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Should Israel ban Wagner?

August 17th, 2011 - 1:03 pm

At the Jewish webzine Tablet this morning, I offer reluctant support for Israel’s de facto ban on public performance of the music of Richard Wagner. The brilliant journalist David Samuels, a frequent contributor to New Yorker and The Atlantic, has just become Tablet’s literary editor–a conservative antipode, I hope, to the likes of Leon Wieseltier. David has asked me to write on classical music for his desk.

Daniel Barenboim and other left-wing Israel musicians draw a parallel between suppression of Wagner and the occupation of Judea and Samaria–maybe not the best way to win friends and influence people. But the issue is trickier than it appears. I conclude (paraphrasing Mark Twain) that banning Wagner’s music is a better idea than it sounds:

The Nazis embraced Wagner not by accident or opportunism but because they recognized in him the cultural trailblazer of the world they set out to rule.

It should not be the business of any state to impose moral criteria on artists; in that case one might ban Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” which Beethoven thought immoral…Art, nonetheless, does not reside in the clouds of Mount Parnassus. It has consequences in the real world in which ordinary humans live and suffer, and society in extreme cases must draw a line. Wagner may not have been the only anti-Semite among the composers of the 19th century, nor even the worst, but he did more than anyone else to mold the culture in which Nazism flourished. The Jewish people have had no enemy more dedicated and more dangerous, precisely because of his enormous talent. In a Jewish state, the public has a right to ask Jewish musicians to be Jews first and musicians second. With reluctance, and in cognizance of all the ambiguities, I think the Israelis are right to silence him.

Most of my musician friends will be horrified. I struggle with the issue myself, among other reasons because hearing Wagner live on the opera stage helps us understand why the West went down the drain at the turn of the 20th century, as I argued in First Things here and here.  What do you think?

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