I will be the first to admit that I don’t know much about opera. I remember officiating at a wedding many years ago for a rabbinic colleague and his bride who gifted me a three-album set of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” I listened for about 10 minutes before replacing the album with the soundtrack from “West Side Story.”
But now I am particularly interested in an opera that has made headlines, not just these past months, but for more than 20 years since it debuted on the stage.
“The Death of Klinghoffer” is an American opera, with music composed by John Adams to an English-language libretto by Alice Goodman. The opera was first produced in Brussels and New York in 1991 and it is based on the 1985 hijacking of the passenger cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, and the murder of a Jewish American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, by throwing him overboard.
Many have asserted that the opera is anti-Semitic. Klinghoffer’s daughters have expressed outrage at what they say is the exploitation of the cold-blooded murder of their father. An excerpt from the lyrics – sung and spoken by “Rambo,” terrorist Mohammed Zaidan – certainly supports that allegation:
“You are always complaining of your suffering but wherever poor men are gathered you can find Jews/getting fat./You know how to cheat the simple/Exploit the virgin,/Pollute where you have exploited/Defame those you have cheated/And break your own law with idolatry. America is one big Jew.”
Last February, the world-famous Metropolitan Opera in New York scheduled “The Death of Klinghoffer.” The opera, which premiered Monday night, has seven additional performances through November. Because of protests, the opera company canceled an international simulcast and radio broadcast to theaters around the world.
I certainly understand the concerns, given the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere. It appears that Adams and Goodman, creators of this opera, wanted to humanize the terrorists who murdered Klinghoffer by delving more deeply into their justifications for this act of terror. But regardless of their “cause,” civilized human beings do not hijack ships and murder innocent people.
To create a moral equivalence between the victim and the terrorist essentially attempts to portray the terrorist with a human heart. He may have a heart in the physical sense, but his acts of terror clearly demonstrate that he is devoid of a heart in the moral sense. Terrorism is immoral. To compare terrorists with their victims is immoral and reprehensible. Imagine doing this for the Islamic State, Boko Haram or al-Qaida. Imagine the expression of moral revulsion of people throughout the world.
More than two decades ago, Goodman was quoted as saying this about Klinghoffer’s murder: “I think in many ways he was killed as a wheelchair user more than anything else.” Goodman, who converted from Judaism to become a Church of England parish priest, rejected her Jewish heritage and joined a church whose leadership has been consistently known for its animosity toward Israel. For Goodman to publicly state that Klinghoffer was killed because of his disability rather than because he was a Jew is a gross misrepresentation and speaks for itself.
To those who suggest that canceling the simulcast is an affront to free speech and is censorship, I respectfully disagree. I applaud Judea Pearl, father of reporter Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan, for his response to a September New York Times editorial that defended the decision to allow the live performances of the opera to go on:
“What we are seeing in New York is not an artistic expression that challenges the limits of morality, but a moral deformity that challenges the limits of the art.”
The Metropolitan Opera did the right thing by canceling the simulcast and radio broadcast of “The Death of Klinghoffer.” Now the Met should do the right thing by canceling the remaining live performances. Failure to do so will be viewed by many as a breach of the obligation to foster the moral quality of one of the most influential of all art forms.
Reuven H. Taff, a past president of the Greater Sacramento Board of Rabbis, is the rabbi of Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.