Following another night of disturbances over the playing of works by Richard Wagner, the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra announced it will continue to attempt to present music written by the anti-Semitic German composer.
During last night's performance -- the third attempt by the orchestra to break a national boycott dating back 40 years, to before the creation of Israel -- the orchestra stopped playing and some musicians shouted at the protesters, "Khomeini, go to Iran!"
The orchestra's directors said they reserve the right to play Wagner at any time, although they intend to consult concert season subscribers about the programming. Aside from Wagner's own anti-Semitism, his music is objectionable to some Israelis because it became the semi-official music of the Nazis, and concentration camp orchestras used to play it as victims filed into the gas chambers.
The issue has become a major controversy, although concert-goers who oppose the playing of Wagner remain a distinct minority. The orchestra's musical director, Zubin Mehta, and its administrative director, Daniel Benjamini, said at a news conference that they decided it is necessary to play Wagner over some Israelis' violent objections because freedom of musical expression is as important as the sensitivity of those who may be offended.
When the orchestra first attempted to play a rendition of the overture of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" on Thursday night, there was an uproar in the audience, including several fistfights between objectors and supporters of the orchestra's policy. One concert-goer leaped on stage and opened his shirt to reveal scars he said he received in a Nazi concentration camp.
Mehta had announced to the audience that Wagner would be played in an encore, and that anyone who might be offended could leave.
On Saturday night, Mehta had intended to direct a Wagner composition but canceled it when police informed him they had arrested protesters outside the concert hall and had confiscated knives from some ticket-holders. Protesters passed out yellow Star of David arm patches, like those European Jews were forced to wear during Hitler's rule, to persons entering the hall.
Last night, the orchestra was unable to finish playing a Wagner composition during a concert in Tel Aviv because of shouted objections from the audience. Mehta said Wagner's works would continue to be played as encores and that no schedule would be announced. Mehta, an American who was born in India and who directs the New York Philharmonic, was protected by security officers standing near the podium during the performances.
The conductor has said that any of his musicians who are offended by Wagner's compositions may be excused from those performances. Two of the orchestra's musicians have said they will quit if the policy to play Wagner, who previously had not been played in Israeli concert halls or on the state-run radio, continues.
The controversy was fueled today when education minister Zevulun Hammer said the Israeli Philharmonic should not encourage divisiveness by playing Wagner. The orchestra receives subsidies from the Ministry of Education and Culture, but Hammer has not suggested they be cut.
Few issues in Israel recently have been as emotionally charged as that over the playing of Wagner by a Jewish orchestra. Mehta, who for 20 years has been an ardent supporter of Israel, has been called a "Nazi" by some critics, although most newspaper music critics have supported his decision, saying Wagner's scores are essential to an orchestra's development because of their complexity.
Some critics have suggested that Mehta erred by attempting to "sneak" Wagner into the orchestra's performances, and that subscribers to concerts should have been given a chance to select alternative performances at which the composer is not included.
Gideon Hausner, who was chief prosecutor of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, suggested delaying the playing of Wagner another generation in order to avoid hurting the feelings of death camp survivors.
Supporters of Mehta's position argue that the orchestra often plays works by anti-Semitic composers, and they cite popular works by Carl Orff, who was active in Nazi Germany.
Leonard Bernstein and Daniel Barenboim yesterday cabled the Israeli Philharmonic, urging it to continue to bring Wagner to Israeli audiences. Bernstein said, "I pray for the continuation of peace and democracy in Israel. Israel is the most wonderful expression of democracy in the Middle East."