Michael Saenger

The Shylock Lens: Shakespeare and the Myth of Jewish Brutality

21stMerchantVenice_DraytonIt is often said that the mainstream media coverage of Israel is biased, and sometimes said that there is an anti-Semitism in this bias.  That accusation is often treated as almost an obscenity by the Left.  The following  brief essay outlines a clear explanation for how that anti-Semitism works.  If this article is read carefully, the accusation of anti-Semitism in the media must, at the very least, be considered a legitimate topic for discussion.

Imagine a Jewish entity with no realistic future.  It has a small territory and rages against its neighbors.  It clings to rules, legalities and an empty continuation of tradition, hoping that it can survive a little longer this way, but it horrifies everyone with its thirst for vengeance.  It has never really belonged where it is, it has gathered a kind of tainted wealth, and it is the primary cause of trouble in its world.  Ultimately, a European court judges this Jewish entity to be fundamentally morally wrong.

What is that Jewish entity?  Shylock, a fictional character in The Merchant of Venice, written by Shakespeare over four hundred years ago.  In the play, Shylock is a stereotypical Jew who seeks a perverse version of justice against his overly-kind Christian enemy, Antonio.  At one point, he quite famously pleads for Jews to be viewed as human—“Hath not a Jew eyes?”—but this brief moment when he seems sympathetic quickly leads to further events that prove, in the play’s eyes, that he, as a Jew, is not really human after all, though he looks like a human and speaks like one.  He attempts to use a legal contract to kill Antonio, gruesomely, in the middle of a courtroom.  A judge (Portia, in disguise) hears Shylock’s case and rules against him, forcing him to become a Christian.  The lesson of the play is that Shylock is a symbol of all Jews, and he cannot and should not be allowed to remain Jewish because there is no compassion in him, or in Jews in general.  He is not just a Jew, he is “The Jew.”

What do we do with this play?  Some try to argue that it is not anti-Semitic.  That’s hard, especially because at one point Shylock explains how he feels about Antonio this way: “I hate him for he is a Christian.”  To say that in Shakespeare’s theater is like saying “I hate the Red Sox” in Fenway Park.   And in the original play, it’s clear that when Shylock is forcibly converted to Christianity as a punishment for his blood lust, the original audience celebrated this as a happy ending.  Many recent productions of the play cut that line above, about hating Christians, and add scenes where Antonio is physically aggressive to Shylock; presumably this means that, if Antonio started it, then Shylock’s rage against Antonio is more justifiable.  Other productions set the play in Venice of 1938; the idea of this is to transform it from being an anti-Semitic play to being a play about anti-Semitism.

Let’s leave these questions of what to do with the play theatrically aside, for a moment.  The play can speak to the modern world in a different way.  The second paragraph of this essay described a Jewish entity that is always provoking others, and one which will cause trouble until it ends.  That sounds a lot like how Israel is portrayed in the media.  The problem there?  Shylock is a fictional character.  So how does a fictional, stereotypical Jew in an old play resemble the version of Israel we see on TV so much?

There really are only three possible explanations.  Complete coincidence (which would be strange) is the first.  The second is that Shakespeare was right, Jews are always that joyless and mean, and Israel is only the more recent example of the same truth as Shylock; many more people than we may like to admit believe this.  Finally, the third explanation is that Shakespeare saw things through the distorted lens of anti-Semitism, a lens that still affects how Western culture characterizes Israel.  That Shakespeare would be anti-Semitic is hardly shocking.  His views on women and black people, and many other issues, are not exactly what we would like them to be.  The plain fact is that he was a great poet, but he did not live in our time, and there are many biases that he inherited and never really questioned.

What interests me here, though, is just how closely Israel is made to resemble this fictional character.  From the news coverage, you would think that Israel is an armed camp with no joy in it.  But when you go there, you see people living rich lives, children playing, young people laughing and enjoying music.  Those images never get shown on tv.  In fact, one of the most troubling resemblances between Shylock and Israel is that Shylock’s religion has no God in it.  It is a purely prideful tenacity to a tribe.  Similarly, we are never shown Israeli religiosity in a positive light.  When you empty out all the joy and faith of the Jewish people from an image, what you’re left with is a stereotype, a Shylock.

Part of the reason this is so important is that already most Jews are familiar with the old stories of Jews as baby-killers, Christ-killers, and evil masterminds.  Although these images are of course very hateful and still very active, they are also relatively easy to spot.  The Shylock lens is different; it is the idea of the Jew as a legalistic villain, a cold-hearted, vengeful aggressor who exaggerates and memorizes whatever harms he suffered and then strikes back disproportionately.  It is based on a deep misunderstanding of Jewish religious practice—the view of Jewish law as having no compassion in it.  You can see this stereotype, for example, in the idea of a “good Samaritan”.  The Christian bible tells of Samaritan who broke with strict Jewish law to help a stranger, when more practicing Jews held fast to that law and denied that help.  If you think about how common this phrase is, you can see how easy it is to overlook a key gap in this logic: in reality, Judaism itself is based on compassion and worship.  That is a truth that the phrase “good Samaritan” hides.  Because this stereotype is more subtle than the other images, it can operate more freely in the media.  As American Jews, we in particular are often under great pressure to turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism, and to pretend that it has no connection to anti-Israel sentiment.

One of the new rules about the dialogue about Israel is that anyone saying that the media has an anti-Semitic bias is instantly condemned—such an accusation is ridiculed.  The example of Shylock serves to corroborate this accusation, however.  The notion that Jews are a literal-minded, vengeful people is not just a random lie that Hitler created; it is a deep lie at the heart of Western culture, one that fooled Shakespeare and continues to distort the modern portrayal of Israel.  Of course, this does not mean that every time Israel is criticized, that criticism is anti-Semitic; to make that assumption would be just as silly as to say that every time there’s a hot summer day, it’s a sign of global warming.   But patterns of warming over time do mean something, and so do patterns of characterization.  There is a deep problem in the way Jews and Israel are viewed, and some of the automatic condemnation of Israel in the “civilized” media does have a real connection to the more vulgar hate and open aggression against Jews.  The history of this bias goes back further than the founding of Israel and the Holocaust, further than Shakespeare’s beautiful and hateful play, and it is a history we must understand, explain, and fight to change.

It has been a disheartening couple of months for Western media, as I have seen increasing evidence of anti-Semitism, particularly on the Left. I attended a production of The Merchant of Venice in London which took an anti-Semitic play and consciously amplified that hate (understatedly reviewed below):

Shylock was a woman (that in itself is fine), but the director added to the text, having various characters call her “Bitch”, and cut the text, removing her forced conversion and consequently the modern recognition that such a conversion aligns with history in a non-comic way. I kept thinking that at some point the production would turn around and trouble this caricature. Instead, it became clear that Shylock was being used to personify Israel onstage (Antonio became a Muslim, as the photo shows, in order to make this point), and promoting misogyny was part of the project.The fact that this production even went forward is deeply disturbing. At around the same time, the Presbyterian Church, playing the part of Portia, looked at the complex situation and history of the Middle East and concluded that Jews are the problem, aligning itself with BDS and thus condoning Hamas.

My Zionism very much embraces a Palestinian state that coexists with Israel, and I am concerned about the treatment of the Palestinians. But the Palestinians also bear some responsibility for the situation—specifically, they could reject terrorism, accept the right of Israel to exist, and then quickly see prosperity—as they already have in areas of the West Bank that have taken this route. I admit that my reaction to the performance was partly visceral—Shylock is a character that distills centuries of hate, and given the role of Jewish women in my life, I was deeply angry to see a female Shylock called a “bitch”—frequently and with relish—in a performance that celebrated the defeat of an anti-Semitic caricature. But I was equally distressed that the Left has—at best—been asleep at the switch while this hate has grown. We tell the Right—correctly, in my view—not just to strongly reject racists and misogynists in their midst, but also to consider seriously that racism and misogyny can infect a much broader sphere than is evidenced in remarks from Ted Nugent or posters at anti-Obama rallies. We ask them to consider the mechanics of racism and misogyny and their effect on conservative discourse. And are we willing to practice what we preach? Are we willing to seriously ask whether our image of Israel owes more to the vengeful, literalistic, and spiritually vacuous Shylock than it does to the actual nation of Israel? Or are we, on the Left, uniquely immune from the forces of history? The fact that a fictional character can be made to embody Israel onstage could be dismissed (a bad performance, anxious for publicity), but I don’t think this would be entirely honest. Like the vitriol aimed at Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, it has deeper roots, and we as Shakespeareans know that very well. If BDS is a legitimate subject for debate, then so is the notion that anti-Semitism is alive and well in shaping anti-Israel discourse.

About the Author
Michael Saenger is Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America.
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