Why ADL reached an accommodation on NYC staging of ‘Klinghoffer’

Karen Aroesty

By Karen Aroesty

Leon Klinghoffer, an unarmed, disabled, American Jewish tourist, was murdered by Palestinian terrorists. His body was thrown overboard.  Why is the opera called “The Death of Klinghoffer” and not “The Murder of Klinghoffer”?

John Adams chose the title to frame his opera purposefully and politically, as he did with “Nixon in China” and “Dr. Atomic.” That is what he does.  It is with similar purposefulness that the Anti-Defamation League spoke with the Metropolitan Opera to prevent the potential harm that we believe a global simulcast this fall of the opera in 2,000 theaters in 66 countries would have.  That is what we do.

For ADL, the Klinghoffer murder is personal.  Leon’s and Marilyn’s daughters Lisa and Ilsa are part of the ADL family.  Having co-founded the Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer Memorial Foundation at ADL, they have worked for more than two decades to combat terrorism through education, advocacy and the law.  

Don’t the facts of the killing of their father, Leon, its continuing impact on his family, and its potential for increasing anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment across the world have legitimate capacity to suggest accommodation?  Adams is entitled to his reaction to the cancellation of the simulcast when he says, “Clearly, it’s about a larger issue of freedom of speech, period. There are some anti-Semitic slogans in the opera, but they are clearly flagged as coming out of the mouth of a particularly brutal hijacker. No one could view this and not identify those words as reflecting his deranged vision.”  

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That’s his lens, not ours.  

Our lens is that the opera perverts the terrorist murder of Klingoffer and attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize and explain it.  The political approach is evident with the opera’s disingenuous and dangerous juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the coldblooded murder of an innocent disabled American Jew.

Perhaps Adams did not anticipate when composing the opera in the late 1980s what impact it could have given world events 25 years later. 

Increasing global anti-Semitism is something that the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb,  clearly did not anticipate when he added the opera to the 2014 season.  It is not his job to be sensitive to issues that ADL monitors daily. 

Whether the opera is considered in some circles a masterpiece is not the issue; whether the arts should, without excuse, have entitlement to challenge and provoke thought is not the issue; whether the opera is anti-Semitic is not at issue – we have said that from our lens, it is not.

On the decision to cancel the simulcast but to allow the production of Klinghoffer to go forward, Gelb made clear he heard our concerns:  “… I’ve also become convinced that there is genuine concern in the international Jewish community that the live transmission of ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.”

What plays in Manhattan could be seen much differently in countries where anti-Semitism is on the rise. Consider French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, whose anti-Semitic jokes have been underscored by the “quenelle,” an inverted Nazi salute that has gone viral.  

Add in the classic scapegoating of Jews during difficult economic times, the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, the recent election gains of far-right parties such as France’s National Front in the European Union, the killing of four innocents at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, the killing of three at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kan., the shooting two years ago of three Jewish children in Toulouse, and the recent beating of two Jewish men in a Paris suburb.  

Last month, ADL released the first baseline poll of global anti-Semitism, surveying more than 53,000 people in 102 countries.  The survey found that one-quarter of the world’s population harbors anti-Semitic attitudes.  Remarkably, of the 74 percent of those polled who said they have never met a Jewish person, 25 percent still harbor anti-Semitic attitudes.  

When it comes to the challenge of reducing opportunities for anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment to mushroom, we will advocate for what we feel will lessen the risk.  We sought cancellation of the global simulcast because of its potential for harm to Jews in an environment of ever-increasing anti-Semitism.

If you are a fan of opera and the work of John Adams, then perhaps you disagree with us.  Consider that we see it differently.