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Published: 2023-11-03

The Death of Klinghoffer – lecture at Norrlandsoperan

PROFILE A Day at work for Patrik Johansson, teacher and researcher in peace and conflict studies, lecturing on the situation in the Middle East

Image: Mostphotos

Why were you invited to Norrlandsoperan?

During the fall of 2023 Norrlandsoperan (NO) presents The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera based on actual events. In 1985, members of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) hijacked the ocean liner Achille Lauro. They took some 100 passengers hostage and demanded the release of 50 Palestinians from Israeli jails. One of the passengers, Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish American man in a wheelchair, was killed by the hijackers and thrown overboard. The opera about the hijacking premiered only six years later and it has often been met by controversy and protests, and it has been canceled several times. It has been criticized for being pro-Israeli as well as for being pro-Palestinian; the work’s creators state that they try to give equal voice to both sides. This is the first time it has been performed in Sweden.

Part of NO’s ambitions is to explore ways to address the role of the opera in society, and of culture more broadly as a way of commenting on current events. The way they chose to do it this time was to invite me to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The fact that Hamas launched its attack against Israel the day before the opening night sadly made the talk all the more topical.

What was the aim of the lecture?

I agreed with the hosts – NO, the audience association Friends of NO, and Folkuniversitetet – that I would address two main issues during the lecture. First, I would briefly outline the history of the conflict and describe the situation at the time of the Achille Lauro hijacking. The hijacking took place a few years after Israel invaded Lebanon during the ongoing Lebanese civil war and drove out the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). A seminal event during that invasion was the massacre in Sabra and Shatila, where Lebanese Phalangists – with Israeli support – killed some 2,000–3,000 Palestinians (numbers are uncertain). This event is referred to in the opera.

Second, because of the discussions about the opera being biased we agreed that I should say something about what it can mean to be partial or neutral in relation to armed conflicts. One point that I stressed was that if a mediator tries to be neutral between two very asymmetrical parties this risks leading to negotiations based on power rather than on rights. Awareness of this does not have to mean that the mediator should favor one party’s demands over the other’s, but rather to insist on respect for international law and human rights, and try to avoid that a weaker party is coerced into compromises that are likely to be untenable in a longer perspective.

How was the lecture received? Where there any reactions due to the topicality?

The lecture was well received. Many people have taken sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are reluctant to hear criticism against the side that they have come to favor. Talking about this conflict in public, you need to be prepared not only for people questioning what you say, which can be done quite legitimately, but also for people trying to disrupt and take over the room to propagate their opinion. Nothing like that happened this time and I guess that means the people who attended the event did so out of genuine interest and curiosity.

Is it usual for you to lend your expertise in such matters?

I have done public lectures and talked to various student associations and the like on several occasions, mostly in Sweden but also during my postdoc in New Zealand a few years back. I wouldn’t say its common, but when I have the time I try to accept invitations. I have been asked to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more than usual lately, including with the media, due to the increasingly outrageous developments in the region.

Why is it important for you to participate in such activities?

I think that participating in these kinds of activities is both a responsibility and an opportunity. As a researcher I can provide factual knowledge, I can put things into context and I can suggest alternative perspectives and interpretations of events. If this contributes to improved awareness of current events and to a more informed public debate, I think I have a responsibility to do what I can. And as a teacher I value the opportunity to inspire people to learn about the world and to get a better understanding of the complexities of society.

Contact information

Patrik Johansson
Associate professor