Portia, Shylock and the exclusion of Israeli actors from the global cultural community – David Hirsh

David Hirsh

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.

David Hirsh

Sociology Lecturer, Goldsmiths, University of London

note: my reading of The Merchant of Venice is largely indebted to David Seymour’s Law and Antisemitism.

Soupy One – glad for the Rev Stephen Sizer

Rev Stephen Sizer has undertaken to be more careful about antisemitism in future. Soupy One comments.

The Livingstone Formulation is as old as Stalinist antisemitic anti-Zionism

Rudolph Slansky was the Stalinist leader of post war Czechosolovakia who ended up being deposed in an antisemitic purge and accused of Zionism and bourgeois Jewish nationalism in 1952.  Slansky’s confession was written by the antisemites and beaten into him:

 “I deliberately shielded Zionism by publicly speaking out against the people who pointed to the hostile activities of Zionists and by describing these people as anti-Semites so that these people were in the end prosecuted and persecuted. I thus created an atmosphere in which people were afraid to oppose Zionism.”

 From pp.145-6 of Colin Shindler’s new book “Israel and the European Left”.  The source Shindler gives is the Jewish Chronicle, 28 November 1952.

some background on the Slansky trial from Stan Crooke.

More on the Livingstone Formulation.

NB some more examples of the Livingstone Formulation and some interesting discussion in the comments box here

NB an article about the Livingstone Formulation from z-word is here

[from Dave R]

On being chosen – Eve Garrard

This is a guest post by Eve Garrard.

Deborah Orr recently wrote a piece about the exchange of one Israeli prisoner for 1,000 Palestinian ones, from which exchange she infers that Israelis regard one Israeli life as being worth 1,000 Palestinian lives, and she also infers what she claims to believe is the corollary: a Zionist belief in the importance of the ‘chosen’ over other members of the human race.  Many people have rightly commented on the grotesque illogic of Orr’s calculation about equivalences, and her appalling assumption, in the teeth of the evidence, that it was Israel rather than Hamas that set the numbers so high. However what I want to concentrate on here is another aspect of her piece: her reference to the ‘chosen’.

The ‘chosen’ ones are meant to be Jews, of course, notwithstanding Orr’s fig-leaf reference to Zionists; the phrase long predates the State of Israel.  The ‘Chosen People’: that’s how Jews are supposed to think of themselves. Now it so happens that during my childhood, I never once heard Jews refer to themselves as the Chosen People.  I was aware in some imprecise way that there was a theological view about chosen-ness, but this was primarily a matter of the  burden of observation and practice which orthodox Jews were required to carry by a covenant with God.  It was nothing to do with the lives of Jews being worth more than those of other people, and in any case the view in question didn’t resonate at all with those Jews who weren’t religious, and was never held by them. Indeed, it was never very likely that European Jews, in the shuddering aftermath of the mid-century genocide, would regard themselves as being extraordinarily important or strong or powerful – any use by them of the ‘Chosen People’ trope would have been bitterly and painfully ironic.  But although I can’t of course speak for others, I myself never heard it used by Jews; the only contexts in which I came across this phrase were ones in which it was deployed by those who disliked Jews, who wanted to sneer at or denigrate them. And even in that usage I didn’t come across it too often – in the first two or three decades after the Second World War people who didn’t like Jews were often ashamed to reveal their hostile feelings in public.

Things are different now, and this trope has been resurrected for the same old use: to denigrate Jews and stir up dislike, or worse, against them.  In fact it’s very effective for that purpose: most people (very understandably) dislike anyone who claims to be inherently superior to everyone else; and so to attribute such a claim to Jews is a very economical way of making people dislike and distrust them.  By referring to the Chosen People you can, without saying another word, tell your listener that Jews are an arrogant supercilious bunch who despise the rest of the human race, and that you yourself don’t much like that kind of thing; and indeed your listener (or reader, as the case may be) probably doesn’t much like that kind of thing either, being a decent honest person; and so you and she together can enjoyably agree that there’s something pretty obnoxious about Jews, or they wouldn’t be claiming to be ‘chosen’, would they, or insisting that one Jew is worth 1,000 other people, which of course they must believe, since Gilad Shalit was exchanged for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, and there’s no other possible explanation of that ratio, is there, eh?

All that hostile implication from just two well-chosen (so to speak) words, or even in Orr’s case one word alone – she writes with casual familiarity about ‘the chosen’, apparently assuming that her Guardian readers use the term so readily that no misunderstanding can arise from the informal contraction.  This is indeed real economy of effort in the business of producing Jew-hatred.  Orr herself may not, of course, have intended to stir up dislike of Jews; but the language which she chose to use did all the work that was needed for that unlovely task.

What’s worrying about this use of the Chosen People trope is not so much its appearance in a little piece by Deborah Orr: a minor journalist making derogatory insinuations about Jews isn’t anything so very special.  But with Orr as with Mearsheimer it’s the silence of the others, of those in the wider context – the colleagues, the editors, the readers at large – that’s the really chilling thing.

For further excellent discussion of this, see Alan Johnson’s recent piece.

Andy Newman on antisemitism and the left

Writing on Comment Is Free, Andy Newman warns well-meaning people against the antisemites stalking the pro-Palestinian movement.

A drunk man looks at the Israeli flag – Stan Crooke

Paul Donnachie and his friend, students at St Andrews University, turned up at Chanan Reitblat’s flat in a university hall of residence in the small hours of 12th March to check up on their friend, Reitblat’s flatmate. Donnachie saw an Israeli flag above Reitblat’s bed and flew into a rage. There followed a court case which saw Donnachie found guilty of racially aggravated breach of the peace (i.e. that he acted a manner which was racially aggravated and which caused, or was intended to cause, a person alarm or distress), sentenced to community service and fined. Through his tears Donnachie protested in all sincerity that he was an anti-racist. St Andrews was unimpressed and expelled him.

From the BBC,

“Sentencing Donnachie, a history student and member of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, sheriff Charlie Macnair said: “This flag was his personal property. I consider that your behaviour did evince malice towards Mr Reitblat because of his presumed membership of Israel.

“I’m satisfied that you said Israel was a terrorist state and the flag was a terrorist symbol and I also hold that you said that Mr Reitblat was a terrorist.””

An account of the incident and its aftermath, with particular focus on the vindictive fury of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the anti-Israel fellowship, by Stan Crooke at the AWL.

Why is there antisemitism on the left? Phoebe and Moishe

What would Phoebe say?

A very smart piece from Phoebe Maltz, read the whole thing:

… Being on the left has always been about supporting the downtrodden, and since anti-Semitism is and always was about accusing Jews of being insufficiently downtrodden, there are only these rare moments when the obvious left-wing position is to get worked up about anti-Semitism – moments when anti-Semitism’s on-the-ground influence is so great (think the Dreyfus Affair, the Holocaust) that thinking of Jews as victims becomes uncontroversial.

Where does Israel fit into this? The idea that Zionism was and continues to be the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, a flawed movement but a legitimate liberation movement akin to the postcolonial ones all the same, this gets lost because Israel is a wealthy enough country with a white-ish population. The fact that Israel was founded by those Europe had rejected on account of their “Oriental” “race” and told to “go back to Palestine” gets lost and replaced by the idea that Israel’s a country dominated by a bunch of white Europeans – with all the global privilege that entails – who have no place in the Middle East. But the issue isn’t really Israel, or even the fact that the Palestinians are indisputably suffering, somewhat more disputably the non-white party in the conflict (disputably because, Ohad Knoller aside, Jewish Israeli’s aren’t all that white) – it’s about how Jews are perceived at home. I suspect that many in America picture Israel as basically a wealthy American suburb, a great big West End Avenue by the sea….

Read it all at What would Phoebe do?

And of course, Moishe Postone:

… The extensive and intensive spread of such global conspiratorial thought was dramatically revealed recently by the Egyptian television series Horseman without a Horse, which made use of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a historical source, and the spread in the Arab media of medieval Christian blood libel charges — that Jews kill non-Jewish children in order to use their blood for ritual purposes.

Moishe Postone

This development should be taken seriously. It should neither be treated as a somewhat exaggerated manifestation of an understandable reaction to Israeli and American policies, nor should it be bracketed as a result of the dualistically grounded fear that focusing on it can only further Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Grasping its political significance, however, requires understanding modern anti-Semitism. On the one hand, modern anti-Semitism is a form of
essentializing discourse that, like all such forms, understands social and historical phenomena in biologistic or culturalistic terms. On the other hand, anti-Semitism can be distinguished from other essentializing forms, such as most forms of racism, by its populist and apparently antihegemonic, antiglobal character. Whereas most forms of race thinking commonly impute concrete bodily and sexual power to the Other, modern anti-Semitism attributes enormous power to Jews, which is abstract, universal, global, and intangible. At the heart of modern anti-Semitism is a notion of the Jews as an immensely powerful, secret international conspiracy.

I have argued elsewhere that the modern anti-Semitic worldview understands the abstract domination of capital — which subjects people to the compulsion of mysterious forces they cannot perceive — as the domination of International Jewry.
Anti-Semitism, consequently, can appear to be antihegemonic. This is the reason why a century ago August Bebel, the German Social Democratic leader, characterized it as the socialism of fools. Given its subsequent development, it could also have been called the anti-imperialism of fools. As a fetishized form of oppositional consciousness, it is particularly dangerous because it appears to be antihegemonic, the expression of a movement of the little people against an intangible, global form of domination.  It is as a fetishized, profoundly reactionary form of anti-capitalism that I would like to begin discussing the recent surge of modern anti-Semitism in the Arab World….

The whole piece by Moishe Postone is worth a read.

ht Ignoblus

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