josh rosner

WAGNER IN ISRAEL … OR NOT

In Classical Music, German Culture and Society on June 6, 2012 at 1:20 am

I was disappointed to read this article about a cancelled performance of Richard Wagner’s music this week at Israel’s Tel Aviv University.

Bowing to pressure from the Centre of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors, the university’s president banned the June 18 concert from the university’s hall. The organization also lobbied musicians from the private orchestra hired to play, urging them not to perform music by Wagner.

No Israeli orchestra has ever played the music of Wagner on Israeli soil, although in 2011 the Israel Chamber Orchestra traveled to Germany and played Siegfried Idyll at the famed Wagner festival in Bayreuth.

Daniel Barenboim in action

In 2001, the Argentine-born, Berlin-resident, Jewish composer and conductor, Daniel Barenboim – who I have seen in concert in Berlin a number of times – conducted a performance of Wagner at the Israel Festival. Barenboim did warn the audience that the orchestra was going to play a single Wagner piece and he offered to wait until those who might be offended could leave. Although some did leave, claiming later to have been offended by the very notion, many also stayed a gave a standing ovation at the end of the performance.

Although I can certainly understand that many Holocaust survivors might be offended by an Israeli orchestra playing Wagner on Israeli soil, particularly since the Nazis played Wagner’s music in the concentration camps, I also believe that so many decades have past, in which so many Jews continue to define themselves by that one moment in history.

It was a tragic time in world history. I’m not trying to deny that. But it was also seventy years ago and I don’t believe clinging to trauma – particularly trauma from so long ago – is healthy. It is not healthy for individual Jews, for Holocaust survivors, or for the future of Israel as a nation.

Aerial view of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Like most things in a democracy, those Israelis who believe listening to Wagner might offend them, should stay away. They are not forced to attend. The music was not to be pumped through sub-woofers located on every street corner.

Hitler is dead. He has been for sixty-seven years. By continuing to maintain a ban – official or otherwise – on music Hitler may or nay not have favoured, by a musician who died six years before Hitler was born, only gives credence to the notion that Hitler continues to exert power of some elements of the world – particularly Jews and Germans – and it fuels the racist agenda of neo-Nazis the world over.

On a personal level, Wagner is far from my favourite classical composer. He is difficult and complicated and requires an intellectual investment that lingers. I’d rather listen to Mozart over Wagner most days. But that is a personal choice based on my taste in classical music. Continuing to ban Wagner’s music in Israel makes no sense. Not any more. When the last Holocaust survivor has passed, will the music continue to be banned? If so, Hitler has won the real war, decades after he death.

Daniel Barenboim succinctly summed up the ridiculousness – and hypocrisy – of Israel’s position when he said this week:

“The entire Wagner debate in Israel is linked to the fact that steps toward a Jewish Israeli identity have not been taken; all concerned continue to cling to past associations which were absolutely understandable and justified at the time. It is as if they wanted to remind themselves by so doing of their own Judaism. Perhaps this is the same fact that does not allow many Israelis to see the Palestinians as citizens with equal rights.

“When one continues to uphold the Wagner taboo today in Israel, it means in a certain respect that we are giving Hitler the last word, that we are acknowledging that Wagner was indeed a prophet and predecessor of Nazi anti-Semitism, and that he can be held accountable, even if only indirectly, for the final solution.”

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