The Hijacking of History by Opera: The Death of Klinghoffer
By Phyllis Chesler
I love opera. I was once a regular contributor to NPR’s “At the Opera,” and that privilege lasted for almost three years. I attend the Metropolitan opera as often as I can—I also attend the Chelsea Opera, the NY City Opera (when it existed), and the Glimmerglass Opera Festival in Cooperstown almost every summer.
The Metropolitan Opera’s General Manager, Peter Gelb, has a constitutional as well as an artistic right to produce whatever he wants. However, his choice of The Death of Klinghoffer is an abdication of moral responsibility, political sensitivity, and gravitas. Gelb’s showcasing of this opera is equivalent to a college president’s decision to allow ISIS, Hamas, al-Qaeda, or the Taliban to speak on campus because “all sides must be heard and understood” because “all points of view are equally valid.”
Blood libels against Israel and the Jews, mythic pseudo-histories—genocidal narratives—have permeated the Western campuses. These dangerous falsehoods claim the privilege of free speech and academic freedom and they have been welcomed by the intelligentsia. Now, these same ideas are making their debut amidst the trappings of high culture.
As a long-time feminist fan of opera, I would not boycott an opera because the female heroes are betrayed, go mad, kill themselves, or are murdered.
Gilda, Norma, Mimì, Cio-Cio-San, Carmen, Lucia, Tosca, Lulu, Isolde, Marie (Berg’s Wozzeck), Brünnhilde, Leonora, Azucena, Massenet’s Manon, and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, all the Russians—die singing. As in life, our great operas are tragedies in which the heroes die.
But, in opera, where there are heroes, there are also villains.
The villain in Puccini’s Tosca is unmistakable. He is Scarpia, the police chief of Rome who tortures political prisoners and attempts to rape the great singer, Floria Tosca. We do not get a back-story about Scarpia’s dysfunctional childhood, nor do we sympathize or identify with him.
He is a heartless villain and the opera does not allow us to pity or sympathize with him. We are meant to fear and despise him, perhaps even hate him.
Likewise, in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Verdi’s Rigoletto, and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, we are not meant to sympathize with Lucia’s brother, Lord Enrico Ashton; or with Rigoletto’s lecherous boss, the Duke of Mantua, or his paid assassin, Sparafucile; or with Cio-Cio San’s Pinkerton. (And for those who immediately think of Othello: Yes, we sympathize with him, even though he murders his wife in an honor killing and thereafter immediately commits suicide. Othello is not the villain; Iago, who has goaded him into it, and who wants Othello’s position, is the fiend.)
In the Klinghoffer opera we sympathize with the villains—who are, after all, terrorists.
This is something new.
The Death of Klinghoffer demonizes Israel—which is what anti-Semitism is partly about today. It also incorporates lethal Islamic and, by now, universal pseudo-histories about Jewish Israel and Jews. The opera beatifies terrorism, both musically and in terms of the libretto. Composer John Adams has given the opening Chorus of Exiled Palestinians a beautiful, sacred, musical “halo,” à la Bach.
The lament of the Exiled Palestinians is meant—but fails—to equal that of Verdi’s celebrated chorus of exiled Jews in Babylon, in Nabucco (“Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate”). The Jews are longing for Jerusalem and for Solomon’s destroyed First Temple. Adams sets the brief exile of Palestinians beside that of exiled Jews who have been longing for Jerusalem for millennia—and this strengthens the way in which the libretto renders the Holocaust of European Jews as morally equivalent to what the Palestinians refer to as the “Naqba” (Catastrophe).
Penny Woolcock, together with composer John Adams, directed the British movie version of this opera. In an on-camera interview, she reveals, candidly and without shame, a series of such false moral equivalencies, which she delivers in an unnervingly soft and girlish but school-marmish voice: “You can’t understand Israel without the Holocaust and you can’t understand Palestinian suicide bombing without understanding the Naqba.”
Adams’s Chorus of Exiled Jews is not angelic. It is dogged, almost mechanical, industrial, aggressive—relentless, military.
Those who identify as “Palestinians” do so by stealing the mantle of Jewish and Black South African victimhood. The Palestinians insist, falsely, that they, too, have undergone a Holocaust at Israeli hands and that they, too, are living under Israeli-style Apartheid. This is a lie, but by now almost everyone believes it is true.
This opera (and the movie version of it) views six million murdered Jews as morally equivalent to 550,000-600,000 Arabs who were not murdered, not ethnically cleansed, but who were dispersed, driven to flee their homes by Arab leaders who told them they would return as soon as the Jews had been driven into the sea.
In the movie version of the opera, Woolcock shows us a black and white fictionalized or doctored film in which Israelis are shown brutally forcing peaceful, traditional Palestinians out of their ancestral homes. The Israeli men brandish guns and are very violent. We are not shown fictionalized or actual footage of the Arab Legion attacking the Jews, which is what really happened, nor are we shown Israelis warning villages to evacuate, which also happened.
The historical black and white footage of skeletal Jewish corpses and of Jews being loaded into boxcars on their way to concentration camps is real but fleeting. Woolcock shows us a young Jewish man in a fictionalized black and white film. He is a presumed survivor of the Warsaw ghetto—and he turns up in another fictionalized movie as an angry and violent Israeli who menaces an elderly Arab woman, discards her possessions, and moves into her home. This man is one of the two elderly Israelis on board the ship in the opera movie. (In reality, there were no Israelis on board.)
The opera movie switches from World War II-era black and white footage to contemporary Technicolor in which the Israeli Defense Forces are shown harassing and punishing peaceful Palestinians, which is meant to explain and justify why young men turn themselves into human homicide bombs.
Neither the opera nor the movie version acknowledge that just as there were Arab Muslim refugees, another group of Arabs—Jewish Arabs―were forced into exile at the same time. Between 1948 and 1972, between 820,000-850,000 Jews from the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia were also forced into exile.
Some Muslim Arabs remained in the Holy Land.
Today, Israel has 1.7 million Arab Muslim and Christian citizens, or about 20 percent of its population. Jews are willing to live with Muslims and Christians—it is the Palestinian and Arab Muslim leadership who want to ethnically cleanse Jews and other infidels—especially Christians—from allegedly Muslim lands.
Quite apart from any anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist content, and contrary to what Goodman, Adams, and Woolcock say, the libretto is not even-handed. The villains have more lines.
For example, the four terrorists, including Molqui, the man who murders Klinghoffer, command eleven arias—twelve, if you add the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians. The Klinghoffers have two arias each, toward the end of the opera; add the Exiled Jewish Chorus and you have five arias for the innocent victims versus twelve arias for their victimizers.
The Palestinians sing: “My father’s house was razed/in nineteen-forty-eight/when the Israelis passed/Over our street.” The Jews sing: “When I paid off the taxi, I had no money left.” And Rambo sings: “But wherever poor men/Are gathered they can/Find Jews getting fat … America/Is one big Jew.”
The obsession with Jews and money is reminiscent of Nazi-era propaganda and with the Russian forgery known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
In my opinion, the libretto is sub-standard and the music is merely “okay”—for atonal music. I have written about this elsewhere.
Librettist Alice Goodman’s terrorists sing that they are “men of ideals,” not “criminals,” and that “this is an action for liberation.”
Really, who were these so-called “men of ideals”? In reality, they were Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) operatives. On board the ship, Nazi-style, Entebbe-style, they tried to separate the Jews from the other passengers. Two elderly Austrians identified themselves as Jews and were beaten and manhandled. Please note: They were Jews—not Israelis. The remaining Jews, including the Klinghoffers and their friends, did not identify themselves as Jews. These hardened terrorists did not allow Marilyn Klinghoffer, who was exhausted, and in pain from colon cancer, to lie down. They forced the passengers to stand under the broiling Mediterranean sun for days. They forced trembling passengers to hold live grenades. They lied. They told the crew and passengers that there were twenty terrorists aboard and that they were going to blow up the ship. In their very limited English, they cursed America and praised Yasser Arafat.
Contrary to the opera (and to the movie version of the opera), the hijacking of the Achille Lauro was a fourteen-man operation, and the orders came from the very top: from Yasser Arafat and Abu Abbas. Their mission: the return of 50 Palestinian terrorists being held in Israeli jails, beginning with Samir Kuntar, the man who had murdered two young Israelis and two very small children in Nahariyah in 1979. Palestinians consider Kuntar a great hero, and he was eventually exchanged in a prisoner swap. The passengers were to be held hostage until these killers/”freedom fighters” were returned. No one was supposed to be murdered.
But Arab Muslim terrorists are usually frustrated young men (those on the Achille Lauro ranged in age from seventeen to twenty-three), and they are always in search of father figures, whom they wish to please. Often, their handlers, who are serial killers by proxy, are the only father figures they have. However, such father-wounded sons are also bullies and cowards. They prey on the vulnerable and on the helpless.
Leon Klinghoffer had suffered several strokes, did not have full use of his hands, his legs were paralyzed, his speech slurred—and this is who Molqui murders and has thrown overboard with his wheelchair. One might suggest that Molqui cannot bear his own smoldering impotence and for this, the Jew must die.
Only a dead and murdered Jew—”Leon Klinghoffer’s body,” is allowed to sing an aria after his death with some measure of grace (although I also found the lyrics somewhat incomprehensible).
I am struck by the theme of a Jew being thrown into the sea. In Exodus, the Jewish slaves leave Egypt, and there is only the sea between them and an angry Pharaoh who is in pursuit. The entire nation would have drowned had not God parted the waters for them—but not for Pharaoh, who drowned in that same sea. Ever since the Jews returned and established a sovereign state in the Holy Land, the Arabs have continually threatened to “drive the Jews into the sea.”
And, in Klinghoffer’s case, this is exactly what the PLO terrorists do. Further, the librettist, but especially the director of the movie version of the opera, Penny Woolcock, then visually and vocally surround Klinghoffer’s corpse as it floats under water with rays of radiance, the kind of rays that led Moses to wear a face veil, lest such proof of his intimacy with God terrify others, the kind of rays that halo Jesus Christ, the Christian Savior and other Christian Saints. The great Michelangelo mistook Moses’ radiance or halo with “horns,” and his magnificent sculpture of Moses has horns, “carnayim.” At one point, anti-Semites believed that Jews had horns.
The librettist, Alice Goodman, happens to have been born a Jew who not only converted to Christianity but also became an Anglican Priest. More power to her. However, based on her work alone, she seems to strongly believe that the world will be redeemed, theologically, by the murder-crucifixion of a Jew. Penny Woolcock, the British director of the movie of the opera, says, on camera: “In the end, people just have to forgive the unforgiveable; there is no other way around it.”
This, too, is a very Christian concept, but one that is foreign to Arab Muslim terrorists.
Woolcock also says: “We all have to live together; people have done it before in the Middle East.” She may be speaking for herself or from a Christian point of view, but in point of fact Muslims have not lived peacefully with infidels—not in the Middle East, and not anywhere else. They have not even lived peacefully with each other.
What happened to the terrorists who masterminded and carried out the hijacking of the Achille Lauro? Were they all arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to many lifetimes in jail?
The answer is: not exactly. Eight planners and handlers simply walked out of Italy, claiming a diplomatic status that they did not have. In a private interview, according to Michael Ledeen, President Reagan’s negotiator, President Mubarak of Egypt told Italian Prime Minister Benito Craxi that, if these men were stopped, he, Mubarak, would be assassinated.
Many Palestinian terrorists serve little or no time for their heinous crimes. Someone breaks them out of prison in a hostage exchange deal. This is not unusual.
The PLO and its cronies (Fatah, Palestine Liberation Front, Abu Nidal, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc.) function like the Mafia. The capo di capi rarely does jail time. Those who do jail time know that their families will be taken care of. When the Klinghoffer daughters sued Arafat, he insisted that he represented a “state” and could not be sued. The daughters won an out-of-court settlement with Arafat because an American judge discounted Arafat’s claim that he represented a “state” and Arafat chose not to testify.
Those who had procured the arms received sentences from four to nine years. The on-board terrorists received sentences that ranged from four to thirty years with early releases. All were considered heroes.
The terrorists on board the Achille Lauro were born 15-20 years after the creation of the State of Israel and could have absolutely no personal memory of being exiled or dispersed. The libretto has Mahmoud tell us that his first toy was a “gun” and that he lost his mother in a refugee camp—ah, yes, “the camps.” The phrase immediately conjures up all the emotion that a Nazi concentration camp does—a camp, however, in which Jews, not Arab Muslims, were tortured, worked to death, and murdered outright. In contrast, the 550,000-600,000 Palestinians who left their homes in the Holy Land—they, and their many descendants—were kept in camps because the entire Arab world refused to allow them citizenship and employment.
On the other hand, Israel absorbed all its Arab, North African, and central Asian Jews—all 850,000 of them, and did not demand permanent UN and EU financial support. There is no equivalent to UNRWA for the care, feeding, and resettlement costs of Arab Jews.
In the libretto, and especially in the movie version of the opera, we are moved by one of the terrorists who lost his mother in a camp in Lebanon. He has kept her photo on a chain around his neck his entire life. His mother was massacred by Christian Phalangists in Sabra and Shatila but Israel, especially Ariel Sharon, has been blamed for this because he did not stop it.
The Holocaust and the “silent exodus” of Arab Jews also created many Jewish orphans. They became physicians, scientists, teachers, farmers, poets, businessmen, bus drivers, and police officers, as well as first and second violinists. Very few of them became terrorists. In 1948, among those who did, their targets were British officers, not civilians. Since then, only a mere handful of religious or unbalanced individual Jews have targeted a Jewish head of state and Muslims peacefully at prayer. Moreover, they were immediately condemned by Israel.
The same is true of those who survived the Armenian massacre by the Muslim Turks. They did not become terrorists who targeted civilians or who took civilians hostage for political ends.
Arab and Muslim culture is a shame and honor culture, it is primarily a desert culture. It is tribal, fratricidal, and characterized by raging revenge feuds that can last for generations. Muslim-on-Muslim religious violence is the forgotten story. Muslim-on-infidel violence is sometimes the only thing that unites Shi’a and Sunni Muslims for a little while.
Ultimately, choosing to stage The Death of Klinghoffer at the Met automatically confers upon it a certain level of prestige that it does not deserve.
The opera betrays the truth entirely and, in effect, joins the low-brow ranks of propagandists against Jewish survival.
Author Bio: Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology at City University of New York, a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, a Fellow at ISGAP, and the author of fifteen books, including Women and Madness and The New Anti-Semitism. Her latest book, An American Bride in Kabul won a National Jewish Book Award. A new edition of The New Anti-Semitism and her Collected Writings on the subject will be published by Gefen Publishing in 2014-2015.
 Phyllis Chesler, “Klinghoffer: The Beautification of Terrorism,” Breibart.com, Sept. 17, 2014, http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Peace/2014/09/17/Klinghoffer-The-Beatification-of-Terrorism.