Negligible reports tucked away below the fold of forgotten inside pages
oftentimes signify much more than the scant attention accorded them. So it was
with news that the Israel Chamber Orchestra played Wagner in Germany at the
Bayreuth Festival dedicated to his veneration. This perhaps constituted
the greatest break yet of Israel’s unofficial, socially accepted taboo on public
performances of Richard Wagner’s music (as distinct from listening in
Nonetheless, easygoing apathy greeted a story that yesteryear
would have instigated riots. Classical music is anyhow the preserve of shrinking
clusters of cultural aesthetes, once numerous and influential in our
midst. Today, they’re judged esoteric and hardly anyone
cares.Moreover, several false premises paint Wagner aversion as
ludicrous and outdated. Wagner’s music, we’re told, shouldn’t suffer because
Hitler appropriated it. The composer, after all, died half a century
before the Third Reich.
Another premise is that our loathing for Wagner
is insular and generation-based. Hear ICO chairwoman Erela Talmi: “The
atmosphere has changed, and those people who were at the concentration camps are
either weaker or no longer with us, and those who voiced their [anti-Wagner]
opinions are only a few and it’s hard for them to be heard now.”
The dead and dying survivors’ eccentricities sprang from exaggerated,
no-longer-relevant emotionalism. Presumably we’re now free to love
New outlooks signify the enlightenment of the new postmodern
Israeli, fashionably unfettered by unpleasant Jewish history.
today is altogether to downplay anti-Semitism and view Israel-bashing as just
deserts for the Jewish state’s policies. Indeed, post-Holocaust political
correctness spawns cleverly camouflaged anti-Semitism – not less dangerous, but
less in-your-face. No such sanctimonious constraints prevailed prewar, not even
among the artistic elite, whom some of us misguidedly credit with a higher moral
A cursory cyber-search will yield a nauseating bounty of
gut-churning Jew-revulsion by a veritable pantheon of cultural icons. Most of us
would be knocked for a loop to discover who contributed to it.
don’t blacklist the output of T.S. Eliot, Eugene O’Neill, H.G. Wells, Pushkin,
Rodin, Renoir, Cezanne, Liszt, Brahms and many other cult giants, just because
they viscerally abhorred the likes of us. It was bon ton in their milieu. We can
separate their art from their odious pronouncements.
underside, though, sets him far apart from the garden-variety creative
anti-Semite, who merely did the acceptable thing when vilifying Jews with
virulence that would send today’s incredulous Israelis reeling.
his contemporaries, Wagner literally put his money where his mouth was. He was
consciously and actively Judeophobia’s standard-bearer. He avidly financed and
abetted Jew-hating societies in mid-19thcentury Germany, and fervently
propagated the thennew racial anti-Semitism.
He was a leader, not a
He attracted and took under his wing Europe’s most obnoxious
anti-Semites, rescuing them from oblivion by publishing and disseminating their
repulsive theories. He gave them resonance and respectability.
list of his protégés is long and loathsome.
History would have largely
overlooked French aristocrat Joseph-Arthur Comte de Gobineau had he not sought
Wagner out in 1876, and with good reason. Wagner’s anti-Semitism was
legend by then. Wagner’s 1850 treatise, Judaism in Music, rendered him the
Judeophobes’ idol. His thesis was that while Jewish lucre lubricates European
culture, racially inferior Jews are unoriginal, incapable of
Wagner’s patronage made Gobineau the guru of Aryan-supremacy
adherents, while Gobineau’s concepts fueled Wagner’s own relentless anti-Jewish
crusade. The collaboration earned Gobineau renown in Germany and spread
his fame back to France.
Houston Stewart Chamberlain, another Wagner
groupie, combined Gobineau’s Aryan supremacy with his own notions of Jewish
inferiority. This concoction made Chamberlain the preeminent progenitor of Nazi
ideology. He married Wagner’s daughter Eva and eventually became Hitler’s
The direct line from Wagner to Hitler isn’t
incidental. Wagner preached long and loud that Jews are intrinsically
incorrigible. Conversion and assimilation only enable their bad seed to
contaminate pure Germans.
His logical conclusion was that the one final
solution was annihilation. In 1881, Wagner cheered Czarist pogroms by asserting
that the Russians were doing “what’s left to be done. Their laudable action
genuinely expresses the people’s power.”
The ultimate remedy, Wagner
insisted, would come when “the Jews are finished off, when there are no more
The people, he wrote, “instinctively and justifiably hate the Jew.
His personality and essence are repugnant… Judaism is rotten to the core.
Anti-Semitism is a natural reaction.”
Wagner reserved particular venom
for urbane Jews, dubbing them “civilized Jews” and “parasitic Jews.” He wrote
that “plutocratic Jews are the most heartless of all humanoids. I see in the Jew
the innate enemy of everything noble in man. He can only be demanding, coveting
The outstanding proponent of “the renascent Germanic
spirit,” Wagner regarded Jewish pluralistic liberalism as Germanism’s inherently
inimical antithesis. He therefore advocated that Jews be physically
Hitler knew whereof he spoke when he maintained that
“anyone who wishes to understand National- Socialist Germany must study
That’s why Wagner was boycotted here since 1938 – before the
Holocaust. This transcends Hitler’s patronage of Bayreuth’s festival, images of
frenzied Bayreuth crowds saluting their fuehrer, or Hitler’s abiding chumminess
with Wagner’s British daughter-in-law, zealous Nazi Winifred (son Siegfried’s
wife), who presided over the festival.
Germany’s American occupiers
banned the festival until 1951, when Winifred’s sons, Wieland and Wolfgang,
From 1933, celebrated conductor Arturo Toscanini refused to
appear in Bayreuth and never returned – not even postwar. He, however, conducted
the inaugural concerts of the fledgling Palestine Symphony Orchestra, later
renamed the Israel Philharmonic. That ensemble starred many Jewish talents
banned by Hitler. Sadly their torchbearers haven’t the refugee virtuosi’s
resolve and tenacity, to say nothing of Toscanini’s strength of
They fail to grasp that the issue extends far beyond obscure
concerns and goes to the core of our Jewish solidarity, to our disappearing
reserves of collective pride, to the ethos of our national rebirth, to our
ability to hold on to principle, not to sell out, not to hanker after false
accolades and alluring international popularity.
Imagine a prestigious
state-sponsored visual arts extravaganza whose pretentious promoters
provocatively propose exhibiting Hitler’s paintings. Let’s suppose, for
argument’s sake, that the fuehrer wasn’t merely a mediocre dilettante. It’s not
outrageously inconceivable. Creative genius doesn’t preclude the
hideous. Would we still countenance a Hitler retrospective?
unlikely. Hitler, most would agree, is a special case. He was no ordinary
run-of-the-mill anti-Semite of the sort we’ve always tolerated – like Degas,
Kipling or Chopin.
Would our attitude to Degas’s delicate ballerinas
remain unaffected if these pastels had been drawn by Hitler? What if Goebbels
had penned The Jungle Book
? Would there be no second thoughts if Eichmann had
composed the Barcarole in F sharp?
Wagner is likewise a special case,
incontrovertibly in the above malignant monster league. Refusing to pay him
public homage at our concert halls isn’t about memories of his tunes
accompanying condemned Jews to the gas chambers. It’s not the pet peeve of an
elderly, dwindling sector of our population. Wagner aspired to see us all
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