Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Wagner in Israel - one needs to go to the root of the matter

It was expected that the first fully-fledged Wagner concert in Israel would spark controversy. Even though the organizers, Israel’s Wagner society, privately financed the orchestra based on individual contracts with the musicians and even engaged Ascher Fisch, the renowned Israeli conductor, Tel Aviv University under pressure from Holocaust survivor groups denied the venue.

Far from me wanting to belittle the experience of death camp survivors and the emotions attached to it but what they’ve gone through is not a license to paint a caricatural and twisted image of Wagner nor misrepresent his supposed link with Hitler and the nazis. Bearing this in mind, I find the reaction and the line of defense taken by the Israel Wagner society erroneous. They are appealing to legalistic, universalist and ultimately abstract arguments such as freedom of expression and separating the artwork from the artist but those are either not comprehensible to the layman or acceptable to people with prejudices towards Wagner, who in turn make a moral and ethical issue the taboo on performances of his music.
It is precisely this moral high-ground that the Wagner society in Israel must attack by debunking the misconceptions and urban legends about Wagner that are disseminated to the people of Israel as facts.
Many Israeli Jews believe that Wagner ideologically influenced Hitler and the nazis and inspired him to commit the Holocaust. He did not.

Many Israeli Jews believe that Wagner advocated the extermination of the Jewish people. He did not.

Many Israeli Jews believe that Wagner coined the terms "Jewish problem" and "final solution". He did not.

Many Israeli Jews believe that Wagner had invented racial antisemitism in Germany. He did not

Many Jews believe that Wagner was played in the concentration camps. He was not (or at least, not disproportionately to other composers).

These are just some of the misconceptions about Wagner that dominate the public opinion. It has gotten to the point where people believe that Wagner actually lived during the Third Reich as, Ascher Fisch says. Besides those, another thing that needs to be exposed as fraudulent are the insane interpretations of Wagner’s musical dramas that insist on some characters being anti-Jewish metaphors.
It is clear that this is an uphill battle against overwhelming odds whose participants will likely be subjected to villification and character assasination but if Israeli Wagnerians really do want to lift the unofficial ban on Wagner in their country, this is the only way. Daniel Barenboim gave some of the guidelines recently but it was in general terms, without going into sufficient details.
The Israel Wagner society has to be more thoourough in this respect. What they lack in numbers and media support they can compensate in historical facts and documents that support them unearthed and endorsed by eminent historians such as Saul Friedlander, Joachim Fest, Ian Kershaw, Frederick Spotts, Bryan Magee, Dieter Borchmayer, Jacob Katz and others, not to mention some of the finest musical minds of the 20th century like Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Sir Georg Solti and Arnold Schoenberg for all of whom nazi persecution was not an abstract far-away concept they read in history books but a real-life experience and which adored and promoted Wagner’s music to their dying day.
The Israeli establishment considers an informal ban on Wagner an act of defiance to nazi idelogy. For this ban to be lifted one must show that in fact this act symbolizes nothing and, as Jonathan Tobin in his article in Commentary magazine put it, „honors neither the Holocaust nor Israel’s culture” and that is possible only by breaking of the myth that is the connection to Wagner and nazism and by killing off this fictional character that is “Wagner the inspiration for Hitler”. Based on what I have read I’m not sure that the Israel Wagner society and their founder Jonathan Livny are aware of what they are dealing with.


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