A guest post by Gidon Ben-Zvi, an Anglo-Israeli writer who blogs at Jerusalem State of Mind.
German Composer Richard Wagner
On Tuesday June 5th, the Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent Harriet Sherwood reported that Tel Aviv University had denied the request of the Israel Wagner Society to have an Israeli symphony orchestra perform works by Hitler’s favorite composer Richard Wagner (Tel Aviv Wagner concert cancelled after wave of protest).
The university announced that it would not permit a scheduled Wagner concert to take place on its campus after vehement public protests.
Tel Aviv University accused Yonathan Livni – the founder of the Israel Wagner Society – of deliberately concealing the intention to perform Wagner compositions. The university also claimed that Livni did not mention the name of the organization he represented.
Ms. Sherwood’s reporting of this story is riddled with subtle distortions and logical fallacies which should be examined.
First off, Ms. Sherwood repeatedly used the term ‘boycott’ without further elucidation. The ‘boycott’ is not official and in fact the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that it is not illegal to play Wagner in Israel. Rather, the ban is merely a custom that goes back to the founding of the Jewish state.
Next, she refers to this “unofficial boycott” of Wagner and draws an elegant parallel between it and the BDS Israel campaign which, after all, also has the word ‘boycott’ in it. Specifically, Sherwood quotes Mr. Livni, who responded to Tel Aviv University’s decision thus:
“The issue is that here is an academic institution that is threatened daily with boycotts because of Israel’s policy in the occupied territories doing exactly the same thing: imposing a boycott.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote the following:
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
While the BDS Israel movement seeks to purge Israel, both inside and outside of the ‘Green Line’, of every last vestige of Jewish character and sovereignty, Israel’s unofficial Wagner ban serves as a crucial reminder that ideas have consequences — and that those who spread evil ideas should be held responsible for their consequences.
And this dovetails into Ms Sherwood’s next logical evasion.
The tired “divide man from his art” cliché’ is invoked in this quote, once again courtesy of Mr. Livni:
“I have no regard for the composer – he was the worst kind of anti-Semite and I despise him. But God gave him a wonderful gift with which he wrote this beautiful, sublime music.“
Simply put, none of this is about Wagner’s music. Rather, it’s about the strength and corrosive influence of his ideas. While Richard Wagner lived decades before the birth of Nazism, his influence on the National Socialist movement and especially on its leader was enormous.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that Wagner was one of “the great warriors in this world who, though not understood by the present, was nevertheless prepared to carry the fight for their ideas and ideals to their end.”
Wagner’s music was prominently featured at Nazi Party functions. And the operatic festival that he founded at Bayreuth in 1876 became a citadel of racism and reaction, and the cultural showpiece of the Third Reich and Hitler’s artistic centre.
Upon coming to power in 1933, Wagner’s works were used by the Nazi regime as part of its plan to ‘Nazify’ German culture.
In some Nazi concentration camps prescribed music was forced on the inmates by way of radio or gramophones that played over permanently installed loudspeakers.
The music, which included the works of Richard Wagner, was used along with propaganda speeches in order to re-educate the inmates. As such, the argument can be made the Wagner’s music served as soundtrack to many who lived through, and died during, the Holocaust.
Later in the article Ms Sherwood once again cites the eminently quotable Mr. Livni:
“It was hypocritical of Israelis to boycott Wagner but ride on German-built trains and drive German-made cars, and for the state to buy German submarines…”
The Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany was signed in 1952 in order to:
“…address the calling for moral and material indemnity … The Federal Government are prepared, jointly with representatives of Jewry and the State of Israel … to bring about a solution of the material indemnity problem, thus easing the way to the spiritual settlement of infinite suffering.”
Although public debate in Israel was among the fiercest in the nation’s history, the aim of the reparations was undeniably to address and perhaps begin to come to terms with one of the great human tragedies ever known. While a blunt and highly controversial tool, reparations that sought to seek a smidge of redemption for an irredeemable act of cruelty were guided by a higher moral imperative.
What does this have to do with Wagner being performed in Israel?
Those who advocate for Wagner compositions being performed in the Jewish State usually rely on the ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ argument. Whether or not one concurs, this focus on the aesthetically pleasing attributes of Wagner’s works is devoid of any appeal to redemption, forgiveness or spiritual healing.
By politicizing history in order to bludgeon Israel into illegitimacy, Ms. Sherwood does a disservice to the discipline, whose purpose is “…to reconstruct the past as accurately as the intelligence of the historian and the fullness of the historical sources permit…”