It was disappointing to see Jewish Ideas Daily, one of my favorite websites, defending the notion of Wagner performance in the State of Israel. The composer’s deep association with Nazism has kept his music off the concert stage since the founding of State of Israel, despite occasional attempts to reverse the unofficial ban. Recently, Israel’s beleaguered Wagner Society twice failed to obtain a venue for a “semi-private” concert of Wagner’s music, whatever that might mean. Tel Aviv University and the Tel Aviv Hilton both cancelled the Wagner Society.
“The latest attempt to perform Richard Wagner’s music in Israel has ended in farce, deceit and discredit to art and nation,” wrote the novelist and musical amateur Norman Lebrecht in England’s Jewish Chronicle, reposted in Jewish Ideas Daily. Those are strong words for an issue that evokes deep anguish among Israeli Jews, and with good reason. In August 2011 I discussed the substance as well as the hype of the Wagner ban at Tablet magazine, concluding–with trepidation and reluctance–that the Israelis are right to suppress Wagner’s music, even though there are strong arguments against the ban.
Lebrecht quotes the eminent conductor Daniel Barenboim in support of Wagner performance. One problem is that the Israeli left has made the issue of Wagner performance a battering-ram against the whole concept of Israeli national identity. As I wrote in Tablet:
Barenboim is Wagner’s most passionate apostle with an Israeli passport (though the conductor also claims citizenship in “Palestine”). For years Barenboim has linked Israel’s informal ban on Wagner performance to the occupation of the West Bank, which he likens to the Nazi occupation of Europe. In a January 2005 speech at Columbia University titled “Wagner, Israel, and Palestine,” Barenboim excoriated the Zionist impulse that leads Israel to defend itself against cultural as well as military foes, arguing that peace will come only when Israel drops its defenses against both. The speech was a memorial to the late Edward Said, the Palestinian rejectionist who had arranged for Barenboim’s “Palestinian” identity papers. In Barenboim’s view, Israel should embrace the composer who wrote the theme music for the Third Reich, just as it should embrace Arab extremists who learned their anti-Semitism from the grand mufti of Jerusalem’s pro-Hitler wartime broadcasts from Berlin.
The conductor for the recently cancelled Wagner performances was to have been a Barenboim protege, Asher Fisch, the chief conductor of the Israeli Opera. As it happens, I know Asher; our daughters were in school together, and we shared a few meals over the years. He is a brilliant conductor who led a distinguished “Rigoletto” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York some years ago, as well as Wagner cycles in Seattle Adelaide, and other important venues. I wish we could get him to New York to replace Fabio Luisi at the Met. It pains me to take issue with Asher’s elevated artistic judgment, but I think that he is doing the wrong thing in this particular case.
There is a deeper problem than the symoblic use of the Wagner issue to attenuate Israeli nationalism. And that is the character of Wagner’s music itself. Wagner gave sensuous form to the self-destructive narcissism that infiltrated Western culture at the end of the 19th century. His compositional brilliance serves the culture of death; it negates everything that Judaism and its daughter religion, Christianity, affirm. Yes, there were many Jewish musicians who performed Wagner, and there are plenty of Jews who liked Wagner, including Theodor Herzl, the founding father of Zionism. Yes, one needs to know Wagner to understand Mahler, as Mr. Lebrecht observes (although personally I find Mahler a windy, bathetic, self-pitying bore). I agree that these matters require attention; in a review of the Met’s new Ring cycle, I append a short music appreciation class on Wagner’s musical sleight-of-hand.
There are many good reasons for the Israelis to sanction the public performance of Wagner. But there is also one very good reason not to. Again, from my Tablet discussion:
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.