Richard Wagner was an artist and a revolutionary nationalist. A fundamental rationale for his work was its function as a mythic summons to the volk – the German people – to remember their common and distinct heritage. He saw the Ring, in particular, as the great story of the roots of the German people, resonating their primal culture. And in Meistersinger he argued that only through attention to their distinct and robust artistic achievement can the German people sustain itself and its distinction as a nation.
How ironic, then, that the founders of Israel – themselves eager to express their nationalism and attentive to the proximity of politics and culture – should so decisively reject the chief proponent of the cause of national definition through art.
In her 2001 book, The Ring of Myths: The Israelis, Wagner and the Nazis, Na’ama Sheffi sets forth the history of this convoluted, passionate relationship between modern Israel on 19th Century Wagner, and shows decisively that it is based less on fact than on agreed-upon myth.
Sheffi starts the story with the Palestine Symphony Orchestra’s decision to drop a performance of the Meistersinger overture from a concert that had been scheduled November 12, 1938. Toscanini immediately acquiesced to the request of Board member Moshe Shlush, of Turkish origin himself but nevertheless considerate of the feelings of the orchestra’s Palestinian audience, mostly of recent European immigration and profoundly disturbed by the Kristallnacht pogroms that took place November 9. The piece was replaced by another German work, Weber’s overture to Oberon. And Sheffi notes that Shlush “may have wanted specifically to make a political gesture in the cultural sphere, in order to respond to the events in Germany in the same currency used by the Nazi regime – that is, by subjugating culture to politics.”
In any event, Wagner was not clearly associated with antisemitism or even Hitler at that time; indeed, the Orchestra played several Wagner works while on tour in Cairo and Alexandria a few months later.
It eventually becomes clear in Sheffi’s study that the association of Wagner with the Nazis in the minds of early post-World War II Israelis was not based on fact. The story that Wagner’s music was played in concentration camps is unsupported. Fania Fenelon mentions many pieces that were played in such ghastly circumstances, but none of them was by Wagner and none of them was later banned in Israel. Herzl’s diary mentioned his admiration for Wagner’s music, but this fact had no rehabilitative influence among first-generation Israelis. The subsequent, vague assertion that Hitler had somehow based his domestic policies on Wagner’s writings had no basis in fact. Wagner’s disgusting views expressed in his essay “Judaism in Music” were not widely known in Israel, inasmuch as the essay was not published in Israel until 1984.
No, something else was at play, and Sheffi perceptively gives it voice:
Feelings about Wagner were dictated by the unique and particularly extreme combination formed by his writings, interpretations of them, and all the anti-Jewish, racist and murderous reactions to his works. More than a few European artists in different fields had fulminated against Jews; others had been warmly embraced by the Nazi regime; and some of their contemporaries [such as Richard Strauss, Herbert von Karajan and Elizabeth Schwartzkopf] had accepted this happily and felt no revulsion at the creation of a basis for close cooperation between politics and the arts. But rarely were all these characteristics combined in one person….
[Wagner’s ostracism in Israel] quickly became a banner of opposition and a symbol of the memory of the Holocaust. Moreover, Israelis took no note of… the fact that the Nazi regime itself denounced some of Wagner’s works.
The history related in Sheffi’s scholarly and detailed volume depicts the creation of a myth, and the subsequent passions that the myth sparked and serviced. Wagner and, to a lesser extent, Strauss, took on a broadly anti-Germanic incitement. So great was the anti-German ethos that, at one point, Israel banned public performances sung in the German language, requiring that Leonard Bernstein perform Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in Hebrew. (One soloist agreed to do so and the other did not.)
Anti-German sentiment that prompted the ban on playing Wagner’s music was distinctly nationalistic in some parts of the Israeli body politic; Israel Philharmonic Orchestra Music Director Zubin Mehta, who espoused performances of Wagner in the 1980s, was subjected to cries that he was not a Jew, not an Israeli, and should go back to India where he came from. Not all German music was banned; Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” was not only performed in Israel, but sung in German without objection, “despite his own [anti-Semitic] views and his later adoption by a regime that appropriated not a few artists.” Wagner’s music was available on phonographs and, eventually, on the Israeli radio, just not in public performance. Inconsistencies abounded; for decades the internal debate in Israel centered on whether it was culturally consistent for a nation that happily bought new Volkswagens to ban Wagner’s music as being too German.
Through the ins and outs over five decades – the shouting, the rending of garments, the editorials, the physical attack on Heifitz, the pleadings from and to Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim – Sheffi does a great service by drawing a concluding descriptive bead on the condition of Israeli cultural and political self-definition – an explanatory portrait that exempts Israeli sensitivities and policies from criticism by any non-Israeli observers:
The Wagner affair arose in Israel at a time when the state was still fighting for its existence and wrestling with the problems of self-definition. At the same time the political leadership was debating what approach it should take to the Holocaust of European Jews. In this context, the attitude towards German cultural artifacts was obviously fraught with significance. [The debate] was not about art, but about purely political questions; it was political manipulation of a cultural event.
Today Wagner is no longer merely a symbol [to Israelis]… The intensive use of his image as shorthand for the Nazi horrors in the Holocaust raised him from the level of simple symbol – a symbol sometimes empty of content – to the level of substance, someone whose personality now embodied a catastrophic historic event…. Wagner has become an essential part of the Holocaust for not a few Israelis….
Sheffi regrets the conflation of politics and art as it is played out in Israeli life. I am left with two different impressions. First, it does not lie in the mouth of anyone to hold up to their own standards the decisions made by a revolutionary nation seeking its own identity; such developments are historic, specific and sui generis.
Second, all this business of art and politics and nation-building and seeking a distinctive sense of “self” in a nation’s culture and its political life – Wagner would have absolutely loved it.