The hate-crime murder of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in her Paris apartment in March shocked the Jewish community of France and touched off a broad discussion in European media about a rising tide of anti-Semitic acts in recent years and how it relates to the influx of Muslim refugees on the Old Continent. Attention was particularly drawn to Germany, which for historic reasons remains the barometer of religious and racial tolerance within the EU, and where the refugee tide from the Middle East and North Africa reached highest volume.
An opinion article published on 30 March by the English-language edition of Deutsche Welle said it all in the headline: “Jews face rampant anti-Semitism in Germany, Europe.” The article noted that in Germany “Jewish schools, kindergartens and community centers have needed protection against original and neo-Nazis for decades.” The author, Michel Friedman, pointed to blatantly anti-Semitic slogans propagated by the extreme Right party Alternativ fuer Deutschland (AfD), now the leading Opposition group in the German federal parliament.
The issue was raised to nationwide discussion in Germany at the end of April when two young men wearing Jewish skullcaps were attacked on the streets of Berlin. The assault against one, a 21-year old Arab Israeli, was captured on video and was disseminated widely on social networks. The attacker whipped the man with a belt and shouted at him “Yehudi,” the Arabic for “Jew!”
Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly condemned the incident and expressed her regrets that Jewish schools, kindergartens and synagogues needed police protection. Notwithstanding her longstanding defense of immigration on humanitarian grounds, she also acknowledged that the refugees of Arab origin had brought with them anti-Semitic beliefs that now added to Germany’s own traditional anti-Semitism.
However, there is another side to the story which I will set out in this essay: namely that despite all the head winds from the arriving refugees and from native German defenders of Palestinian rights whose condemnations of Israeli policies, condemnations of Zionism easily conflate with raw anti-Semitism, Germany’s official policy of zero tolerance for intolerance carries the day and produces remarkable and ubiquitous signs that lessons from history are not forgotten. Indeed, the lessons are being re-taught in every corner of the land more than 65 years after the Shoah in the country most responsible for the destruction of European Jewry.
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I have just returned from a first-time visit to the Bayreuth opera festival, where I had seats for the new production of Lohengrin and for the re-staging of last year’s highly successful Meistersinger von Nuremberg.
Depending on your turn of mind, this part of Bavaria is either the temple of German high culture or the black heart of Germany, linked forever with the racist ideology of the Third Reich and personally favored by Adolf Hitler, who came repeatedly to the festival and was lodged in Wahnfried, the home built for Richard Wagner, where he was treated like family by Wagner’s daughter in law Winifred and was called “Uncle Wolf” by Wagner’s grandchildren.
The first surprise of the visit was seeing the installation commemorating the victims of the Holocaust situated on the “Green Hill,” as the site of the opera house is called, just below the entrance area, where the audience gathers before each performance for the fanfare by trumpeters on a balcony above calling them to take their seats inside.
The installation is very dignified, restrained and impactful. It consists of metal stele bearing the name, portrait and a brief biographical sketch of opera singers, instrumentalists, conductors and other creative staff of the Wagner festival who were chased out after the Nazis came to power and died in one or another of the concentration camps. Unlike Berlin’s “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” which has been criticized for vagueness about the victims and the perpetrators, the installation in front of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus deals frankly with the anti-Semitism within the Wagner family and in particular as practiced by his widow Cosima, daughter of pianist Franz Liszt, who personally intervened to purge the house of any Jewish presence.
It must be remembered that the audience in Bayreuth, which is perhaps 80% German, with an admixture of Americans, British, Japanese and other globe-trotting melomanes, comprises the crème-de-la-crème of German society. While other German music and arts festivals like the Ruhrtriennale, which I know well, may be frequented by local intelligentsia, university professors and government bureaucrats, the audience at Bayreuth is perfectly on a par with the Salzburg Festival, which attracts top businessmen, bankers, senior politicians and aristocracy. The ubiquitous tuxedos on men and long gowns on ladies were conclusive evidence of their social standing. And a good many strolled through the installation on the Holocaust. Clearly the monument has reached its intended audience of arbiters of culture and taste in Germany. Given the history of the place, one must imagine the fight that went on with its custodians to hold up to the audience this mirror of horrors.
The opera productions themselves demonstrated the profound degree of repentance and awareness of social responsibility by the organizers of the festival. The Meistersinger from last year was produced by the first Jewish stage director in Bayreuth’s 141 year history, Barrie Kosky. Kosky did not appear from nowhere: he is the artistic director of Berlin’s Komische Oper.
For a detailed review of the production, I refer the reader to a very fine article by Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times of `1 August 2017. Like Woolfe, I will call attention here not to the quality of the singing and conducting, which were in fact magnificent and fully worthy of Bayreuth’s reputation, but to the stage concept. The staging had its own unmistakable message which is entirely justified on the facts. The first act opens in the library of Wagner’s home, Wahnfried, and the alter egos of Wagner and Hans Sachs, of Cosima and Eva, of Liszt and Veit Pogner are highlighted. That is to say, the autobiographical elements in Wagner’s composition are brought to our attention. Meanwhile, in the later acts the stage decoration reproduces the courtroom of the war crimes trials in Nuremberg at the conclusion of WWII. In between there is a scene properly identifying the one villain in the piece, Beckmesser, as the repugnant Jew who is a suitor to the hand of the heroine and who is beaten by a crowd of townsfolk in a street riot or pogrom.
By these various devices, the stage director reminds us that Nuremberg, which is close enough to Bayreuth (95 km away) is not merely a medieval German city famous for its music guild and song competitions, but is the second largest city in Bavaria; that it was the venue for the torchlight processions of the Nazi party; that it was where the Allies held their tribunal following victory.
In general, I believe that art is an end in itself and should not be used to convey political messages. However, in the given case I am particularly accepting of this Meistersinger. From my experience of thirty years of opera going, German, and more particularly East German stage directors have dominated European opera theater presentations of Russian classics, and especially of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. During this entire time of German representation of Russian history on stage we have seen a succession of Gulag concentration camps with Kalashnikov armed guards in the early 17th century. It is high time for Germans to get a taste of the same anachronistic and eclectic treatment of their own tragic history.
The production of Lohengrin was notable only for non-artistic reasons: Yuval Sharon, a young Israeli, was chosen as stage director. Regrettably, in this case political considerations outweighed common sense, since Sharon had no prior experience staging operas and the production was no better than one might find in many second-tier European opera houses. I saw better three months ago in Brussels’ La Monnaie theater.
The surprises I encountered in Bayreuth went beyond the opera house to the Richard Wagner Museum in the aforementioned Wahnfried house. The audio guide, the narratives posted on the walls, and the video clips in the adjacent house where Wagner’s son and daughter in law lived later, speak directly about all the negative associations of the place.
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Back home in Brussels this past weekend, while perusing the latest issue of Germany’s leading Sunday paper, the Welt am Sonntag, from the politically Center Right Axel Springer Publishing House, I found in passing yet further demonstrations of how official Germany is dealing proactively with open or concealed anti-Semitism in its midst.
One article explains at length the ongoing scandal at the Ruhrtriennale, the music, theater and dance festival in Germany’s rust belt city of Bochum. The Triennale was created in 2002, when its first Intendant, Belgian impresario Gerard Mortier, till then head of the Salzburg Festival, set the highest artistic standards. After his departure, the festival has been on a slippery downward course. The latest scandal with its new Intendant suggests it is hitting bottom.
As Welt informs us, the incoming Intendant Stephanie Carp has made a couple of grave missteps in programming the season that will open soon. The first and most unforgivable came within her attempt to step down from high to more popular culture. The season has no operas, for the first time, but features a Scottish Hip-Hop Band called “Young Fathers” which is linked politically to the Boycott-Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement directed against Israel. As local politicians have remarked, this crosses Germany’s red lines by putting in question Israel’s right to exist. Consequently, the head of the North-Rhineland-Westphalia State, which hosts and financially supports the festival, has made it known he will not speak at the opening ceremony, will not come to any of the performances and will not be photographed with the new Intendant. By all logic, she will be obliged to step down.
The same issue of Welt am Sonntag carries a two page article describing a Jewish-Muslim interfaith project that is sending young adults from both faiths on five day long visits to concentration camps in Germany and Poland (Auschwitz) where the Holocaust was perpetrated to raise awareness of the country’s past evils.
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The issue of anti-Semitism lies outside my professional focus, and I speak here as a layman. But I have been involuntarily drawn into the topic by my experience with online publishing. Those who follow me will be aware of my coming to the defense of one of my publishing platforms, Russia Insider when its owner decided several months ago to deal directly with the facts and myths of (American) Jewish promotion of anti-Putin, anti-Russian policies from the highest levels of government and in the media. The issue is real but its discussion invites outpourings of anti-Semitic rants.
The fact is that anti-Semitic messages are pervasive in the Comments section of many alternative media platforms when they are not being actively censored by the editors but are left to third party administrators like Disqus. In these columns, Zionist conspiracy theories run wild. To a lesser extent the same is true of even mainstream publications, though they are more likely to actively weed out offenders or simply to close down their Comments feature when editing proves too costly or distracting.
In all these cases, I am persuaded that the contributors of the filth are not merely anti-Establishment readers but more likely anti-social personalities for whom the “Jew” tirades are a vent for their frustrations and hatreds that is accepted or tolerated. But there is nothing new in this: the very same could be said about the venomous writings and spoken remarks of Cosima Wagner.
The German experience today is very relevant. Indeed, there must be no tolerance of intolerance in civilized society. The Germans know better than anyone else where this leads.