On the Death of Klinghoffer

As a slave laborer of the Germans in Lviv, Ukraine, Simon Wiesenthal once faced an ethical predicament extraordinary even by the standard of the Holocaust. A nurse from a nearby military hospital asked him to visit a fatally wounded member of the SS so the man might ask forgiveness for his role in massacring the Jews of a small village. Specifically, the man sought absolution for murdering a small child. Wiesenthal chose not to fulfill the dying man’s request. Rather, he sat in silence for some minutes, then left to rejoin his labor detachment.

Years later, Wiesenthal related this story as the starting point for a symposium on the limits of forgiveness titled The Sunflower. The discussion revolved around whether he was right or wrong to have denied the dying SS man’s request. Alan Berger, a highly regarded Holocaust scholar who took part in the discussion, argued that Wiesenthal was right to do as he did. By seeking a Jew, any Jew, as a source for forgiveness, the SS man still failed to see the Jews as human beings, as individuals, seeing Jews rather as an indistinguishable mass in which one was interchangeable for another.

This anecdote bears well on the discussion of The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera with music by John Adams and a libretto by Alice Goodman. The opera, based on the 1985 hijacking of the MS Achille Lauro (in which Palestinian terrorists seized control of a Mediterranean cruise ship and murdered the wheelchair-bound 69-year-old stroke survivor Leon Klinghoffer), opened recently at the Metropolitan Opera of New York to a great deal of controversy. Critics charged that the opus posits moral equivalency between the murderers and their victim, that it refuses to condemn the act of murder, that it glorifies terrorism, and that it humanizes the terrorists. This criticism is unfounded. While the opera could go further in distinguishing the murderers from their victim, it does not equate them. The opera does not condemn the murder of the old man, but neither does it glorify the act of terrorism; at no point in the libretto does the opera portray the murder of the unarmed man in a wheelchair as anything but an evil act. Recognizing the humanity of an evil person does not excuse that person’s evil; rather, it confirms it. The terrorists were human; we don’t hold chimpanzees morally accountable for brutal actions.

The opera attempts to create a dialogue between the Palestinian narrative, voiced by the terrorists, and the Israeli narrative, voiced by Leon Klinghoffer. The narratives can and should be placed in discussion, and art is a natural arena for this dialogue. However, by placing the Israeli narrative in the mouth of the American Jew, the opera strips Klinghoffer of his humanity and the right to be an individual. Goodman forces Klinghoffer to speak for the experience of Israeli “children in the Promised Land” learning “to sleep underground because of [Palestinian] shelling” and of “old men at the Wailing Wall get[ing] a knife in the back,” despite the fact that Klinghoffer was from New York. In the opera, Klinghoffer ceases to be a Jew and becomes simply “Jew,” compelled to speak for the history of a country of which he was not a citizen, and in which he had no part. In The Death of Klinghoffer, one Jew becomes interchangeable for another by virtue of their Semitism.

I have no doubt that the opera’s creators never intended this; I think much anti-Semitism, like much bigotry, is unconscious. This doesn’t mean that it’s not still bigotry. I think it’s likely that it never occurred to the composers to regard Klinghoffer beyond his Jewishness or to examine the man he was. The fault of the play is that, while it labors to recognize the humanity of the terrorists, it fails to do the same for the wheelchair-bound man whom they murdered.

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