Knesset faction seeks to ban conductor for Wagner piece

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JERUSALEM — The Knesset Education Committee took the unusual step Tuesday of seeking to have Daniel Barenboim declared a cultural persona non grata for having conducted a symphony by the anti-Semitic German composer Richard Wagner at the Israel Festival earlier this month.

If adopted by the country's orchestras and other cultural institutions, the decision taken unanimously by the only four panel members present would prevent the Argentine-born, Israeli-raised pianist and conductor from performing here again.

Despite the wide consensus against playing Wagner, some critics denounced this censure of Barenboim as extreme and bordering on a violation of artistic freedom.

The measure was introduced by committee chairman Zevulun Orlev of the National Religious Party and supported by fellow NRP member Shaul Yahalom, Eliezer Cohen of the National Union and Shmuel Halpert of the haredi United Torah Judaism Party. Labor member Colette Avital was opposed, but she left the meeting before the vote was taken to attend another committee meeting. Other left-leaning panel members were not present.

Barenboim's censure resulted from conducting the Berlin Staatskapelle orchestra in a piece from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" opera as an encore at the festival's culmination in Jerusalem's International Convention Center on July 7. Barenboim, who also heads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, had acted against a series of decisions and resolutions made by the committee and other public bodies against having Wagner played at a national festival.

He only warned his audience just before the encore that he intended to conduct a Wagner symphony so that those who objected could leave.

The committee passed a six-point resolution, two of which criticized festival leaders for failing to show up at Tuesday's meeting and for not having done enough to prevent Wagner from being played at the festival.

The resolution went on to condemn Barenboim for having gone ahead with the Wagner concert. It also called on Israeli cultural bodies to "regard Barenboim as a cultural persona non grata until he makes a public apology for his terrible action." An aide to Orlev explained that this meant he could not perform in the country unless he expressed regret over the incident.

The resolution also condemned Barenboim's action as "undemocratic, unenlightened, blatant and violent" and in violation of all norms of public behavior, maintaining that it had been agreed ahead of time that Wagner's music would not be heard at the concert.

It also criticized "senior personalities in the legal field" for having remained in the audience while Wagner was played, "which would be interpreted as justification and support for Daniel Barenboim's decision."

In addition, the decision restated the broad consensus in Israel against playing Wagner, denouncing him anew as "a symbol of racism and anti-Semitism and spiritual father of the Nazis in their drawing up of the Final Solution."

Wagner, a 19th-century composer, is shunned in Israel not only for his anti-Semitism, but for being adopted as a cultural icon by the Nazis. He is said to have been Hitler's favorite composer. Local orchestras resolved not to play his music back in the pre-state period after the Kristallnacht synagogue destructions and riots in 1938.

Yet even those who object to Wagner being played publicly were critical of the Education Committee's strongly worded decision, which was also rare in terms of its harshness.

Furthermore, while anti-Wagner sentiments in Israel clearly cross party lines, the decision against Barenboim had a decidedly right-wing slant, given the four particular legislators who voted for it.

Aside from his controversial views on Wagner, Barenboim, 58, acting director of the Berlin Staatsoper, has also been involved in cultural projects with Palestinians, including the organizing of joint Jewish-Arab music projects in Germany and is writing a book with Palestinian nationalist author Edward Said.

Representatives of Holocaust survivors at the meeting accused Barenboim himself of having violated democratic norms and their sensitivities. "To us playing Wagner in Jerusalem is like throwing a pig into the holy temple," Uri Hanoch of the Center of Holocaust Survivors said. He also noted how the group had dropped an appeal to Israel's Supreme Court against plans to play Wagner only because Barenboim had agreed not to, only to have him violate the promise.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center welcomed the Education Committee's decision. Its Israel director, Efraim Zuroff, wrote a letter to Orlev, praising the "unequivocal and brave" resolutions, and urged the committee to continue dealing with the Wagner issue as long as necessary.