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Wagner and the Jews

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‘A Repetition of Tristan und Isolde’; drawing by Aubrey Beardsley

Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, who as a successful journalist was confronted by increasing anti-Semitism in Austria and France, was initially in favor of complete assimilation of the Jews. Interestingly, Herzl’s choice of words was not fundamentally different from Wagner’s in describing the situation of Jews in German society. In 1893 he wrote that “to cure the evil” the Jews would have to “rid themselves of the peculiarities for which they are rightly reproached.” One would have to “baptize the Jewboys” in order to spare them excessively difficult lives. “Untertauchen im Volk!”—disappear among the people—was his appeal to the Jewish population.

Richard Wagner also spoke of Untergang, or sinking: “consider that only one thing can be the deliverance from the curse that weighs on you: the deliverance of Ahasver,—sinking [der Untergang]!” Wagner’s conclusion about the Jew- ish problem was not only verbally similar to Herzl’s; both Wagner and Herzl favored the emigration of the German Jews. It was Herzl’s preoccupation with European anti-Semitism that spurred him to want to found a Jewish state. His vision of a Jewish state was influenced by the tradition of European liberalism. In the novel Altneuland (1902), he describes what the settled Jewish community in Palestine might look like; Arabic residents and other non-Jews would have equal political rights.

In other words, Herzl had not overlooked the fact that Arabs were living in Palestine when he developed the idea for an independent state for the European Jews. In 1921, at the Twelfth Zionist conference in Karlsbad, Martin Buber warned that politics would have to take on the “Arab question”:

Our national desire to renew the life of the people of Israel in their ancient homeland however is not aimed against any other people. As we enter the sphere of world history once more, and become once more the standard bearers of our own fate, the Jewish people, who have constituted a persecuted minority in all the countries of the world for two thousand years, reject with abhorrence the methods of nationalistic domination, under which they themselves have so long suffered. We do not aspire to return to the land of Israel with which we have inseparable historical and spiritual ties in order to suppress another people or to dominate them.

The Israeli declaration of independence of May 14, 1948, also says that the state of Israel

will devote itself to the development of the country to the good of all its residents. It will be based on freedom, justice, and peace according to the visions of the prophets of Israel. It will guarantee all its citizens social and political equality regardless of religion, race and gender. It will ensure religious and intellectual freedom, freedom of speech, education and culture.

The reality, as we all know, looks different today.

Even today, many Israelis see the refusal of Palestinians to recognize the state of Israel as a continuation of European pre-war anti-Semitism. It is, however, not anti-Semitism that determines the relationship of Palestinians to Israel, but rather resistance against the division of Palestine at the time when Israel was founded, and against the withholding of equal rights today, for example the right to an independent state. Palestine was simply not an empty country (as Israeli nationalistic legend has it); it could in fact have been described at the time as it was by two rabbis who visited the land to survey it as a potential Jewish state: “the bride is beautiful, but she is already married.” To this day it is still a taboo in Israeli society to make clear the fact that the state of Israel was founded at the cost of another people.

Another taboo that continues to be maintained in Israel is the performance of Wagner’s works within the country. To this I must say that the rumor that my performance in 2001 with the Staatskapelle Berlin of the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde caused a sensation is a myth that has now, more than ten years later, become established in many people’s minds. The pieces were played as an encore following a forty-minute discussion with the audience. I suggested to the people who wanted to leave that they do so. Only twenty to thirty people who did not want to hear Wagner’s music left the hall. The remainder applauded the orchestra so enthusiastically that I had the feeling we had done something positive. Only the next day did the dispute erupt when politicians called the performance a scandal, although they had not been present themselves.

During the Third Reich, Wagner’s music was still played by Jews in Tel Aviv by none other than the then Palestine Symphony Orchestra, the modern-day Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Shortly after the end of World War II, when it became known that Jews had been sent to the gas chambers to the accompaniment of certain of Wagner’s works, the performance of Wagner was rightly declared taboo out of respect for survivors and the relatives of victims. This was done not because of Wagner’s anti-Semitism but rather because of the Nazis’ abuse of his music.

Wagner may have been the most important personal and ideological model for Adolf Hitler, a kind of “predecessor,” as Joachim Fest writes in his biography of Hitler. Hitler called him “the greatest prophet ever possessed by the German people,” and took on Wagner’s mythology as a component of Nazi ideology. Nevertheless, as revolting as Wagner’s anti-Semitism may be, one can hardly hold him responsible for Hitler’s use and abuse of his music and his worldviews. The Jewish composer Ernest Bloch, for one, refused to accept Wagner as a possession of the Nazis: “The music of the Nazis is not the prelude to Die Meistersinger,” he said, “but rather the Horst-Wessel-Lied; they have no more honor than that, further honor cannot and shall not be given them.”

Whoever wants to see a repulsive attack on Jews in Wagner’s operas can of course do so. But is it really justified? Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, for example, who might be suspected of being a Jewish parody, was a state scribe in the year 1500, a position that was unavailable to Jews. As far as I am concerned, if Beckmesser’s awkward melodies resemble synagogue chant, then this is a parody of Jewish song and not a racist attack. One can of course also raise the question of taste in this matter.

The entire Wagner debate in Israel is linked to the fact that steps toward a Jewish Israeli identity have not been taken. All concerned continue to cling to past associations that were absolutely understandable and justified at the time. It is as if they wanted, by so doing, to remind themselves of their own Judaism. Perhaps this is the same fact that does not allow many Israelis to see the Palestinians as citizens with equal rights.

When one continues to uphold the Wagner taboo today in Israel, it means, in a certain respect, that we are giving Hitler the last word, that we are acknowledging that Wagner was indeed a prophet and predecessor of Nazi anti-Semitism, and that he can be held accountable, even if only indirectly, for the final solution.

This view is unworthy of Jewish listeners. They should rather be influenced by such great Jewish thinkers as Spinoza, Maimonides, and Martin Buber than by half-baked dogmas.

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