What if Klinghoffer Were a Muslim”Ž?
The opera opens with the mayor of Hebron recounting the events. How 14-year old Neveen Jamjoun – a Palestinian – was playing in her parents yard, looking forward to a long weekend from school. How she was shot and killed by two Jewish Israelis. In Act Two, the opera explains how those who killed her had seen their own friends murdered by Palestinians. They had pain and suffering. Other characters come forward to show how the men who killed the girl were compassionate. One had taught blind children to read. He had a troubled childhood. He was angry. It was a mistake. They didn’t mean to kill the girl; it was revenge. It was a political statement.
Lost in the opera is Jamjoun, the 14-year old. But it is important to humanize the people who killed her, right? This is a true story in a way. There was a Muslim girl named Neveen Jamjoun from Hebron who was killed in a “revenge” attack in 2002 by Jewish men who had returned from a funeral of a friend. No opera was made of it.
The ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ is currently showing at the New York Metropolitan Opera. On Monday night its performance was repeatedly interrupted by catcalls, and a passionate protest was staged outside with leading figures such as Rudy Guliani and a former U.S. Attorney General participating. We are continually asked to discuss Klinghoffer in a vacuum, in which its composer John Adams and its sycophantic supporters and “art critics” get their way. One gets drawn into the anti-Semitism debate. The New Yorker noted “there is little evidence that this mournful, meditative score has fed the passions of bigots, European or otherwise.” The literati school us, explaining that when a character says “America is one big Jew” that “a dramatist cannot address hatred without giving hatred a voice onstage.” The New York Times notes “this opera tries to explore what drove these Palestinians to take that ship and murder its most vulnerable passenger.””Ž
Lost among the hype for the “earthy mezzo-soprano” is an important question. What if Leon Klinghoffer had just been a Muslim? First of all Leon would not have been murdered in October 1985 by four hijackers from the Palestinian Liberation Organization. He was murdered for being a Jew, not an Israeli. If he had been a Muslim and his murderer had been Anders Breivik, the Norwegian extreme-right killer, and someone made an opera, even with an excellent mezzo-soprano, explaining the motivations of the killer, we can imagine it would not have been met with glowing adoration and love.
That’s the central issue here. No one made an opera to “humanize” and “contextualize” the white men who murdered African-American James Byrd in 1998 or those who killed Matthew Shepard. Had an opera been made giving long passages of beautiful musical scores about the hardships of the murderers, it wouldn’t have seen the light of day.
The Israel-Palestinian conflict is given outsized attention in the arts. In 2006 ‘My Name is Rachel Corrie’ travelled back and forth to New York from the U.K. like Klinghoffer did. Another vomit-worthy production called ‘Seven Jewish Children’ was presented at the Royal Court in London in 2009. ‘Klinghoffer’ was even more opportunistic, because it was conceived entirely to make us believe that every time a Jew is murdered, we have to accept that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can be an excuse. Klinghoffer represents more than himself in that sense: He is all of us. It isn’t enough to ask how we got to the point where humanizing those who shoot a man in a wheelchair and throw him off a ship is considered the greatest art form at the most prestigious opera houses. Michael Mukasey was right when he called that a “cultural low point.”
The refrain of the supporters is that those who don’t like the opera haven’t seen it. That’s an interesting point. Some people who call Birth of a Nation, the 1915 film by D.W Griffith romanticizing the KKK (showing them as being suppressed by freed slaves and greedy Yankees), racist have not seen it. Some people haven’t truly appreciated Leni Riefenstahl’s productions or Der Ewige Jude, no doubt. Hiding behind the mezzo-soprano art critic mumbo-jumbo is a classic way to always get out of real criticism of a work.
The ‘Times of Israel’ fell into this trap, with its reporter claiming “to protest against art and free speech is always dicey.” Protesting against it is an act of free speech, not against free speech. Peter Gelb, the General Manager of the Met claimed it will not be “suppressed.” No one is saying suppress it. Just make the main victim a Muslim, or an African-American. It is a piece of fiction. Let’s see how the art critics react when it is Matthew Shepard being murdered and the audience is asked to understand and sympathize with the “suffering” of homophobes, with the Anders Breiviks and their ilk.
Follow the author on Twitter @Sfrantzman