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By Daniel Barenboim

Daniel Barenboim, director and chief conductor of the Berliner
Staatsoper (State Opera of Berlin), wants to perform Richard Wagner’s
‘‘The Valkyrie’’ at the Israel Festival with the Staatskapelle (orchestra
of the State Opera) in July. Heavy protests have followed this
announcement, as the music of Hitler’s favorite composer is still taboo in Israel. Several politicians have demanded that the concert in Jerusalem be canceled. Abraham Herschson, a member of parliament, has asked Barenboim ‘‘on behalf of the 300,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel not to forget his Jewish roots and to consider that Jews were led to the gas chambers to the sound of Wagner’s music.’’

BERLIN -- Quite understandably the debate around Wagner resurfaces in Israel at regular intervals. No consensus can as of yet be expected on this topic. Thus it seems necessary to take some time to consider the historical background.

Bronislaw Hubermann founded the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936, when no taboo existed against Wagner’s works. At that same time, Arturo Toscanini, a well-known anti-Fascist, decided to stop performing at the Bayreuth Festival because of Hitler’s presence, while conducting works of Wagner at the second inaugural concert of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is autonomously managed and did not decide until after Kristallnacht in November 1938 to stop performing Wagner because of its misuse by the Nazis. After several failed attempts, the Israel Festival has invited me to conduct a concert, including, among other works, music by Wagner on July 7, during the Israel tour of the Berliner Staatskapelle.

I have the greatest compassion for Holocaust survivors and understand their terrible associations with Wagner’s music. Therefore, Wagner’s works should not be played during concerts for regular season ticket holders so that faithful subscribers would not be confronted with music that raises painful memories. However, the question must be asked if any person has the right to deprive another who does not have these same associations of
hearing Wagner’s music. This would indirectly serve the misuse of Wagner’s music by the Nazis.

After all, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s decision to cease
performing Wagner’s music was not based on the composer’s anti-Semitism, which had been well established since the 19th century, but on the terrible associations created by the Nazis. While certain decisions are absolutely correct and understandable at certain times, new developments can change the situation.

An example is the position taken by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra after World War II not to engage conductors and soloists who had converted from Judaism before or during the war, such as Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer.

Given the circumstances at that time, this decision was understandable. However, over time it was ignored, as conversion was no longer considered to be a sign of weakness or an attempt to improve one’s personal fate through assimilation.

It has always been said that Israel is a state for Jews, and this is as it should be. However, almost 20 percent of Israel’s population is non-Jewish, and Israel has an obligation to treat these inhabitants as equal citizens.

This entails not preventing people who are free of Nazi associations from listening to Wagner’s music. It is not my intention to wage a missionary’s war in favor of Wagner in Israel. I do feel, however, that this is a case where Israel can and should define itself as a democracy.

(c) 2001, Focus. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate
International, a division of Tribune Media Services.