The Metropolitan Opera is currently preparing to stage its first performance of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” an opera about the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by the Palestine Liberation Front. The opera dramatizes the murder of a handicapped Jewish-American passenger named Leon Klinghoffer. While the opera has triggered outrage since its inception in 1991, the tension surrounding the show has heightened given the escalated violence throughout the Middle East. Opponents of “Klinghoffer” claim that the production senselessly humanizes terrorism by giving the terrorists a voice — and an elegant one at that.
Many protesters, namely the Zionist Organization of America and the Anti-Defamation League, believe that the show promotes Palestinian terrorism against Jews. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is among those protesting the opera. Giuliani said the opera offers “a distorted view of history,” and believes that the Met, of all places, should not be staging it. In response, Mayor Bill de Blasio pointed out that Giuliani “had a history of challenging cultural institutions when he disagreed with their content.” In 2000, Giuliani attempted to cut funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. He found a certain exhibition to be sacrilegious and led a campaign to prevent city tax dollars from financing the exhibit. Giuliani ultimately reached an agreement with the museum — BMA dropped its First Amendment lawsuit against the mayor and Giuliani dropped his suit to evict the museum from the Eastern Parkway.
Although the Met has certainly inflamed passions by staging “Klinghoffer,” opposition to the production must be consistent with First Amendment rights. Protests against the opera constitute a legitimate exercise of the First Amendment right to assemble. At the same time, the Met’s right to free speech via the opera must also be observed. It is unreasonable for Giuliani to exert himself in the controversy as he did in 2000. In a situation as delicate as this one, First Amendment rights require the utmost respect and adherence. Just as it did in 2000, a power abuse would disrupt the functions of protest and dissent.
Ultimately, the Met’s decision to stage the opera or not should come from a deliberate consideration of the opinions of both sides. Both the Met and the protesters are entitled to their First Amendment rights. The verdict should not, however, come down to pressure from political figures. Violating either party’s liberties would pose an egregious affront to the nature of democratic protest. While it seems de Blasio will not replicate past political overreach, he should remember Giuliani’s misconduct during future controversies.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Oct. 21 print edition. Email the Editorial Board at [email protected]nyunews.com.