Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Klinghoffer Affair: A Moral Nightmare

Mass Confusion

An article in CIJR, originally published by Paul Merkley in The Bayview Review ("The Perpetual Assassination of the Jew Leon Klinghoffer": June 24, 2014) argues, among other things, that one reason the inoffensive sounding opera "The Death of Klinghoffer" has become so acceptable to post-modern sensibilities is that when morality is loosened from its traditional moorings and cast aside, multi-layered and complex ideas can easily and seamlessly infiltrate a narrative, thus sanctioning everything, including murder.

Merkley writes, first recounting history, which many now have forgotten:
On October 7, 1985, four pirates, engaged in the cause of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), took control of the Italian luxury liner Achille Lauro as it was sailing from Alexandria to Port Said, Egypt. They demanded ransom, including the release of 50 Palestinians then in Israeli prisons, for the crew and passengers. The next day, befuddled by the delay in response to their ransom demand, they were delighted to discover that among the passengers was a real live Jew! Not only that — an American Jew! And best of all – a disabled American Jew! God is great!
They quickly ordered two members of the ship’s crew to wheel the wheelchair of their helpless and terrified captive–Leon Klinghoffer, then 69, retired and in the midst of celebrating his thirty-sixth wedding anniversary with his wife Marilyn—to the edge of the ship and drop him overboard. (Some images belonging to this story time, can be seen at

As the worldwide press speculated over the meaning of all this, PLO Foreign Secretary Farouq Qaddumi, who knew that his boss Yasir Arafat had indeed commissioned the deed, helped them out by speculating that Klinghoffer’s terminally ill wife Marilyn Klinghoffer had killed her husband for insurance money.

Initially, the hijackers were granted safe passage to Tunisia by Egypt, but U.S. President Ronald Reagan ordered a U.S. fighter plane to force the get-away plane to land at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy. After fussing over the appropriateness of extradition in such a matter, Italian authorities eventually arrested and later tried the Palestinian terrorists. Reagan’s motto was: “What we want is justice done… a message to terrorists everywhere…. ‘You can hide but you can’t; run…’ ”

None of this counted for anything, however, when in 1993 the Clinton government recognized Yasir Arafat and his PLO as the appropriate instrument for peace throughout the Palestine Authority. The Nobel Peace Prize followed shortly after that.
From there, morality takes a downward spiral, Merkley writes, a consequence of the dilution of meaning:
The appropriate moral-levelling effect appears, Tommasini finds, at the beginning, “with a pair of somber, brooding, agitated choruses, giving voice first to exiled Palestinians, then to exiled Jews.” This exchange between choirs, to right and left of the scene, reminds Tommasini of the similarly powerful “St Matthew Passion,” of Johan Sebastian Bach. (“In a New Generation, a Searing Opera Breaks Free of Polemics,” New York Times, February 2, 2009.)

This thought goes right off the scale of offense that begins with giggles and ends with blasphemy. But then, the New York Times long ago gave up believing in the ontic possibility of blasphemy – about the same time as it gave up on the notion that that there is such a thing as pornography.

These are broken people – these aesthetes who imagine that judgments about right and wrong must go under the yoke of supra-moral hermeneutics. Simple-minded people see a helpless, elderly man pushed overboard by an armed, athletic youth, cheered on by co-sadists. But not all the nuance in the world – not all the unjaded and affecting commitment to all that is multilayered and complex – will ever scrub clean this filth; and all effort along that line is simply demonic.
Yet, many will argue on the necessity of this performance, defending it on the grounds that it is art, on the grounds that is poignant and powerful, on the grounds that it is after all only an artistic performance and not real life (escaping the fact that Leon Klinghoffer was a real person, as are his two living daughters)—thus reason alone why it ought not be censored [it hasn’t].

Today, no doubt, many agree with glee and delight that art need supersede morality. That this work pretends to be fair and even-handed is where the problem begins and ends; this argument, however, only matters to individuals who care about morality and such old-fashioned ideas as right and wrong. If I am belabouring the point, I offer no apology.

Allow me to both simplify things and raise a question. The play uses as its centre-piece the murdering of a sixty-nine-year-old Jewish man bound in a wheelchair, on vacation with his wife, both on a cruise ship to celebrate a life event; how does the murder of a Jewish man, Leon Klinghoffer, give voice to the Palestinians and their cause? It ends with no resolution, and humanity is as confused as ever.

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