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The English National Opera in London contributes to a public acceptance of the banality of anti-Jewish hatred

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An obviously evil act is transformed through the power of opera into what Composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman claim affords equal voice "to both Palestinian and Israeli suffering." They do this by romanticizing the killing of a wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, shot in cold blood in the forehead and chest and then dumped into the sea.

The English National Opera, in London, staged "The Death of Klinghoffer," from Feb 25 - Mar 09 2012. The English National Opera (ENO) is resident at the London Coliseum in St. Martin's Lane and it is one of the two principal opera companies in London, along with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden.

What we see in this opera is what Edward S. Herman calls "normalizing the unthinkable." According to him, "doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on 'normalization.' This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as 'the way things are done.'"

What could be more unthinkable than the killing of Leon Klinghoffer? A retired businessman who was 69, helpless in his confinement to a wheelchair, who had sailed with his wife Marilyn in celebration of their 36th wedding anniversary with a cruise on the Achille Lauro. On October 7, 1985, four hijackers from the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) took control of the liner off Egypt. Holding the passengers and crew hostage, they demanded the release of 50 Palestinians then in Israeli prisons. The next day the hijackers singled out Klinghoffer, a Jew, for murder.

Clearly the intellectual and cultural elites in the Western World have lost any understanding of the existence of Evil in the world. They refuse to acknowledge the evil represented by the organized use of terrorism for political reasons in which there is a systematic use of randomly focused violence against civilian targets. These atrocious acts are not exercised by crazy individuals but are a rational approach by terrorists to raise fears so as to bring about a capitulation to their demands.

The murder of Klinghoffer cannot be explained by Palestinian grievances against Israel. How do you equate some old handicapped guy on a boat with a bunch of killers as two "sides" of a conflict? The Klinghoffers were American Jews, not Israelis, and had played no part in the Israel-PLO conflict. No, Klinghoffer was killed because he was a Jew.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach described the ENO’s production as “morally reprehensible.” “The murder of Leon Klinghoffer is one of the most despicable crimes of the modern age. To have his killers celebrated on stage, singing about the murder of a man in a wheelchair, about their humanity and suffering, while presented with such artistic merit is a justification of terrorism which is morally reprehensible.“

Boteach pointed out that there is a global war against terror that has at its center the following two questions: first, are civilian non-combatants fair targets in a guerrilla war waged by aggrieved “militants” (as they are described in the National Opera literature), and second, is there a moral equivalence between democratic powers killings these terrorists and terrorists killing civilians?

If civilians are fair game and if terrorists targeting children can claim to be as moral as, say, American marines targeting the Taliban, then morality has no meaning and values-based democracies are nothing but a cruel farce. Once “militants” murder civilians they are terrorists.

Composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman repeatedly claimed that their purpose in the production was to afford equal voice to both Palestinian and Israeli suffering. But can one imagine a more evil deed than the brutal murder of a truly helpless victim who had taken his wife on a cruise to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary.

Whatever points could be raised here over the rights and boundaries of art, one question is begged: what value is derived from reliving this horrific event, albeit in a beautified form? How can a lyrical justification be provided for murder from the stand point of terrorists? Is the murder interesting or simply monstrous? Is it taboo-busting or voyeurism?

The audience should not fall into the trap of drawing a moral equivalence between those who live to kill and those who are forced to kill because they wish to live. Moreover, the juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the cold-blooded murder of an innocent disabled American Jew is both historically naive and appalling.”

The barbarism of the killing of Klinghoffer has unfortunately not been an isolated event. Innocent civilians, some of whom were children, have been killed in the name of politics. And Jews are particular targets just because they are Jews.

There was the killing of Daniel Jacob Pearl in February 1, 2002. He was an American journalist serving as the South Asia Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal, and was based in Mumbai, India. He went to Pakistan on January 23, 2002, for an interview in downtown Karachi. Pearl was kidnapped by a militant group calling itself The National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty. On May 16 his severed head and decomposed body were found cut into ten pieces. The group boasted of the killing by releasing a video in which Pearl's body is shown naked from the waist up, he admits to being Jewish, his throat is slit at about 1 minute and 55 seconds into the video, and then a man decapitates Pearl.

There was the barbaric killing of five members of the same family in their beds in the Israeli settlement of Itamar on 11 March 2011. Stabbed to death were the father Ehud (Udi) Fogel, the mother Ruth Fogel, and three of their six children—Yoav, 11, Elad, 4, and Hadas, the youngest, a three-month-old infant, who was decapitated. Amjad Awad and Hakim Awad, two young Palestinian men, proudly confessed to the killings, and expressing no remorse.

On 19 March 2012, Mohammed Merah, 23, killed four Jews at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school in Toulouse France. Those killed were Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 29, his 3-year-old and 6-year-old sons Gabriel and Arieh and 8-year-old Miriam Monsonego. Mohammad Merah trapped 8-year-old Miriam Monsonego in a corner, grabbed her by the hair and then shot her in the head. Merah created a video of the killings and set it to music and readings from the Koran.

Most people would consider the killing of innocent civilians in the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States as evidence of evil in the world. On that Tuesday morning, 19 terrorists from the Islamist militant group Al-Qaeda hijacked four passenger jets. The hijackers intentionally piloted two of those planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center complex in New York City; both towers collapsed within two hours. The hijackers also intentionally crashed another airplane into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and intended to pilot the fourth hijacked jet into a target in Washington, D.C.; however, the plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after its passengers attempted to take control of the jet from the hijackers. Nearly 3,000 innocent people, from all backgrounds and ages, died in the attacks.

From out of the obvious evil undertaken by terrorists, we are presented with the compromising “The Death of Klinghoffer,” an American opera, with music by John Adams, Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer, to an English-language libretto by Alice Goodman. The prologue to the opera draws an equivalence between killers and victim on the basis of two choruses, the "Chorus of Exiled Palestinians" and the "Chorus of Exiled Jews," each of which is supposedly a general reflection about the respective peoples and their history.

Following the "Ocean Chorus," Scene 2 introduces hijacker Mamoud, as he keeps guard over the Captain. Mamoud recalls his youth and songs he listened to on the radio. The Captain and Mamoud have a dialogue, in which the Captain pleads that individuals on the two sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could meet and try to understand each other. Mamoud dismisses this idea.

Act II begins with the "Hagar Chorus", related to the Islamic story of Hagar and the Angel, and the Biblical story of Hagar and Ishmael. It represents the beginnings of Arab-Israeli tension, of which the hijacking is one historical result.

In Scene 1, Molqi is frustrated by having received no reply to his demands. Mamoud threatens all of the passengers with death. Another hijacker, called "Rambo", responds in harsh terms about Jews and Americans. Omar sings of his desire for martyrdom for his cause. At the end of the scene Molqui takes Klinghoffer away. The "Desert Chorus" follows.

Scene 2 starts with Marilyn Klinghoffer talking about disability, illness, and death. She thinks that her husband Leon was taken to the ship's hospital, but he was shot.

The opera includes a “Hijackers' Libretto” which reveals the clearly anti-Semitic nature of the opera – and the terrorists - as it condemns Jews in general and ignores any connection to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

"We are not criminals

And we are not vandals

But men of ideals."

"...wherever poor men

Are gathered they can

Find Jews getting fat.

You know how to cheat

The simple, exploit

The virgin, pollute

Where you have exploited,

Defame those you cheated,...

You are all wolves,

Wolves without teeth."

The English National Opera production works hard to compensate for the opera's failure to tell its own story. Significant dates are flashed up on the set, explanatory captions supply historical context, and the piece is made more of a documentary than Adams and Goodman ever intended.

The stage pictures are economical, carefully managed and effective – the chorus unfurl green flags as Palestinians, carry olive trees as Israelis. Little is stylized, though some episodes are choreographed.

Previous productions of the opera depicted Mr Klinghoffer’s murder off-stage, but ENO’s version shows him being shot on stage. The opera also includes an Aria of the Falling Body, sung by Mr Klinghoffer’s dead body as he is thrown overboard.

The trailer for the Death of Klinghoffer Production at the English National Opera can be seen by pressing here.

The first performance of the opera took place at the Théatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, Belgium, on 19 March 1991. The first US performance was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on 5 September 1991. The English National Opera performance on February 25, 2012 was its first London production, and was a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, which is scheduled to stage the opera in the 2014-2015 season.

The reason for the performance at this time can be explained by an ENO effort to attract younger audiences to the opera. The Klinghoffer work is wildly fashionable at the moment -- the Palestinian terrorists seen from a sympathetic point of view. Clearly, the company decided to stage the rarely-performed work, which the opera company itself says will “shock”.

In a previous effort to attract a young audience, ENO in November 2010 produced Don Giovanni, but showed him as a "seedy rapist," rather than a selfish seducer of women. The opera drew criticism for featuring two rape scenes, described by one reviewer as "brutal, ugly and cruel." In particularly, during the overture in the opening minutes of the show, the gang rape of a woman is carried out by a masked mob wearing T-shirts featuring the image of Jesus Christ.

The performance of The Death of Klinghoffer on Feb. 25, 2012 passed off quite peacefully. The demonstration against the staging that had been predicted in some sections of the press appeared to be limited to one person standing outside the Coliseum and brandishing a rather small poster, and at the final curtain the composer, his work and English National Opera's production were all warmly received.

Despite the supposedly controversial aspects of the opera, the cultural critics saw it as an artistic event that should only be judged by aesthetic considerations and refused to deal with the message it conveys. Of course, the images that art projects to the audience can provide a false interpretation of real situations. Art can rally support for a particular cause favored by the artist. The Marxists had a clear view on the ties between art and society by claiming that there was no such thing as "art for art's sake."

So we read that critics find the sheer beauty of so much of Adams's score, with its dark-hued sonorities, chromatically inflected harmonies and keening instrumental lines. The great choruses that provide the opera's structural pillars are superbly sung by the ENO Chorus. ENO's production underlines the opera’s musical worth, and its timeless seriousness. It's a major achievement.

The review of Klinghoffer written for the Guardian newspaper saw it as “the event of the season.” “The London premiere staging was a significant triumph for English National Opera. “At ENO the singing and playing was formidable: Adams's score, often slow, elegiac, drawing on a tradition of Bach Passions rather than grand opera, is one of his best.

Nevertheless, the critic does see some subliminal touches in the staging that favor the terrorists. The long, emotive outpouring of Palestinian exiles is given greater prominence than the short, Jewish chorus, in which figures in orthodox garb plant trees. If you see the work as docudrama, you may object to the bias and anachronism, to the repetition of the line "Israel laid all to waste" by those waving a green Palestinian flag. You may think it's the terrorists who get all the good tunes. And the story is amplified with film projection and a hinged, concrete wall suggestive of the West Bank barrier.

An understanding regarding the motivations for writing the opera was given in a Guardian newspaper interview with Alice Goodman who wrote the libretto on January 29, 2012. It was conduced in the front room of the Rectory at Fulbourn near Cambridge. Goodman, raised as a Reform Jew in Minnesota in 1958, is now a Church of England rector.

She is proud of her achievement in writing the libretto. “You always know when you've done something good and I assumed everyone else would." But they didn't. Goodman and the rest of the creative team – composer Adams, director Peter Sellars and choreographer Mark Morris – had expected, and perhaps even courted, controversy.

"I couldn't get work after Klinghoffer," says Goodman. "I was un-commissionable."I would have liked to have written more than two operas," says Goodman. "But I'm glad those were the ones I wrote."

In one particularly caustic attack in the New York Times in 2001, Richard Taruskin denounced the opera for "romanticising terrorists.” "What upset Taruskin was giving beautiful music to terrorists," snaps Goodman. "They have to sing ugly music. People will love evil if we give terrorists beautiful music to sing and we can't have that, can we?

"There's a certain romanticism to the hijackers. But I actually think the most dangerous thing in the world is romantic nationalism. And if it's true, it's also true for Israel. Israel is not exempt from the problem I have with romantic nationalism. If it's an evil, it's an evil all over the world."

Writing the libretto was the culmination of a spiritual and ethical journey for Goodman. "The Judaism I was raised in was strongly Zionist. It had two foci almost – the Shoah [the Holocaust] and the State of Israel. Even when I was a child, I didn't totally buy that. I didn't buy the State of Israel being the recompense for the murder of European Jewry, recompense not being quite the right word, of course. The word one wants would be more like apotheosis or elevation."

My move to Christianity and the rectory in Fulbourn had nothing to do with writing Klinghoffer really, though “I was converted about halfway through writing it."

Alice Goodman, though now an ordained Anglican priest, is apparently not fully familiar with her own Christian writings. In the Gospel of Matthew 19:16–19, Jesus repeated five of the Ten Commandments. One came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, …. So how does Pastor Alice Goodman justify making murder into an understandable political event?

The words attributed to Edmund Burke in 1795 would seem to be as relevant today: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Or Burke’s statement in 1788 that: “One that confounds good and evil is an enemy to the good.”

Further Reading:

UK Church leaders instigate hatred against Jews and Israel

Denis MacEoin fights hatred at Edinburgh University