Over the weekend, I attended the last performance of “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Met. I tried as best I could, despite reading about 20 reviews of the production, to view it without preconceptions. I must say that I came away astonished that anyone could see the opera as Anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli, or in any way condoning Palestinian terrorism. The opera provides the strongest possible condemnation of terrorism, and the terrorists who killed Klinghoffer are depicted as monsters, with their rationalizations for the crimes the rationalizations and self-delusions of monsters.
If anyone should be upset by the opera, it should be Palestinians, who are depicted in the opera solely as terrorists and their abettors. I found myself thinking that the opera could be really effective as hasbara [propaganda] for the Israeli government. If the Achille Lauro hijacking took place today, rather than 30 years ago, I think that more effective anti-terrorist actions by Israel or the Navy SEALS would have probably prevented Klinghoffer’s death, and hurrah for that.
Did I see an entirely different opera from that of the critics? I don’t think so. The opening “Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians” certainly is an effective invocation of the pain of the Nakba. But it is in no way exculpatory of the actions of the terrorists. The simple truth is that for Palestinians, for all Palestinians, the events of 1948 are utterly foundational for their understanding of their political reality— for moderates, for radicals, and for terrorists. A legitimate grievance does not justify all actions taken in retribution, and many of the most evil villains of opera and the stage have legitimate complaints. Except for those who want to wish away the negative consequences of 1948, and place all the blame for the expulsion of Palestinians on the Palestinians themselves, I don’t see how else to tell the story.
I think the opera is a masterpiece, but not perfect. In contrast to the Palestinians’ opening chorus, the “Chorus of the Exiled Jews” is unclear in its intent and lacks purpose. (In general, I found the choruses, if musically excellent, often too opaque and distractions from the story.) Adams has stated that he wanted to evoke the mood of Bach’s Passions in his music, but there’s a part of me that wishes he had paid more attention to Puccini and just told the story without as many detours. The musical work that came coming to mind for me was not St. Mathew’s Passion, but Tosca, and the Palestinian terrorists come across as some of the most loathsome operatic villains since Scarpia. All I can say is that for me, Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer are absolutely at the moral core of the opera, and the opera’s heroes, as opposed to the terrorists and the self-interested neutrality of the ship’s captain and the other by-standers, and for me, the whole point of the opera is when Leon Klinghoffer says to his murderers “You don’t give a shit/excuse me, about Your grandfather’s hut/His sheep and goat/And the land he wore our/You just wanted to see/People die.” I understand that the Klinghoffer’s daughter are upset by the role of their parents in the opera, but they are depicted not only sympathetically, but heroically.
There is a difference between a libretto, and this one has been endlessly nitpicked, and a performance; there is no doubt in my mind that the opera as a whole makes the strongest possible argument for the evil of terrorism and random murder to further one’s supposed political aims. And what a pity that the Met caved to pressure and canceled the broadcasting of this performance so those not in the NYC metro area or like me, sufficiently motivated to fly to the city to see it, were unable to view it and judge it for themselves.
For me, the deeper question raised by the controversy over Klinghoffer, is whether rational and civilized discussion and discourse over the Israel-Palestinian dispute is still possible. On one side there is the ADL and their supporters, for whom the green flag of Palestine is a red flag, and for whom any uncomfortable questions about Israel is, apparently, an incitement to terrorism. On the other side are the shrill supporters of academic BDS, who reduce the complexities of Israel’s history, good and bad, to left-wing sloganeering—“imperialist” and “racist”—and all too easily fall into the old left-wing trap of uncritically lauding “the resistance.”
Against this we must insist—though the prospect seems increasingly forlorn and naïve—on the possibility of serious discussion on Israel and Palestine. A good start would be for supporters of Israel, with anti-Semitism definitely on the rise throughout the world, and enough real examples to worry about, not to engage in a phony-baloney hunt for anti-Semitism where it does not exist, as in the faux controversy over Klinghoffer. And for supporters of Palestine, likewise, to look for real enemies, who also exist in abundance, and not to demonize and ostracize all who believe that co-existence between Israel and Palestine is still possible. And perhaps in this spirit, though I suspect this is as unlikely as peace breaking out tomorrow in the Middle East, that the Met revive their Klinghoffer production in the near future, and let more people see it and hear it.