Israelis ready to sing along with Richard Strauss but not Wagner

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RICHARD STRAUSS'S opera Salome had its Israeli premiere in Tel Aviv this month. Strauss, who died in 1949, served briefly as a cultural official in the Nazi administration. The season, by the visiting Kirov Opera, was an unchallenged hit.

Yet when the Kirov's hosts, the New Israel Opera, suggested that it was time to lift Israel's ban on another German composer, Richard Wagner, some members of its audience walked out. The parliamentary education committee last week reaffirmed the embargo.

One hundred and fifteen years after the openly anti- Semitic Wagner died in Venice, and 50 years after the establishment of the Jewish state, Israelis are still passionately arguing whether to play him in their opera house and concert halls. Like the Ring cycle, the debate seems set to run and run, resurfacing every decade, with no end in sight.

Zalman Shoval, chairman of the New Israel Opera and Israel's ambassador-designate to Washington, puts the case for the prosecution:

"This is not a debate about the merits of Wagner's music," he insists. "Nor is it a debate about our relationship with Germany, nor about freedom of expression, nor about anti-Semitism. It is a debate about sensitivity. It is a debate about Wagner as a self-proclaimed symbol.

"He evolved a philosophy which called for the disappearance of the Jews. In his writings he blamed the Jews for all the ills of the Aryan people. He was the head of a Pan-Germanic racist movement. His ideas were later taken over by Nazi propaganda. Hitler once said: 'If you want to understand National Socialism, you have to know Wagner.'"

Shoval admits Wagner was not the only anti-Semitic composer. But Wagner, he argues, was different. "No other anti-Semitic composer had hatred of Jews as something which permeated everything they did, in their artistic as well as their personal life. When a Jewish conductor, Hermann Levy, conducted his music, Wagner tried to get him to convert.

"These things had a different meaning after the Holocaust, when we know what all this led to. There are still people among us whose memories are fresh about the Holocaust, about the role of Wagner's ideas and music as the Nazis used them. When a Holocaust survivor hears the Ride of the Valkyries, he thinks about the ovens."

For the defence, Mordechai Virshubsky, who chairs the cultural committee of Tel Aviv city council, dismisses the ban as stupid. "If you don't play someone because of what he was, then you're behaving like a totalitarian regime. This is the worst kind of censorship."

Virshubsky, who was born in Germany in 1930 and was brought here as a child refugee in 1939, contends that there are other ways to remember the Nazi atrocities. "Why deny ourselves the chance to hear this great, dramatic, important music? We are the poorer for it. We are punishing ourselves and gaining nothing by it. We are making a mockery of ourselves."

The Holocaust, its share in Israel's national myth, casts a stubborn shadow. "There has to be at least one place in the world where survivors can feel that the society protects them, where their sensitivities are taken into account," says Ephraim Zuroff, who runs the Jerusalem office of the Nazi-hunting Wiesenthal Centre. "This is part of the role of the Jewish state. It's why people came here instead of going to America. They don't want Wagner played here, and I think they're right."

Most Israeli musicians would like to play Wagner here. Daniel Barenboim once tried but was booed off the stage. Israel Radio's music channel slips in a bit of Wagner from time to time - and gets away with it. The ban is not anchored in law.

Asher Fisch, musical director of the New Israel Opera, would like the decision to be left to the musicians. "It's important," he says, "because everything that was composed after Wagner was influenced by him to some extent. His sound is of a kind our orchestras do not know. It's important for them to learn it."

Yet, sotto voce, Fisch does not see Wagner topping the charts here, if and when he is performed: "Musically, it will not be a great success. I don't think the Israeli audience will go for it."