Its not easy to get New Yorkers to care about the opera.
On October 20, though, 400 people gathered outside the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan to protest the opening of John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer. The opera is based on the brutal murder of Leon Klinghoffer, who in 1985 was shot and thrown overboard in his wheelchair by Palestinian Liberation Front members who had hijacked the cruise ship upon which Klinghoffer and his wife were celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary.
Since it first opened in 1991, the opera has drawn charges of anti-Semitism. But this week's protests looked more like attempts at censorship. At a rally several weeks before opening night, City University of New York trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld said protesters would keep returning “until the set is burned to the ground”.
Last Monday, protesters sat in donated wheelchairs in reference to the title character's disability. They shouted “shame!” and waved signs announcing “Ebola 'Art' is Deadly” and asking if Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, was taking “Terror $$$”. Another sign absurdly compared the PLO, the umbrella organization to which the Marxist PLF belonged, to the Islamic State. The militant, far-right Jewish Defense League passed out recruitment flyers.
Former mayor Rudy Giuliani led the protest, which is unsurprising given his record of attempting to censor art. In 1999 he threatened to cut $7 million (£4.3 million) in subsidies to the Brooklyn Museum unless it canceled an exhibit of young British artists. He called the work “sick stuff” and told the press, “You don't have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else's religion”.
Despite protests, the production of Klinghoffer goes on. But the Met dropped plans to show the opera in movie theaters worldwide as it usually does with its operas – a decision Gelb said was made to avoid inciting anti-Semitism in Europe.
According to Michael Tracey, a journalist (and VICE contributor) present on opening night, no protesters he spoke to had seen Klinghoffer, and I must admit I'm in the same boat. My gnat-like attention span keeps me from appreciating opera. But the rhetoric at the protests reminds me of reactions against another famous and scandalous work of art: The Satanic Verses.
In 1988, before the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa forced author Salman Rushdie into nine years of living under police protection, before the attacks on those involved in the book's publication and sale, British Muslim groups protested The Satanic Verses, burning copies of it in the towns of Bradford and Bolton. Like the protesters at Monday's opera, most had never read it.
Some of the language used at protests against that novel and the protests against Klinghoffer was identical. Rushdie was denounced as an apostate; Wiesenfeld denounced to the opera's librettist, Alice Goodman, as an “apostate.” Opponents of the respective works also make the mistake of ascribing statements made by characters to the authors themselves. “Death of Klinghoffer contains outrageous libels stating that Jews cheat, exploit, pollute virgins, defame, break laws, are idolaters, and get fat from the poor” says the website of the STOP (Stop Terrorist Opera) Coalition, an organization co-founded by Wiesenfeld. These lines are in fact spoken by Klinghoffer's murderers. Similarly, in denouncing the Satanic Verses, critics took lines spoken by unsympathetic characters who persecute early Muslims and assumed they reflected Rushdie's own beliefs. You might as well protest George Lucas for his pro-Empire views.
Neither The Death of Klinghoffer nor The Satanic Verses is a simple work. They offer no pat lessons. They choose humanism over ideology. This may be what most enrages those who want to erase them. Along with their fury that Klinghoffer acknowledges Israel's 1948 expulsion of Palestinians, the STOP Coalition is inflamed that the opera shows the “humanity of the terrorists”, to them, this is romantic glorification, propaganda for head-choppers, not an attempt to understand.
Britain's early protests against Rushdie's work took place against a backdrop of brutal anti-immigrant racism – racism that Rusdhie himself worked to organize against. This summer, some Europeans used pro-Palestinian protests as a pretext for vile anti-Semitic attacks. But the actions of racists can't be used as excuses to censor unrelated art.
I asked Rushdie about the protests against The Death of Klinghoffer, and he told me, “It should not be necessary in the land of the First Amendment to defend the right to free speech of people who say things you don't like, or who say things in a way you find objectionable. This is a serious work by serious people and it must have the right to be heard.
“There is indeed a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the world today and it is right to draw attention to that and to protest against it. The Metropolitan Opera, however, is not the enemy, nothing like the enemy. These efforts are not only misdirected. They do a disservice to the cause they claim to be defending”.
A glance at the organizations behind STOP Coalition show groups that are hardly marginal, including The Zionist Organization of America and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Groups like these enforce a sort of unofficial censorship policy against critics of Israel in the US, as Wiesenfeld did in 2011 when he got the City University of New York (where he is a trustee) to deny the award-winning playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree because of his pro-Palestinian views. Such people think that it's perfectly fine for Wiesenfeld to tell the New York Times that Palestinians are "not human" because they "worship death for their children," but that attempts to humanize Palestinians – as Klinghoffer does – are beyond the pale.
Use such language for long enough, and it manifests in reality. It's not surprising that, this summer, some Israelis threw picnics to watch bombs fall on the trapped population of Gaza.
At its best, art counters this dehumanization, reminding us of the people behind the names and numbers of the dead. Leon Klinghoffer's murder was an atrocity, and Adams's opera is an attempt to grapple with that atrocity. It honors Klinghoffer as an individual.
Now, art does not exist in a realm of pure spirit. We artists are shaped by the world in which we live, and despite our best efforts, we're left with the residue of its preconceptions, privilege, and fear. Art is not exempt from political critique.
But what sort of politics does one have, and what sort of world will they make, if they demand that their beliefs consume everything? We must leave space for irreverence, for non-didacticism, for hard questions, for the humanity of everyone – especially those we hate, and those we think hate us back. If art is not allowed to explore the complexity of killers, it is little more than a moralistic cartoon of the kind forced on children. And even children reject that shit.
The STOP Coalition's website's header graphic is the silhouette of a man in a wheelchair, splattered in blood. “After the ISIS beheaded American journalists, we should not let the Met humanize and glorify the Palestinian terrorist killers of disabled American Leon Klinghoffer!” their site says. The group reportedly plans to keep protesting.
Let them. The streets belong to everyone, even censorious assholes. But their statements must be called out for what they are. They are reflexive. They are ugly. They are anti-art. Most insultingly, they don't trust the audience. If art is not longer allowed to explore darkness, we have nothing left but commercials and propaganda. Art that risks nothing isn't worth the name.
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