive, particularly to Holocaust survivors in Israel.  Two separate problems arise from this.  One is the conflict between freedom of expression along with artistic freedom on one hand and acute emotional impact and moral principles on the other.  The difficulty lies in balancing the memories of the Holocaust, with which Wagner is now linked, with freedom of expression.  The opposition to Wagner in Israel is not an official or legal boycott, but for some, it provokes reminders of the Nazi boycott of Jews and the present-day boycotts of Israel by groups in various countries in the world.  However, any equivalence must be challenged.  Not performing Wagner's music in public, due to understandable sensitivities of Israelis is totally different from the unjustified boycotts of Israel and its citizens.  The Holocaust survivors may think of Wagner as proto-Nazi with his views on racial purity and his belief that Jews were contaminating German blood, but they are not seeking action against the state of Germany because of him.  In contrast, the present-day advocates of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel and its citizens often express a hatred of Jews and aim ultimately at the elimination of the state of Israel.

A second issue that is pertinent is whether or not the individual can be separated from his or her artistic expression, in this case music.  Should Israelis enjoy the music and forget the man?  Wagner's influence on culture on 19th and 20th centuries' culture was enormous -- not only on music, perhaps best heard in the works of Bruckner, Mahler, and Schönberg, but also on literature, as seen in the works of Thomas Mann, in James Joyce's Ulysses, and in T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland.  However, the aura of Wagner's anti-Semitism continues to be attached to his accomplishments.  Woody Allen once remarked, "I can't listen to that much Wagner.  I start getting the urge to conquer Poland."

It's a complex problem. We all can feel repulsed by the virulent anti-Semitism of Wagner and find him a preacher of hate, even while the music may be admired.  Some Israelis are justified in being distressed on hearing his music with its symbolic association with the Nazi regime and the praise of Wagner by Hitler himself.  But should the music be banned?  The controversy understandingly remains bitter and fierce.

Does banning Wagner's music from performance help heal the wounds of the past?  It may be more meaningful for Israelis to honor Holocaust survivors by making a gesture against censorship.  Allow the music to be played; those who feel differently should absent themselves.  Music, an international form of communication, should be accessible to all who want to hear it.

Michael Curtis is author of Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under attack by the International Community.

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