The Art of Klinghoffer’s Murder

Our e-news last week linked readers to the aggrieved sentiments of Leon Klinghoffer’s children regarding the new Metropolitan Opera House opera about their father’s 1985 murder by the PLO.  In response, we received a Rabbi’s open letter to the Jewish actor who sympathetically portrayed Klinghoffer’s terrorist killer.  What in the name of art is a Jewish actor’s duty in the face of evil? What is ours?

Dear Jesse,

We don’t know each other personally, but you have attained some notoriety of late because you are a Jewish man playing the role of Omar, the Palestinian terrorist who shoots Leon Klinghoffer in the opera The Death of Klinghoffer.

The controversy around the opera has been of particular interest to me, as has another recent controversy:  the choice of Mumia Abu Jamal by Goddard College’s student body to be their commencement speaker. Jamal, you will remember, is serving a life sentence for pumping four bullets into Officer Daniel Faulkner back in 1981.  As he stood over the wounded officer, Jamal put four bullets into him at point blank range, the last one between the eyes. Nevertheless, the students at Goddard felt that this self-confessed cop killer had a message worthy of the honor they bestowed upon him.

Both of these controversies figured prominently in my sermon delivered this past Yom Kippur.  The theme was that contemporary culture no longer seems able or willing to label certain actions or behaviors as “evil”.  Either we often describe them as  the actions of  “sick” individuals (which absolves their perpetrators of moral responsibility), or we offer rationalizations calling for empathy and understanding, rather than condemnation.  The controversy and upset around the opera in which you appear falls in the second category.

In your recent Heeb Magazine interview you state “…there is an obvious understanding of what’s good and bad in the world…”  On the contrary: I would respectfully suggest that by your decision to appear in the opera and by the apologia that you offer for doing so, such an understanding is not at all obvious to you and others who believe it is legitimate—in the name of “art”—to (paraphrasing Dr. Judea Pearl’s words) lift up with the sounds of orchestras that which deserves our unconditional revulsion.

In the interview you also discuss how your decision and reasons for appearing in the opera fit in with the lessons you learned at home and in synagogue.  You say that “it was really interesting to let my family know that I was going to play a Palestinian terrorist…while staring at my Bar Mitzvah picture.”  You go on to say that “If there is anything Judaism has taught me, it’s to be committed.  And to try something new everyday.  That’s what my rabbi said in Sunday School…”

Jesse, with all due respect to your rabbi, I have to believe that there was more to what he/she said.  I would hope that he would have taught you that commitment is important, but to what a person is committed is even more important. The Palestinian hijacker you portray certainly was committed.  The Nazis were certainly committed.  Radical Muslims who attack people in the streets of New York and behead journalists are certainly committed.  “Being committed” is not in and of itself a good thing. Similarly I would hope that your rabbi would have taught you that trying something is new is a good thing, as long as what your are doing clearly benefits you and others—as long as it brings more sanctity into the world.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but a first time heroin user is trying something new, as is a first time bungee jumper.  Certainly, there are thrills involved in these new experiences and “seeing what it’s like”.   But again, one is hard-pressed to see how “trying something new” is in and of itself a good thing.

Finally, Jesse, I would hope that at some point in your Jewish education you were taught that we Jews have a mandate to be “a light to the nations”, and that part of this mandate is to stand for what is good and unequivocally denounce what is evil. (Indeed, there are those who affirm that this is precisely why the world has historically hated Jews).  And no matter what their motives or reasons, the Achille Lauro hijackers and those like them who murder innocents—particularly children and the elderly—were, and are, evil. Just evil.

But, given your stated newfound sympathy for those motives, I fear that you and others who share your opinions about this subject are all too prepared to explain this evil away.  You and those who share your views are all too prepared to equivocate, rationalize, and explain why presenting the opera is unequivocally not a bad, but rather a “good” thing.  Following the unfolding of the controversy and especially reading your interview, I could only recall the words spoken 3000 years ago by the prophet Isaiah: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who present darkness as light and light as darkness; who present bitter as sweet, and sweet as bitter.

Indeed, your position appears to be an attempt to justify the unjustifiable.  Unfortunately, instead of adding to the moral light that we Jews are supposed to offer, you have chosen to place yourself among those who choose to confuse darkness with light and bitter with sweet.

I don’t know if you can withdraw from your commitment.  If you can, I hope you do.  If you can’t, or if you are not convinced or even challenged by what I am saying, my prayer is that one day you will understand what you did, and that you will truly regret it—and perhaps help others who come after you not to make the same mistake.


Rabbi Chaim ben Yisrael

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