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Shylock in the Middle East

The irony of Shylock’s dilemma can’t be lost on modern Israel supporters, who are forced to decide between emphasizing Israel's compassion and standing firmly for its rights

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us,
do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

— Shylock, “The Merchant of Venice,” Act III, Scene I

Modern Israel advocates face a dilemma that evokes one faced by the most infamous Jewish characters in literature. Indeed, the literal pound of flesh that Shakespeare’s Jewish money-lender Shylock insists upon collecting from his borrower Antonio in “The Merchant of Venice” has entered the English lexicon as the quintessential expression of ruthlessness. Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock was almost unquestionably anti-Semitic; even the name Shylock can conjure up the image of the Jew as miserly, scheming, and cruel.

Yet some modern adaptations of “The Merchant of Venice” have attempted to portray the character of Shylock in a more sympathetic light, emphasizing the vile treatment of Jews in the Venice of the play. A fair reading of Shylock’s famous speech in Act III — “If you prick us, do we not bleed? … And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” — reveals a compelling, even stirring, plea for fair and equal treatment, finally, for Shylock himself and his wronged people. As Shylock concludes to the Christians that have so persecuted and despised him, “The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

Shylock, after all, is asserting no more than what is his legal right, in a world that afforded few such rights to its persecuted Jews. But the explicit charge against Shylock in the speech by the heroine Portia is not ultimately against his legal rights but rather his lack of compassion, as she famously pleads in Act IV, Scene I:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Portia’s argument, and Shylock’s resultant forced conversion to Christianity, seemingly places the Jew in a no-win situation: assert your rights, and be condemned as merciless and cruel, placing yourself at risk of further exclusion and persecution; or relent in compassion, and lose the few rights that you had held dear, including the hope for fair and equal treatment.

The irony of Shylock’s dilemma can’t be lost on modern Israel supporters, particularly among the campus Israel supporters with whom I work. In fact, such a dilemma surfaced this week in discussions I had with Israeli officials and Israel supporters from around the globe at a gathering in Jerusalem.

Many Israel supporters, on campus and elsewhere, rely upon messages of reconciliation and compassion — that Israel seeks peace with its neighbors and is willing to compromise to do so — to persuade the unaffiliated of Israel’s compassion and to call attention to Israel’s lack of responsible peace partners that are willing to sit and negotiate. The Israel supporters who emphasize Israel’s commitment to peace and negotiations point to extensive research by organizations such as The Israel Project, BICOM, and others, showing that rights-based arguments fail to persuade neutral audiences, and that expressions of Israel’s willingness to seek peaceful compromise are effective.

But other Israel supporters, including many in Israel officialdom, see the emphasis on compassion as unadvisedly conceding Israel’s legal rights. These advocates would rather see Israel’s supporters first clearly state Israel’s rights, including to the disputed territories captured in 1967, before addressing issues of compassion and compromise. Without clearly and repeatedly articulating Israel’s rights, these advocates argue, Israel’s supporters concede claims of Israel as illegal occupier. The Israel supporters emphasizing rights-based advocacy dismiss the appeal to “messages that work” as unnecessary pandering and strategically unsound, pointing to years of official expressions of willingness to compromise as having already cost Israel much in creating misleading expectations among the international public.

To be clear, both approaches have detractors, and there are many that take issue with the positions expressed by both groups. There is much — including peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and repeated commitments by successive Israeli governments — to reflect that Israel is indeed sincere, and there is also a substantial amount of evidence that there are colorable claims to Israeli rights at least as good as others to part or all of the disputed territories. But neither set of facts tend to dissuade harsh Israel critics from reflexively rejecting both Israel’s overtures to peace and its rights.

I count myself among those Israel advocates who are data-driven and metric-based. I would far prefer that Israel advocates focus on messages that work. I offered the following explanation this past week to the people who favor a rights-based approach: On campus, Israel detractors frequently use emotional imagery, such as that of wounded Palestinian children, to depict Israelis as savage, compassionless, and cruel; to respond to such attacks by asserting legal rights would only confirm those attacks. In such circumstances, I argued, Israel’s supporters must remind the neutral that Israel is compassionate, that it has reached peace with its neighbors in the past, and that it continues to extend its hand in peace to this day.

Yet I can appreciate how those who favor a rights-based approach perceive this dilemma. Is Israel, and by extension its supporters on campus and elsewhere, doomed to be the Shylock of the Middle East — condemned either way as insufficiently compassionate or lacking in basic rights?

Shylock and Portia (1835), by Thomas Sully
Shylock and Portia (1835), by Thomas Sully

I believe that there is a way to reconcile the two approaches that does not diminish the strength of either, and that one message does precede and set the groundwork for the other.

The truth is that much of the world perceives Israel as a power in the Middle East and, despite Israel’s reality of facing vast regional antipathy, as the stronger of the parties in the Israeli-Arab conflict. The claims of “disproportionate force” that global players so often level against Israel stem directly from such perceptions of superior power. In short, the perception is that Israel and Israelis are heartless.

To be sure, there are good reasons for Israel to project an image of strength, and that image reflects reality: Israel is strong. But in the arena of public diplomacy, as the character Shylock discovered, a perception of strength can often be a liability without equal perceptions of fairness, moderation, and compassion. Israel’s constant burden is to speak not as an equal combatant but from the voice of reason, because in truth, the world does not see Israel’s detractors on equal footing with Israel. The world expects more of Israel because it is largely conceding Israel’s superior position.

On campus, then, as elsewhere, the first step to persuading the unaffiliated is to demonstrate Israel’s compassion: to articulate that Israel and Israelis seek a resolution to the conflict with their neighbors that will benefit everyone, Jews and non-Jews, Israelis, Palestinians, and others alike. Israel’s supporters can remind their audiences that Israel continues to offer to negotiate a comprehensive and final peace, that this Israeli government, like many before it, has repeatedly offered to sit down immediately, without preconditions, and keep talking until a two-state solution is concluded that will provide for a Jewish state of Israel living side by side in peace and security with a Palestinian state, and that the same holds true for Israel’s other neighbors as well. Of course, as is natural and as the parties agreed nearly 20 years ago, in those negotiations both sides will discuss their interests and rights; and, indeed, Israel has rights that it would like to express as much as others might believe they have rights to express. But the only way to explore those rights and to reach an agreement that will last is for the sides to sit down and negotiate — not posture, grandstand, or partner with extremists. Those steps serve no one’s interests.

Israel need not be the Shylock in the Middle East. But to avoid Shylock’s dilemma, Israel and its supporters should take a page from Portia’s speech and first express the compassion that “blesses him that gives and him that takes.”

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Stephen Kuperberg is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization dedicated to weaving and catalyzing the campus Israel network to create a positive climate regarding Israel on campus, and publisher of Israel Campus Beat.

About the Author
Stephen Kuperberg is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization dedicated to weaving and catalyzing the campus Israel network to create a positive campus environment regarding Israel, and publisher of the Israel Campus Beat