Wagner In Israel: The Unofficial Ban

How much should artistic expression be curbed in the name of cultural sensitivity? How long should a dead creator’s works be judged, not on their merits, but on the political inclinations of their maker?

The works of legendary opera composer Richard Wagner have not been performed in the state of Israel, or indeed even pre-Israel, by the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, since the outbreak of World War II. From an article at American Thinker:

On November 12, 1938, the overture to Wagner’s opera Lohengrin was deleted from its program as a protest against Kristallnacht, which had occurred three days earlier in Germany. Since then, Wagner’s works have not been performed in public places during the Jewish settlement in Palestine or after the establishment of the state of Israel

Authorities often cite Wagner’s personal anti-Semitism as the reason behind the ban of his works in Israel, a case further compounded by the fact that Wagner’s works became symbolic of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Recently, the Israel Wagner Society attempted to stage an academically-minded performance of Wagner’s works, featuring 100 privately-hired musicians, at Tel Aviv University. However, amidst community anger and protest, the concert was cancelled by the hosting venue:

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports the officials at the university pulled the plug on the performance, contending the Israel Wagner Society concealed the fact it would have featured the music of Wagner.

It seems unusual that TAU would have been caught off guard by the content of a performance organized the the Wagner society. Of course, Wagner was indeed a well-known anti-Semitic. That much is not under debate:

His article Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music), written in 1850 under a pseudonym, is a strong criticism of the role of Jews in German culture and society in general, and a more personal attack on the composers of Jewish origin, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn, of whose success he was jealous.

This is an understandable justification for cultural sensitivity on the subject. Perhaps if the composer’s work had simply been co-opted by the Nazi party as an example of Germanic musical supremacy, it would be a non-issue. But the perception that Wagner would have supported Hitler’s aims (his death in 1883 renders the argument academic) adds an unfortunate dynamic to an already painful situation.

But is concern that Wagner would have been a Nazi, or was supported by Nazis, sufficient reason to suppress even the most academically-minded performances of his music? The latest rejected performance even attempted to include the political concerns in the program:

The June 18 event was supposed to have been an academic symposium at Tel Aviv University devoted to Wagner, conductor Arturo Toscanini and Theodor Herzl, the Zionist leader. The symposium, organized by the Israel Wagner Society, was to have included a concert portion of music by Wagner.

Toscanini is noted for his rejection of Mussolini and Italian fascism during World War II, and Herzl pioneered pre-WWII attempts to found a Jewish state.

It is just this sort of event that should be able to cut through self-imposed censorship and open a genuine dialogue on such a sensitive and charged issue. But TVU ultimately bowed to external pressures and cancelled the privately funded event. The performance was rescheduled for the Tel Aviv Hilton, but was once again called off.

It is worth noting that there is no official governmental censorship at hand. There are, fortunately, no legal repercussions in Israel for performing Wagner’s works, in public or private. But the ingrained societal suppression continues to thrive and cuts off any attempt at a reasoned dialogue, a dangerous proposition in any society, but particularly one who has seen their own culture suppressed, in one way or another, for millenia.

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Joe Izenman is a freelance writer and musician in Tacoma, Washington. He owns a lot of comics and he’s pretty sure someone, somewhere would be offended by more than a few of them.