At the end of the month the English National Opera will, in London, begin
staging The Death of Klinghoffer, a production that revolves around the tragic
Achille Lauro hijacking by the Palestine Liberation Front of October,
I have only seen Penny Woolcock’s TV-film adaption, and I’m
guessing that this column isn’t going to score me any free tickets to the
upcoming staging. But I write here not about the artistic merit of the
production but about its much-discussed content. No doubt any production
directed by Tom Morris, lately of War Horse fame, is going to be
But the question really is why this production, and why now?
The leading powers of the Western world are currently engulfed in a global war
against terror that has at its center the following two questions: first, are
civilian non-combatants fair targets in a guerrilla war waged by aggrieved
“militants” (as they are described in the National Opera literature), and
second, is there moral equivalence between democratic powers killings these
terrorists and terrorists killing civilians? The morality of Western democracies
hangs on the answers to these questions being no and no. If civilians are fair
game and if terrorists targeting children can claim to be as moral as, say,
American marines targeting the Taliban, then morality has no meaning and
values-based democracies are nothing but a cruel farce. Once “militants” murder
civilians they are terrorists.
And yet this is precisely the objection
that has been raised against The Death of Klinghoffer ever since its first
performance in Brussels in March, 1991. Composer John Adams and librettist Alice
Goodman repeatedly claimed that their purpose in the production was to afford
equal voice to both Palestinian and Israeli suffering.
What they forgot,
however, was that they were doing so within the context of a horrific historical
event in which an innocent, wheelchair- bound Jewish-American passenger, with no
connection to the political events purportedly behind the hijacking, was shot
in cold blood, in the forehead and chest, as he sat in his wheelchair, his body
then being dumped into the sea at the command of the terrorists by the ship’s
barber and waiter. One can hardly imagine a more evil deed than the brutal
murder of a truly helpless victim who had taken his wife on a cruise to
celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary.
Whatever points could be raised
here over the rights and boundaries of art, one question is begged: what value
is derived from reliving this horrific event, albeit in a beautified form? Is
the murder interesting or simply monstrous? Is it taboo-busting or voyeurism?
The opera has been written. It has been performed.
Was that not enough
for Adams to resurrect the amorality of a play that equates murderers and
victims? Why go through it all again? I write this not as an advocate for
censorship, something I passionately oppose. Let the production proceed. But let
people be educated about its glaring flaws lest they fall into the trap of
drawing a moral equivalence between those who live to kill and those who are
forced to kill because they wish to live.
When the Brooklyn Academy of
Music (which, incidentally, is run by a highly respected friend of mine) first
staged Klinghoffer in 1991, Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, the daughters of Leon
Klinghoffer, attended anonymously. Disgusted at the idealistic portrayal of
their father’s killers, they issued a statement: “We are outraged at the
exploitation of our parents and the cold-blooded murder of our father as the
centerpiece of a production that appears to us to be anti-Semitic.
we understand artistic license, when it so clearly favors one point of view it
Moreover, the juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian
people with the cold-blooded murder of an innocent disabled American Jew is both
historically naive and appalling.”
This, of course, was written a full
decade prior to the unforgettable events of September 11, 2001. And here we are,
two decades later, about to embark on the artistic enterprise of once again
providing a lyrical justification for murder from the standing point of
When Damien Hirst clumsily compared 9/11 to a work of art he
– rightly – faced a storm of criticism, which led not to censorship, but to him
actually reconsidering and retracting his comments. I find it inexplicable that
a full opera, the result of months and years of writing, planning and
performance, is being welcomed by a highly respected institution into the
post-9/11 cultural landscape.
Writing just three months after 9/11 in The
New York Times, Richard Taruskin powerfully captured this pivotal criticism of
the production: “If the events of Sept. 11 could not jar some artists and
critics out of their habit of romantically idealizing criminals, then nothing
will.... If terrorism – specifically, the commission or advocacy of deliberate
acts of deadly violence directed randomly at the innocent – is to be defeated,
world public opinion has to be turned decisively against it.
The only way
to do that is to focus resolutely on the acts rather than their claimed (or
conjectured) motivations, and to characterize all such acts, whatever their
motivation, as crimes. This means no longer romanticizing terrorists as Robin
Hoods and no longer idealizing their deeds as rough poetic justice.”
there is the question of Israel and the plight of Jews in all this. For eleven
years as I served as rabbi to the students of Oxford University where I hosted
four Israeli prime ministers and countless pro-Israel speakers. To be sure, they
were protested against and the sympathies of the students – always championing
the perceived underdog – were primarily with the Palestinians. Nevertheless, our
speakers were accorded the basic decency of being heard. And when their
arguments were perceived to be convincing, they were even given standing
ovations. No longer.
Pro-Israel speakers on British campuses are lucky to
make it out whole, that is, if they are ever afforded an opportunity to speak in
the first place. There is an outpouring of open anti-Israel hostility that
belies the simple truth of the Middle East, which is that Israel remains its
only open and fully functioning democracy, albeit with a seemingly intractable
problem of having a large and hostile Palestinian population who of course
deserve full rights but who seem intent on using those freedoms to ensure that
Israel no longer exists.
As an American who spent 11 years living in
Britain, the British people, long famed for their tolerance and decency, must be
made aware that they and their media organs are increasingly perceived as being
biased beyond all reason against the Jewish state, and the resurrection of the
Klinghoffer production will cement that view among many.
one’s feelings are on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not much matter.
There is no excuse to ever target civilians as part of one’s terror war. And one
can only imagine how the coming production of Klinghoffer will serve to further
distort the simple message that only pathetic cowards shoot a man in a
wheelchair, however justified they feel their rage to be.
Boteach, whom Newsweek calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” was the London
Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium and received the American Jewish
Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. The
international best-selling author of 27 books and award-winning TV host, he has
just published Kosher Jesus. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley. His
website is www.shmuley.com.