‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ – and Cultural Integrity
The 1985 murder of Leon Klinghoffer, the 69-year-old wheel-chair bound man shot in the head by a Palestinian terrorist before his body was thrown from the Achille Lauro cruise liner into the Mediterranean, is a familiar horror story in the annals of anti-Semitism. The sound and fury surrounding the Monday opening of “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Metropolitan Opera exposed the pollution of anti-Semitism that can infuse the loftiest realms of culture. But it also raises freedom of speech issues that deserve scrutiny.
The author of the controversial libretto, Alice Goodman, has revealed her bursting pride at her (despicable) creation. “By God, I can write! It’s great! I’m going to be famous!” she told Guardian columnist Stuart Jeffries a few years ago. “Infamous” would have been a better word choice, for she had written (as Jeffries observed) “a cursed opera” that opened in 1991 and was not performed again for 20 years due to cancellations inspired by its ugly message.
As Goodman recounts it, her mistake was “to depict terrorists as human beings and their victims as flawed” or, as New York Times critic Richard Taruskin wrote, “romanticizing terrorists.” That infuriated Goodman, who defended “complexity.” “People will love evil if we give terrorists beautiful music to sing and we can’t have that, can we?” she asked sardonically. Goodman claimed to deplore “romantic nationalism,” whether Palestinian or Israeli. So moral equivalency between Palestinian terrorists and Israeli responses to Palestinian terrorism triumphed once again.
In her most tortured analogy (among others), Goodman referred to “the guards at Auschwitz” who first dehumanized and then murdered. Therefore, by her contorted logic, “To have made Klinghoffer into the Klinghoffer the critics wanted would have been to play into that enterprise of dehumanizing” – Palestinians. That Goodman would not do, even when they murdered an innocent, handicapped man because he was a Jew – although she ludicrously insisted that Klinghoffer was murdered because he was “a wheelchair user.”
Ms. Goodman’s libretto begins with the refrain of a chorus of exiled Palestinians singing: “My father’s house was razed in nineteen forty-eight/When the Israelis passed over our street.” It continued: “Of that house, not a wall in which a bird might rest/Was left to stand. Israel laid all to waste.” In conclusion: “Let the supplanter look upon his work. Our faith/Will take the stones he broke/And break his teeth.” While they sing, a little girl watches Israelis drive Arabs from their homes with rifle butts and bullets. It is, noted Truth Revolt (October 20), “pure defamatory fiction.”
Who can really be surprised to learn that Alice Goodman was born a Jew? “My family is observant,” she notes, “and I had a proper Jewish upbringing and education.” Indeed, her Judaism was “strongly Zionist” – although “I didn’t buy the State of Israel being the recompense for the murder of European Jewry.” So enduring were her Jewish family values and Zionist education that midway through writing “Klinghoffer” she converted to the Church of England and is now a Church rector.
The anguished final words belong to Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, daughters of the murdered victim of Palestinian terror. In a public letter (October 20) they described “Klinghoffer”: “It presents false moral equivalencies without context and offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew. The opera rationalizes, romanticizes and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father.” So it does.
Those who gathered in protest outside Lincoln Center, many in wheelchairs to dramatize their presence, had every right to do so – as did the Met in presenting the performance, despicably anti-Semitic though the Goodman libretto is. For better and worse, that is what freedom of speech is all about. And yet: having taught its history for forty years to Wellesley College students, I am familiar with the confounding clash of competing claims and contradictions that it poses.
The First Amendment, after all, stipulates that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Yet less than a decade later Congress passed the Sedition Act, limiting speech critical of the government. We scrutinized the memorable opinion of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. that justified the suppression of speech if it posed “a clear and present danger”; as, in his famous example, “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theatre.” The Supreme Court subsequently prohibited inflammatory speech that incited “imminent lawless action.”
Along the way students invariably discovered their own justifications to restrict speech for more compelling claims. For some (as for College administrators) political correctness was decisive; no one should endure insults, or even comment, for their racial, religious or gendered identity. (Jews, however, were exempt.) For others, pornography that exploited the female body for the pleasure of voyeuristic males was beyond the First Amendment pale. I shared my own decision to relinquish membership in the American Civil Liberties Union when it defended the right of neo-Nazis to parade through Skokie, the Chicago suburb that was home to many Holocaust survivors and their relatives. In certain circumstances, we learned together, there are values that may be even more important to defend than freedom of expression.
The Met, in producing “The Death of Klinghoffer,” defended the principle of artistic freedom – while remaining silent about commercial profit. My own preferred solution would have been for all ticket holders to absent themselves, confronting performers and Alice Goodman with the consequences of their despicable anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in an empty concert hall.
Jerold S. Auerbach is a frequent contributor to The Algemeiner.