Israel, the Jew

By Abe Novick

After a successful run in NYC’s Central Park this past summer and a film version released earlier in the decade, Al Pacino will again revive his
role as the notorious money-lending Jew on Broadway in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” (opens Nov. 7th)
Apart from having a major movie star provide a scenery eating performance, it’s a play that speaks to our time.  For just as the world condemns Israel by assigning blame every time it responds in self-defense, so Shylock is mischaracterized in the eyes of Venetians.  Just as the UN brands itself an objective forum for debate, so Portia disguises herself, masking her true identity in the courtroom.
Shakespeare’s Shylock is perhaps one of The Bard’s most complex characters, having been interpreted as both an evil villain on the one had
and a more sympathetic (though not without teeth), victim on the other.
In the midst of Venetian society, Shylock stubbornly wants/demands his pound of flesh. He wants what was agreed to. This obsessive need for Old Testament justice in the midst of a forgiving Christian culture is what undoes him in the end.  Yet, Shakespeare also infuses him with humanity, by having him sympathetically reason with us in this now immortal speech.

"I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; … If you prick us, do we not bleed?…And if you wrong us, do we not revenge?  If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that."

The resemblance in that speech to Israel is uncanny.
Indeed in today’s world, Israel could be an understudy for Shylock. The theatrical medium of 1596 (where citizens got their news as entertainment) still plays in the 24/7, infotainment, slanted-stage, media age of 2010.
But beyond the warped news lens and on the actual physical ground, Israel is isolated by its neighbors as if it were in a ghetto, literally walled off as Shylock is, unwelcome by the surrounding community and yet successful.
In his book, The Case For Israel, Alan Dershowitz concludes, “In order to assess the status of Israel in the international community, it may be useful to look at the Middle East’s only democracy as “the Jew” among nations.
Having been banned from other professions, Jews during the middle ages were limited to money lending or “usury” as a means of income.  Yet in this castigated profession, they provided their Christian neighbors with needed capital to grow and prosper.  Likewise, as Dershowitz points out, while Israel is a small country with an eye on defending itself, it has done more to benefit its Arab citizens working within its borders by providing economic opportunities.
Israel has continuously extended a hand in peace to its Arab neighbors and is doing so once again.  But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently said he would not even recognize Israel as a Jewish State.
In an early moment in the film version, a spiteful Antonio, played by Jeremy Irons, spits on Shylock as if he were subhuman, only to enter into
a bargain with him later on.
Without recognition as a Jewish state, without being seen for what you are, without the sense of shared humanity with the same eyes, hands and blood, how can Israel enter into a bargain?
During Shakespeare’s time, there were no Jews in England. They had been expelled in 1290.  Rather, Jews were identified mainly by folklore passed down from sermons, dramas and ignorance. The Jew was depicted as the devil in countless Passion Plays and guilty of crucifying Jesus.
Similarly, the Anti-Defamation League consistently reports throughout the Arab world, where there are only a few Jews, canards such as the blood libel and denial of the Holocaust. Following the flotilla incident, Jews and Israelis were depicted as "blood-thirsty monsters, or as sharks".
With all its drawbacks, Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” is a complex, multi-dimensional story. While Israel also has shortcomings, in order for it to be dealt with, it should not be made in Shylock’s words,  “a soft and dull-eyed fool, To shake the head, relent, and sigh, and yield…”
For peace to become a reality, the false perceptions of Jews and Israel as an enemy state, as vermin to be eradicated and as a nefarious villain only out for its pound of flesh, needs to end once and for all and before a realistic, long-term peace agreement can be staged.
Abe Novick is a writer in Baltimore.  His work can be found at: