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The Uncivil Servant: Death of Klinghoffer, Death of Free Speech

Mitchell Abidor
October 23, 2014
by Mitchell Abidor Met Opera Klinghoffer_Cham102014AND SO NOW John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer has begun its run at the Metropolitan Opera, and the promised campaign against it has taken the form of demonstrations and interruptions of the first performance. If the conduct of the greater part of the Jewish community was repellent during the recent war on Gaza, smearing all critics as stooges of Hamas, these demonstrations are further sign of the moral thuggery that has become part of the standard operating procedure of an influential sector of the Jewish community whenever the issue of the Palestinians comes up. Art, for these people, has no more right to free speech than does political activity. It’s fairly safe to say that most of those condemning the opera as an apology for terrorism never saw or heard the work: that, too, is standard operating procedure for people who want to censor works of art. They testified that they didn’t need to see the work; anything that is even reputedly willing to treat Palestinians as human beings with rights that have been stepped on is forbidden; no need for facts when impressions can serve. But those who attempted to disrupt the performance gave the game away by booing “The Chorus of Exiled Palestinians,” which speaks of the injustices of the Nakba, the “Catastrophe” of 1948 and sings of how “My father’s house was razed/in 1948/when the Israelis passed/over our street.” Reminding the world of the tragedy that befell the Palestinians simply cannot be allowed to pass by these protestors as anything but vulgar Jew-hatred, and doing it in the sacred halls of the Metropolitan Opera is somehow even more of a sin to them. What none of the ignorant yahoos who protest ever mention is that that chorus is followed by “The Chorus of Exiled Jews,” in which the Jews are given their say and sing of Jerusalem that “your scars are holy places.” (Incidentally, in the recording of the opera issued by Elektra in 1992, both choruses last exactly 8:33. Culpable even-handedness.) WHAT THE PROTESTORS HATE is that the opera attempts to reveal and accepts the humanity of both sides; that yes, even terrorist killers have motives, they have pasts and histories that led them to the abhorrent act. Saying so is not a justification, but this is a subtlety that escapes the protestors. For too many Jews today, humanity resides only on one side of the conflict, and the fact that thirty times more Palestinians than Israelis were killed in the recent war is a fact of no consequence. That artists should attempt to depict an event in gray tones is unacceptable to them. They’d rather wave signs saying “[Met General Manager Peter] Gelb: are you taking terror $$$$?” That their moral thuggery has been backed by the political thug Rudy Giuliani, with his track record of artistic censorship, is revealingly appropriate — and that current Mayor Bill de Blasio has come out against the protests shows great courage in a city where Jews of the type who are demonstrating or supporting the demonstrators carry disproportionate political weight. Another question arises: Why the brouhaha? When The Death of Klinghoffer was first performed in 1991, there were statements condemning it from the Klinghoffer family, but I remember calmly walking into the Brooklyn Academy of Music and taking the elevator to my seat in the heavens. It’s the same opera, so what has changed? What has changed is the politics of at least a strong segment of the Jewish community, which has become increasingly immured in a blind support for Israel paired with a blind rage against the Palestinians, along the lines of Golda Meir’s infamous statement: “We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.” BUT WHY BOTHER WITH AN OPERA, an evanescent thing that will be seen by a maximum of 31,800 people (eight performances times a capacity of 3,975). Hani Abu Assad’s brilliant cinematic portrait of two terrorists, Paradise Now, as well as his film Omar, certainly reached more people than that, yet I have no recollection of a protest campaign against films that were truly pro-Palestinian and demonstrated clear sympathy for those who feel terrorism is their only out from an impossible situation. The Klinghoffer protestors clearly felt they were picking on an easy and visible target, one dependent on the largesse of benefactors (many of whom are Jewish), one they thought might cave. That the Met didn’t is all to its credit. That the protests have occurred at all is all to the debit of the Jewish establishment, which continues its descent into opposition to free thought. Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.