The Wagner problem in Israel: It’s not about Wagner

The Wagner problem in Israel: It’s not about Wagner

Roberto Paternostro, conductor of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, is proud that he brought his orchestra to Bayreuth, the cult festival devoted to Richard Wagner that is still run by the Wagner clan in Bavaria, Germany.
Paternostro brushes away the notion that Wagner should be subjected to an informal ban in Israel. In interviews he reminds us that many other Nazi icons are alive and well here in the Jewish State, among them Siemens, Volkswagen, composer Carl Orff, psychiatrist Carl Jung, philosopher Martin Heidegger, and many other companies and personalities that were tied to Nazism or who were active collaborators. 
Therefore, the problem with Wagner is not Wagner in itself.
The multitalented and brilliant Wagner died in 1883, long before Nazism. He was an anti-Semite, as his essay “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (The Jewishness in Music) condemns the Jews for polluting the pure Germanic music.
But Wagner can’t really receive a cordon sanitaire for his paltry works of anti-Semitism in a country like Israel, where no one shrugs a shoulder before reading the fanatical anti-Semite Karl Marx or the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger. It can’t really be argued that Wagner must be banned because he was Hitler’s favorite composer. To ban him on that account would mean, logically, banning all the other things Hitler liked: German shepherds, mountain retreats, homely women, vegetarianism, hatred of smoking and uniforms.
The Wagner problem in Israel is not about Wagner. It is actually about something else that is more tragic and more pernicious to the Israeli-Jewish consciousness. One could understand if the conductor of the Israeli Chamber Orchestra simply felt that Wagner should be part of the pantheon of great composers. But in fact, what Paternostro and others who played Wagner in Israel, like Daniel Berenboim, have done is deliberately set out to provoke the public.  They not only love Wagner, but they want Wagner jammed down our throats. They want Israelis to join in the weirdo cult antics at Bayreuth, and in the case of Berenboim, they wanted to bring Wagnerian opera to the Palestinians. Perhaps they would like Wagner played for Israeli Independence Day. 
Furthermore, Paternostro and Berenboim exploit their Jewishness and the Holocaust in order to justify their Wagnerization of Israeli music. Paternostro speaks about walking through Yad Vashem with his mother (who saw how her aunt was murdered by the Nazis) and how his mother shouted “Wonderful!” at the notion that he would be playing Wagner. Paternostro thus attempts to tell us “See, even those intimately affected by the Holocaust love Wagner.” But this is an exploitation of the Holocaust for masochistic reasons. If we take the “my relatives survived the Holocaust and they like Wagner” argument out of the equation, what are we then left with?  The purposeful desire to provoke, to use Wagner as a tool against Israel.
The conductors who bring Wagner to Israel do it completely with an understanding of its political-racist overtones, rather than a naïve love for the music itself. Paternostro says that this “is the beginning of a reconciliation, a step on a new path … it was my greatest conviction to bring together these two sides — Israel and Wagner … the conflicts and emotions associated with the history of Wagner are exactly those which make it so special for us.” Berenboim, who loathes Israel and has a Palestinian passport and likewise exploits the Holocaust to excuse his hatred of the country and love for Wagner, played a piece by Wagner in 2001, during the intifada no less, at the Israel Festival. 
Argentinian-born Berenboim and Viennese-born Paternostro are crusaders in the attempt to bring Wagner to the shores of Israel. In the latter’s case at least his championing of Wagner is not paired with a hatred for the state. Both composers have received a lot of support among the intellectual audiences that are partial to chamber music in Israel. It is a shame that many people like myself, who instinctually oppose the political imposition of Wagner, are not classical music lovers. We cannot boycott the concerts, since we don’t go to them anyway.
But the least we can do is understand what is happening. Wagner is not being foisted upon Israel merely because it is good music. It is being pushed upon us because of a very clear understanding of the goal; the Jews are being asked to “appreciate” anti-Semitism and the type of music that was played in the concentration camps. It would be akin to asking Armenians to listen to Turkish music at their weddings or demanding Palestinians fall in love with the tune of “Hativka” and ignore its national message.

(Seth J. Frantzman is a writer, journalist and scholar residing in Jerusalem.)