Richard Wagner, one of the best examples of cancel culture - opinion

Even though Wagner died long before Hitler rose to power, he was very well known for his antisemitic views.

 IN 1981, Israel Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta, having given audience members the opportunity to leave the hall, attempted to perform a piece from Wagner. The performance was abandoned. (photo credit: Jorge Novomisky/Flash90)
IN 1981, Israel Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta, having given audience members the opportunity to leave the hall, attempted to perform a piece from Wagner. The performance was abandoned.
(photo credit: Jorge Novomisky/Flash90)

Israel’s relationship with the 19th-century composer, Richard Wagner, is as complex as it is emotional. It demonstrates what is probably one of the most enduring examples of cancel culture, which even predates the creation of Israel.

This stems from the close links between the composer himself, Hitler and Nazism. Although Wagner died long before Hitler came to power, he was well known for his antisemitic views. In 1850, he wrote his infamous treatise Das Judentum in der Musik (Judaism in Music), in which he denied that Jews were capable of true creativity.

During the Hitler years, Wagner, whose operas were often thought to extol the virtues of German nationalism, became a national cult.

Accordingly, Wagner and his works have become synonymous with the darkest period in history, the Shoah.

Wagner's music canceled

Richard Wagner (1813-83) in 1871 (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Richard Wagner (1813-83) in 1871 (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Despite his antisemitism, when the Palestine Orchestra formed in 1936, later became the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, it often performed Wagner’s music in the early years. The orchestra was forced to cancel a Wagner evening due to take place a few nights after Kristallnacht, in November 1938. His music no longer features in their repertoire.

Wagner has caused deep divisions amongst the chattering classes in Israel. He remains an extremely painful reminder of the horrors of the Shoah for the 161,400 Holocaust survivors who live here.

In 1974, the Israel Philharmonic canceled their scheduled performance of Wagner out of concern for such feelings.

A few years later, in 1981, Israel Philharmonic conductor, Zubin Mehta, having given audience members the opportunity to leave the hall, attempted to perform a piece from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. This resulted in Holocaust survivor, Ben-Zion Leitner, walking up to the podium, where he bared his scarred stomach, and shouted, “Play Wagner over my body!” The performance was abandoned.

The passing of the years, along with the diminishing numbers of survivors, has seen a gradual acceptance of Wagner’s music in certain circles.

In December 1991, the Israel Philharmonic broke the moratorium when it voted, 39 to 12 (with nine abstentions) to perform Wagner. The concert, conducted by renowned pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, was canceled, however, much to the chagrin of Michael Handelzalts, the arts editor of the newspaper Haaretz who supported the original decision to play.

Avraham Melamed, the Israel Philharmonic violinist and Holocaust survivor, on the other hand, was delighted by this turn of events.

As a survivor of the Transnistria concentration camp in Ukraine, Melamed has been an outspoken supporter of retaining the ban on Wagner.

A decade later, however, in 2001, Daniel Barenboim finally achieved his wish at Israel’s National Arts Festival.

Having included Wagner’s Valkyries in the original program, Barenboim, in the face of growing opposition, agreed to drop it.

Wagner returns to Israel?

THE ORCHESTRA played Schumann’s Fourth Symphony and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring instead.

At the end of the concert, Barenboim asked members of the audience if they wanted him to play Wagner after all. Reports in The Guardian set the scene: many applauded against the backdrop of cries of, “it’s a disgrace,” and “it’s the music of the concentration camps.”

While Barenboim appealed to the protesters, Michael Avraham, a 67-year-old engineer and Holocaust survivor who was in the audience, urged Barenboim to go ahead.

“You don’t have to listen,” Avraham reportedly said, “You can go home. You didn’t go through the Holocaust. I did.”

And so it came to pass.

As Barenboim, together with the Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra started to play, dozens walked out, banging doors while strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde filled the auditorium. Those who stayed bore witness to one of the first performances of a Wagner opera in Israel.

Barenboim was “reported to have been close to tears after receiving a standing ovation,” The Guardian.

This dramatic encore did not pave the way for a wider acceptance of Wagner’s music in Israel, where it still remains a highly divisive, taboo subject, especially when it comes to live performances.

Another media frenzy surrounding the 19th-century composer was created this summer when the Israel Wagner Society arranged a concert at Tel Aviv University. In the end, the university canceled the performance and plans to move the event to a Hilton hotel subsequently fell through.

According to The New Yorker, Asher Fisch, the Israeli who was to have conducted the concert, has long campaigned against the Wagner ban in Israel for personal reasons. His own mother, who was forced to leave Vienna in 1939, believed that if the concert were to go ahead in Israel, with her son conducting, a final victory over Hitler would be achieved. She makes a good point. He still hopes to realize her dream.

There are many arguments for and against the ban on performing Wagner in Israel. Perhaps the most powerful is the fact that to do so might arouse traumatic memories in Holocaust survivors.

Avraham Melamed, the violinist, offered another good argument in favor of the ban. He always maintained that Wagner was more than just a garden-variety hater of Jews and, as such, should be retained by Israel as an enduring Holocaust symbol.

At one time, Melamed felt that attitudes towards the ban were softening as the number of survivors dwindled. His resolve was strengthened, however, after the concert in which he refused to play in December 1991 was canceled.

As reported in The New York Times, Melamed said, “I had said let’s wait another 20 years, let’s wait until the generation that was in the camps will die, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe Wagner will never be played in this country.” And there may be an element of truth in that.

It may be that the taboo surrounding this composer, whose links to Hitler are as repulsive today as they were almost a century ago, will never be extinguished.

The writer is a former lawyer from Manchester, England. She now lives in Netanya, where she spends most of her time writing and enjoying her new life in Israel.