Wednesday, October 1, 2014 — The cool elegance of the Metropolitan Opera’s opening night, precursor to a controversial season featuring John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer,” was countered this week by a heated Jewish protest outside Lincoln Center.
An estimated crowd of 1,500 to 2,000, according to the protest’s organizers, were effusive in their rage and sense of vulnerability: rage at the opera’s treatment of Palestinian hijackers of a cruise ship and an American Jew, Leon Klinghoffer, whom the hijackers shot in his wheelchair and threw overboard in 1985; and an existential loneliness, a foreboding, that this opera was a manifestation of the current wave of anti-Semitism, and a line had to be drawn, even if through the unlikely aisles of the opera house.
A letter was read to the protesters from Judea Pearl, father of Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded by Pakistani terrorists in 2002. Pearl’s message was that creating “an operatic drama around criminal pathology is not an artistic prerogative but a blatant betrayal of public trust. We do not stage operas for rapists and child molesters, and we do not compose symphonies for penetrating the minds of ISIS executioners. … Civilized society [has] learned to protect itself by codifying right from wrong, separating the holy from the profane, distinguishing that which deserves the sound of orchestras from that which deserves our unconditional revulsion.”
Former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasy told the gathering that many who will go to “Klinghoffer” are “otherwise decent people … paralyzed by the word art.” Some actually “support this evil. … But those people are afraid to admit it. They need their anti-Semitism squirted with the perfume of art. They think if they get it that way, no one will notice the stink. Well, guess again. … We notice the stink.” He called on the crowd “to shame” the supporters of this opera.
Mukasy added, “I don’t think anyone here thinks this country is in imminent danger of becoming like Germany in the 1930s. But we don’t want to become modern-day France, either.”
In the crowd, Fredi Seidel, 73, said, “I knew Mr. Klinghoffer. I used to go to his synagogue. This is outrageous, to humanize the [terrorist] who threw Mr. Klinghoffer overboard.”
Alex Meisels, 16 a junior at SAR Academy, was born after Klinghoffer murder but said she felt a Jewish intimacy with the experience as if it were her own. She went to work for JCC Watch, one of the many organizations behind the protest. “I was doing the social media account,” she said, “the Facebook page, tweeting every half-hour [promoting] this rally.” There were large high groups from Shalhevet and Rambam, Orthodox yeshivas in the Five Towns, who learned about Klinghoffer in school before the protest.
Placards at the Monday afternoon event linked terrorist murders: “Klinghoffer, [Meir] Kahane, 1993 WTC, 3/11, Fort Hood, Boston, What Next?’ And, “Klinghoffer Opera; Propaganda Masquerading As Art,” “Snuff Opera Glorifies Terrorists.”
Many of the placards were illustrated with depictions of Klinghoffer in his wheelchair imagined at the edge of the Met’s roof, or sprawling helpless in the sea.
The protest’s sponsors included the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Zionist Organization of America, Americans for a Safe Israel, AMCHA, The Catholic League, the Christians’ Israel Public Action Campaign, the One Israel Fund, StandWithUs, Strength to Strength and several New York-area synagogues.
When Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met, pulled up in a limousine, a crescendo of “Shame” rose from protesters, and sympathizers on the other side of Broadway. Gelb is standing by his decision to stage the opera, offering in various interviews a strong denunciation of attempts to suppress works of art.
Jeff Wiesenfeld, who led the rally, promised that if the opera was not cancelled, “if the set did not burn,” there will be escalated protests to disrupt and “bankrupt the Met.”
Many in the crowd spoke of fighting for Jewish dignity, and equality in the realm of cultural respect, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said, “If one humanizes the killers of blacks, or gays or a rapist, you’re anti-black, anti-gay, or anti-women” none of which is tolerated. “If you humanize the killer of Jews, you’re anti-Semitic, That’s what this opera is all about.”
Rabbi Joseph Postasnik, vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, asked the crowd, “What’s next, ‘ISIS: A Love Story’?”