Review: The Ring of Myths

Posted on 10, Jun, 2015 in Uncategorized

nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn

THE RING OF MYTHS: THE ISRAELIS, WAGNER AND THE NAZIS

nn

BY NA’AMA SHEFFI

nn

 

nn

Roger Lee

nn

 

nn

First published in 2001,nthis 2013 paperback version brings us up to date regarding the apparentlynnever-ending boycott of Wagner performances in Israel which began 75 years ago.nNa’ama Sheffi’s study shows that the “Wagner” affair in Israel is not focussednupon the composer alone but on much broader and more comprehensive issues.

nn

            As from Kristallnachtnin 1938 when the Palestine Symphony Orchestra cut the prelude to Die Meistersinger from its concerts, thenboycotted composer became one of the most prominent and problematic symbols ofnthe Third Reich’s legacy. Members of the Yishuvn(the small Jewish community in Palestine) were receiving increasinglyndistressing news of developments in Germany in particular. By the end of thenSecond World War those who had experienced the death camps or who had lostnfamily members in the horrors of the Holocaust were arguing the impossibilitynof accepting in Israel the work of anyone who was perceived as inspiring orncollaborating with the Nazi regime. As the years passed this became etched uponnnational memory as a code of conduct and as a response now unrelated to thenactual proximity to the Holocaust of individuals in Israeli society.

nn

            Sheffi explains: “Since the Wagner affair gave thenpoliticians an axe to grind, its general political features are easilynidentified. Every sector that pronounced on the issue found Wagner to be anhandy vessel in which to pour ideologies with varying aims.” She then takes us throughnthe procession of factions exploiting the anti-Wagner emblem in the name ofntheir various causes from the 1950s to the present day. For me this politicalnappropriation of Wagner echoes eerily with the antithetically similar attempts bynthe likes of the German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to claim Wagner asna proto-Nazi and to encourage a view of him as the spiritual father of NationalnSocialism.

nn

            The author puts us straight on all this in no uncertainnterms. “Among the wealth of articles seeking to pour Wagner’s philosophy intonNazi moulds there were also interpretations focussing on aspects of his worknsuch as his revolutionary tendencies, both as a composer and in the politicalnand social spheres. Wagner’s non-conformism, so antithetical to the norms thatnthe totalitarian Nazi party sought to impose, would eventually become andouble-edged sword in the hands of Wagner’s admirer, Hitler. It is difficult tonunderstand why Hitler, who knew Wagner’s works well, …… did not show greaternalertness to the anarchist, even nihilist overtones of Wagner’s creations.nFailing to understand the Wagnerian microcosm, Hitler actually embraced thencomposer’s radical ideas, proposing perfect order or complete destruction.”

nn

            No punches are pulled (nor should they be) in settingnWagner’s published anti-Semitic polemics in the context of their time. Sheffinargues that the thesis that a measure of conscious, deliberate anti-Semitism isnto be found in his work is one which is difficult to verify. She concludes:n“However anti-Semitic he may have been, he cannot be classified with aggressorsnwho actually carried out violent acts against Jews, and he should certainly notnbe turned into the classic symbol of German anti-Semitism.”

nn

            As one might expect, the book covers the attempts tonbreak the taboo on playing Wagner’s music following that first cancellationnfrom the Palestine Symphony Orchestra’s programme in 1938 through to the 1950snand 60s when “Wagner” became a concept that bonded Israelis of various culturesnand on to the present day. Etching the Holocaust on the consciousness ofnIsraelis, the trial of Adolph Eichmann opened the “composer controversy” evennto people who had no personal or historical bias against the “forbiddenncomposers”. From this point on people who did not frequent concert halls, butnwho felt that they had a moral right to shape the characteristics of Israelinculture joined in the debate. This for Sheffi marks the point at which thensubject of the “forbidden composers” left the sphere of musical repertoire andnmoved to the flagrantly political one.

nn

            In 1966 Zubin Mehta’s support for proposals to play worksnby such banned composers as Wagner and Richard Strauss created a storm ofncontroversy in some sectors of the Israeli press at a time when, as Sheffi putsnit: “the main story was actually the economic problem engendered in Israel bynthe economic recession of the 1960s. At that stage Wagner provided the onlyncolour in a rather grey landscape of news coverage.”

nn

            A year later Israelis were celebrating in the streets,n“drunk with pride” over their victory in the Six Day War. This self-confidencenresulted in a new tolerance of the use of the German language which hadnpreviously been so loathsome to them. It did not, however release Wagner and Straussnfrom their status as forbidden composers. According to Sheffi: “In the 1960snWagner and Strauss were transformed from real people into the embodiments ofnthe Nazis’ iniquity and injustice towards Jews. The mention of their names wasnenough to arouse feelings that were perceived as the norm: opposition,nrevulsion and condemnation, all of which were far deeper than the musicalnissue. In fact the forbidden musicians – particularly these two – had becomenthe most conspicuous symbols of the hatred of the Germans.”

nn

            In June 1974, eight months after the Yom Kippur War, thenmanagement of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) announced its intentionnto play a work by Richard Wagner. Perhaps now preoccupied by the tragedynbrought by the war to thousands of Israeli families and by terrorist attacks,nthe press this time showed a lack of eagerness for a renewed debate.nNevertheless the IPO had a change of heart and the debate fizzled out. Sheffindeclares that in the subsequent decades there has been no direct connectionnbetween interest in classical music and the protest against Wagner. She quotesnjournalist Daniel Bloch that the controversy has been exploited by politiciansnand publicists who turned it into an ideological tool by sequestering it fromnits natural place of cultural affairs.

nn

            Wenget the full story in each case of those offers of release from thisnself-imposed cultural confinement which were provided by Zubin Mehta in 1981,nthe Israel Symphony Orchestra in 2000, and Daniel Barenboim in 2001 as well asnthat of Jonathan Livny and Asher Fisch as reported in the July 2012 issue ofnWagner News. Needless to say, these were all subject either to cancellation orndisruption, the old bloke with his rattle specialising in the latter.

nn

            The author’s somewhat bleak conclusion is that Israelisnhold on to Wagner as a symbol, but they have emptied that symbol of the moralnlesson it embodies, which is that of condemning extreme nationalism of anynkind.

nn

            There can be no more authoritative reporter on this topicnthan Na’ama Sheffi. Her book is constructed upon a solid foundation of the fullnacademic discipline of her research methodology. She has thus succeeded innendowing it with such integrity at the same time as presenting its credentials sonunobtrusively as to avoid impeding what I found to be an unputdownable read.

nn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.