When John Adams's opera The Death of Klinghoffer was premiered in New York in 1991, it elicited a storm of protest, and even death threats. No fewer than six opera houses agreed to mount the initial production by Peter Sellars. But after the premiere in Brussels, the Glyndebourne Festival backed out, as did the Los Angeles Opera, where the sets were destroyed under mysterious circumstances.

The Death of Klinghoffer: More confusion despite good intentions

By Hannu Reime

It's quite surprising that John Adams's opera The Death of Klinghoffer aroused such heated passions when it had its premiere in the early 1990s. No one who looks at the Middle East with the slightest objectivity would blame the opera for partiality. For such a stand, one has to be a fanatic oneself. In the Western world, it's probably more common to see the Palestinian side, and especially the Islamist forces among them, as bloodthirsty revengers. Such groups and individuals surely exist among the Palestinians, who, in any case, have been the main victims in the longdrawn out conflict. But equally blind fanatics are quite easy to meet in the circles of so called "friends of Israel."

In the tragic history of the Palestinians, the hijacking of Achille Lauro took place between two experiences, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and the first intifada, popular uprising, in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza.  Israel had expelled  the Palestine Liberation Organisation and other Palestinian groups from Lebanon by its invasion in the summer 1982. The most terrible event during that campaign was the massacre of hundreds of  Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps at the outskirts of Beirut in September. The Israeli army, under the highest command of the then defense minister, the present Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, let Christian Lebanese militia-men into the camps, where they unleashed an unrestrained reign of terror, killing women, children, and men for the simple reason that they were Palestinians. In Alice Goodman's libretto, the hijackers are made to refer to this horrendous event.

The immediate reason for the hijacking — that's not mentioned in the libretto — was the attack by fighter planes of the Israeli air force against the new PLO headquarters in Tunis. More than 70 people were killed in that bombing,  in which rockets shreaded their victims beyond recognition, as witnessed by the Israeli journalist Amnon Kapeliuk, who was in Tunis at the time. The bombing was a revenge for the killing of three Israelis in Cyprus, an act that originated, not in Tunisia, but in Syria. Tunisia was only a less dangerous target to bomb!

The message of The Death of Klinghoffer is undoubtedly good: Jews and Palestinians are on board the same ship, and they must learn to live together. Despite this and despite the beautiful music and fine performance I had an uneasy feeling watching the opera. I think that the way the problem is depicted only strengthens existing stereotypes, namely identifying each individual by his/her tribe, group, community or whatever. In a simplified operatic setting this might be understandable. Much worse, I think, is the underlying view of the whole opera that the conflict is essentially a religious war. The Middle East crisis is, however, first of all, a national conflict with religious overtones. Religion is one ingredient in the poisonous cocktail, an important element of it, but not the only one, not even the most important of its various aspects. It was, first of all, a conflict between Zionism, a nationalist and colonisatory political movement, and the indigenous Arab population of Palestine. And now it is a conflict between a new nation-state Israel and Palestinian Arabs. Although the majority of Palestinians, like the majority of all the Arabs, are Moslems, there is a  significant Christian minority among them; surely there are even some courageous individuals among them who are non-religious. And Israeli Jews are not a religious community, but a Hebrew speaking new nationality in the Middle East, mostly secular and not very religious outside the community of Orthodox Jews and the circles of right-wing zealots. 

A conflict between two nationalities — Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs — is at the heart of the troubles in the Middle East, and a solution to it must be sought from co-existence between these two national groups, not from some myths of a common Biblical Abrahamic ancestry between Jews and Arabs, as the libretto of the opera suggests. It is precisely these religious mystifications and misunderstandings based on them that The Death of Klinghoffer strengthens despite its undoubted artistic value.

Hannu Reime is an award-winning broadcaster and journalist. He works as a foreign news commentator at the Radio News of the Finnish Broadcasting Company. He is currently writing a book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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