On “Activism in Challenging Times”

By Russel Neiss

Like many others who read eJPhil, I am both aware and so thoroughly appreciative of the work of Lynn Schusterman as an individual, and in her role as the Founder and Co-Chair of the Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and the amazing work that she has helped support in the Jewish and broader community. Which was one of the reasons I was quite surprised and saddened to read Ms. Schusterman’s piece in Sunday’s eJPhil advocating for a cancellation of the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of The Death of Klinghoffer writing that it, “presents a singular viewpoint about a horrific act of terrorism, contains language that can only be described as anti-Semitic and goes so far as to imply moral equivalence between the Nazis and Jews.”

I don’t know if she, like many of the critics of the upcoming performance, has not seen the show and is basing her views on press releases, incomplete postings of the libretto or merely conjecture, or if her beliefs are grounded in her sincere interpretations of the artistic work after viewing it.

What I do know, is that the solution to “hate speech” isn’t censorship or silence, but rather “more speech.” Or as Justice Louis Brandeis so eloquently stated: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

But honestly I’m most perplexed by Ms. Schusterman’s call for the Met to “provide the proper context and balance [The Death of Klinghoffer] demands through workshops, seminars and creative campaigns” one day before the performance is even supposed to debut.

In 2011 when the Opera Theatre of St Louis performed The Death of Klinghoffer, the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council and other faith-based and arts organizations including the Opera Theatre of St Louis, spent months preparing study guides, communal events, roundtables, and used the opportunity to deepen interfaith communication and understanding, rather than try to score political points.

The time for really trying to “make a positive difference,” to “give back and pay forward” and to “mobilize people around the issues that keep us up at night and get us out of bed in the morning” isn’t the day before the event occurs when nothing really can be done, but was eight months ago when the Met announced their 2014/2015 season, or four months ago when the ADL declared victory after successfully fighting the global simulcast, or even one month ago when the Met opened their season.

I too mourn the murder of Leon Klinghoffer and am horrified by the glorification of terrorism. But this Monday night, instead of standing shoulder-to-shoulder to stifle artistic expression with people who have tried to ban mosques in Tennessee, called Tony Kushner a Capo, or who think that a “wheelchair caravan” isn’t exploitative of people with disabilities, I will be at a community event in St. Louis entitled from “From Klinghoffer to Ferguson – and Beyond” with allies from the faith and arts community who continue to work together to help strengthen our community thanks to relationships forged years ago when a more productive tact to this very same opera was taken.

Russel Neiss is a Jewish educator, technologist, activist, and the coding monkey behind PocketTorah, the AlephBet App, and a myriad of other Jewish educational technology initiatives.