Why shouldn’t the music of Richard Wagner be played in the Jewish State or by Israel’s Orchestras abroad? The Israeli Chamber Orchestra is breaking the taboo and playing Wagner’s works at Bayreuth, in Germany. The Orchestra is supported by Israel’s Ministry of Culture as well as the Municipality of Tel Aviv and Bank HaPoalim.
Wagner’s “ban” in Israel is not official, since the Israeli Supreme Court ruled a number of years ago that it is not illegal to play his music. But the custom goes all the way back to the 1948 founding of the Jewish State.
Why does Israel insist that its musicians not perform such universally acknowledged masterpieces as “Tristan und Isolde” and “Die Meistersinger”? Certainly because Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite, and because Adolf Hitler loved his music. But there is a deeper reason and it involves artists’ responsibility.
In Israel, the music halls play Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” which was composed in 1937, despite Orff being an ardent Nazi. So why is Wagner, who died 50 years before Hitler came to power, banned? Isn’t it irrational? Isn’t it illogical? Richard Wagner, needless to say, wasn’t a Nazi. He died five years before Hitler was born. But his hatred of the Jews, like Hitler’s, was more than a tic: it lay at the heart of his megalomaniacal vision of the world.
The glories of “Tannhauser” and “Lohengrin” often provided a musical accompaniment to the Final Solution and the Holocaust. There, in the gas chambers, the faith in “truth as beauty and beauty as truth” met its end. We must remember, though, that Israel’s ban is not about the music of Wagner, or even the man himself: it’s about Wagner’s ideas.
I don’t think that Wagner’s anti-Semitism would justify removing his works from the repertoire of, say, the Boston Symphony. But I do think it fitting that there should be one place in the world where Wagner’s music is not played in public solely because of the hateful ideas of the man who wrote it.
Hitler idolized Wagner and the German composer made no bones about his views: “Anti-Semitism belongs to my Weltanschauung (conception of the world),” he wrote. The greatest German writer of the last century, Thomas Mann, looked at Wagner retrospectively and wrote during the Third Reich: “there is much Hitler in Wagner…manifest Nazidom.”
Reminder of Nazi evil
In 1850, Wagner published a libelous pamphlet (“Jewry in Music”) containing racial undertones. Wagner ostensibly “exposed” the ugliness of Jewish image and spirit, Jewish habits and speech and the music of the synagogue. Wagner called upon the Germans to create a united front against the Jews and demanded their “Untergang”, that is, destruction and extinction (years later it indeed happened in Sobibor, Chelmno, Treblinka, Birkenau, Belzec).
Wagner also hoped that the solution to the Jewish problem would be achieved by Jewish self-destruction and he might have been envisioning assimilation (ironically, Wagner’s operas were known to be very attractive to assimilated Jews.)
For Holocaust survivors, Wagner thus became an inseparable part of Nazi ideology and a shattering reminder of the Nazi evil, starting with the boycott of Jews in the early 1930s and up to the horrors of the gas chambers. That’s why as long as there remains even one single survivor of the Holocaust who might be hurt by the performance of Wagner, his music should not be played.
As long as there is one Holocaust survivor who still cries at Wagner because of what he represents, Israeli companies should take this into account when choosing what to perform largely with public funds. But there is also another reason for Wagner’s ban.
Giulio Meotti, a journalist with Il Foglio, is the author of the book A New Shoah: The Untold Story of Israel's Victims of Terrorism