Shylock– To Ban or Not To Ban

by Rafael Medoff

Adolf Hitler’s favorite Shakespearean drama is now at the center of an ironic tug of war in London, between a Jewish theater troupe that wants to perform it, and an anti-Israel group that wants to shut it down.

Wait, what?

There were no less than fifty productions of “The Merchant of Venice” in Nazi Germany during Hitler’s first six years in power. Understandably, the fuhrer saw it as a powerful tool for advancing antisemitism. With its portrayal of the cruel and wily Shylock, the Jewish money-lender who lusts for “a pound of [Christian] flesh,” the play in some ways encourages the worst medieval anti-Jewish stereotypes.

Not everyone sees it that way, of course. Actor Yossi Gerber, who portrayed Shylock in an earlier Israeli production of the play, says that Merchant –with its famous Shylock monologue about Jews being human like everyone else– is “anti-antisemitic.” Ilan Ronen, who will direct the new Habima version in London, says it “allows us to attack the hatred of Jews and fear of strangers.”

As it happens, the opponents of the new production are upset not by the choice of “Merchant” but by the fact that the organizers of a London-based Shakespeare festival invited an Israeli troupe to participate. According to their web site, the protesters, known as Boycott from Within, regard Israel as “evil” and “an apartheid state,” and use the Arabic word for ‘catastrophe’, Nakba, to characterize the creation of Israel in 1948.

It would not have been a complete shock, though, if they had supported the choice of “Merchant,” when one notes how the Shylock slur has been used by some Arab denouncers of Israel. In a sermon last year, Muhammad Badi, leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, cited Shylock as revealing “the true character” of Jews, while Hafez Barghouti, editor of the Palestinian Authority newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jedida, has described Israel as “the Shylock of the lands and settlement” and Israeli banks as “Shylock-style banks that empty our pockets.”

American Jewish defense organizations have long been concerned about the impact of the stereotypes in The Merchant for Venice, and for good reason. Shylock references abound in American literature going back to the 19th century and even seeped into the political arena. Just weeks after General Ulysses Grant expelled all Jewish merchants from Union-occupied areas of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky in 1862, Confederate Tennessee congressman Henry Foote declared that unless the Confederacy took similar steps, “the end of the war would probably find nearly all the property of the Confederacy in the hands of Jewish shylocks.”

As early as 1912, the Central Conference of American [Reform] Rabbis urged the College Entrance Examination Board to remove Merchant from its lists of plays “to be intensively studied” as a prerequisite to college admission. The Anti-Defamation League in 1917 launched a campaign to ban the study of Merchant in American high schools on the grounds that “Shylock is erroneously pictured as typical of all Jews.” Several hundred schools acceded to the ADL’s request.

After World War II, perhaps reflecting the fact that American Jews now felt more secure in American society, the ADL changed its position. When parents in Brooklyn in 1950 tried to force the New York City Board of Education to drop The Merchant of Venice (and Oliver Twist, with its repulsive Jewish villain, Fagin) from high school curricula, the ADL likened the effort to “book-burning.”

There is, however, a middle ground between banning a controversial play and presenting it, unvarnished, to audiences that might not appreciate the context or implications of what they are viewing. Perform the play, but have a historian speak before it begins, and have a panel discussion when it concludes. In classrooms, use The Merchant of Venice as a teachable moment, just as teachers confront issues of racial stereotyping when their students read, for example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Bernard Weinraub’s hit off-Broadway play, The Accomplices, stirred its share of controversy in 2007-2010, with its frank account of President Franklin Roosevelt’s indifference to the Holocaust and the efforts by the Bergson Group activists to shake America’s conscience. I was invited to take part in a post-performance “Talkback” on stage, along with the playwright, several of the actors, and Dr. Rebecca Kook, Peter Bergson’s daughter. The discussion helped clarify historical and moral issues that the play raised.

A similar approach to “The Merchant of Venice,” whether in London or anywhere else, might help make the best of an otherwise bad situation.

(As published in the Jerusalem Post – February 13, 2012)

February 2012