|Shylock prepares to take his pound of flesh in Habima's Merchant of Venice.|
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!"?