Israel’s Wagner Taboo

Ideology seems to have won out over culture in Israel: The taboo on playing the music of pre-Nazi German composer Richard Wagner in concert has been upheld.

After strenuous protests by Holocaust survivor groups, backed by virtually the entire Israeli political spectrum, the decision was taken last week to look for an alternative to the Wagner concert that had been scheduled for this summer’s Israel Festival, the country’s annual international cultural showcase.

The traditional Israeli ban on Wagner’s operas has loosened of late; last October the Israel Symphony Orchestra in Rishon Lezion gave the first public performance of a Wagner work, albeit a nonideological one. Yet the Israel Festival’s plan for this country’s second public performance of Wagner was incomparably more ambitious and conspicuous: Israel-bred superstar conductor Daniel Barenboim was to bring his Staatskapelle Berlin orchestra to Jerusalem’s Convention Center on July 7 to perform a piece from the opera "Die Walküre," which the concert’s opponents say is a horrifically anti-Semitic German tale. Placido Domingo was to sing the lead.

The concert has not been officially canceled; the festival’s board of directors said it did not want to act as a censor. Yet after having twice previously endorsed the concert, the board ordered the festival’s artistic team to meet with Barenboim and try to find an alternative to the Wagner piece in light of the protests that have arisen.

Beneath the official level, though, in the stratum where music, not ideology, reigns, Israel takes a very different view. Professional classical musicians here — players, conductors and composers — have long chafed under the Wagner ban. With few exceptions, they want his works to be performed openly in Israel, even while fully recognizing that he was an especially demonic Jew-hater and a Nazi favorite. Many play Wagner abroad, including in Germany.

They argue that musical notes and rests cannot be anti-Semitic, and that even Wagner’s lyrics aren’t explicitly so, either. And even if they are, said Israel Festival artistic director Micha Lewensohn, "Did you ever read the lyrics to Bach’s passions?"

And if anti-Semites are to be banned from Israeli concert halls, most classical musicians say, the list might well begin with Wagner, but would also have to take in Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Chopin and many other local favorites.

As for the sensitivities of Holocaust survivors, who number some 300,000 in Israel, some leading advocates of Wagner in concert are themselves survivors or children of survivors, and they say they’ve received outspoken encouragement from a number of others.

The conductor of Wagner in Rishon Lezion last October was Mendi Rodan, a Holocaust survivor and former director of Jerusalem’s Rubin Academy of Music, Israel’s leading training ground for classical musicians. Rodan conducts Wagner frequently in Europe. Though the Rishon Lezion performance was briefly disrupted by a Holocaust survivor in the audience who rattled a Purim noisemaker, Rodan said other survivors were among the audience of about 500 that applauded the performance of the "Siegfried Idyll."

The country’s leading orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), is officially against playing Wagner "as long as a single Holocaust survivor who objects is still alive," said Avi Shoshani, the IPO’s director-general. But among the 100 or more musicians in the orchestra, "more than 90 percent of them want to play Wagner," Shoshani said, noting that this was their view as far back as the 1970s, when the IPO first canvassed them on the issue.

Along with Barenboim, the other star conductor who has tried to wedge Wagner onto the Israeli stage is Zubin Mehta, the conductor most closely associated with the IPO. In 1981 Mehta conducted the IPO in an encore from the opera "Tristan und Isolde," but an usher went onstage and bared scars he’d received at a concentration camp, and Mehta halted the performance. Until about a decade ago, there was a ban on performing Richard Strauss, who was adopted by the Nazis in his old age — and soon renounced because he wasn’t sufficiently anti-Semitic — and on the works of Carl Orff, a lesser Jew-hater. Israel has since "rehabilitated" these composers enough to be played in public.

But Wagner? To use an Israeli saying, that’s a whole different opera.