The “Death of Klinghoffer” and Free Expression

The controversy continues:  Last night there was a protest at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC, inside and outside the Lincoln Center opera house.  Protest organizers contend The Death of Klinghoffer romanticizes and/or encourages terrorism and is anti-Semitic.  Their clearly stated goal is to stop this opera.

The Death of Klinghoffer is an American opera based on the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, and the hijackers’ murder of wheelchair-bound 69-year-old Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer [credit to Wikipedia].

Alas, there are varying opinions about the Klinghoffer opera and about the wisdom of efforts to ‘stop’ others from seeing it for themselves.

Turns out there was no organized counter-protest but NYPD created one…

Shortly after 5:00 PM I joined the crowd of hundreds which was barricaded across from Lincoln Center for a rally with former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani and others.  For about half an hour I peaceably listened to the speakers and engaged people curious about my sign, HANDS OFF FREE EXPRESSION!  Then, a few protesters organized themselves into a gang to tell me and then police – time to go.

Cops obliged the ejection request but had an exciting offer – be gone or enjoy an empty area nearby surrounded by metal barricades.  After demurring that the latter was “too isolated” NYPD set up another pen in the street, closer to the opera house, with plenty of room for a solo protest and then some.

The counter-protest spot was lonely at first but company arrived soon.  Over the next hour or so NYPD escorted over, one by one, about seven exiled free speechers, also an outlier whose large sign asked if Israel was more evil than ISIS.   I knew several of the free speechers; interesting that at least four of us are gay.   “A work of art about a subject is not a work in favor of that subject” was on one sign.  Another read, “What happened when the boy who cried, ‘wolf!’ actually saw a wolf?  Stop the hysteria.”

We were not only inside a pen but inside an opera bubble.  Ordinary New Yorkers were kept from the adjacent public sidewalk; cops set up check points, only letting through ticket holders.  Those who approached to talk with the penned-in counter-protesters, whether supporter or otherwise, were usually shoed away quickly by the police despite invocations of the First Amendment.   Not so easily pushed around were the reporters who eventually found our assembly.

We had only our voices and some signs, no leaflets.  Still we managed to mix it up and have fun.  As more and more opera goers arrived many were surprised by the gauntlet of protesters, by then yelling loudly, in unison, ‘shame.’  Our ad hoc chants didn’t have the volume but drew smiles, thumbs up and more even amidst the din of rush hour traffic and hovering helicopters.  After yet another loud, “Enjoy the opera, we support your right to see it” a man emerged from the unlit sidewalk, curious.  I didn’t recognize him but pressed, “Are you going in?  I want a review!”  He turned out to be a newspaper editor I hadn’t seen in years.  A woman was so happy to discover us she would have gladly given us an extra ticket, if she had one.

Those attending the protest and the rally speakers took many opportunities to display their zealotry.  Several came by the counter-protest area to show off their finest invective.  Michael Mukasey, who served as attorney general during G.W. Bush’s administration, took the stage to coach the crowd in critical thinking.  Yes, he explained, one can and should judge an opera without seeing it first.

By 8:00 PM or so most protesters had left but the TV trucks were still around.  I watched a TV reporter interviewing a man who was quite upset that he had just been thrown out of the opera by the police—for no reason.  The reporter gently inquired why he had gone to the performance.  He refused to answer, berated the reporter for the question and went on to complain that the Met was unlikely to refund his money.  Then a man nearby piped up with an offer of legal assistance.  While the camera was rolling a third man exclaimed he, too, had been ejected from the performance.  I didn’t stick around but I’ll bet this bunch had a big laugh among themselves after the interview ended.  File this scene under Chutzpah.

The protesters certainly got press coverage.  From skimming the news, however, their perspective also got quite a lot of pushback.  Here are links to some interesting reports.  Just the headlines and excerpts below will tell you quite a lot.

A France 24 slideshow (last item, below) has its charms, here’s a caption:  “Organisers provided protesters with some 100 wheelchairs and “I am Klinghoffer” signs as a reminder of his disability. The stunt was poorly executed however, as many of those assigned to wheelchairs stood up frequently.”


Passionate ‘Klinghoffer’ protest outshines lackluster premiere | Times of Israel | Jordan Hoffman

EXCERPTS:  “The murderer of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven!!!” So shouted a man, repeatedly, seated just a few rows behind me. I was glad he did it. Not that I normally condone audience interruptions during a live performance – I don’t, even if I agree with the underlying politics – but in this case it was necessary. I was seconds away from falling asleep. 
But to protesters truly worried that this is dangerous anti-Semitic propaganda ready to sow seeds of hate, I can tell you as someone who watched it, it is not. And even if it were, I can’t think of a less effective way to spread propaganda than with a difficult, boring and (mostly) tuneless opera.
The grandstanding against the production gave it far more attention than it deserved. And I think it is particularly problematic to cry wolf at a time when anti-Semitism – real anti-Semitism – is on the increase in Western Europe. All the megaphones and signs did was put opera-goers on the defensive.


Powerful ‘Klinghoffer’ Premiere Starts With Protests, Ends With Cheers | Deadline Hollywood | Jeremy Gerard

EXCERPTS:  Police barricades surrounded the plaza at Lincoln Center, helicopters buzzed overhead and several hundred protesters, at one point led by former mayor Rudy Giuliani, denounced the Metropolitan Opera on Monday evening for presenting The Death Of Klinghoffer.

The major accomplishment of this powerful, mesmerizing production led by Paulo Szot as the captain, Sean Panikkar as the leader of the terrorists and, especially, Alan Opie and Michaela Martens as the Klinghoffers, is to effectively dismantle the suggestion that the work is anti-Jewish and trivializes a brutal act.

The Death Of Klinghoffer may make demands on some listeners’ attention, but it is a moral, and, yes, poignant, work of serious intent.

The opening night audience rewarded cast, conductor, composer and other members of the team with rousing and extended applause. Unlike most of the protesters, they had earned the right by actually having seen the thing.


Klinghoffer at the Met: The demonstrations backfire | Slipped Disc | report from a former NY Times writer

EXCERPTS:  The extraordinarily vocal demonstrators guaranteed that the Metropolitan premiere of THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER would be a success. Most in attendance were so appalled by the uneducated and irrational brouhaha, they were revved to show their support for the Met, the composer and the performers. Conductor David Robertson never received the kind of frenzied ovation he got just for coming out. And that’s the way it was all evening: a politicized occasion that backfired for the supposed righteous. And at the end, the person receiving the most applause was John Adams.To cut to the chase, KLINGHOFFER is no more anti-semitic than THE BARBER OF SEVILLE. Even Rudolph Guiliani who spoke this evening to the demonstrators was oddly rational about the piece now that he had heard it.


Israel-Hatred ‘Has Scaled the Wall of High Culture’ | Arutz Sheva | Phyllis Chesler

EXCERPTS:  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 audience came to display loud and vulgar support for the work; for the right to condemn the Jews and the Israelis in a respectable, even a highly lauded venue. The applause for a sub-standard libretto was outsized. However, to be fair, the set was very good as were the costumes, conducting, and Choruses.

I do know that this is a signal moment of a very long fight in the Culture Wars against America, Israel, and the Jews. People with credibility and some power stepped up tonight, well-groomed people who do not usually take to the streets did so.


Large Crowd Protests NYC Terrorism Opera | Daily Beast | David Freedlander

EXCERPTS:  You know an opera is controversial when the protesters outside start comparing the opera house to a Nazi death camp.

“This might not be Auschwitz. It is Lincoln Center,” said Ben Brafman, a high profile defense attorney, citing his grandparents who were murdered in the Holocaust.

“We’re here tonight to mark one of the cultural low points in this city,” said former George W. Bush attorney general Michael Mukasey, who suggested that people attended the opera did so out of fear of being label close-minded or anti-art. The opera-goers, he added, cover up their anti-Semitism “with the perfume of the word ‘Art.’ And they think no one notices the stench.”

The protest failed to attract many of the current leading political figures in New York. Mayor Bill de Blasio did not attend, nor did any citywide or statewide elected official. Instead, the dais at the anti-Opera protest was filled with longtime Congressional representatives, including Republican Peter King of Long Island and Democrats Carolyn Maloney and Eliot Engel, and former elected officials who mostly shy away from municipal matters, like former Governor David Paterson and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Jeffrey Wisenfeld, who organized the rally, urged the Met to destroy the multi-million dollar sets and use them for tinder, and mocked Met director Peter Gelb for the police presence that was used to keep the protesters at bay.

“Peter Gelb is responsible for costing the mayor money that he could have used for pre-K program,” Wisenfeld said.


Klinghoffer opera attracts hundreds of protestors | BBC News

EXCERPTS:  About 400 people stood behind barricades chanting: “Shame on the Met!” and carrying signs saying “The Met glorifies terrorism” before the first scheduled performance.

Giuliani said he wanted to warn people the Klinghoffer opera “is a distorted work”.

“If you listen, you will see that the emotional context of the opera truly romanticises the terrorism… and romanticising terrorism has only made it a greater threat,” he said.


US politicians join protesters at Met ‘Klinghoffer’ opening | Times of Israel

EXCERPTS:  Politicians including former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Peter King joined a crowd of demonstrators outside the Metropolitan Opera to protest an opera they say glorifies Palestinian terrorists.

Demonstrators, primarily associated with Jewish groups, rallied outside Lincoln Center with 100 wheelchairs, in honor of the slain handicapped Leon Klinghoffer, on whom “The Death of Klinghoffer” is based.

About 400 people stood behind barricades Monday, chanting “Shame on the Met.”

The rally was organized by some 50 Jewish and Catholic groups, including the Zionist Organization of America, One Israel Fund, One Family Fund, SimonWiesenthal Center, and Catholic League. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani reportedly will be the keynote speaker at the event.

When ‘Klinghoffer’ Played the Heartland | The Jewish Daily Forward | Hody Nemes

Someone Forgot To Tell St. Louis That the Opera Was Divisive

EXCERPTS:  Three years ago, “Klinghoffer” came to my hometown of St. Louis, where it unleashed a torrent of powerful, vocal… interfaith dialogue.

Protests outside the Metropolitan Opera over ‘anti-Semitic’ production that ‘rationalizes terrorism’ …but audiences inside give it a standing ovation | Daily Mail


Op-Ed: The Sick Logic of Wealthy Jewish Met Opera Donors | Arutz Langfan | Mark Langfan

EXCERPTS:  One of the things I said in my speech was that if there were 100 rich black Metropolitan Opera donors, and the Metropolitan Opera put on an opera ‘explaining’ the ‘perspective of a white lynch mob’ lynching a black man, the day that the black lynching Opera opened, there would be zero rich black Metropolitan Opera donors.  But, today, with this evil opera glorifying the terroristic Palestinian murder of an American Jew, there are still many, many rich American Jewish Metropolitan Opera donors who are still going to donate millions upon millions to the Metropolitan Opera.

SLIDESHOW: Jewish murder opera revives furore in New York | France 24 News

Bill Dobbs is a member of Queerwatch. He lives in New York.