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September 27, 2016 / 24 Elul, 5776
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Keeping An Open Mind About Murder

What we are discussing here, however, is not so much a question of art versus politics but the decision on the part of the artist to view atrocities as simply a matter of opinion.

The Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

The Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The decision of the Metropolitan Opera to continue with its plan to produce “The Death of Klinghoffer” but to cancel its simulcast to theaters around the world has pleased no one.

Critics of “Death,” which rationalizes the cold-blooded murder of Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly Jew in a wheelchair, by Palestinian terrorists are rightly outraged that one of the world’s premiere arts organizations will still be performing the opera.

Defenders of “Death” (and critics of Israel) are dismayed that General Manager Peter Gelb succumbed to pleas from the Klinghoffer family and the Anti-Defamation League to move it off the Met’s prestigious broadcast schedule.

Predictably, one voice that falls into the latter category spoke up to express dismay at the unsatisfactory compromise: The New York Times editorial page. It termed Gelb’s move “lamentable” and not only dismissed the ADL’s fears about the opera helping promote anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe, but defended the piece as a fair-minded and evenhanded approach to a divisive issue.

While anything that smacks of censorship is bound to raise hackles among the elites in America’s arts capital, the paper’s decision to not only trash the opera’s critics as uninformed but to speak up for John Adams’s opera speaks volumes about its animus for Israel and soft approach to terrorism directed at Jews.

The Times is right to assert that one of the purposes of art is to challenge its audience. Many great works of art, including many operas, have their origins in issues that were, in their day, deeply controversial but were eventually transcended by the value of the piece. What we are discussing here, however, is not so much a question of art versus politics but the decision on the part of the artist to view atrocities as simply a matter of opinion.

The Times is also right that, to some extent, “The Death of Klinghoffer” is even-handed about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The Jews, and specifically the Klinghoffers are allowed to denounce their captors as cowardly terrorists and murders. But the balance is tilted in favor of the alleged grievances of the Palestinians, which are not only exaggerated and taken out of context but put forward in the most prejudicial manner possible and backed by some of the most inspired and powerful music in the opera. You don’t need to read the program or do much research to see where the composer’s sympathies lie.

Moreover, the entire premise of the opera – that even the most atrocious and callous act of murder may be rooted in the grievances of the perpetrators –frames the issues in a manner in which Israel’s existence is treated as the real crime. While it is possible to debate the rights and wrongs of the complex Middle East conflict, surely the morality of terrorism and the murder of a helpless old man are not debatable.

Such a crime does not cry out for an even-handed analysis of the two sides, but Adams’s choice of Klinghoffer’s murder as the focus of his art places his opera in a context that is not merely controversial but fundamentally amoral.

New Yorkers who view this fuss from the perspective of the Times may think those who are complaining about the opera are merely narrow-minded censors. But they need to ask themselves whether they would stomach the Met’s production of an opera about 9/11 in which the positions of the hijackers and their thousands of victims were treated as two moral equivalent sides of the same question. Would the same arts world that lionizes John Adams and proclaims “Death” a “masterpiece” be equally willing to stand up for an opera or play that justified the actions of the Ku Klux Klan or other racists who committed acts of violence against African-Americans?

Jonathan S. Tobin

About the Author: Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of Commentary magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com. He can be reached via e-mail at jtobin@commentarymagazine.com.


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