Is the Merchant of Venice an antisemitic play or is it a play which intimately depicts the anatomy of persecution, exclusion and bullying?
A classic speaks differently to each individual and in each new context. On Monday I saw The Merchant of Venice performed by Habima, the Israeli National Theatre. The venue was the replica of Shakespeare’s wooden, roofless, Globe Theatre. It was a hot London night and the noise of flying machines occasionally confronted our fantasies of authenticity, if the fact that the performance was in Hebrew didn’t.
But first more context. London is, after having been the hub of the British Empire, now a multicultural world city. The Globe is hosting companies from all over the world to perform Shakespeare in their own languages; Shakespeare from Pakistan, South Africa, Georgia, Palestine, Turkey, China and everywhere else.
Since some rather nasty medieval stuff, London and Jews have got on fairly well. London stood firm against Hitler, and the local Blackshirts too; it didn’t mind much whether Jews stayed separate or whether they immersed themselves in its vibrancy; it didn’t feel threatened, it didn’t worry, it just let Jews live engaged lives. But London’s very post-nationalism, and its post-colonialism, has functioned as the medium for a rather odd new kind of intolerance.
Sometimes, we define our own identities in relation to some ‘other’. Early Christianity defined itself in relation to the Jews who refused to accept its gospel, and it portrayed them as Christ-killers. If people wanted to embrace modernity, then they sometimes constructed themselves as being different from the traditional Jew with his beard and coat, standing against progress. Yet if they were afraid of the new then they could define themselves against the modernist Jew. Nineteenth Century nationalists often defined the Jew as the foreigner. Twentieth Century totalitarianisms, which had universal ambition, found their ‘other’ in the cosmopolitan Jew.
These processes created an invented image of ‘The Jew’ and the antisemites portrayed themselves as victims of ‘The Jew’. Antisemitism has only ever portrayed itself as defensive.
Some people who love London’s relaxed, diverse, antiracism look for an ‘other’ against which to define themselves. They find Israel. They make it symbolise everything against which they define themselves: ethnic nationalism, racism, apartheid, colonialism. London’s shameful past, not to mention in some ways its present, is cast out and thrust upon Israel. London was within a few thousand votes last month of re-electing a mayor, Ken Livingstone, who embraced this kind of scapegoating. [For more on post-national Europe's use of Israel as its nationalist 'other', see Robert Fine.]
We can tell that this hostility to Israel is as artificially constructed as any antisemitism by looking at the list of theatre groups against which the enlightened ones organized no boycott. Antizionists have created a whole new ‘-ism’, a worldview, around their campaign against Israel. Within it, a caricature of Israel is endowed with huge symbolic significance which relates only here and there to the actual state, to the complex conflict and to the diversity of existing Israelis. If the Palestinians stand, in the antizionist imagination, as symbolic of all the victims of ‘the west’ or ‘imperialism’ then Israel is thrust into the centre of the world as being symbolic of oppression everywhere. Like antisemitism, antizionism imagines Jews as being central to all that is bad in the world.
One of the sources of energy for this special focus on Israel comes from Jewish antizionists. For them, as for many other Jews, Israel is of special importance. For them, Israel’s human rights abuses, real, exaggerated or imagined, are sources of particular pain, sometimes even shame. Some of them take their private preoccupation with Israel and try to export it into the cultural and political sphere in general, and into non-Jewish civil society spaces where a special focus on the evils of Israel takes on a new symbolic power. But the ‘as a Jew’ antizionists are so centred on Israel that they often fail to understand the significance of the symbolism which they so confidently implant into the antiracist spaces of old London.
When I see a production of the Merchant of Venice, it is always the audience which unsettles me. The play tells two stories which relate to each other. One is the story of Shylock, a Jewish money lender who is spat on, excluded, beaten up, and in the end mercilessly defeated and humiliated. The other is an apparently light-hearted story about an arrogant, rich, self-absorbed young woman, clever but not wise, pretty but not beautiful, and her antisemitic friends. Shakespeare inter-cuts the grueling detailed scenes of the bullying of Shylock, with the comedic story of Portia’s love-match with a loser who has already frittered away his large inheritance.
Shakespeare offers us an intimately observed depiction of antisemitic abuse, and each time the story reaches a new climax of horribleness, he then offers hackneyed and clichéd gags, to see if he can make us laugh. It is as if he is interested in finding out how quickly the audience forgets Shylock, off stage, and his tragedy. And the answer, in every production I’ve ever seen, is that the audience is happy and laughing at second rate clowning, within seconds. And I suspect that Shakespeare means the clowning and the love story to be second rate. He is doing something more interesting than entertaining us. He is playing with our emotions in order to show us something, to make us feel something.
Now, the audience at this particular performance was a strange one in any case. It felt to me like London’s Jewish community out to demonstrate its solidarity with Israel and to protect the Israeli cousins from the vulgarities which their city was about to offer. The audience was uneasy because it did not know in advance what form the disruption was going to take. In the end, the atmosphere was a rather positive and happy one, like an easy home win at football against an away team which had threatened a humiliating victory. Solidarity with Israel meant something different to each person. One man ostentatiously showed off a silky Israeli flag tie. Others were Hebrew speakers, taking the rare opportunity in London to see a play in their own language. Some in the audience would have been profoundly uncomfortable with Israeli government policies but keen to show their oneness with those parts of their families which had been expelled from Europe two or three generations ago and who were now living in a few small cities on the Eastern Mediterranean.
The audience may not have been expert either in Shakespeare or in antisemitism. Most people think that the Merchant of Venice is an antisemitic play. Shylock is thought to be an antisemitic stereotype, created by Shakespeare for audiences to hate. Are we supposed to enjoy the victory of the antisemites and the humiliation of the Jew? But what was this audience thinking? If it is simply an antisemitic play, why would we be watching it, why is the Israeli National Theatre performing it? And if it is a comedy, why aren’t the jokes funny, and why does Shakespeare offer us a puerile game show rather than some of his usual genius?
I don’t think this audience really cared much. It was there to face down those who said that Israeli actors should be excluded from the global community of culture, while actors from all the other states which had been invited to the Globe were celebrated in a festival of the Olympic city’s multiculturalism. So, the audience was happy to laugh loudly and to enjoy itself. We saw on stage how Shylock’s daughter was desperate to escape from the Jewish Ghetto, the darkness and fear of her father’s house, the loneliness of being a Jew. We saw how she agreed to convert to Christianity because some little antisemitic boy said he loved her, we saw how she stole her father’s money so that her new friends could spend it on drunken nights out. And we saw Shylock’s despair at the loss and at the betrayal and at the intrusion. Perhaps his unbearable pain was also fueled by guilt for having failed his daughter since her mother had died.
And then the audience laughed at silly caricatures of Moroccan and Spanish Princes, and at Portia’s haughty and superior rejection of them. And now, not representations of antisemites but actual antisemites, hiding amongst the audience, unfurl their banners about “Israeli apartheid”, and their Palestinian flags, and they stage a performance of their own. How embarrassing for Palestinian people, to be represented by those whose sympathy and friendship for them had become hatred of Israel; to be represented by a movement for the silencing of Israeli actors; to be represented by those who show contempt for Jewish Londoners in the audience, who de-humanize them by refusing to refer to them as people but instead simply as ‘Zionists’. And a ‘Zionist’ does not merit the ordinary civility with which people in a great city normally, without thinking, accord to one another.
The artistic director of the Globe had already predicted that there might be disruption. There often was, he said, at this unique theatre. Pigeons flutter onto the stage but we ignore them. And today, people should not get upset, they should not confront the protestors, they should allow the security guards to do their job.
One protestor shouted: ‘no violence’, as the security guys made to take her away. They took a few away, the actors didn’t miss a word and the audience, largely Jewish but also English, showed their stiff upper lips and pretended nothing had happened. Some time later another small group of protestors, who had wanted to exclude Israelis from this festival because of their nationality, stood up and put plasters over their own mouths to dramatize their own victimhood. Antisemites always pose as victims of the Jews, or of ‘Zionism’ or of the ‘Israel lobby’. And the claim that Jews try to silence criticism of Israel by mobilizing a dishonest accusation against them is now recognizable as one of the defining tropes of contemporary antisemitism.
Meanwhile, on stage, the antisemitic Christians are positioning themselves as the victims of Shylock. They have spat on him, stolen from him, corrupted his only daughter, libeled him, persecuted him and excluded him. Now he’s angry. He’s a Jew, so he can be bought off, no? They try to buy him off. But for Shylock, this is no longer about the money. It is about the desperate anger of a man whose very identity has been trampled upon throughout his life. And at that moment, I could sympathise with him more than ever. I imagined my own revenge against the articulate poseurs who were standing there pretending to have been silenced. Shylock is a flawed character. But how much more telling is a play which shows the destruction of a man who is powerless to resist it? Racism does not only hurt good people, it also hurts flawed and ordinary people and it also has the power to transform good people into angry, vengeful people. Obviously these truths can be followed around circles of violence in these contexts, from the blood libel, christ-killing and conspiracy theory, to Nazism, to Zionism and into Palestinian nationalism and Islamism. Only the righteous ones imagine it all comes out in the end into a morality tale of good against evil.
What are they thinking, the protestors? Do they understand the play at all? Are they moved by the sensitivity of the portrayal of the anatomy of antisemitic persecution? Perhaps they are, and they think that Shylock, in our day, is a Palestinian, and Jews are the new Christian antisemites. One man exclaimed, full of pompous English diction: ‘Hath not a Palestinians eyes?’ He was referring to the wonderful universalistic speech with which Shylock dismantles the racism of his persecutors. This protestor mobilized the words given by Shakespeare to the Jew, against actually existing Jews. The experience of antisemitism was totally universalized, as though the play was only about ‘racism in general’ and not at all about antisemitism in particular. And the point, that a longing for vengeance is destructive and self-destructive, no matter how justified it may feel, was of course, totally missed.
Somebody replied with comedic timing: “Piss off”. Everybody cheered. There was an understanding that the boycotters had shot off all their ammunition now, but the target was left untouched.
Or do the protestors think that this is an antisemitic play? Perhaps they felt that this was the ‘Zionists’ rubbing the history of antisemitism in the faces of London and then by proxy, the Palestinians. Isn’t that the source of Zionist power today? Their ability to mobilize Jewish victimhood and their ownership of the Holocaust. This, again, is an old libel, that the Jews are so clever and so morally lacking, that they are able to benefit from their own persecution. When will the world forgive the Jews for antisemitism and the Holocaust?
The climax of the play sees Antonio, the smooth-tongued antisemitic merchant who has borrowed money which he now cannot pay back, tied up in the centre of the stage like Christ on the cross. And the antisemites demand that the Jew displays Christian forgiveness. But the Jew, who has been driven half mad by antisemitic persecution, does not forgive: he wants his revenge.
Naturally, the antisemites, who have state power in Venice, are never going to allow him his revenge. Portia, the clever, erudite, plausible, antisemite offers a wordy justification, and before you know it, Antonio is free, and Shylock is trussed up ready for crucifixion. And the Christians do not forgive either, they show no mercy. They humiliate Shylock, they take his money, and they force him to convert to Christianity. He ends up on his knees, bareheaded, without his daughter, without his money, without his livelihood and he says: ‘I am content’.
And what do I see? I see another Jew, in the 21st Century, preparing a court case in which he too may be humiliated by a clever form of words. Ronnie Fraser, a member of the University and College Union (UCU), the trade union which represents university workers in Britain, is taking a case to court later this year and he may well end up being portrayed as the wicked, powerful Zionist looking for revenge, in a British courtroom. Represented by Anthony Julius, he is taking a case to court later this year in which he argues that the campaign which wanted to silence the Habima theatre company is, in effect if not intent, antisemitic, and it has created a situation inside his trade union where antisemitic ways of thinking and antisemitic norms of institutional governance have become ordinary. This case will be huge and the stakes are high.
The antizionist elite, with all its access to the media and with all its Jewish, political, celebrity and intellectual support, will portray itself as being silenced by Ronnie the ‘Zionist’ and it will ask the court to set aside all the evidence of antisemitism in favour of a smart but ambiguous form of words.
Portia said that Shylock could have his pound of flesh but only if he could extract it without spilling a drop of blood. The form of words in Fraser v UCU which would humiliate the plaintiff would be that while he is protected from antisemitism by the Equality Act of 2010, hostility to Israel is not antisemitic.
The day after the performance, one of the leading boycotters, Ben White, tweeted a picture of the beautiful Jewish face of Howard Jacobson, an opponent of the exclusion of Israeli actors from London. White added the text: “If you need another reason to support a boycott of Habima, I present a massive picture of Howard Jacobson’s face”.
Faced with this, it is hardly controversial to insist that ‘criticism of Israel’ can sometimes be antisemitic. Let’s hope Ronnie’s judge does not take advice from a contemporary Portia.
Sociology Lecturer, Goldsmiths, University of London
note: my reading of The Merchant of Venice is largely indebted to David Seymour’s Law and Antisemitism.