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The New York Met, the Death of Leon Klinghoffer, and Today’s Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The New York Met, the Death of Leon Klinghoffer, and Today’s Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Metropolitan Opera in New York recently made the controversial choice to produce John Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer," an opera that deals with the murder of Jewish American Leon Klinghoffer in 1985, when terrorists threw him into the ocean during their attack on the Achille Lauro cruise ship. Facing intense criticism, the Met has agreed to refrain from simulcasting the opera in venues all over the world – though they are still mounting a production.

Twenty years ago, as young graduate students living in New York, my wife and I went to go see what we thought would be a thoughtful, challenging opera. It was the premiere of "Death of Klinghoffer," produced at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. What we experienced was pseudo-art at its worst.

Ironically, as young idealistic Jews in the early nineties, we wanted to love it. We were then, as we are now, committed to peace between Palestinians and Israelis. What we witnessed was a superficial treatment of a tragic episode in world history in which a real human being (who was a member of our own synagogue) was thrown into the sea by a terrorist. Mr. Klinghoffer, may his memory be for a blessing, was a loving father and husband. His only "sin" was being a Jew, and he was the only victim of this crime. Yet somehow, the opera about his life attempted to draw a ludicrous moral equivalency between his suffering and that of Palestinians.

It was wrong then, and it's wrong now.

In the two decades since the opera first premiered, my wife and I have experienced terrorism first-hand, having survived bus bombings in Jerusalem. We have sat at hospital bedsides and attended funerals of victims of those bombings. We have also traveled to the West Bank to meet with and understand the perspective of Palestinians, who rightly yearn for a state of their own.

At a moment when Hamas – a terrorist organization, pure and simple – is firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel, and innocent Palestinians are dying as a result of the consequent Israeli military action, it is more critical than ever to be crystal clear: There can be no moral equivalency. What was done to Leon Klinghoffer was a murderous crime. It was sparked by the same terrorist impulse that hates life and underlies the kidnapping and murder of innocent boys, and the indiscriminate launching of rockets into civilian populations.

Because I cherish art and the freedom of expression, I wouldn't call on the Metropolitan Opera to cancel the production, though I question its judgment in producing such an irresponsible and anti-intellectual piece. That said, I am calling on people to be smart and vote with your feet: Don't be a party to moral equivalency masquerading as art.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner represents the Reform Movement to Congress and the administration as the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He also serves as the senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Named one of the most influential rabbis in America, he has been an inspirational leader, creative entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for social justice.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner

Published: 7/17/2014

Categories: Jewish Life, Arts & Culture, Music
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