No end to intellectual terrorism in sight
The decision, according to the Met’s manager, was taken due to the “unimaginable pressure” from Jewish groups around the country. As consolation, however, Adams was informed that the opera, which tells of the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder on board of a Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, would be allowed to open in New York on Oct. 20.
These Jewish groups, though well-organized and well-known to have exerted “unimaginable pressure” to block the production of anything they deemed unfavorable to Israel’s image, are not by any means representative of the sensibility of the entire US Jewish community, from whose midst have come some of the most progressive and compassionate stances on the Palestine conflict. But they are persistent and they are relentless. Anyone with critical views of Israel, expressed in any venue, whether on the editorial page, on the screen, on the stage or in a book, will sooner or later find himself targeted. Their influence cannot be overestimated, for they have already destroyed, or at the least besmirched, the effusions of many an intellectual and many an artist.
Wanton psychologizing aside, it would seem that these folks are still dealing with existential terrors and demons from their past, from a time in their historical archetype when they lived their lives fearing their own shadows, a time when their unconscious biases shaped their behavior as individuals and as an “in-group.”
Adams’s work itself, which we are told skirts the line between opera and oratorio, and is memorable for its choruses of exiled Palestinians and exiled Jews, has not been identified by these pressure groups as anti-Semitic — a facile epithet they are known to hurl at people they disagree with — but “potentially” harmful to Israel.
Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, explained to the general manger of the Met, Peter Gelb that he feared how the opera “might” be received in a time of rising anti-Semitism abroad.
Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN American Center, which promotes freedom of expression, was not impressed. She called that claim problematic. “We are deeply troubled by the decision of an arts organization to withhold a performance not because there’s anything wrong with it, but because someone, somewhere might misconstrue it,” she told The New York Times. Yet another assault on intellectual integrity and freedom of expression was the campaign these groups mounted against the staging in 2006 of the one-woman play, “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” (about the 23-year-old American activist crushed to death under an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to shield a Palestinian home from demolition), a production that had traveled to New York from London, where it was performed — to critical acclaim — without controversy of any kind. Yet the moment the show arrived in the Big Apple it immediately met resistance from these folks. They demanded disingenuously that “My Name Is Rachel Corry” be “contextualized,” that is, presented in context of “Palestinian terrorism.”
They were so relentless that in the end the producers decided to “postpone” staging the play. (After much wrangling, it opened at the off-Broadway Manetta Lane Theatre.)
No one is beyond their reach. Tony Kushner, who wrote the script for Stephen Spielberg’s film “Munich,” had to spend months mollifying these unhinged, exceedingly insecure groups, whose members appear convinced that there are anti-Semites behind every lamp-post conspiring to harm Israel, albeit with their art.
“There’s a very, very highly organized attack machinery that will come after you if you express any kind of dissent about Israel’s policies, and it’s a very unpleasant experience to be caught in the crosshairs,” he said.
These people are thus not above extending their reach into the Jewish community itself, whose progressives see no existential threat to Israel in being open-minded and critical. What happened at the DC Jewish Community Center (DCJCC) in Washington last November is a case in point, Washington being this columnist’s hometown for the last four decades.
When Theatre J, an arm of DCJCC, was about to present its production “The Admission,” a play by Israeli dramatist Motti Lerner, a fictionalized — but clearly not a fictional — account of the killing of Palestinian villagers by Israeli soldiers in 1948, all hell broke loose. An ad hoc group, with the less than imaginative name of Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, objected vociferously, with the result that the DCJCC scaled back plans for the production, downgrading it from a 34-performance presentation to 16 “workshop” performances.
If you don’t want to call that intellectual terrorism, fine by me. But sure as heck it is blatant trampling with the First Amendment, a sacrosanct amendment in the Bill of Rights that allows Americans to speak freely without fear of intimidation and/or retribution. And free speech, surely, does not mean merely “speech I agree with.” If you want to know how sacrosanct the First Amendment is in the US, consider the case of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a judge not known for his liberal views, had to say when it “pained” him — as he put it — to have to vote in court to strike down a law making flag-burning a crime. “If it was up to me, if I were king” he said, “I would take scruffy, bearded, sandal-wearing idiots who burn the flag, and I would put them in jail.”
But, he added, the First Amendment stopped him — as it must stop all of us too from denying these Jewish fanatics their right to be, well, fanatic, effectively making life miserable for artists, scriptwriters, dramatists, intellectuals, film directors and, yes, composers. Even neurotics with fanatic views are protected by law. That’s the paradox, you see, and I for one can, indeed should, live with it.
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