Margaret Strother Shalev
Wagner in Israel, p.5

A more sophisticated anti-Wagner view is the claim that Wagner's music is, in its structure and form, inherently dangerous. One proponent of this view is Paul Lawrence Rose, whose groundbreaking philosophical survey Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany from Kant to Wagner (1990) traces antisemitic undertones in early 19th century German philosophy. In a follow-up volume, Wagner: Race and Revolution (1992), Rose comes to a damning conclusion. "What harm can there be in the music itself?" he asks:

A great deal. Even if we put aside the demonstrable anti-Jewish agenda which can be elicited from every one of his mature operas... it is na´ve to believe that music such as Wagner's can be clinically divorced from the emotional energy which went into its creation.

Rose asserts, in other words, that a post-structuralist reading requires a "clinical divorce," which is not how most people experience music. Most of us respond to music's "emotional energy," and in the case of Wagner, the energy is corrupt.

Recently, an Israeli critic observed to me that the insoluble problem in Wagner might be the size of the works themselves, the enormity of the Wagner undertaking. This hugeness mimics, parallels, the global scope of the Nazi project. By size alone Wagner operas could evoke unavoidable associations with torchlit Nuremberg rallies and world conquest. Rose makes a similar observation:

The violence and coarseness (which admittedly generate a majestic power) of the Siegfried forging music and the Gotterdammerung funeral music... retain an uneasy capacity to disturb which is lacking, say, in Verdi's anvil scene or the funeral march of Beethoven's Eroica... Traveling triumphantly through the recaptured Rhineland in 1936 on his private train and seeing the red glow of the Ruhr furnaces at night, Hitler was overcome by euphoria and called for a gramophone. Listening to the prelude of Parsifal he meditated: 'I have built up my religion out of Parsifal...'
(Wagner: Race and Revolution, p.182)

A deeper parallel lies in the Wagner operas' lurking nihilism. Death is an integral part of opera, but in Wagner entire worlds come to an end, characters achieve their deaths through the triumph of the will, regeneration and rebirth are promised from a sea of fire and blood. But there's always a hint of pessimism: perhaps it's just death for death's sake, the aesthetics, the erotics, of death. Wagner did append a life-affirming coda to the Ring cycle -- as worlds of both Gods and Dwarfs collapse, flames crashing down from above and floodwaters rising from below, the surviving human spectators on stage seem to symbolize the inheritance of the earth by a cleaner, more stable race. But these mute witnesses fail to neutralize the thrill of the apocalyptic spectacle. The senses are glutted, the flavors and sounds are overwhelming, the climaxes overpower. It is toxic, heady and confusing; the sense of danger, of loss-of-self, is part of the appeal.

Opera and Occupation

The shibboleth of Nazism is alive and well in contemporary discourse about Israel. With global antisemitism on the rise, voices for Israeli exceptionalism are buffeted by the suddenly renewed memories of the Holocaust. Israel should not be like other nations; it has special responsibilities and, perhaps, special privileges; it stands in a unique, and unchanging (perhaps even desirably unchanging), position relative to history. On the other side of the political (and, now, physical) fence, it is Israel itself which is routinely analogized to Nazi Germany, or, in more moderate moments, a European colonialist entity; Israeli exceptionalism is part of the problem; if only Israel would obey international law like other nations, and set aside its historical insecurity to acknowledge its own power, then it would learn the true lesson of the Holocaust, which is not "protect Jews at all cost" but "never persecute another people."

We have seen at least six arguments for and against the Israel Wagner ban:

1. Music is just music.
2. Music is not just music. The operas are filled with antisemitic motifs, and antisemitism is one of its primary meanings.
3. Music is not just music, but Wagnerian culture's reading should not be privileged over our own. Indeed, our readings may be more sophisticated and more redemptive even than Wagner's own.
4. Such readings are impossible because the music is forever corrupted by its use by Hitler, and by the fact that it enabled the Holocaust to happen. The tragedy of the inheritance of the holocaust must forever be memorialized by a single, Wagner-free nation.
5. It is an act of resistance to Hitler to reclaim this music and deny his appropriation. Indeed, demanding that the Israeli music-loving public serve as a human branch of Yad Vashem is yet another victory for Hitler, perpetuating the severance of Jews from German culture to which Hitler aspired.
6. You cannot resist, because the music is inherently Nazi.

At Israel's most recent historical crossroads, the way these aesthetic questions have become politicized is terribly significant. In a way, Wagner is Holocaust-lite: notice how the particularist, exceptionalist reading of Wagner/Holocaust (Jews have a special history and destiny) is generally taken by those with a particularist/exceptionalist reading of Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians and the religious-cultural character of the society. Whereas those who tend trumpet international law, human rights, and the normalization/secularization of Israeli society also tend to advocate a universalist reading of Wagner and the meaning of the Holocaust.

Arbitrating these questions is beyond our scope here. Clearly, any "solution" will have to take into consideration both Wagner's guilt and the question of its relevance, as well as the more fundamental question of whether the state and all its inhabitants must forever bear the weight of symbolic roles, both internally and externally, as part of the compact of citizenship. Will the state of Israel ever be a nation like all others? Should it?

[1]       [2]       [3]       [4]       5

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From previous issues:

Carrying Light into Dark Times
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

A Song of Ascents
Sarah Lefton

The Relentless Pull of Genetic Memory
Dan Lupkin