Arts & Culture

Israel, Injustice, and Philip Glass’s Call to Arms

It's become a cliché to search for Jewish influences or themes in works by Jewish artist. Generally the effort is one of overzealous interpretation, if not projection. Consider the following, then, not a reading of Philip Glass's Jewish opera Satyagraha, … Read More

By / May 1, 2008

It's become a cliché to search for Jewish influences or themes in works by Jewish artist. Generally the effort is one of overzealous interpretation, if not projection. Consider the following, then, not a reading of Philip Glass's Jewish opera Satyagraha, but a Jewish reading of Philip Glass's opera Satyagraha—a work which evokes both the pride and anxiety of contemporary Jewishness.

The pride came not from "one of our boys done good," although such a sentiment might be excused in this case. When Satyagraha was written in 1979, Glass was still an up-and-comer; he'd only recently made it big, was only a few years away from having been a starving artist, and was still regarded, by many, as part of the avant garde. No longer — for better or for worse. Satyagraha opened at the Met April 11 after a bombastic ad campaign. “Could an opera put virtue back on its feet?” asked posters around New York City. “Could an opera make us stand up for the truth?”

These questions are as yet unanswered, but the New York Times did call Satyagraha “a work of nobility, seriousness, even purity.” Glass is probably the most widely-heard composer active today, and while some of his later works have begun to seem rather derivative, the Met’s enormous production, brilliantly [re]conceived by Phelim McDermott with sets by Julian Crouch, shines. It reminds us why we loved Glass in the first place: the repetitions are haunting, not tedious; the melodic and conceptual reaches soaring, not pretentious.

Satyagraha tells, in non-linear and largely non-verbal fashion, the story of Gandhi’s struggles on behalf of South Africa’s Indian population. During the course of this twenty-year fight for civil rights, he developed the philosophy and political tactics he would eventually use to liberate India from British colonialism. These tactics went on to inspire Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and other liberators around the world. But in this period, they were still a work in progress, paid for in risk and blood.

Satyagraha juxtaposes symbolic stagings of key episodes in Gandhi's struggle with Sanskrit quotations from the Bhagavad Gita, among the most sacred texts of Hinduism. While to some this may seem an obvious choice, it is actually a curious one, as much of the Gita is about why its hero, Arjuna, must go to battle. It's hardly a nonviolent text.

Yet it is a text, perhaps above all, about knowing and fulfilling one's holy mission, of virtue in the face of adversity, of duty and moral responsibility. This is why Satyagraha appealed to me as "Jewish": not because of its composer's ethnicity, but because it captures the power of sacred text to inspire sacred action.

Gandhi was, after all, a holy man. In his later life he was an ascetic, fasting regularly and relinquishing all possessions. Like Dr. King, he regularly used not only religious language but religious spirit to motivate and comprehend his work—and to stir up his audience. Satyagraha is an opera about the power of spirit and word to require us to be our best selves — which is also what Judaism does at its best.

It is a message we need to hear today. Just as Satyagraha's provocative marketing campaign asked us if an opera could inspire us to stand up for truth, we need to ask whether the Torah can inspire us to take a stand for justice, economic fairness, equality, human rights, and peace? Can it move us to oppose appalling injustices in Tibet, Darfur, and around the world?

The questions are not entirely rhetorical. There are those today who think religion is at best a superstition, at worst a force for ill, and should be kept entirely separate from any notion of political engagement. There are others who think that the Jewish religion is mainly about aggrandizing and protecting the Jews. Those of us who disagree, who believe that our Jewishness compels us to fight torture, unnecessary war, environmental irresponsibility, and economic oppression by our own elected officials, may be inspired by Satyagraha even if we don't speak a word of Sanskrit.

(Indeed, since few audience members do, the opera inspires by musical and visual gestures, like the sight of a hundred lanterns being lifted in protest, or remarkable outsized puppets symbolizing collective action against greed.)

At the same time as Satyagraha evoked this pride in the possibilities of a prophetic tradition, it evoked in me a feeling of shame. It's impossible to watch hordes of second-class citizens standing up for their rights against an occupying regime and not think of Israel and Palestine. To be sure, the opera never draws that connection — it is explicit in linking Gandhi and King, and some of the new production's imagery suggests Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, but nowhere does it reference the Israel/Arab conflict. Yet to my eyes and ears, the parallels were unavoidable.

This is not because the Palestinians are in the same position as the Indians (or black Africans) in South Africa, or that Israel is a colonial power. They are not. But the contours of popular struggle against a better-armed adversary are unmistakable.

Let us grant that there may be many differences. Yasser Arafat never was Mahatma Gandhi, or Nelson Mandela for that matter. The Palestinians were not a nation in the same way as India or Tibet is. And of course, Israel's safety is at stake in a way that Britain's and China's never have been, and violent, rejectionist Palestinian factions enjoy considerable power. Let us grant all of these distinctions. There are still the brute facts of checkpoints, separation barriers, closures, and settlements. There are still the day-to-day realities of people living under occupation.

If we grant all these differences, we may well end up with a political program not so different from that of the current Israeli government. Yet at the very least, the brute facts demand that such a program be pursued ambivalently, even regretfully—not with the sort of reflexive, defensive cheerleading one finds in many Jewish quarters today. If indeed these policies are necessary, then our own support of them must be tinged with the awareness that every day, they place the Jewish state on the wrong side of justice. Perhaps these "costs" are justified by a higher good—but let's not pretend that they don't exist.

This was the ambivalence I felt watching Satyagraha, the title of which means "truth-force." One of the blessings and curses of Separation-Wall Israel is that the Palestinian crisis is more invisible than ever to visitors. We can stay at the Dan Pearl, visit holy sites, and once again promenade down pedestrian malls with comparatively little fear of violence. But if we take our sacred texts as seriously as Gandhi did, they must remind us of the costs of our freedom — in this case, costs borne largely by people who do not enjoy the benefits.

Hopefully I have been clear that neither I nor Satyagraha advocate a particular policy position. But in reminding me the beauty of religious consciousness, Satyagraha also reminded me of the responsibility it demands.