Why We Had No Choice But to Fight Klinghoffer Opera

Let the opera go on. But let it be met with the voices of American Jews and others who wish to speak out for Klinghoffer who did not die but was murdered.
10/23/2014 04:50 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

Abe Foxman will soon be retiring as head of the ADL. American Jewry owes him a tremendous debt of gratitude as the most respected and effective communal voice against anti-Semitism. Abe is also a gentleman, beloved by all who know him, myself included. The jury is out as to whether American Jewry will produce someone to fight anti-Jewish bigotry with as much clout with the media.

But the ADL got it wrong on Death of Klinghoffer. To be sure, Abe's instincts were well-intentioned. Seeing a looming battle between the Jewish community and the Met Opera over Klinghoffer, he brokered a deal where Jewish communal protests against the opera would abate in return for the Met's cancellation of the planned telecast of the opera to theaters nationwide.

Respectfully, it was the wrong time and wrong place. Here's why.

In 2012 I received a phone call from a close friend who is a leading PR guru in London telling me that the National Theater had decided to produce Klinghoffer. Not being Jewish himself, he was astonished that the Jewish community in the UK were silent. He asked me to write a column in protest and that he would get it into a national daily, which he did.

The rest is history.

The opera was performed with barely a whimper from the Jewish community. And look at where we are today in Britain, a country which is easily the most hostile to Israel in all of Europe, which is saying alot.

Is the Klinghoffer opera responsible for the tsunami of anti-Semitism and Israel hatred that has erupted in the UK? Of course not. Only a tiny fragment of the population even saw it.

But there is a connection.

I arrived in the UK in 1988 when public Israel hatred was a more of a river than a flood. Anglo-Jewry took the view that it should very carefully choose its battles and not fire back against the growing tide. If someone's comments -- usually an MK -- were particularly egregious against the Jewish state, then there would be a response. But most of the time it kept its head low.

Fast forward to 2014 and now anti-Semitism engulfs even art and food in Britain, with the Tricycle theater in London canceling the Israel film festival and Sainsbury's removing kosher items from its shelves.

How could this happen?

Because the establishments in question knew there would be virtually no price to pay. They had gotten used to the Jewish community dismissing "smaller" acts of anti-Semitism as no big deal.
yIt's in this context that we have to view the staging of the Klinghoffer opera at the Met. Failing to protest art that romanticizes terrorist murders of wheel-chair-bound elderly Jews is unacceptable and opens the door to even worse anti-Semitic displays.

Every year in September we American Jews are exposed to a rogue's gallery of world leaders who bully Israel and threaten it with annihilation. From Ahmadinejad and Erdogan, from Arafat to Gaddafi, and Al Thani of Qatar and Mahmoud Abbas, both of whom this year accused Israel of genocide from the rostrum of the UN, we Jews should be fed up. Why should we have to put up with any of this crap? Which community would?

To be sure, we dare not be reactionaries and our response to these endless provocations must be measured and effective. But a response there must be.

At the rally against Klinghoffer outside the Met, where I was one of the speakers, there was no attempt to curb freedom of speech. The rally was a first amendment protest to the Met's first amendment rights to stage the opera. That American Jewry came out to protest the opera is one of the strengths of our community and puts others on notice that we will not be maligned without a comeback. Whatever legitimate support we all feel for artistic license it's undeniable -- even to Klinghoffer's biggest fans -- that it humanizes terrorists and offers rationalizations for cold-blooded murder, which raises profound moral concerns. We have a right, even an obligation, to voice those concerns.

The ADL should have led this protest rather than brokered a compromise. We rely on the ADL to fight for the Jewish community. I believe in art and I especially believe in freedom of expression. But I believe in morality even more and the American Jewish community had every right to speak out against an opera that offends decency by elevating terrorists to the level of their victims and romanticizes murder as freedom fighting.

There is a national debate going on even as to whether the Washington Redskins should change their name because of the offense to Native Americans. How much more so art that not only maligns an ethnic group but assaults morality itself.

Let the opera go on. But let it be met with the voices of American Jews and others who wish to speak out for Klinghoffer who did not die but was murdered.

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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, "America's Rabbi," is founder of This World: The Values Network, the foremost organization influencing politics, media, and the culture with Jewish values. The international best-selling author of 30 books, he has just published Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.