A first-hand account of Israel’s Wagner debate

NEW YORK, July 17 (JTA) — The opportunity to hear the German State Orchestra, Staatskapelle Berlin, perform in Jerusalem was in itself ironic. That Daniel Barenboim, the orchestra’s world-famous conductor, is an Israeli Jew made a performance in Jerusalem all the more intriguing.

Moments after Shabbat ended on July 7, two friends and I hurried to the final performance of the Israel Festival at Jerusalem’s International Conference Center. The pride the audience felt for the conductor, one of their own, was palpable.

Several months earlier, Barenboim had asked Israel Festival organizers for permission to conduct Richard Wagner’s “Die Walkure.” Predictably, a storm of protest erupted, and Barenboim agreed to an alternative program.

Wagner’s music has been virtually banned in Israel since the establishment of the state because of the composer’s virulent anti-Semitism and the use of his music by the Nazis some 60 years after Wagner’s death.

As has been widely reported, when the audience demanded a second encore to the concert, Barenboim offered to play Wagner.

Barenboim’s determination and cool were balanced by understanding and honor. He spoke of his desire to play the music, as well as the heavy heart with which he did so. He said that he respected those who did not wish to hear it, and asked them to leave.

But Barenboim asserted his belief that, in a democracy, the will of the majority should not be held captive to the wishes of a vocal minority.

Rivaling the powerful performances of Robert Schumann and Igor Stravinsky that we had just heard was the debate that ensued over the Wagner encore, a quintessential example of what is best and worst about Israel.

During a 40-minute dispute, a kind of impromptu town hall meeting, audience members rose to speak passionately in front of a thousand people they didn’t know. There was shouting, and even some Jewish legal reasoning: One man argued that though he opposed placing Wagner on the program, an encore technically occurs after the program has concluded, so he couldn’t object.

On both sides of the debate, there was a recognition of the power of symbolism in Israel’s national life. People stormed out — then returned to the hall in order to storm out again.

The overwhelming majority, who wanted to hear Wagner, did not share Barenboim’s gentleness and understanding: They shouted at their opponents simply to “go home.”

But they were home; that is precisely the point. They all were engaged in a debate that could only take place at home — a debate about house rules, sensitivity and the symbols of a Jewish state.

It occurred to me that evening that the date of the concert was significant. It occurred on the eve of the 17th of Tammuz, just prior to a fast commemorating the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E.

On this particular 17th of Tammuz, walls again had been breached.

For those who opposed playing Wagner in Jerusalem, the performance breached a wall that protects and guards the memory of the Holocaust in Israeli consciousness. To allow Wagner to be played in the name of being a normal country, some would argue, is to allow the distinctive historical consciousness of the Jewish people to be pierced or even destroyed.

But those who wanted to hear Wagner also considered this performance a breach in a wall. For them, citizens’ freedom to make decisions about their cultural life breaks down the walls that prevent Israel from becoming a full democracy. To play Wagner is to assert that Israel represents a new reality in the life of the Jewish people, one which challenges the nation to open itself to the world in ways that were unthinkable when Jews were guests in other nations.

So on the 17th of Tammuz, in the rebuilt Jerusalem, an Israeli conductor of a German orchestra performed Wagner at the conclusion of Israel’s national festival. Remaining in the audience, neither applauding nor walking out, I was privileged to witness a significant moment in the cultural life of Israel.

Beyond the shouting and the passions aroused by the music, beyond the slamming of concert hall doors and the accusations of “cultural rape,” this argument signaled for me not the eventual defeat of a nation — as the 17th of Tammuz had foreshadowed some two millennia ago — but the rich and complex life of a nation creatively debating and defining its national culture.

Rabbi Leon A. Morris is the director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning, scheduled to open in September at Temple Emanu-El in New York.

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