The Right to Protest the Metropolitan Opera Decision to Put on ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’
On Monday night I stood in front of the Metropolitan Opera listening to hundreds of Jewish and non-Jewish protesters who were aggrieved by the decision of the Metropolitan Opera to produce a work called The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams.
The plot of the opera centers on the cold-blooded murder of an elderly, wheelchair bound, Jewish-American man, who had taken a cruise with his dying wife to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary. Palestinian terrorists selected him for execution because he was Jewish, shot him and dumped his body into the sea. It was not the televised beheading of a journalist or an aid worker who had volunteered to perform an important function in a dangerous area. But it was at least as brutal and unjustified, precisely because Leon Klinghoffer was an ordinary tourist, who simply happened to be Jewish.
The opera shows its bias toward the terrorists immediately in the opera’s title: it is not “The Murder of Leon Klinghoffer”; it is the far more neutral and dehumanizing title, “The Death of Klinghoffer.”
The opera itself begins with a chorus of grievances by Palestinians calculated to justify their resort to terrorism, including the murder of innocent Jews. This chorus is followed by a chorus of exiled Jews, which critics have characterized as ambiguous and vague. The stated purpose of the competing choruses is, according to a New York Times editorial, to give “voice to all sides,” of what The Times describes not as a murder, or even a killing but as a “tragedy” motivated by the “ruthless” terrorists being “aggrieved” by Israel and Jews.
Therein lies the legitimacy of the aggrieved protesters who stood outside the Metropolitan Opera on Monday: no one can deny that the artistic and political goal of the composer and lyricists was to create a moral equivalence between terrorists who murder helpless, innocent victims because they are Jewish, and the victims themselves. This opera is not about the Arab-Israeli, or Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If it were, there would be a mention of the fact that the leaders of Israel accepted two-state solutions in 1937 and 1948 (and after the opera was written, in 2000-2001 and 2008), and that the Palestinian leadership rejected any solution that retained a nation-state for the Jewish people, and responded with violence. No, this opera is not about ends; it is about means. And the means that it seeks to give equal voice to is the cold-blooded terrorist murder of an innocent Jew like Leon Klinghoffer.
The protestors asked a legitimate question: would the Metropolitan opera “give voice to all sides” of the conflict between the Ku Klux Klan and Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chancy? Would it give equal voice to those who beheaded journalists? These cold-blooded terrorist murders are also “aggrieved.” They also offer justifications. But no decent person would write an opera “giving voice” to the grievances or justifying their brutal murders. And if anyone wrote such an opera, would the Metropolitan perform it, even if it were written by a distinguished composer? This is a legitimate question that needs to be answered.
Instead, the defenders of the Met limit themselves to arguing for artistic freedom, which I certainly support.But the government is not banning this opera, and certainly the protesters have an equal claim to freedom of expression.
I do not question the right of the Metropolitan Opera to put on The Death of Klinghoffer. It has the artistic freedom to do so, just as it would have the artistic freedom to put on operas about “the death” of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, and just as it would have the freedom of put on an opera on “the death” of James Foley. I question its judgment on the manner by which it has exercised its artistic freedom. I have as much of a right to protest its judgment and it has the right to exercise it.
As I was leaving the demonstration, a young woman asked me a pair of questions:
“According to the philosophy of the opera, would the Klinghoffer children, who are aggrieved by the murder of their father, have the right to disrupt the performance of the opera? Or would we, who are aggrieved by some of the anti-Semitic sentiments expressed by the terrorists in the opera, have the artistic freedom to boo loudly when these words of hate are spoken?”
I told her please not to stop or disrupt the performance, but I had no good answer to her questions, based on the premise of the opera. Perhaps Adams’ next opera will give voice to those who are legitimately protesting the Death of Klinghoffer.
Alan Dershowitz is the Author of the new e-book Terror Tunnels: The Case For Israel’s Just War Against Hamas.