False symmetry between perpetrator and victim

Two dramatic presentations being staged this week will be delivering a powerful message with serious negative implications for the Jewish people.

An actor playing Leon Klinghoffer performs during a dress rehearsal of John Adam’s opera ‘The Death of Klinghoffer.’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
An actor playing Leon Klinghoffer performs during a dress rehearsal of John Adam’s opera ‘The Death of Klinghoffer.’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Two dramatic presentations being staged this week, in venues thousands of miles apart on two different continents, will be delivering a powerful message with serious negative implications for the Jewish people. One is the opera The Death of Klinghoffer, which will make its New York debut at the Metropolitan Opera on Monday, October 20, and the second is the musical Cukurs.
Herberts Cukurs, currently on a nationwide tour in Latvia.
On the surface, there does not appear to be any ostensible connection between an opera about the hijacking by Palestinian terrorists of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 and a musical about the life of aviator Herberts Cukurs, a national hero in the 1930s in his native Latvia, but a closer look at the presentations clearly indicates their highly problematic content.
In the case of The Death of Klinghoffer, the main issue is its portrayal of the Palestinian Liberation Front terrorists who murdered Leon Klinghoffer, a handicapped American Jewish tourist who was a passenger on the boat, and then threw his body and wheelchair overboard. In the words of the victim’s daughters Lisa and Ilsa, the opera “rationalizes, romanticizes and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father.”
Other critics point to the blatantly anti-Semitic lyrics in an aria sung by one of the Palestinian terrorists, as well as in a chorus sung by “exiled Palestinians.”
In the former, the terrorist accuses Jews of “always complaining about your suffering, but whenever poor men are gathered they can find Jews getting fat. You know how to cheat the simple, exploit the virgin, pollute where you have exploited, defame those you cheated and break your own law with idolatry. America is one big Jew.”
In the latter, the Palestinians who were supposedly dispossessed by Israel claim that “My father’s house was razed in 1948 when the Israelis passed over our street... Of that house, not a wall in which a bird might nest was left to stand. Israel laid all to waste... Our faith will take the stones he [Israel] broke and break his teeth.”
Charles Asher Small, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism, pointed to the fact that one of the sets of the opera juxtaposed the words “Warsaw 1943” and “Bethlehem 2005,” conjuring up a comparison of the fate of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto to that of Palestinians in Israel, a baseless accusation which is clearly anti-Semitic. One can also add the choice of the opera’s title; the terrorists’ innocent Jewish victim did not merely “die,” he was murdered.
Moreover, in a video posted by the Metropolitan Opera on its website, the opera’s author John Adams explains his text as an attempt “to look at the terrorists and the passengers and see humanity in both of them,” a blatantly unjust creation of false symmetry between the perpetrators and their victim.
In the case of Cukurs. Herberts Cukers, the subject’s fame as a pilot is only half the story. Indeed, during the Thirties, Cukurs became a Latvian national hero after he designed and built three planes, and made solo flights to Gambia, Japan and Palestine – but in the summer of 1941, shortly after the Nazi invasion of Latvia, he volunteered to become the deputy commander of the infamous Arajs Kommando, one of the most notorious murder squads, which helped implement the Final Solution not only in his native land, but in Belarus as well.
Cukurs was not only the second-in-command of the unit, which murdered tens of thousands of Jews, but also personally murdered and tortured many of the unit’s victims, among them children and the elderly. Ironically, in this respect, it was Cukurs’s fame which was his undoing, as he was identified by numerous survivors in postwar testimonies as the perpetrator of multiple murders.
Normally, it would be absolutely unthinkable to create a musical about Cukurs’ life and try to restore him to his prewar glory, but his biography has an unusual end, which gave his supporters an ostensible basis to try to rehabilitate his reputation.
After the war, Cukurs escaped to Brazil, where he was eventually discovered by the Soviets, who requested his extradition. Brazil, however, replied that they would only send him to the country in which he had committed his crimes. The problem was that Latvia no longer existed, leaving Cukurs in legal limbo.
Israel, which feared the impending application by West Germany of a statute of limitations on Nazi war crimes, which would have eliminated the only other legal option for Cukurs’ prosecution, responded uncharacteristically by assassinating him in 1965. Thus the fact that he was never convicted – an element emphasized in the musical – serves as a basis for an outrageous whitewashing of his terrible crimes.
The common denominator of these two presentations is their very problematic attempt to present an alternative narrative to the accepted version of these Jewish tragedies which try to “humanize” the perpetrators of anti-Semitic atrocities. Obviously, there is no comparison between the scope of Cukurs’ crimes and the Holocaust and Klinghoffer’s murder by the Palestinian terrorists, but the principle is the same, as are the vehicles.
In the name of freedom of expression and reinforced by an offensive lack of sensitivity to the plight of these murderers’ Jewish victims, and the larger context of genocidal anti-Semitism by the Nazis and Israel’s Islamic foes, these plays contribute to the ongoing attempts to justify Islamic terror and delegitimize Israel on the one hand, and to rewrite the history of World War II and the Holocaust in order to hide the significant role played by Hitler’s zealous Baltic helpers and deny the uniqueness of the Shoa. All of which make the success of the efforts being waged in New York and in Latvia against these presentations all the more critical.
The author is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel Office.
His most recent book is Operation Last Chance; One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice (Palgrave/Macmillan). He can be followed on Facebook and Twitter @EZuroff.