New York Jews brace for, and protest against, the Met’s production of ‘Death of Klinghoffer’

Teach-in addresses normalization of anti-Semitism in American culture.

October 17, 2014 04:09
4 minute read.

THE TEACH-IN panelists, from left: Charles Small, executive director of ISGAP; journalist Ben Cohen; Omri Ceren, senior adviser, the Israel Project; Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor, ‘Commentary’ magazine; artist Dahn Hiuni; Simon Deng, South Sudanese human rights activist; and Betty Ehrenberg,. (photo credit: MAYA SHWAYDER)

NEW YORK — Leaders of the Jewish community gathered, with much sturm and drang, on Tuesday night at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in New York for a teach-in about the Metropolitan Opera’s upcoming production of John Adam’s The Death of Klinghoffer. The opera is based on the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by four Palestinian Liberation Front terrorists and their murder of the wheelchair-bound American Jew, Leon Klinghoffer.

The opera was written and produced in 1991, but this particular production at the Met has stirred loud choruses of protest from the New York Jewish community, particularly after a contentious, bloody, and emotional summer.

The concern, as reiterated by many of Tuesday’s speakers, is that the opera does not, in fact, give equal weight to both the Palestinian and Jewish sides of the issues; it instead glorifies the cause of the terrorists who hijacked the ship.

Tuesday’s teach-in was much in the spirit of the 1960s, noted Charles Small, the executive director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy. It was a prelude to a huge protest that is planned for the opening night of the opera: Monday, October 20.

Speakers on Tuesday night included Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who spoke about the necessity of hatred – especially hating men like those who murdered Leon Klinghoffer.

“This is the most outlandish thing I have heard the Met do in my memory,” Boteach said. He recalled being asked to comment on a 2012 staging at the English National Opera. At the time, he said, he was not at all surprised to see this kind of anti-Semitism on display in London.

“But when I heard that this was crossing the Atlantic to New York City, to a city where most of the patrons who paid for that building are Jewish,” he exclaimed, pointing in the direction of the opera house, “I was shocked.”

“The fact that we glorify this shows that sometimes America puts having fun above doing the right thing,” he concluded.

“Art is there to magnify and enrich human life. Not to supplant human life.”

A panel discussion just before Boteach spoke featured a wide range of speakers, including Simon Deng, a South Sudanese refugee who survived being sold into child slavery in Sudan. He is now a human rights activist in New York and warned against the “normalization” anti-Semitism and world views like it.

“If we do not stand up against the ideology of Islamization, 30 years from now it will be a much different story,” Deng said.

Dahn Hiuni, an artist and a playwright, asked when it would be okay to do a “9-11 opera, or a James Foley opera, or a Daniel Pearl opera?” Journalist Ben Cohen echoed Hiuani’s question.

“Why not do Simon’s story?” he asked, indicating Deng on his left. “We’re not making operas about the Yazidis, while the British Parliament holds late night sessions to discuss Palestine.”

Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor at Commentary magazine, told the audience that it is important the Met hear their message loud and clear.

“We don’t shut up,” he said. “We don’t go along with [Met opera director] Peter Gelb, who said that we would be encouraging anti-Semitism by demonstrating.”

Betty Ehrenberg, the executive director of the North American section of the World Jewish Congress, said, “It’s a new leaf in this city that this would be acceptable.”

“We’ve seen everything in this city. We’re jaded,” she said, “but this is new for a mecca of culture in our town.

We have to pause and ask why now. Why particularly now, when we’re watching terrorism ratchet it up to a degree we thought unthinkable.

We can’t pretend that things are as usual.”

Other speakers included Dr. Phyllis Chesler, professor emerita at City University of New York, ISGAP chairman Lawrence Benenson, and Jeffrey Wiesenfeld of Alliance Bernstein.

At a small reception afterward, several audience members told The Jerusalem Post that, while they appreciated the teach-in, they wish it had gone one step further.

“Everything that was said was valid and terribly important,” said Carol Lipsky, a board member of the American Jewish Committee.

“But I wanted to hear something about how to take a more specific action, and I don’t know what that is. Perhaps a request to write to all of the board members of the Met and hold them accountable.”

Lipsky said that she is a fan of opera and of the Met. “I only wish I had a subscription, so I could cancel it!” she said.

Ellen Sloame Fawer, an UN delegate for Jewish Women International and another audience member, told the Post that, “The Westerner in me is against censorship, but one line that really stuck with was the idea that while there is freedom of speech, we have to be concerned with the content of that speech, and that we [Jews] really are our own worst enemies.”

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