Daniel Barenboim Wins Israel’s Wolf Prize Over Objections from Israeli Rightists

The Israeli right-wing never loses an opportunity to politicize the Holocaust for political advantage. Now, they’re adding the world of music to those hijacked in the name of the Holocaust.

As Haaretz tells the story in Barenboim: It’s Time for Israel to Learn What Democracy Means :

The affair began in July 2001, when the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Barenboim, played excepts from Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner, as an encore during an Israel Festival concert, and after President Moshe Katsav, then-Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, and then-cultural affairs minister Matan Vilnai, among others, asked him not to conduct Wagner, because of the composer’s anti-Semitism and Nazi identification with him.

Barenboim “broke his promise” because he believed that despite the delicacy and controversy surrounding the performance of Wagner before an Israeli audience that would undoubtedly include Holocaust survivors, that depriving the entire nation of one of the world’s great composers was an act of musical narrowness and provincialism. Many in the Israeli musical world feel that the performance of Wagner in Israel was long overdue and that Barenboim did Israeli music and the nation a service.

Four of fifteen members of the Knesset Education Committee at the time, went so far as to issue a statement declaring the world-renowned Israeli musician persona non grata in Israel, until he apologized for his “disgusting deed.”

It seems curiouser and curiouser that the Education Minister, Limor Livnat, who heads the Wolf Foundation council awarding the prize would then award it to Barenboim. But that’s what happened. There must’ve been a furious outcry from the hard right. That’s when Livnat issued her “ultimatum” that Barenboim apologize or lose the prize. But there was also confusion about whether a single government minister could rescind the prize offer since the prize was bestowed by the President of Israel and not the minister.

Barenboim roiled the waters even further when he banded together with Edward Said to organize musical performances and master classes at Palestinian musical institutions. It seems that cultural interchange is as dangerous as political interchange in the eyes of the Israeli right.

It appears that Barenboim mollified Her Royal Highness by saying in an Israel Radio interview: “”If people were really hurt, of course I regret this, because I don’t want to harm anyone.” The Haaretz story continued:

Last night, Livnat announced she regarded the affair as over after she heard Barneboim tell an Israel Radio audience that if anyone was offended by something he did, he apologized. Livnat said she regarded that as the apology she was seeking and Barenboim, who is sharing the prize with Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist, would get the prize.

Before the right-wingers start shouting for joy about Barenboim’s “capitulation” everyone should read his full interview statement which sounds strong and defiant to me:

Earlier in the day, Barneboim said he was surprised by the scandal and the demand that he apologize. “No politician has the authority to give the prize or withhold it,” he said. “There is political pressure on a fund that is not political. Legally, no minister has the right to intervene in the matter of the prize. It is not a state prize, though it is granted through the president. Up until now I haven’t found a reason to apologize. Do they really expect I’d do it now, to get a prize? It’s time we learn what a democratic country is.”

Haaretz also noted a strong defense of Barenboim issued by Maestro Zubin Mehta:

Declaring Barenboim persona non grata set off another storm of controversy. Israel Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta called a press conference to condemn the Knesset committee’s declaration. “He not only represents good music all over the world, he represents Israel and has done much for it in the last 50 years,” Mehta declared.

I say “bravo” to both maestros!

The New York Times ran an Associated Press abbreviated version of this story, A Semiapologetic Conductor to Get Israeli Prize After All