SPIEGEL Interview with Daniel Barenboim (Der Spiegel International, June 22, 2012)

It saddens me that official Israel so doggedly refuses to allow Wagner to be performed — as was the case, once again, at the University of Tel Aviv two weeks ago — because I see it as a symptom of a disease. The words I’m about to use are harsh, but I choose them deliberately: There is a politicization of the remembrance of the Holocaust in Israel, and that’s terrible.

 The interview with Daniel Barenboim literally drove me to the keyboard. There are many statements in it I disagree with – among others the way he himself uses the “Holocaust remembrance” as part of his own political narrative in the interview. Most people do that, and certainly almost all Israeli politicians and political activists – such as Maestro Barenboim – do. I just wish they would admit it.

However, Barenboim’s politics aside, I found it interesting to read his arguments against the de facto ban on Wagner practiced in Israel. As I will explain below, I agree with Barenboim that the current refusal to allow Wagner’s music to be played is hard to understand, but it would seem we disagree on why. Before I enter that minefield (anything to do with the Shoah is an emotional minefield at least for me. But cross it we must. If we are to move forward), I wanted to share another take on the recent decision by Tel Aviv University to cancel a concert where Wagner would have been played:

 (Will the boycott of Wagner go on forever? in Ha’retz, June 10, 2012)

One school believes that Israelis should stop considering Wagner a symbol of the Holocaust and that a boycott should not be a means of remembering the Shoah, since boycotting was a central tool in inculcating racism in Nazi Germany. The other school believes that true Israeliness means a willingness to forgo Wagner on behalf of the memory of the Holocaust and its injustices – a memory that will remain with us even after the last survivor is gone. Both of these views are legitimate.

Every time this debate comes up, I find myself disagree with practically everyone around me. Because I think the very problem with the popular boycott of Wagner is that it is so overly symbolic. It is in fact in my opinion so symbolic it becomes an empty gesture, a quick fix and a fashionable statement. And I cannot stand when the Shoah is reduced to that. Just as I find it upsetting when it is used for political gain. But this post is about the first.

Let me say first that I am not talking about survivors who refuse to listen to Wagner because the music triggers the memory of the horrors of the camps. But let me add, as anyone with grandparents (or parents, I suppose) who are survivors will know, Wagner is not the only thing that can open the well-closed lid of the almost unbearable past. It can be words, or smells, or paintings. Yet Wagner has been singled out as the Grand Symbol and The One that Must be Banned. Why? Mostly people say: Because he had Nazi sympathies and was the favourite composer of the Creature from Vienna whose name shall be erased under the Heavens (well, they say his name but I dafka refuse to write it here. Because some symbolic gestures I do find meaningful, and in true post-modern fashion I choose to illustrate that). And thus, runs the argument, Israel should be the place where Wagner is not played. Out of respect for our history.

THIS is where I cannot agree. If people wish to not listen to Wagner as individuals, for what ever reason, I do not think it is my place to judge. But to claim that Israel as a society, as a country, must single out this one composer and boycott him posthumous? I think that is wrong, and I think it becomes empty symbolism.

Take for example the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. He had Nazi sympathies, he even taught while wearing his uniform, and yet: Are no one has asked that the National Library in Jerusalem not keep copies of his books. And so on and so forth. The fact thas only Wagner is singled out indicates to me that it is an easy solution. And that is what troubles me the most: That the complex and pivotal question of how we as a society deal with the Shoah is reduced to saying “here we don’t play Wagner!”. It is like when people think the most important thing on Purim is making noise when Haman’s name is read from the Megillah. Yes, it’s a tradition, but surely what maters is not banging your feet twice a year (Megillah reading is both at night and at the morning service) but fighting evil (as incarnated in Haman) on a daily basis. The symbolism is good, but only when followed by actions and determination. Likewise, if we think we can demonstrate our respect for the past by making noise at Wagner or plain banning him, I think we run the risk of loosing focus, of turning the Shoah into a banal event in history with an easy label and an effortless memory (at least with Haman, you have to show up in Shul to make noise. With a Wagner concert you precisely do not have to even show up). Dealing with the Shoas is *hard*. There are no easy fixes.

I think it is our responsibility as Jews to show up and engage with the Shoah. What does it mean? How do we live with it? As individuals and as a state? These are not simply questions, so why on earth do we think they have solutions as simply as banning a composer?