Israeli pianist Daniel Barenboim compared Theodor Herzl to Richard Wagner and Israeli soldiers to Nazis during a lecture this week on "Wagner, Israel and Palestine" at Columbia University.
Going beyond contrasting the taboo on playing Wagner in Israel and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, Barenboim also won new converts to the cause of Columbia students who argue that the Ivy League university is hostile to people who express Zionist viewpoints.
Speaking at the inaugural Edward Said Memorial Lecture, in honor of the late outspoken Palestinian advocate at Columbia, Barenboim turned what some thought was meant to be a forum for a discussion of music and reconciliation into a platform for anti-Israel vitriol, according to some people who attended the lecture.
"He quickly moved from his inability to play Wagner's music in Israel to Israel's sins of occupation and how Israel lost its moral legitimacy after 1967," said Prof. Ari Goldman, a dean at Columbia's School of Journalism. "He tried to explain that Wagner really wasn't such an anti-Semite."
Such public pronouncements aren't new for Barenboim, who has been an outspoken critic of Israel's dealings with the Palestinians, breached the taboo on playing Wagner publicly in Israel and was close friends with the late Said. What was particularly disturbing, Goldman said, was the audience's muted reaction to Barenboim's diatribe and its booing of Goldman when he asked a question challenging Barenboim's generalization of Israelis and Jews as hypocrites.
Columbia President Lee Bollinger, who was in the audience, remained silent.
"In this environment, at a time when Columbia is trying to heal its wounds, it was kind of a shocking thing to see," Goldman said. "Columbia is trying to heal the wounds with the negative image it has as an unfriendly place for Jewish students. The last thing you want to do is present more evidence to this."
After the lecture, Bollinger's office released a statement saying the university must be a place that is tolerant of "those who express unconventional, unpopular, and sometimes even offensive views, with which we don't necessarily agree, in the course of public debate." One Columbia professor said it's fine for Columbia to respect others' freedom of speech, but Bollinger should exercise his right to speak out, too.
"Bollinger also has his academic freedom," said Robert Pollack, a biology professor and former dean at Columbia. "This would have been the chance to stand up. Bollinger stayed silent."
Columbia has been engulfed by a controversy in recent months over charges that the school's Middle East studies department is anti-Israel and that its faculty members have harassed and intimidated students who express pro-Israel viewpoints. A university committee has been established to investigate the students' complaints.
The professors have denied that they have harassed students or intimidated them, and some students defending them say the accusations of bias and intimidation are slanderous and a McCarthyite tactic to chill academic debate on the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Not all Jewish students who attended Monday night's lecture with Barenboim were outraged by his remarks.
"While I thought he was being anti-Israel, I thought he was being sympathetic to the Jewish people," said Batya Rotter, a senior at Columbia. "He was almost giving a reason for why Israel does what it does. I actually really liked his message."
Malcolm Hoenlein, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who did not attend the lecture, said Barenboim's "hate speech" was outrageous.
"A Jew can be guilty of hatred of other Jews just as much as other non-Jews–just as a black can be racist against other blacks," Hoenlein said. "The first problem was that [Barenboim] was invited" to Columbia, he said.
"When you have an atmosphere as you have at Columbia, you have to take care of invitations," he said. "We don't want to see the situation there deteriorate even further."
Larry Danielson, Ramat Aviv, Israel: With all due respects for Brian Levine's comments concerning Barenboim, I think it's a big mistake to say that Barenboim should "stick to conducting orchestras and making music." He is not capable of doing that. Even worse, he has insulted and his audiences and orchestral musicians alike by performing Wagner – even when he had promised not to do so. Scam artist? False advertising? Liar? If I had bought a ticket, I would have sued for my money back. No wonder he has earned him the nickname "the spoiled brat" among those in the music business – like a petulant child with a tremendously inflated ego, Barenboim thinks he can get away with anything, and he certainly does so. To illustrate the point, Barenboim had the nerve to perform a concert for Palestinians in Ramallah (during the height of the intifada). Among many professional musicians in Israel, he is despised to the point that at mention of his name, my collegues heatedly equate him with words that do not get published. The only possible future in the region that seems clear for Barenboim may be the post of "Cultural Ambassador of Palestine" – just think – he can perform all the Wagner he wants to for more receptive audiences than he'll ever get in Israel.
Batya Rotter, California, U.S.A: In Uriel Heilman's article "Barenboim adds chord to Columbia anti-Zionist tune" I am quoted as advocating David Barenboim's "hate" message. I wish to clear my name of this abominable position, as my words were quoted out of context. As someone who was at Mr. Barenboim's lecture, I believe the article misrepresents the contents of Barenboim's message and in my opinion erroneously argues that this lecture will fuel anti- Israel venom on Columbia University campus. But while I do not think that the lecture was as potentially harmful as the article suggests, let it be made clear that I do not condone a message that equates Herzl to Richard Wagner and Israeli soldiers to Nazis, as this article insinuates. Nothing could be farther from the truth.