'The Tradition of Not Playing Wagner in Israel Is Silly'

Prompted by a new book on Israeli-German ties and a play about the anti-Semitic composer, a self-described Wagnerian aficionado speaks out about a still-simmering cultural controversy

A scene from the opera "Tannhueuser und der Saengerkrieg auf Wartburg" by Richard Wagner at the Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar, 2018.
Candy Welz / dpa Picture-Allianc

The issue of Israel’s fraught relationship with Germany – as the eminent neurologist Israel Steiner wrote in a message to me – has troubled the Jewish state ever since World War II. In the realm of culture, this issue extends to the matter of the boycott on Wagner: the decision not to perform his works at public concerts here. Steiner, a sworn devotee of Wagner’s oeuvre, suggests that it’s time to dispense of the boycott.

Richard Wagner. Other German composers who subscribed to Nazi ideology is indeed performed in Israel.
Franz Hanfstaengl

The subject recently came up once more in the public domain. In the opinion of Steiner (“I am a Wagnerian” – is how he introduced himself when he contacted me), the resumption of the controversy has been driven by two events: first, publication of the new book (in Hebrew) “The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship? The Rapprochement between Israel and Germany: 1948-1960” by David Witztum, the Israeli journalist, historian, intellectual and musicphile (also, cellist); and second, the staging of a new play called “You Will Not Play Wagner,” by South African Jewish playwright Victor Gordon.

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The play – a production of the Jerusalem-based Mikro Theater that is directed by Roy Horovitz and features actors Miriam Zohar, Rami Baruch, Niv Petel and Adi Bielski – will be staged in Tel Aviv on September 8, at the Tzavta club. Following the performance there will be a discussion, with audience participation.

The four characters in the play, whose plot begins a few days prior to a (fictitious) international conducting competition in Tel Aviv, are Esther Greenbaum, a wealthy German-born American Jew who played the violin in her youth and survived the Holocaust with the help of Wagner’s music; Morris, a producer of musical events; Assaf, a young Israeli conductor; and Miri, Morris’ secretary. Gordon’s 90-minute play, translated into Hebrew by Rivka Meshulach, has been staged in Sydney and in Toronto.

I asked director Horovitz what his opinion is regarding the performance of Wagner’s works in Israel.

Horovitz: “I confess that I do not have any clear, decisive feeling on the matter. The power of this play, in my opinion, has to do with the fact that it is not unilateral on the subject. You hear from one of the characters an argument in favor of performing Wagner here – and you agree with it. Then right afterward, another character voices the contrary opinion – and you find yourself identifying and agreeing with it, too. It’s a situation that encourages serious, profound thinking, not an empty repetition of hackneyed slogans.”

It emerges that one of the lines in the play, with which Prof. Steiner concurs, is "the tradition of not playing Wagner in Israel is silly." In any event, on the face of it, Steiner’s claim that controversy over Wagner’s music has also been reignited in part by Witztum’s book seems blatantly groundless: The subject is not mentioned at all there. (And Steiner was not aware of Witztum’s actual views on the subject, which are somewhat surprising). 

The Jerusalem-based Mikro Theater production of “You Will Not Play Wagner,” by South African Jewish playwright Victor Gordon.
Rotem Avrutsky Almog

“Actually, my argument is based on the very fact that it is not even mentioned by Witztum,” says the professor. “That omission underscores a malignant weakness that afflicts people of culture in Israel, and the audience of cultural consumers here.”

After all, music composed by German composers who subscribed to Nazi ideology is indeed performed in Israel, contends Steiner.

“The most prominent example is Carl Orff, composer of ‘Carmina Burana,’” he continues. “He was not exactly a ‘tolerable Nazi.’ When the siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl were sentenced to death by beheading, due to their distribution of anti-Nazi leaflets at the University of Munich, their parents approached Orff and asked him to use his connections to win a stay of execution. The respected composer did not comply, and instead informed them that was how traitors needed to be punished.” (The Scholls were put to death in February 1943.)

In general, the prominence of anti-Semites among the famous composers whose works are performed here is not insignificant, to say the least, according to Steiner, who cites “Beethoven, Robert Schumann and Clara Schumann, Chopin, Tchaikovsky and of course the Passions of Bach, with texts from the New Testament that cast unforgivable blame on Jews in every generation for the killing of Jesus. Similarly, in other fields of art, there is no lack of anti-Semites, and their presence is rife at Israeli cultural events and in translated Hebrew works. In literature (Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”; Dostoyevsky), poetry (Ezra Pound; T.S. Eliot), theology and philosophy (Luther; Heidegger).”

Furthermore, one should recall that Wagner’s assumption of the "role" of being the object of an Israeli boycott was almost coincidental, says Steiner: "In 1938, Arturo Toscanini was going to conduct the Palestine Symphony Orchestra in a work by Wagner, but the performance was cancelled due to the events of Kristallnacht. Over the decades, all of the other boycotts – of the German language, of German cinema, of German poetry – ceased to exist. Only the boycott of Wagner’s music remains. The question must therefore be asked: Why has there been no widespread enlistment of musicians and cultural figures in an effort to rescind the boycott? How are we to understand why David Witztum, for example, omitted the subject?

“Witztum would not have initiated a visit by a group that he escorted in Germany to the Tannhauser Opera if he did not feel that it was a valuable work of art. He certainly correctly assesses Wagner’s contribution to the world of classical music. My interpretation of his failure to address the subject? Maybe it was a matter of caving in to conformism, maybe it was fear. But fear of what? Of a not-dangerous war against an unjustified consensus.”

‘Dangerous weakness’

Avoidance of such issues, Steiner declares, is not limited to any particular individual, but rather reflects a widespread contemporary Israeli social phenomenon: “the absence of critical opposition and of coming to terms with phenomena such as racism, violence, nationalism, religious coercion, which gnaw away at our basic foundations. A dangerous weakness.”

As to the subject at hand, this is a particularly irksome weakness, he says, “because theoretically, rescinding the Wagner boycott would not demand a very difficult struggle. How can it be revoked? It’s simple: You defy it. The management of local concert halls where classical concerts are held could initiate and organize performances that are devoted to Wagner’s music, or that include his compositions. Breaking the boycott would be a decidedly justified step, a declaration that we must not submit to cultural terror, an affront to populism and to drawn-out moral corruption.”

I asked Steiner why it is so important to realize his admiration for Wagner’s compositions in the form of a live concert, at a public cultural event, in the company of strangers. After all, he can listen to Wagner’s operas and watch them at home, in the company of friends, enjoying outstanding performances, with high-quality video and audio.

Israel Steiner chose not to address the question, and made do with a short response: “Anyone who does not wish to recognize my right to hear in a live performance the music for which I harbor such a deep love, may not define my boundaries.”

David Witztum offered this response: “I concur with the words of philosopher Chaim Gans, as expressed in an article he published decades ago. My position is that as long as there still live among us Holocaust survivors, it would not be proper to perform compositions of Wagner in public here.”

Moreover, he added, “There is no musical, historical or philosophical justification for holding such concerts here. There is humanistic justification for not doing so.”