Daniel Barenboim at the New York Review has written a thoughtful piece on Wagner as a Jewish taboo. That Wagner was a vociferous anti-Semite is well-attested. Hitler regarded him as a great German prophet and a personal hero. Nazi ideology borrowed liberally from Wagner’s mythology.
Nevertheless, Barenboim goes there:
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.
Barenboim caused a stink when he performed some of Wagner’s music with a German orchestra in 2001:
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.
Whether or not such a move constitutes something positive is a fascinating question. How do you heal deep, ugly wounds? Is it just a matter of time, as the old adage would have it? A look at race relations in the United States, or indeed Australia, would suggest we have some while to wait yet if so. Barenboim’s thoughts on this are worthy of some reflection:
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.
Perhaps finding identity in a negative leads to a hollowing out that is ultimately self-defeating. This certainly seems true of fundamentalist Christians whose entire Christian identity appears to consist in being against gays and government. Or those Whitlam supporters who are still maintaining the rage over the Dismissal rather than identifying with the merits of social democracy. Or, lest it need to be said, those whose entire defence of voting for the ALP is that it can’t possibly be as bad as voting for Tony Abbott.
It’s an easy trap. Until quite recently, I was someone who Doesn’t Like Sport, unreflectively (and happily) finding a part of my identity in that. Sport had always been an enemy of sorts — a source of hurt for a gangly intellectual, both personally and because of the fact of it itself and the resources it draws from pursuits that I care about. But as I came to be more satisfied with the positive identity developments in my gangly intellectual life, it occurred to me that to adopt such a position about sport is not only pointless, but silly. New worlds have opened up to me since.
But if such personal hurt and blindness over something relatively trivial is difficult to notice and overcome, how much harder is it to address the legitimate hurt of entire peoples? For all its flaws and controversy, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Australia’s Apology to the Stolen Generations were genuine attempts at this, with some measure of success. It certainly suggests that such things are best talked about than left in darkness, even if the talking is only a necessary first step to be followed up through ethical action, and not as a replacement for it. Perhaps it is insensitive to draw such comparisons as I have at all. But surely it is better that we talk about that than to nurture pain that we don’t talk about at all.