(Rahnuma) Was Shylock victim or villain? The question never arose when Geoffrey Kendal came to school in the 50s and 60s to perform Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice was a great favourite because it appealed to us at several levels. There was the continuing suspense on whether or not Shylock, Jewish moneylender, would be able to exact the pound of flesh he had meanly inserted in the agreement, should the needy merchant, Antonio, fail to pay back the loan.
A pound of flesh closest to the heart was Shylock’s revenge: he had been insulted by the Christians; he had had his “Jewish gabardine” publicly spat upon. But Shylock’s grief reaches epic proportions when Christians inflict a nasty bit of “Love Jihad” on him: his daughter Jessica runs away with Lorenzo, a Christian. Worse, she runs away with his “ducats”, the currency those days. “O’ my daughter; O’ my ducats”. I cannot remember a courtroom with such nail biting suspense when Portia saves Antonio from Shylock’s blade.
Anti-Semitism, from much before Elizabethan times, remained a sentiment in two powerful strands. One was the direct Christian prejudice against Jews in Europe which climaxed with Hitler in Germany. The Islamic conquest of Spain in the 8th century led to the flourishing of a composite culture in which Muslims, Christians and Jews contributed in equal measure. The Reconquista or the return of Christian rule in 1478 led to the Spanish Inquisitions which were harsher on Jews than on Muslims.
The basic conflict, whether in Northern Europe or in the Iberian Peninsula, was always between Christianity and Judaism, not the least because Christians blamed Jews for Christ’s death. What has puzzled me always is the deafening Jewish-Muslim acrimony. I shall never forget the day in the Royal Palace in Rabat, Morocco when I found myself seated in the office of Andre Azoulay, the late King Hasan’s principal adviser. He was the second most powerful man in the Kingdom. He was a Sephardic Jew like so many others in the country who held key posts. A mandatory annual event was the jamboree hosted by His Majesty for Sephardic Jews in the diaspora. This sentimental reunion was a continuation of a medieval tradition. When 50,000 Jews were expelled from Spain after the Reconquista, Morocco and other North African states had accorded the new “refugees” extraordinary hospitality. Even after Jews from this part of the world had made their homes in Israel, they remembered how well Morocco had treated them. I have seen photographs of King Hasan dominate Sephardic drawing rooms in Jerusalem.
By the 80s, the Jewish state and the international Jewry had become so powerful that even “reworking” Shakespeare became a legitimate intervention. Rather than discard the Merchant of Venice and select any one of Shakespeare’s plays in 1989, Director Sir Peter Hall chose to tweak Shakespeare and impart rationalism to Shylock’s character. Dustin Hoffman virtually reimagined Shylock, toning down his usurious rate of interest, thereby enhancing the sympathy factor for the money lender. A sort of Christian ganging up against a hapless “professional” was played up. Shylock’s tragic end is ironically the heart of the play’s mirth.
The toning down of the Shakespearean prejudice against Jews was clearly a function of guilt on account of the excesses during the second war. The remarkable rise in anti-Semitism in recent decades by comparison leaves one aghast. Sympathy for Jews has given place to an awe for the Jewish state. The exceptional achievements of Jewish people will always shine through but individuals are being submerged in unwholesome Zionist excesses.
These excesses are being amplified by Donald Trump’s singularly one-sided support for anything Benjamin Netanyahu demands. The general projection of both as heartless bullies automatically accelerates anti-Semitism. Take the Deal of the Century: only the duet and their closest groups were ecstatic. There will be a corresponding spike in ill will.
Do you think American campuses are falling over each other in adoration for Trump and his Buddy — after he signed an Executive Order aimed at combating anti-Semitism on college campuses.
“This is our message to universities: if you want to accept the federal dollars you get each year, you must reject anti-Semitism.” What must students do to become good boys entitled to federal funds? Abandon “Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel movement” which has been popular on campuses.
Jewish lobbies in Poland, for example, were bringing to bear their considerable clout on property transactions. Properties owned by Jews before the war were being successfully reclaimed by the old owners at throw away prices. When a Polish law sought to prevent these transactions, the State Department intervened. Officials in Washington would keep a watchful eye to protect Jewish interests. Imagine how Poles would respond to such interference.
Rise of anti-migrant, anti-Semitic leaders in Hungary, Germany, Austria, Poland, is a depressing list. By their behaviour the Trump-Netanyahu duet have only aggravated the situation.
At an international conference in Warsaw last year, Israeli Foreign Minister, Yisrael Katz accused the Polish leadership of anti-Semitism. His language was unbelievably coarse: “Poles suckle anti-Semitism from their mother’s milk.” How would this outburst have registered with Primetime TV viewers in Poland?
An undercurrent of anti-Semitism remains unnoticed because the global media is more willingly focused on Islamophobia. Is under reporting of anti-Semitic incidents a deterrent? The very first question Trump’s first press conference was by Jake Turx, newly minted White House correspondent for Ami magazine, an orthodox Jewish publication from Brooklyn. The question was on the recent surge of hate crimes against Jews. Trump completely misunderstood the question. He thought the young reporter was accusing the new President of anti-Semitism. Some tongue lashing followed. A startled Jake Turx sought to mollify Trump.
“You have Jewish grandchildren. You are their Zayed (Yiddish for grandfather).” The mist may have lifted that day, but Turx’s publication from that day is a useful guide to burgeoning anti-Semitism, of which the vicious knife attack in Monsey, New York, during Hanukkah celebrations last December has been among the minor incidents.
(Saeed Naqvi is a senior commentator on political and diplomatic issues. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org)