Commentary: Opera serves as springboard for interfaith discussion

Rabbi Emeritus Howard Kaplansky


The June 8 issue of the Jewish Light included, as part of its “Can We Talk?” series, two perspectives on “The Death of Klinghoffer,” an opera to be presented by Opera Theatre St. Louis. The opera derives its title from the murder, by Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists, of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound American tourist, during an attempted hijacking, in 1985, aboard the cruise ship, the Achille Lauro.

As been noted in the pages of the Jewish Light, and in a panel discussion held on June 6 as part of the “Can We Talk” Series, there have been very differing responses to the announcement by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis of the scheduling of “Klinghoffer.” Some have called the opera anti-Semitic, or accuse it of rationalizing or legitimizing an act of terrorism. Others view it as a magnificent work of art that courageously addresses the human condition and “eloquently condemns hatred and extremism.”

The Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations at the Jewish Community Relation Council of St. Louis is committed to the concept of a pluralistic society where diverse religious, racial and ethnic groups live and work together and their differences enhance the community. We seek to advance pluralism, interfaith relations and civility among all people. As noted in my letter to the editor in the June 8 edition, the Newmark Institute is a supporter of the interfaith programs associated with the performance of “Klinghoffer.”

When, in March of 2010, we were informed by Timothy O’Leary, General Director of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, of its 2011 schedule, and knowing that the opera had been met with controversy in the past, we had to decide how to respond. After a thorough and thoughtful investigation of the content of “Klinghoffer,” we concluded that it is neither anti-Semitic, nor is it an attempt to rationalize or legitimize terrorism. Rather, it is an indictment of murder, extremism and terrorism in all of their manifestations.

Serendipity Ice Cream ad

While the mission statement of the Newmark Institute does not include the promotion of the arts, per se, we are “dedicated to advancing pluralism by organizing, supporting and promoting programs and activities that foster good human relations between people of diverse backgrounds…through dialogue and other means.” Therefore, we accepted an invitation to collaborate with Opera Theatre to form a steering committee, drawn from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities, as well as representatives of Opera Theatre, to promote education and dialogue in regard to the opera. Our goal was community building.

The interfaith Klinghoffer steering committee has implemented a range of educational programs with interfaith participants, including Jewish and Muslim teens. These programs and conversations are building and encouraging understanding and respect, as well as thoughtful, informed dialogue in regard to the substance of “Klinghoffer” and the issues that it may raise. They give force to the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Come, let us reason together.”

Sarah Bryan Miller of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, in her article about a symposium sponsored by the steering committe that was held last month, wrote, “In other cities, outrage at the death of Klinghoffer” has caused picketing, controversy and , sometimes, canceled performances. In St. Louis, where the opera is receiving its first staged North American production in 20 years, it has caused an outbreak of interfaith understanding and civility……that spirit was illustrated in a panel discussion of the opera and its implications by three leaders, one Jewish, one Christian and one Muslim.”

Miller went on to say that St. Louis “has a long tradition of interfaith dialogue and the experience was evident in the presentation…. They talked about the role of art in knocking us out of our comfort zones and admitted that “Klinghoffer” knocked them out of theirs. They also spoke about the inescapable nature of history and about the shared humanity they found both in the opera and in their meetings.”

It was in the interest of promoting “pluralism, the inalienable dignity of the human person, interfaith understanding and civility” that The Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations was established. I believe that our mandate has been evident in the meaningful dialogue between members of the “Klinghoffer” interfaith steering committee, as well as through the programs and study guides developed.

The Jewish Light has asked the question ‘Can We Talk?’ The response of the Newmark Institute is, “We must talk.”

Rabbi Howard G. Kaplansky is chair of The Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis.