Monday, July 9, 2012

Is The Merchant of Venice now a tool of the Israel lobby?

Shylock prepares to take his pound of flesh in Habima's Merchant of Venice.
That's the intriguing question that Boston's own Ian Thal raises (I think unconsciously) in a post on the new Clyde Fitch Report, in which he details the recent protests in London over a production of The Merchant of Venice (in Hebrew) by Habima, Israel's national theatre, at the ongoing "Globe to Globe Festival." (From the photo above, btw, the production looks to have been a bravely complex and gripping affair, with a shockingly dark view of Shylock.)

Various British theatrical eminences (including Mark Rylance and Emma Thompson) signed letters deploring Habima's appearances at the festival, and due to threats and fears of violence, high security was required at the performances - but protest still found its way into the theatre, as Ian details:

Though the most vocal protestors were kept out, Habima’s performances were repeatedly disrupted by anti-Israeli activists, who were photographed waving Palestinian flags, and unfurling banners with anti-Israeli slogans, only to be escorted out by security. Reports describe a group standing silently with their mouths covered by either tape or adhesive bandages apparently in protest of the “censorship” of the more disruptive activists. Several sources [reported] that during the trial scene in Act IV, a protester shouted “hath not a Palestinian eyes?”echoing signs seen outside the theatre as well as demonstrating a lack of knowledge of the original text (Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes…” speech is from Act III, Scene 3.)

Now Ian - a reader and frequent commenter on the Hub Review - is, I think you could say, a staunch supporter of Israel.  My own view of Israel is more complicated only in regards to its treatment of the Palestinians - many of whom, I know, are bent on Israel's destruction, but whose rights to a viable state are nonetheless not so easily ignored.

So to Ian, the ruckus in Britain over Habima's appearance was pure "hooliganism," and evidence of a rising tide of anti-Semitism there (and elsewhere in the world).  This claim is not easily refuted (not that I'm going to try); undoubtedly legitimate Palestinian claims have long served, and perhaps will forever serve, as a cover for unreasoning hatred of Jews and the Jewish state.  An awareness of that issue is essential to any understanding of our current situation, and complicates everything else I have to say.

But still a sense of this latest, extremely ironic twist in the fraught history of The Merchant of Venice haunts me somehow.  Could this reifying document of the oppression of the Jews really be converted into a tool for the oppression of the Palestinians?  It's an argument allied to the controversial theme of Caryl Churchill's "Seven Jewish Children" (which Ian has also denounced as a "blood libel"), which posits that awareness of the Holocaust has unconsciously served as a justification for Israel's inhumanity to the oppressed Arabs under its control (and who, if granted full citizenship, would quickly render Israel's Jews a minority in their own homeland).

Christian revelers attack Shylock in Habima's Merchant of Venice.
There are few issues more controversial than these - and it's striking that Shakespeare, some four hundred years on, should still be operative in this political crucible in a way that no living American playwright is (even though American power is utterly bound up with Israeli policy). It's also, I think, somewhat curious that we should have seen so many recent productions of Merchant - all of them emphasizing Shylock's victimization and our complicity in it - at a time when Israel's moral standing, and its political and military aggressiveness, are becoming more and more controversial.  Has The Merchant of Venice, which once served as cultural cover for the likes of the Vatican, Henry Ford, and other anti-Semitic potentates, now been subtly reverse-co-opted by the Israel lobby, and its apologists in the academy and press?  This is the case that at least some protestors in London have made - that Shakespeare's portrait of Jewish powerlessness is no longer an appropriate artistic response to political reality in the Middle East - and it, too, is not so easily refuted.

And how will the future production history of Merchant accommodate this bizarre new turn in its political meaning?  How many more re-interpretations can this play bear?   I've really no idea; so what can I say but, "Stay tuned!"?


  1. I have attempted to answer your questions both in the comments to your subsequent post and over at the Clyde Fitch Report.

    While I don't think you and I can solve these problems or come to complete agreement, I do believe in the value of earnest dialogue leading to greater understanding.

    I would, however, however note here, since you did not bring up the issue in your other post, that The Merchant of Venice's portrayal of Jewish powerlessness is still relevant to how much of the West (and, arguably, the rest of the world) perceives Jews and the Jewish state: much too dangerous to be allowed a state-- after all, look how dangerous Shylock was even with the state lined up against him?

    As before, though, I think that your unexamined usage of terms like "the Israel Lobby" demeans both your intelligence and the values you have evidenced both here and elsewhere.

  2. Oh, Ian, seriously - the term "the Israel lobby" is simply a quick way to put a handle on the wide range of pro-Israel political activity in the US. We use the terms "gun lobby" all the time, why not "Israel lobby"?

    And do I really have to spell out the size and power of the Israel lobby in detail? There is, of course, a literal Israel lobby - AIPAC, or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which lobbies Congress directly. Meanwhile, putting pressure on the executive branch is the Conference of the Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. These two groups sometimes coordinate their efforts with the evangelical Christians United for Israel and Stand for Israel. Associated groups include the American Jewish Congress, the Zionist Organization of America, the Israel Policy Forum, the American Jewish Committee, American Friends of Likud, Mercaz-USA, and Hadassah (there is a substantial diversity of opinion among these groups, btw). There is less diversity, however, among the pro-Israel think tanks, which include the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, and the Center for Security Policy. There is at least one pro-Israel PAC which is "pro-peace," J Street, but it is unusual.

    It has also been widely noted that American Jews have the highest voting rate of any group, and they generally vote in a bloc when it comes to Israel; hence it is almost unheard-of for any politician in America to bluntly criticize the Jewish state. In terms of monetary support, it has been estimated that Jewish political contributions outnumber Arab contributions by a ratio of 50 or 60 to 1. Some analysts have posited that for Democratic presidential candidates, something like 60% of funding from private sources has come from Jewish or Jewish-affiliated donors.

    This is all perfectly legitimate - I'm not pretending it's some kind of dark conspiracy; it's all quite open, and of course Americans have the right to donate their money to any candidate or cause they choose. It's just hard to square all this with your contentions regarding Jewish "powerlessness." You may argue that the power of American Jews is irrelevant to "how much of the West (and, arguably, the rest of the world) perceives Jews and the Jewish state" - only I think you're wrong on that point, too. American Jews are wealthy and powerful; they support Israel monolithically, and therefore Israel, too, is wealthy and powerful. The federal government sends $3-4 billion to Israel every year (more than any other country, and much of it earmarked for military projects). The West Bank settlements - which are at the center of this controversy - are indirectly (and directly) supported by American Jewish charities; the New York TImes has estimated that "hundreds of millions" of dollars of support for the settlements have come from American Jews via their donations to tax-exempt organizations. In short, to pretend that any consideration of Israel's position can be constructed without including the power of American Jews is at best naive.

  3. You know, Ian, it's still fine by me if you want to passionately defend Israel. But it's going to be a lot harder to convince me that the victimization reflected in "The Merchant of Venice" still obtains today for Jews in the West, particularly in America. I think the protests in London reflect that this is dawning on a lot of other people too - and while British anti-Semitism may have had a role in these protests, the greater liveliness of British political culture in general, and the wider range of speech allowed there than in America, may have had a role as well. At bottom, I think you have to somehow deal with new, and legitimate, political dimensions of the Israel national theatre presenting "The Merchant of Venice" in a city with a large Arab population.

  4. "It has also been widely noted that American Jews have the highest voting rate of any group, and they generally vote in a bloc when it comes to Israel"

    Actually, if American Jews vote in a bloc then it's for the candidate who is a Democrat-- even when the Republican candidate is playing up the pro-Israel rhetoric. Here are stats on the Jewish vote going back to 1916. Note that the last time the Republicans got the (slim) majority of the Jewish vote was in 1920-- and the last time the Republicans even got more than 25% of the Jewish vote was in 1988. The rule of thumb is if you want to win the Jewish vote you need to run as a Democrat.

    And yes, as you point out, the "Israel Lobby" represents a wide diversity of views ranging from socialists to capitalists, from militarists to peaceniks. So much so that to label it as a monolith is absurd. Most of these organizations, by the way, favor a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even AIPAC.

    No, I am not suggesting that Jewish Americans are "powerless"-- In fact, America is a shining example of tolerance and upward mobility trumping bigotry-- but I am suggesting that there a lot of folk in Europe and in the Middle East who would like to see Jews more powerless; and so The Merchant of Venice is still a salient indictment of British, French, and other European societies.

  5. Sorry, Ian, nice try, but no cigar. I am aware of only one Jewish lobby - J Street, which I mentioned - which is reliably critical of Israeli policy and actively promotes Palestinian interests. As I said, there are Jewish voices raised in support of Palestinian rights, but I'm not aware of another high-profile Jewish political organization actively promoting them.

    Your point about Republican vs. Democratic voting patterns is also obviously a canard, as both Republicans and Democrats reliably support Israel, so there's no way to tease out the issue statistically. You also ignore the fact that Jews don't have to vote for Republicans to ensure pro-Israel policy anyway, as the far-right Christians demand that - ironically, enough, because they're hoping Israel brings about Armaggedon, the destruction of Israel, and the end of the world. (Which is some measure of how nutty things have gotten.)

    I'm sure you're right that there are a lot of folks in Europe and of course the Middle East who would like to see Jews more powerless. And yes, "The Merchant of Venice" remains a salient indictment of European society. Still, we live in a global society now, and the festival in London was meant to reflect that. We've heard repeatedly from the Palestinians and other Arabs that they don't really see how the Holocaust narrative of the West applies to them; and frankly, I don't really see how it does, either. So how does "The Merchant of Venice" resonate with them? I'd hazard that to many of them, Habima's production looked like an attempt at guilt-tripping the West into ignoring the Palestinians. So they protested. I think you may have to get used to this in any area with a sizeable Arab population. As I said, what these events mean is that in a global context, we have to realize that "The Merchant of Venice" is operative in a new way.

  6. My point is that the most salient predictor of who gets the Jewish vote is party affiliation, even when the Republican candidate is more vocal in his support of Israel, American Jews vote for the Democrat. This has been born out statistically in every U.S. election since Israel's founding. So the notion that Israel is the chief determining factor is ludicrous-- consider how many conservative pundits in election after election keep saying that Republicans are better for Israel (which I don't personally believe) and how American Jews still won't vote for them.

    Actually, the Anti-Defamation League has a history of being vocally critical in instances where it has seen minority rights in Israel being violated-- though yes, I can't recall their taking an explicit position on the West Bank. But back to the point: the consensus amongst the "Israel Lobby" is that a future peace necessitates Palestinian Statehood-- they just have very different views on how to achieve that goal.

    "Palestinians and other Arabs that they don't really see how the Holocaust narrative of the West applies to them"

    Well, there is the matter that the Nazis did have Arab allies who assisted in the rounding up of Jews in North Africa (of course, there were also Arabs who protected their Jewish neighbors-- Iwould not deny that); that just as there were "rat-lines' by which Nazi war criminals slipped off to Latin America, there were rat-lines where Nazi war criminals slipped off to the Arab world, in several instances taking command positions in the armies that attacked Israel in the 1948 War. Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husseini, for instance, held the rank of Colonel in the SS during WWII and was active in Nazi occupied Europe and the Middle East. I'd also point to the proliferation of genocidal rhetoric (and agendas) used both prior to the founding of Israel and since both by Arab states and non-state actors.

  7. Of course, Tom, the problem with your argument is that you have now defined "Israel Lobby" so nebulously that any time an Israeli artist travels abroad to present his or her work, he or she becomes part of the "Israel Lobby."

    I'll note that this was also the position you took in response to my earlier commentary on the workshop presentation on Motti Lerner's At Night's End despite the fact that the play (and playwright) is critical of Israeli military culture (and note that despite my alleged "staunchness" I spoke quite glowingly of Lerner's work.)

  8. I have said nothing of the kind. I have said "there are many powerful organizations that lobby for Israel, and I am calling them the Israel lobby." I am also skeptical of Israeli theatre festivals launched at this particular juncture, I admit - although perhaps if I had seen Motti Lerner's work I would have supported it. Still, I don't see a Palestinian Theatre Festival popping up anywhere around town - and I wonder if it did whether it would be reviewed at the Arts Fuse . . .

  9. Are you similarly skeptical of art from the Arab world post-9/11?

    Whether the Arts Fuse cover such a hypothetical festival is something you can take up with Bill Marx. I keep my hypothetical events to my playwriting.