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Mideast

The debate over whether to play Wagner in Israel plays like a broken record

by Eric Silver

July 2, 1998 | 8:00 pm

Richard Strauss's opera "Salome" had its Israeli premiere grave;re in Tel Aviv this month. Strauss, who died in 1949,served, however briefly, as a cultural official in Adolf Hitler'sNazi administration. The season, by the visiting Kirov Opera from St.Petersburg, was an unchallenged hit. Strauss has been forgiven,perhaps because he had a Jewish daughter-in-law and soon learned thefolly of his ways.

Yet, when the Kirov's hosts, the New Israel Opera,suggested that it was time to lift Israel's tenacious ban on anotherGerman composer, Richard Wagner, some of its audience walked out.Last week, the Knesset education committee reaffirmed the embargo.For many Israelis, Wagner remains a detested symbol of the Teutonicracism that exterminated 6 million Jews during World War II.


Zubin Mehta, musical director of the Israel Philharmonic, has failed repeatedly to get the ban on Richard Wagner's music dropped.

One hundred fifteen years after the rampantlyanti-Semitic Wagner died, and 50 years after the establishment of theJewish state, Israelis are still passionately arguing whether to playhim in their opera house and concert halls. Like Wagner's gargantuan"Ring" opera cycle, the debate will run and run, with a revival everydecade and no end in sight.

Zalman Shoval, chairman of the New Israel Operaand Israel's ambassador-designate to Washington, puts the case forthe prosecution:

"This is not a debate about the merits of Wagner'smusic," he says. "Nor is it a debate about our relationship withGermany, nor about the freedom of expression, nor aboutanti-Semitism. It is a debate about sensitivity. It is a debate aboutWagner as a self-proclaimed symbol.

"He evolved a philosophy which called for thedisappearance, if not the destruction, of the Jews. In his writings,he blamed the Jews for all the ills of the Aryan people. He was thehead of a pan-Germanic racist movement. His ideas were later takenover by Nazi propaganda. Hitler once said, 'If you want to understandNational Socialism, you have to know Wagner.'"

Shoval admits that there have been otheranti-Semitic composers whose works nonetheless are performed inIsrael. But Wagner, he argues, was different.

"No other anti-Semitic composer had hatred of Jewsas something which permeated everything they did, in their artisticas well as their personal life," Shoval says. "Wagner did not wantJews playing his music. When a Jewish conductor, Hermann Levy,conducted his music, Wagner tried to get him to convert toChristianity.

"These things had a different meaning after theHolocaust, when we know what all this led to. There are still peopleamong us whose memories are fresh about the Holocaust, about the roleof Wagner's ideas and music as the Nazis used them. When a Holocaustsurvivor hears Wagner's 'ride of the Valkyrie,' he thinks about thegas ovens."

For the defense, Mordechai Virshubsky, aliberal-left politician who chairs the cultural committee of the TelAviv City Council, dismisses the ban as "stupid" andself-defeating.

"If you don't play someone because of what he was,then you're behaving like a totalitarian regime," he says. "This isthe worst kind of censorship."

Virshubsky, who was born in Germany in 1930 andwas brought to Israel as a child refugee in 1939, contends that thereare other ways to remember the Nazi atrocities.

"Why deny ourselves the chance to hear this great,dramatic, important music?" he says. "We are the poorer for it. Weare punishing ourselves and gaining nothing by it. No one would beforced to go and listen to his music.

"After all, we drive German cars; we teach theGerman language; we even translated 'Mein Kampf' into Hebrew. Thereare no taboos any more. We are making a mockery of ourselves."

Yet the Nazi genocide, which is central toIsrael's national consciousness, casts a stubborn shadow.

"There has to be at least one place in the worldwhere survivors can feel that the society protects them, where theirsensitivities are taken into account," says Ephraim Zuroff, Israeldirector of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is still striving tobring war criminals to trial. "This is part of the role of the Jewishstate. It is why people came here instead of going to America. Theydon't want Wagner played here, and I think they're right."

Most of Israel's musicians would like to playWagner. One of the most eminent among them, the pianist-conductorDaniel Barenboim, once tried, but was booed off the stage. ZubinMehta, the Indian-born musical director of the Israel Philharmonic,has failed repeatedly to get the ban dropped. Israel Radio's musicchannel slips in a snatch of Wagner from time to time -- and getsaway with it. The ban is anchored in custom and use, not thelaw.

Asher Fisch, musical director of the New IsraelOpera, would like to introduce a Wagner opera into its program. Hemaintains that the decision should be left to the musicians. "It'simportant," he says, "because everything that was composed afterWagner was influenced by Wagner to some extent. His sound is of akind that our orchestras do not know. It is important for them tolearn it."

Yet, sotto voce, quietly, quietly, theIsraeli-born Fisch does not see Wagner topping the charts here, ifand when he is performed. "When we play Wagner in Israel," he says,"we will realize that, musically, it will not be a great success. Idon't think the Israeli audience will go for this music."

Perhaps that would be a more subtle revenge thanbanning his music.

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