Tag Archives: Israel

Why I Chose Not to Program The Death of Klinghoffer and Why I Still Support It

Over the past week or so I’ve had many difficult exchanges with friends and family over social media around posts I’ve shared about the Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Death of Klinghoffer. I’ve shared articles defending the production, reviews of its artistic merit, social critiques of what the controversy represents and even parallel experiences of the production in other cities. Those who were convinced it was anti-Semitic remain firmly convinced. Those who believed the protests were just another example of right wing denial of any legitimate Palestinian narrative remain similarly unswayed. Depressingly, this episode has only reinforced the worst stereotypes each side had of the other in the ongoing shouting-match over Israel (can we really call it a conversation at this point?). The Jewish general manager of the Met Opera has been compared to a Nazi sympathizer and a supporter of Hamas. I’ve read comparisons of the actions of those who opposed the performance of the opera to a “book burning of Adams’ work.” By my rule of thumb, whoever calls his opponent a Nazi first loses — and it’s hard to find any winners in this encounter.

Achille LauroMy own feelings about the opera itself are mixed — I saw the film version created for Channel Four in the UK directed by Penny Woolcock in 2004. At the time, I was considering it for possible inclusion in the Washington Jewish Film Festival in my capacity as the Festival’s director. I remember being entranced by the music, disturbed by its portrayals of history and touched by certain images that have stayed with me over a decade later — such as that of Klinghoffer’s wheelchair sinking through the water after he has been murdered and thrown overboard. I chose not to include the film for a number of reasons, some practical (opera on film is a tough sell) and some artistic/thematic. While I appreciated the aesthetic strengths of the work, it felt far too removed from its subject to be included in a Festival in which other films dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict spoke with greater authenticity and authorial intimacy. The work overall, felt like the product of outsiders to the conflict, looking to illuminate the tragedies and universal lessons for both sides. Firsthand knowledge of course, isn’t a prerequisite for great art, but when the subject is one that brings such passion along with it, one runs the risk — as Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman have certainly be accused — of naivety. That is why the work itself turns the characters themselves into archetypes more than real people, the terrorists are an extension of the chorus of exiled Palestinians and the Klinghoffers are extensions of the chorus of exiled Jews. One cannot blame Klinghoffer’s daughters for objecting to the opera — that is not their father up there (but neither should they have the last word). We are all products of our history, but the opera isn’t really interested in why these people were affected in the ways they were. It is why the captain is in many ways the most interesting character, he is also a product of history, but its effects on his character are more subtle and his choices stem from a much more personal, interesting and humanely flawed place.

A friend I respect greatly wrote me, “folks flying planes into skyscrapers, dragging gay men to their deaths behind cars,etc? They get no inner lives.” I simply can’t agree. Their inner lives may leave them twisted and deranged, committing heinous acts because of the person they have become, but to deny that their inner lives are not worthy of some kind of artistic exploration is to go too far. Why? Because to have that attitude is easy when you’re talking about Hitler, Osama Bin-Laden or Pol Pot; but there are a lot of shades of grey between them and the historical rungs of the ladder that the Achille Lauro terrorists occupy. To elevate Klinghoffer’s murderers to the level of genocidal prime-movers is to engage in a false equivalency that blurs our understanding of evil. It runs the risk of a turning a tradition which takes the weighing of justice most carefully, into a shrill hyperbole.

So, my defense of the opera has to be couched in the acknowledgement that given my own opportunity to program it, I chose not to. I think it is probably fair to say that even if I had wanted to program it, given the controversy that already surrounded the work, I might have faced internal and external opposition that would have made including it unwise and impossible. And it is that last acknowledgement that leaves me so unsettled. Because what was at stake in this debate was not the production of this specific opera in this specific venue. It was the freedom of artists, Jewish and non-Jewish, Israelis and Palestinians, to engage with the most sensitive and provocative topics in their histories and create music, theater, dance and stories from them, and for arts presenters to provide audiences with the opportunity to see and judge for themselves the results.

That is not a priority for many of the opponents of The Death of Klinghoffer. While there were some true arts supporters among the opera’s opponents, for many others (among them, the organizing core), the opera was another front in the total war for Israel’s survival. And while I can share their goal — that Israel survive — I cannot share their belief that this opera constituted a threat to that survival, or even that it was antagonistic to it (or for that matter, that its survival depends on a “total war” footing). I believe this as a Jew, as a Zionist, as a writer, and as someone who has first-hand knowledge of terrorism. But by mounting such a large, public and compelling campaign against an opera that most people will never hear or see, a profoundly chilling wind has been blown across the landscape of Jewish culture specifically and American culture more broadly. In development offices and board meetings across the land, well-intentioned but misguided leaders will ask themselves when faced with the prospect of presenting potentially challenging and controversial material, “Do we want another Death of Klinghoffer on our hands?” Only the most committed (and masochistic) will conclude that they are willing to risk it.

As I was getting this post together, another deadly chapter in this ongoing conflict was written in Jerusalem. A terrorist plowed his car into a crowded Jerusalem train station and took the life of a three-month-old baby girl; an attack which was initially reported in the A.P. as, “Israeli police shoot man in East Jerusalem.” Up in Ontario, an attack with still unfolding causes and consequences reminds us that terror, like that of the Achille Lauro, remains a frequent feature of our landscape. Events like these and their coverage illuminate how pro-Israel activists can see malevolence lurking around every corner and why their suspicions are not without a basis in reality. The urge to circle the wagons and put-off critical examination of ourselves and the “other” for the distant future is strong.

Yet, I do not believe that attacking straw men in the arts serves the long-term interests of the pro-Israel community. It conflates real terrorists with those who wish to understand why terrorism still attracts thousands to its cause; those who are ideologically committed to our destruction with those who wish to understand the historic grievances that feed such fundamentalism. Our tradition demands better.

photo by D. R. Walker, via Wikimedia Commons


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Continuing Obsessions: The Irish-Jewish Connection

Wall_plaques_Irish_Jewish_museumWeekend Edition Sunday had a nice piece this morning about the Loyal League of the Yiddish Sons of Erin — an affinity group of Jews from Ireland that met regularly in New York and which over time has disintegrated as their offspring have melted into the rest of America. It is one of those quirks of history that repeats itself every so often, that Jews trying to get the hell out of wherever they’re fleeing, end up in some unlikely places: Uzbekistan, Shanghai, the Dominican Republic and in this case, Ireland.

There have been entire PhD dissertations written about the most famous Irish Jew, James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom from Ulysses (a book I’ve begun many times and never finished). Robert Briscoe and his son Ben Briscoe get trotted out from time to time as past Jewish Lords Mayor of Dublin (I actually got to work with Ben Briscoe’s granddaughter Carla when she was acting in the DC-area about ten years ago). Former Israeli President Chaim Herzog‘s father was the Chief Rabbi of Ireland. But I’ve always felt this hall-of-fame of Jews-in-Strange-places approach to Irish Jewish history missed some deeper themes which I’ve never truly seen explored.

I had proposed to study them at the end of college when I applied for a Watson Fellowship — my idea was to study the development of National Theater in Ireland and Israel. Why Ireland and Israel? Well, to be honest, they were both countries I loved visiting and have been to multiple times. But that’s not what I put in the Fellowship application. I pointed out that the countries share some very compelling similarities in their modern development as nation-states.

1) Both countries grow out of ancient cultures that were highly influential in the development of Western Civilization but only achieved independent Nation-State status in the 20th Century.

2) Both countries have a history of genocide and diaspora — the Jews, many times over the millenia and the Irish with the Great Potato Famine which reached its peak in 1847.

3) Both countries have a history of linguistic revival, although with varying degrees of success.

4) Both countries have unresolved issues of national territory that play-out very differently, but at their essence speak to a psycho-geography that extends beyond the physical boundaries of the state, and entangle them with competing claims to the land with another ethno-religious group.

5) Both countries struggle with the line between church (or synagogue) and state.

5) Both countries see themselves as victims of European history. The British in-particular play a strong adversarial role in the struggle for political independence in both national narratives.

6) Most significantly to the fellowship I was applying for at the time, both had National Theaters before they had actual Nations. The Habima Theatre began in Europe, but eventually established itself in pre-State Israel and began performing in Tel Aviv in 1929 (it wasn’t the official national theater until 1958). The Abbey Theater was established in 1904, well before independence as part of an Irish Literary revival lead by Yeats and Synge. The Irish national theater is much better known, but both played important roles in the self-definition of a modern national identity in the run-up to and following independence. As a result, the theatrical traditions in both countries are today still vitally connected to national issues and the continuing evolution of that identity. That was my thesis anyway.

I didn’t get it. Partly because the past fellowship recipient who interviewed me didn’t really “get” theater. When I tried to explain to him how theater could reflect and shape a national narrative I held up as an example Angels in America, which had recently won the Pulitzer. He hadn’t seen it, but his friend had and told him he hated it.

It also may have had something to do with the fact that after the interview I realized the fly on my pants had been down during the entire conversation. Certainly, that was a foible that Leopold Bloom would have appreciated.

Image: By RustyTheDog, via Wikimedia Commons

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Lessons From The “Come Home to Israel” Ads for a Liberal Jewish Zionist Elite

I confess that when I first read Jeffrey Goldberg’s post about the ham-handed advertisements produced by Israel’s Absorption Ministry imploring Israelis to “come home” I went right along with his sense of outrage and insult. I fulminated on my Facebook page. I egged on the outrage of others on their Facebook pages. I cheered the official letter of complaint from the Jewish Federations of North America. I saw in the ads a representation of years of insults large and small made by Israelis to the value of Jewish life in the diaspora and our understanding of the Israeli reality. I thought the artless execution and saccharine structure of the ads paralleled a similarly unsophisticated and condescending Israeli sense of superiority to the laflafim in the galut.  I obsessed over the similarity between my facial hair and the facial hair of the boyfriend who knew-not of Yom HaZikaron. I’m not going to recount point by point the commercials, because that has been done better elsewhere.

Did you notice how every sentence in that paragraph began with the word “I”?

Now that the ads have been pulled by the Netenyahu government, it turns out that really they served as a kind of Rorschach test.

I know this based on the responses of several Israeli friends and colleagues who provided intelligent and contrasting Israeli interpretations of the ads. Anton Goodman, the shaliach here in Washington, takes Jeffrey Goldberg to task for suggesting that the Ministry should be luring Israelis back home by dangling the country’s low unemployment, good weather and proximity to maternal guilt:

His suggestion is as offensive to me as an Israeli as he finds the adverts to be. To suggest that choosing to live in Israel is about standard of living or weather is a cheapening of Zionist ideology. The Ministry of Absorption chose messaging that touches on national, collective narratives. Come back to Israel, say the adverts, because only there can you speak the national language of Hebrew, take part in national remembrance days and celebrate Jewish holidays as a pinnacle of national culture. The choice of Chanukah as the Jewish holiday showcased also adds depth, as Chanukah is the national holiday of the Zionist movement, having been imbued with significance of sovereignty, bravery and pioneerism from Herzl, Ahad Ha’Am and Bialik until today. We cannot celebrate Chanukah in America as we do in Israel.

And of course Anton is correct. Even the dreydls are different in Israel: first of all they call them sivyvon; and more significantly, there’s a one-letter difference on the tops that turns “A Great Miracle Happened There” into “A Great Miracle Happened Here.”

Robbie Gringras, writing for Makom and on his new independent blog Questions of a Questioning Zionist first does an excellent breakdown of the commercials to see what they are really saying to Israelis, and then goes on to point out the real dilemmas faced by that ex-pat community in America.

But much of the critique I’ve so far seen of the advert goes further. The advert is somehow seen as proof that “it is impossible for Jews to remain Jewish in America”. So of course anecdotally the commercial is thoroughly unfair, but statistically it is spot on. Of all Jews in America, Israeli ex-pats have the greatest trouble identifying with their local Jewish communities. Several Federations are making huge efforts to reach out to Israelis in their midst precisely because they have recognized there is a problem. In particular secular Israelis find it very hard to parlay their secular Israeli identity into the strictly Protestant-Jewish-religious terms of the American community (see the debate explored by James Hyman and Yonatan Ariel).

Andrew Shapiro Katz writing on Facebook also points to the significant evolution in discouraging emigration that ads present:

They want to make “Aliyah” as popular as possible and “Yerida” as unpopular as possible.

But, they want to do it in a way that doesn’t speak critically of the individual Israelis who choose to live in North America. As the video says, “They will always be Israeli.” It doesn’t talk about their not being around for reserve duty, or the “brain drain” after their heavily subsidized university educations, or the negative effect on Israeli society of the loss of their secular-liberalism. After all, they have all likely paid their dues, and few of their peers in Israel begrudge their pursuit of economic opportunity. The ads seem to go out of their way not to demonize or stigmatize “yordim.”

But it was Andrew’s observation about who was most upset about the ad that struck me as significant:

They have clearly touched a nerve, especially among what I at least would term the liberal Jewish Zionist elite – those who are deeply committed to Israel and the Jewish people and work either professionally or in a lay capacity on their behalf. Most of this group is in North America, but some lives in Israel. And I count myself as one of its members.

And then it dawned on me, I am one of the liberal Jewish Zionist elite — and I think the “liberal” part is not gratuitous. As part of that elite I feel I have a role to play in any and all conversations regarding Israel’s destiny. Certainly, sometimes my voice counts more than others (I don’t live there and my children don’t serve in the IDF), but as part of that liberal elite I feel I have the right and obligation to speak-up when I agree or disagree with the direction of the Israeli government, its culture or position in the world. But there is growing polarization in Israel and the diaspora about who can speak for Israel — and certain members of this liberal Jewish Zionist elite have found their place in the conversation challenged both by staunch defenders of Israel in North America who have announced the impossibility of liberal Zionism and by anti-democratic legislation in the Israel Knesset.

To relate that back to the Ministry of Absorption videos, here we have a semi-viral video that seems to posit the impossibility of an informed, passionately Zionist American (possibly goateed) partner for an Israeli. Our greatest fear is not that Israelis don’t want to date us or raise families with us in North America — it’s that we have no place in a relationship with Israel.

And I get it. The advertisement isn’t about me. Leave it to a member of the Liberal Zionist Elite to make it all about themselves. It’s about getting Israelis to come home without judging them for the reasons they may have left. That explanation works for me. But beyond the 30-second video, when the Sabra has returned to Netanya or Tel Aviv or Haifa; what happens to the liberal Jewish Zionist?

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