A bevy elected officials and prominent politicians including former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani joined over 4000 outraged demonstrators who stood outside the Metropolitan Opera on Manhattan’s upper west side on Monday afternoon to protest the opening night of the controversial production entitled, “The Death of Klinghoffer.”
The ongoing polemical debate that swirls around the opera focuses on the 1985 brutal murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year old, wheelchair bound man aboard the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise ship that was hijacked by PLO terrorists. Critics argue that the opera glorifies and exalts the Palestinian murderers while vilifying Klinghoffer as the oppressor because he was Jewish. Klinghoffer was shot in the head while in his wheelchair and dumped overboard.
"The Death of Klinghoffer" originally premiered in Brussels in 1991, then in various European cities and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it was greeted with praise and anger.
Standing behind barricades, the demonstrators chanted “Shame on the Met!” and held aloft a variety of signs that read, “The Met Glorifies Terrorism”, “Klinghoffer Opera: Propaganda Masquerading as Art”, and “Gelb: Are You Taking Terror $$$.”
In an area right in front of the Met, several dozen people sitting in wheelchairs with signs around their necks saying, “I am Leon Klinghoffer” were representative of the victim of terror and others like him.
“I am absolutely appalled that the Met has seen fit to present such a grotesque piece that is so politically charged,” said Karen Atheuser, 62, as she passed the wheelchair bound demonstrators. She added that, “the Met is having serious financial issues and maybe a boycott is in order to express our revulsion about this opera. Maybe, just maybe, Mayor Bloomberg ought to take the lead and stop supporting the Met.”
Since February of this year when it was first scheduled for the season, the opera composed by John Adams with lyrics by Alice Goodman has been a virtual lightning rod.
While he addressed the demonstrators, former Mayor Giuliani who is an opera aficionado, issued warnings that the Klinghoffer production “is a distorted work.” Like many others present he wore the “Yellow Star of David” on his lapel that represented the very same insignia that Jews were compelled to wear during the Nazi era in Europe.
He added that, "If you listen, you will see that the emotional context of the opera truly romanticizes the terrorists," he said. "... And romanticizing terrorism has only made it a greater threat."
Earlier in the day, Giuliani came under fire by current New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio for participating in the rally and defended the Met’s decision to stage the opera on the grounds of freedom of artistic expression. Although DeBlasio has not seen the opera he said that the rights of cultural institutions to put on works of art have to be respected.
“The former mayor had a history of challenging cultural institutions when he disagreed with their content. I don’t think that’s the American way. The American way is to respect freedom of speech. Simple as that,” de Blasio said at an unrelated press conference.
"We don't have to agree with what's in the exhibit, but we agree with the right of the artist and the cultural institution to put that forward to the public," he said. He added that anti-Semitism "is a serious problem today in the world that has nothing to do with this opera."
Earlier in the day, Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale led a prayer vigil for the soul of Leon Klinghoffer with groups of students and other young people. A young man identifying himself as Shabbos Kestenbaum, 15, told reporters, "We're here because the Met is glorifying the killing of a Jew, and we must speak out — we're the next generation.”
The language (of the opera) is explosive. It's radioactive. It's dangerous," Rabbi Weiss said. "It inspires violence."
When asked if the performance of the opera should be disrupted by opera goers, Rabbi Weiss said, “No, absolutely not. In 1986, I stood at this very place demonstrating against a Soviet sponsored cultural event and because of those who disrupted the performance, the anger of the patrons was directed at me and I suffered a heart attack.”
Under a deal struck earlier this year by Abraham Foxman, executive director of the ADL, the Met agreed to cancel the international HD movie theater and radio broadcasts of the opera and Met general manager Peter Gelb, who's Jewish, said the decision was made "as a compromise gesture."
“I think Abe Foxman did a very good job in convincing the Met to cancel the international broadcast of this opera,” said Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz, who stood a block away from the demonstration but did not agree to deliver remarks or give his official endorsement of it. “I have not agreed to speak at this demonstration because I don’t believe in censorship of any kind,” said Dershowitz, who is a leading spokesman for Israel and Jewish causes. He did say, however, that he is “very glad that this opera is not being shown in Europe, in such places as Greece, Hungary, and France” because of the alarming escalation of anti-Semitism on that continent.
Through the ADL, the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer, Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, issued a statement of thie own that was included in the Met program. It says they believe the arts "can play a critical role in examining and understanding significant world events. 'The Death of Klinghoffer' does no such thing. It presents false moral equivalencies without context, and offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew."
According to a report in the Washington Free Beacon, the protest, which was met with a heavy police presence, also continued inside the opera house when several audience members stood up to disrupt the performance with boos and pro-Israel chants.
“The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven,” one man could be heard repeatedly shouting shortly after the opera began. His protest was met with loud applause and cheers from many other audience members.
Boos could be heard intermittently from the crowd at various times in the performance, including at one interval following a section of the opera entitled, “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians.”
Prolific Jewish author and activist, Professor Phyllis Chesler had attended the opening night performance only days after the addressing the issues of the exaltation of terrorism and Jew hatred inherent in the opera at a Teach-In on the “Normalization of Anti-Semitism” that was sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy (ISGAP). She wrote of her experiences, “There were no terrorists on Broadway—although terrorists would soon be mounting the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. The police were protecting the right of the Opera House to present the Palestine Liberation Organization and their cause as mythically majestic and eternally just.”
Dr. Chesler added that, “Aside from any existential and political concerns I may have, it is my opinion, and one shared by others tonight, that the opera is tedious, pretentious, boring, and slow. However, also in my opinion, the production (set, costume, lighting), was masterful and is therefore very dangerous. The opera itself is without drama, it is more like an endless, and painful recital of events remembered and of some events re-enacted.”
“The opening Chorus of Exiled Palestinians are choreographed like a Greek Chorus, in long veils and long dresses; they were positioned as indigenous, eternal, wraith-like mourners. The Chorus of Exiled Jews are shown as more recent, almost new, as transplanted as the plants they literally bring on stage to symbolize how Israelis made the deserts bloom. There was an Apartheid Wall/Security Fence in the background, one brought to us by “Zionists,” wrote Dr. Chesler.
Other speakers dismissed the Klinghoffer production for what they said is its endorsement of terrorism. “We stand against the whole message of this opera,” said Rep Peter King (R-NY). “This is a horrible demonstration of terrorism that cannot be rationalized under the guise of art,” he added.
“This is an absolute shame and a disgrace,” added Rep Elliott Engel (D-NY). “We are here saying no to terrorism, no to this opera.”
Anne Bayefsky, director of The Touro Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust (IHRH), said the opera “was art in the service of terrorist politics.” It “communicates that terrorism can be justified,” she said. “It means that anti-Semitism is a reasonable outcome of the genuinely aggrieved.”
Other civic leaders and elected officials who addressed the assemblage of demonstrators included Guardian Angels founder and radio talk show host Curtis Sliwa, Rabbi Shmuly Boteach, former New York State Governor David Patterson, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis, Ronald Lauder of the World Jewish Congress, renowned attorney Ben Brafman, former US Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (R-NY).
Congresswoman Maloney told the crowd that “this opera is not art; it is terrorist propaganda masquerading as art. What if someone decided to produce an opera about James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King or a serial killer like Ted Bundy, would we be asked to be sympathetic to these characters and to believe that they were simply misunderstood?”
“This insidious opera is a springboard for action. The opera has touched a nerve – awakening us to the anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel attacks by those who would clearly destroy America, Israel and the entire free world,” intoned long time Jewish activist and distinguished radio personality Charlie Bernhaut.
He expressed his heartfelt thanks to the organizers of the demonstration and those who labored assiduously for many months in spotlighting the egregious nature of the opera and rallied against it. “I am extremely proud to be part of the Grass Roots Coalition of the over 60 individuals who took part in this and the organizations led by Jeff Wiesenfeld, Richard Allen of JCCWatch and Helen Freedman of the Americans for a Safe Israel.