By Becca Hanna
Monday night, October 20, over 400 people gathered outside of New York’s Lincoln Center to protest an opera many of them admittedly have never seen. “The Death of Klinghoffer,” a John Adams and Alice Goodman collaboration opened at the Metropolitan Opera to a standing ovation.
In yet another example of claims of anti-semitism being leveraged to silence artistic expression, protestors wielded signs reading, “Cancel Racist Opera Insult to the Arts,” and shouted at theater-goers, calling them “Nazi Pigs.”
The protest, which was widely advertised in email blasts from the Jewish Defamation League, Zionist Organization of America and others was lead by Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the CUNY board of trustee member who tried (and failed) to block playwright, Palestinian human rights activist, and member of the Jewish Voice for Peace advisory board member Tony Kushner from receiving an honorary degree and said in an interview that his mother would have called Kushner a “Kapo.”
The Jewish Defense League showed up in full force, handing out Stars of David with the words “never again” printed on them as well as flyers offering a self-defense and gun training course.
Former Mayor Rudolph Guiliani spoke at the protest, adding his voice to the chorus of political figures including former governor George Pataki, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Congressman Eliot Engel and Catholic League President Bill Donahoe, who have criticized the opera for being “anti-semitic.”
The Met’s response? “See it. Then Decide.”
The opera retells and contextualizes the events that lead to death of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound Jewish-American who was thrown overboard after the cruise ship he was vacationing on was taken over by Palestinian Liberation Front militants in 1985.
In its nearly 25 year history, the show has met repetitive criticism for being anti-semitic and sympathetic to terrorists. In fact, according to Times of Israel reviewer Jordan Hoffman, “the opera does not portray the hijackers as mindless, bloodthirsty monsters, but dares to give the men and their cause a degree of backstory.” For the some, however, the mere attempt to humanize Palestinians’ decades of displacement or life under occupation is an attack on Jews. In their view, there can be no room for nuance, history or moral complexity–which, ironically, is the role of the arts.
In what Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb calls a “compromise” with protestors of the work, the Met cancelled its planned movie theater and radio broadcasts of the opera that were set for November. With the denial of access to a large international audience, it’s hard to see this as anything other than a form of censorship and capitulation to the hard right of the pro-Israel world.
The Zionist Organization of America, an organization that supports settlement expansion and a greater israel referred to the piece as “an operatic Kristallnact” that “humanizes killers of Jews” and called out donors and Jewish leaders for not speaking out against the Met’s production of the show.
The ZOA even email-blasted members of its listserv to help organize a “100 Wheelchair March” in protest of the opera, renting wheelchairs and asking for volunteers to sit in and push the chairs.
The Emergency Committee for Israel, a right-wing political advocacy organization whose board members include William Kristol, former Chief of Staff to the Vice President under Dan Quayle, funded an advertisement accusing the show of “drawing a moral equivalence between terrorism and its victims” and “glorifying terrorism.” The advertisement is just one in a long line of neo-conservative attack ads, a signature of the group.
Appropriating images and shouting “anti-semite” at the slightest sign of criticism cheapens the effect that these tactics could have on truly grotesque and hateful acts of discrimination.
The speed at which the JDL, ZOA and the like rush to condemn and shut down anything that might be anti-semitic without discretion creates an environment where legitimate criticism of Israel cannot be heard. These groups, funded by conservative politicians, feed off of fear-mongering and Islamophobia, distracting from the complex issues at hand by pointing fingers and censoring media.
The performance, as reported by the Associated Press went off without issue, and was met with a standing ovation by a sold-out audience which included Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg.