On the Side of Humanity: The Death of Klinghoffer

On the Side of Humanity: The Death of Klinghoffer

A florid and unlikely morality play has been unfurling this week at New York City's Lincoln Center, where the Metropolitan Opera is staging of “The Death of Klinghoffer." Based on the 1985 murder by Palestinian terrorists of an elderly Jew on a hijacked ship, the opera has sparked furious charges by right-wing Zionists that it is "wildly anti-Semitic," a "monstrous 'work of art' (that) supports terror, engages in the most grotesque moral equivalence, and romanticizes the terrorists while degrading the Jews" - this, in contrast to more nuanced critics who cite the "raw honesty" of a work that portrays Palestinians as "human," no more or less, and is overall an "anguished meditation on two paralysed and drowning peoples."

First staged in 1991, the opera is based on the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists demanding the release of 50 Palestinian political prisoners from Israeli jails. When the demands weren't met by their deadline, they killed and threw overboard 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer, an American Jew in a wheelchair. The hijackers eventually negotiated their safe passage in exchange for the release of the other passengers.

The decision to stage the opera in New York prompted near-hysteria by Zionists, despite compromises made by opera officials who cancelled a planned international livestreaming and included in the program a statement from Klinghoffer's daughetrs charging the opera "rationalizes, romanticizes and legitimizes the terrorist murder of (our) father.” Though it has successfully and constructively appeared in other places, hundreds of New York protesters - including, inexplicably, Rudy Giuliani - camped out in front of Lincoln Center bearing signs reading "Tenors and Terrorists Don't Mix," "Propaganda Masquerading As Art," and "Racist Opera Insult to Arts" as a line of yellow-star-wearing protesters sat in fake wheelchairs with nametags reading, "I am Leon Klinghoffer."

Most critics argued the protesters, most of whom had neither read nor seen the opera, grossly misrepresented it simply because it portrays two equally realistic, heartbreaking  narratives, "drifting together at sea." Thus, their primary objection, noted the centrist Zionist Times of Israel, was that "the opera does not portray the hijackers as mindless bloodthirsty monsters, but dares to give the men and their cause a degree of backstory." Another said the protesters seemed "stuck on their own Achille Lauro, where every Palestinian is a terrorist and every terrorist has no heartbreaking backstory. They’re frozen on this ship in 1985, where every Arab is cleanly and neatly recognisable as a murderer." Tragically, for both sides, the ship retains its long bloody wake.

Monday's opening-night performance - interrupted a couple of times by yelling protesters - won cheers from an inevitably largely Jewish audience, and positive reviews. One eloquent reviewer cited the powerful opening chorus of first exiled Palestinians, and then exiled Jews, both of whom view the 1948 Nakba as a Noah-like "all consuming flood" that ends helplessly hitting against The Wall - for one narrative, a security wall, and for the other, an Apartheid Wall.

"We were all on this ship; we were all in Palestine and in Israel...The world is destroyed, and Israelis and Palestinians are packed together in their frozen, floating capsule, built out of the giant wall encasing them."

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