The Murder of Klinghoffer

Leon Klinghoffer did not “die.” He was murdered because he was a Jew. That stark fact is the unstated reality in the controversy over the New York Metropolitan Opera production of the opera The Death Of Klinghoffer, composed by John Adams with libretto by Alice Goodman. Bowing to what the general manager, Peter Gelb, called “unimaginable pressure,” including hundreds of emails, he cancelled plans for the live, global broadcast in movie theaters and on the radio. Though Mr. Gelb does not believe the work is anti-Semitic his decision was based on the concern that it might fan anti-Semitism in the world, particularly in Europe.

This concern is wholly justifiable in the light of recent events in France. French authorities have banned the live shows of the comedian Dieudonne for inciting anti-Semitic hatred. However, he gets millions of views on his satirical videos on the Internet that spread the hatred of Jews. Coincidentally (or as a result of the videos?), a 29 year-old Arab French national killed four people inside the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014.

Once again, the dilemma has arisen of a conflict between two principles, the fundamental right of free speech and uncensored dissemination of information and artistic products, and the right to control and prevent the deadly disease of anti-Semitism, the virus that has plagued Jews throughout history. The Met decision rests on a compromise. It is not a question of a short-sighted and indefensible intolerance of opposing opinions nor is it of attempt to control any message. Artistic integrity will be preserved and the opera will in fact be performed eight times in fall 2014 at the Met. But the decision may be regarded as one of censorship because its production will be available only to patrons of Lincoln Center, not to the rest of the world.

In hindsight one can criticize the Met for not having anticipated the extent of emotional distress regarding any wide distribution of a production that some see as anti-Semitic. Moreover, if there was to be a global broadcast it should certainly have included a discussion among knowledgeable people not only of the menace, growing all too quickly today, of anti-Semitism, but also of the realities of the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East and the refusal of most of the Arab world to accept the existence and legitimacy of the State of Israel and to live in peace with it.

Opinions may differ on whether the libretto can be considered anti-Semitic, and whether it is a vehicle promoting hostility towards Israel. But clearly, the text is one of moral equivalence in its politically correct attempt to illustrate evenhandedness toward the parties in the Middle East conflict, a position that includes the rationalization, if not defense, of terrorist acts. To be sensitive to another point of view is one thing: to argue that differing points of view may be equally valid is another. There is no moral equivalence between Israel’s actions and policies to ensure survival, and terrorist murders or suicide bombers against innocent Israeli civilians or Jews everywhere. The myth of moral equivalence is an excuse to deflect criticism of brutal deeds by Palestinian terrorists and to present them in a somewhat sympathetic fashion in the opera. Arguably, deadly planned murder is being romanticized.

As is well known, the opera portrays the hijacking in October 1985 of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by four members of the Palestine Liberation Front (part of the PLO) and the brutal murder of Leon Klinghoffer a 69-year-old Jewish retired owner of a small business celebrating his 36th wedding anniversary with his wife who was dying of cancer. Klinghoffer was shot in the head and chest while in the wheelchair to which he was confined, and his body was then thrown overboard.

The Palestinian terrorists demanded the release of 50 prisoners in Israeli jails in return for the release of the Achille Lauro, thus attempting to vindicate their brutal and murderous act by placing it within the context of retribution against Israel. The composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman appear not to have distinguished between the two, and thus implicitly to have accepted the specious false moral equivalence. Adams has said that the opera is about religious and social intolerance, about a struggle over land that is as old a story as the first pages of written history. Goodman has said it is about suffering humanity.

The opera might be musically commendable, though most reviews were mixed about its musical quality. Not everyone agrees that it is one of Adams’ greatest works, but the main issue is the quality and correctness of the composer’s political opinions expressed through the music as well as the text. One can accept that he genuinely believes that the opera in no way condemns or promotes violence, terrorism, or anti-Semitism, but the impact of the moral equivalence in the opera gives cause for concern. It is not, as Adams has somewhat immodestly said, a “tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.” The innocent disabled Jewish Klinghoffer in his wheelchair was not the dramatic counterpart of Yasser Arafat and the PLO.

Terrorists and murderers cannot be excused for their actions, even when they claim to use force or violence for social or political objectives. That excuse is apparent in the 2003 movie version of the opera directed by Penny Woolcock which presents an incorrect historical portrait of callous Israelis who for no apparent reason are forcing innocent Palestinians to flee from their homes. The two daughters of the murdered Klinghoffer are more accurate in believing that the opera “perverts the terrorist murder of our father, and attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize and explain it.”

Differences over the opera, that was first suggested by Peter Sellars, the well-known theater director who pressured for it to be a pro-Palestinian work, and did not want the Palestinians to be called terrorists, have been present since its premiere in the Brussels Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in 1991. On the other hand, some of the more contentious aspects of the opera, especially an unpleasant episode of a quarreling middle-class Jewish family, neighbors of the Klinghoffers, have been eliminated over the years.

The libretto was written by Alice Goodman, born Jewish in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1958, who converted to the Anglican Church, a body often critical of Israel, and is now a Church of England rector in Fulbourn, near Cambridge, England. In a famous dispute over Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem, the Israeli philosopher, Gershom Scholem, criticized Arendt for her lack of Ahabath Israel (love of the Jewish people), a love, she indeed confessed, that appeared to her as something rather suspect.

Goodman’s libretto seems to echo Arendt’s view. She writes sympathetically of the Arab past and birth of the Arab people stemming from Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael, but regards Israel as guilty, not only of taking the land of the Arabs, but also of what she calls the most dangerous thing, romantic nationalism. She sets a tone for the need to understand the motives of terrorists. She minimizes the brutality of the terrorists by having the murder of Klinghoffer take place offstage, and only reported indirectly.

The opera starts with the recital of what has been since 1948 a key element the Palestinian Narrative of Victimhood. A chorus of “exiled Palestinians,” sings “My father’s house was razed, in 1948, when the Israelis passed over our street.” It is sung without the context that it was five Arab armies that without provocation invaded the just-created State of Israel and caused the flight of Palestinians from their homes. The killer of Klinghoffer, called Rambo in the opera but really Mohmmed Abbas, a man with intense hatred of Jews who makes unpleasant anti-Semitic remarks: “wherever poor men are gathered, they can find Jews getting fat.” Rambo rants against the Jews who cheat, and exploit. Another of the hijackers mentions the Lebanese camps of Sabra and Shatilla, where Palestinians were murdered on September 16-18, 1982, without mentioning that those responsible were Phalangist Christians, not Israeli Jews. 

Legitimate differences of opinion can be voiced on the decision of the Met. Few are likely to favor censorship of artistic or literary products, even if they disapprove of them. But in this era of terrorist activities in the Middle East and in Africa, notably by Boko Haram and Al Shabaab, and the kidnapping by Palestinians on June 12, 2014 of three innocent young Israel boys, who had been in a yeshiva (Talmudic school) class, it is even more important not to lend credence to or to romanticize brutal behavior, supposedly based on high ideals. The libretto and music of the misnamed “Death” of Klinghoffer commit the latter error, a false calculus of moral equations.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.