Waiting for Minerva's owl
The Wagner boycott in Israel. Cancel culture avant la lettre.
Author : Jos Hermans
In the Israeli declaration of independence from May 14th, 1948, it also states that the state of Israel “will devote itself to the development of the country to the good of all its residents. It will be based on freedom, justice, and peace according to the visions of the prophets of Israel. It will guarantee all its citizens social and political equality regardless of religion, race and gender. It will ensure religious and intellectual freedom, freedom of speech, education and culture.”
The reality, as we all know, looks different today.
(DANIEL BARENBOIM, “Wagner, Israel and the Palestinians”, 2010)
On November 12, 1938, three days after "Reichskristallnacht," the Symphony Orchestra of Palestine, later the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), cancelled a performance of the prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Since then there has been an unofficial boycott of Wagner in Israel : all attempts to perform Wagner are met with loud protests from Holocaust survivors.
Kristallnacht was a personal initiative of Joseph Goebbels, a progrom organized by him without the knowledge of the rest of the Nazi leadership, and intended as retaliation for the murder of German diplomat Ernst Vom Rath by a Polish Jew. Goebbels' diaries leave no room for doubt about this. Ribbentrop was shocked. Himmler was furious. Göring demanded Goebbels' resignation. Hitler, who still needed his propaganda minister, left it at a scolding. Six years later, with the end of the Third Reich in sight, Goebbels will apologize to Hitler for this stupidity. As an aside, it should be noted that in those days the German Zionists had the full support of the SS. The cooperation agreement between Zionists and National Socialists (the so-called Havaara Agreement) had already entered its sixth year. Under Havaara, approximately 60,000 German Jews would emigrate to Palestine between 1933 and 1941.
From that first cancellation in 1938 to the present day, Israeli orchestras, particularly the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), have had trouble playing works by Wagner. Over the years the taboo was extended to include other German musicians known or suspected to be nazi collaborators, most notably Richard Strauss, Carl Orff and Franz Lehar; but although the works of these three composers are played publicly in Israel today, Wagner remains beyond the pale. All those mentioned have colluded in one way or another withe the nazi-regime except Wagner. But it is Wagner, the eternal scapegoat, who is not being played. Initially, even the German language was banned from the stage which led to the absurd situation that when the IPO announced a concert in May 1952 in which mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel would sing Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, conductor Leonard Bernstein had to mediate to allow the concert to go ahead.
“However, during the last 15 years or so his music has been played without incident on the Voice of Music (Kol Hamusika), the state radio station for classical music, and since summer 1997 Wagner operas have been broadcast on the culture and nature cable television channel, which is marketed throughout the country as part of the basic cable package.”, Na'ami Sheffi writes in a1999 analysis. Sheffi is editor of Zmanim, the historical journal of Tel Aviv University and author of "The Ring of Myths - The Israelis, Wagner and the Nazis" (2001). One of her areas of research is the reception of German culture in the Israeli community.
Proof that the resistance to Wagner has not yet fallen asleep is illustrated by the public radio's attempt in November 2018 to broadcast the third act of Götterdämmerung. The radio station's switchboard got so overwhelmed with phone calls at the time that the program had to be interrupted and the presenter had to apologize a few days later.
“Concentration camp survivors do not let themselves be distracted by the facts, namely that the National Socialists were in fact fans of Wagner rather than the other way round” Sheffi writes. That his music was supposedly played in concentration camps puts him at the very top of the list of prohibited musicians.
But could Wagner be heard in the concentration camps? It is often claimed but there is no evidence for it. The vast majority of eyewitnesses make no mention of Wagner: instead, they agree that light music, such as Strauss waltzes, Suppé overtures, operetta arias, marches and the like, prevailed during camp concerts and sometimes blared from the loudspeakers.
About the music that could be heard in the camps, Sheffi writes: “In the absence of any firm documentation the story that Wagner’s works had been played in the camps had never been substantiated by research. In accounts of the camp orchestras, specific references to Wagner are difficult to find. Even Moshe Hoch, one of the fiercest opponents of public performances of Wagnerian music in Israel, did not mention Wagner in the bleak description he set down in his book: ‘The members of the Jewish orchestra played mainly Viennese waltzes, and sometimes we could hear the music in the distance (...) They collected the best artists, violinists, pianists, actors, and others, and housed them in a separate building. They would give lectures and concerts for the Germans every day to amuse them.’
Fania Fenelon, member of the girl orchestra of Auschwitz, said nothing in her own book of playing music by Wagner, but mentioned music by other composers who were never banned in Israel, such as Franz Liszt and Ludwig van Beethoven. In the first days of the controversy over Wagner and Strauss in Israel at the beginning of the 1950’s, former inmates of Auschwitz also testified that the camp orchestra had never played works by Wagner to those going to their deaths.
Cellist Paul Blassberger, who had done forced labor in a camp on the Austro-Hungarian border and been transferred to the Mauthausen camp, insisted that Wagner’s music had not been played to the Jews, for ideological reasons; since the Germans had perceived Jews as subhuman, playing the music of their national idol, Wagner, would have been truly a desecration.”
The Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz said that she still turns off the radio when she hears Johann Strauss.
Prof. Dr. Guido Fackler of the University of Würzburg, confirms that in some camps music could be heard through loudspeakers. In 1933, this system was used in Dachau as part of the re-education of prisoners. The latter could then possibly hear German art music such as by Wagner. Later the system was mainly used to demoralize the prisoners with propaganda.
From the beginning, the voices of Holocaust survivors were central to the controversy. The survivors insisted that performing Wagner’s works was an insult to the memory of the dead who had been marched to their doom to the strains of his music. At the very least, Wagner was beyond the pale by virtue of his proto-Nazi ideology, which had influenced National Socialism itself.
Yet Holocaust survivors are not the only people who have tried to prevent Wagner’s infiltration of Israeli society, nor are they the only ones accused of emotional manipulation with respect to this issue. The controversy has been fueled to a huge extent by politicians across the political spectrum.
The fact that the Wagner debate in Israel has nothing to do with aesthetics but everything to do with politics is also confirmed by conductor Asher Fisch : “The problem with Wagner is that the boycott is not only among Holocaust survivors. It’s political, it has become a boycott of the second generation as well. If we don’t abolish the boycott, it will remain for ever.”
Barenboim puts it like this: “To this I must say that the rumor that my performance with the Staatskapelle Berlin of the Prelude and Love Death of Tristan und Isolde in 2001 caused a sensation is a myth that has been anchored in people’s heads until now, nearly ten years later. The piece was played as an encore following a forty-minute discussion with the audience. I suggested to the people who wanted to leave that they do so. Only twenty to thirty people who did not want to hear Wagner’s music left the hall. The remainder applauded the orchestra so enthusiastically that I had the feeling we had done something positive. Only the next day did the dispute erupt when politicians called the performance a scandal, although they had not been present themselves.”
Sheffi points out the self-perpetuating dynamics of the controversy : “On one hand, the historical memory of Wagner and his racist heritage had become doubly important. New generations of Israelis who had not directly experienced Germany’s destructive side began to hate Wagner as a racist or a Nazi; they had absorbed opposition to Germans as part of the overall Israeli and Jewish experience. These new generations, who rejected German culture, took aversion to Wagner and other composers for granted. At this stage there was no longer any need to find rationalizations for abhorring Wagner; everyone understood. It was no wonder, then, that the details of Wagner’s biography became increasingly obscure, and many younger people believed that Wagner had been a Nazi himself, alive and active in the Third Reich.”
“Highly intelligent people – when I ask them: when did Wagner live? most, if not all, reply, in Nazi Germany”, Asher Fisch says. Such blatant ignorance may perhaps surprise; Sheffi too seems to have observed the same phenomenon : “I never cease to be amazed at the ignorance that allows people to group Wagner with the Nazis as though he lived among them and virtually dictated Hitler’s party platform for him, I pity those for whom the sound of Wagner’s music is supremely upsetting, ringing in their ears like the scream of Satan”.
During the 1950s the boycott followed a unique pattern of cultural manipulation. Most of the resistance to public performances of the works of such musicians came from the right-wing and left-wing governmental opposition, which attacked the IPO. The behaviour of both sides of the political divide was probably attributable to the special circumstances of the time, notably the fact that the young country was in the initial stages of forming both its national identity and its pattern of government.
Sheffi arrives at a remarkable conclusion: “Today Wagner is no longer merely a symbol, as he was at the beginning of the controversy. The intensive use of his image as shorthand for the Nazi horrors in the Holocaust raised him from the level of simple symbol- a symbol sometimes empty of content- to the level of substance, someone whose personality now embodied a catastrophic historic event.
The ironic aspect of the ban on Wagner is that not only did it commemorate someone identified with the executioner, but it also facilitated the obliteration of the true essence of the Holocaust from the Israeli collective memory. To a large extent Wagner-the-symbol became part of the commercialization that has made the catastrophe into a ringing cash register. From a man of culture and learning, problematic though his views were, he became a man identified with the Holocaust; whereas the real threats of the past all became slogans, at best.
Wagner should not have the symbolic role attributed to him in Israel. The choice of Wagner as the target for all the abhorrence of Nazism and the Holocaust both sins against the man and obscures the significance of the Holocaust. Wagner did not devote his life to denigrating Jews, and certainly not to annihilating them. The National-Socialist regime and the awful results of its years of rule should be more significantly commemorated in Jewish history and in the collective memory of the Jews. “
And so Wagner's name is mentioned with some regularity in the Knesset. In Israel Wagner has become a matter of state in the sense that he became a symbolic part of the commemoration of the Holocaust.
Sheffi concludes : “The question is whether Israelis seek to confront their complicated past or wrap themselves forever in a yellow star of David, as if this had the power to protect them from a debate.”
“To hold Wagner in some way responsible for Hitler trivializes a hugely complicated historical situation; in a sense, it takes the rest of Western civilization off the hook. In an unsettling way, we now listen to Wagner through Hitler’s ears”, Alex Ross concludes.
"This boycott is complete nonsense," believes Jonathan Livni, president of the Wagner Society of Israel who made an attempt to overturn the taboo back in 2012 along with Asher Fisch. Although both are descendants of Holocaust survivors, the concert was canceled under pressure from the same group. Fisch's mother, who had to leave Vienna in 1939, feels that if her son could conduct Wagner in Israel, it would represent a final victory over Hitler. And so everyone has his or her own reason for performing or not performing Wagner.
Livni's latest attempt dates from last September. I haven't heard anything about it since. The culture minister was against it. But Livni does not seem to be a quitter. At some point it will happen. People seem to acquire wisdom only when time has done its grueling work. Or as Hegel put it: the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.