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  • The Merchant of Venice, the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and the Perils of Shakespearean Appropriation
  • Mark Bayer

Inundated daily with horrifying images and vitriolic rhetoric, few readers would fail to recognize the magnitude of the Arab-Israeli conflict, its impact on regional and global politics, and the suffering it has caused so many Israelis and Palestinians. Yet many would be surprised at the regular invocation of Shakespeare in this struggle. The following episode is merely one illustration of how The Merchant of Venice, and especially the figure of Shylock, has become, to some, inextricably linked both to the military contest and to the war of words that surrounds it: on 18 December 2003, the Jerusalem Post reported a "serious escalation in local fighting" as Hamas militants attempted to blow up an Israeli outpost near Rafah, apparently in response to the killing of six Palestinians in the same town by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) less than a week earlier.1 Although Israeli politicians, as always, vowed to bring swift and severe justice to the perpetrators of this incident, those involved were never accurately identified, apprehended, or brought to trial, though they were, of course, roundly convicted in absentia by Israeli politicians and the media. Only two days later (on 20 December), Israeli citizens watched with rapt attention and barely less concern another trial at the Pargod Theatre on Bezalel Street in Jerusalem when Shylock took the stand in his own defense for "the theatrical vilification of the Jew," provoking anti-Semitism throughout the world of the type that led to the Holocaust, and helping to fuel and perpetuate the seemingly insolvable conflict between Israelis and their Arab neighbors. The mock trial was part of the week-long International Shylock Festival, an annual event devoted to discussion and lively debate about the cultural legacy of The Merchant of Venice, a play [End Page 465] that Arieh Mark, the theater's artistic director, claimed "continues to get staged [only] because of the continuing hatred of Jews." The play, therefore, constitutes an implicit argument for a well-defended Jewish State and justifies the Israeli government's harsh treatment of Palestinian militants and the IDF's frequent military incursions into Gaza and the West Bank in the name of security that has proven elusive in the past. For Mark, the ongoing conflict with the Arabs is no less invidious than the unforgettable horrors the Jews experienced in Europe before their return to their ancestral homeland: "nothing has changed since we became a free people. In some places the hatred for Jews is stronger than it was the night before the holocaust," rendering the threat posed by Shylock's legacy remarkably current.2 He seemed to have a legitimate grievance; in the same month, a respondent to a popular Iraqi online forum repeated a long standing truism, arguing (in Arabic) that "European poets speak about the Jews with veneration and admiration, except William Shakespeare in his play The Merchant of Venice where he showed Shylock … as a symbol of human cruelty," thereby appropriating Shakespeare for the Arabs and enlisting him in the Palestinian jihad to expel their Israeli occupiers. This attitude was hardly confined to a radical fringe nor limited to obscure coordinates of the internet, but was repeated in the mainstream media. Fatina Salih al-Kurdi, writing in the Kuwaiti weekly Majallat al-Kuwait, suggested that one of the ways readers might verify that the history of the Jews is "full of blood, treason, falsehood, deceit, killing, and destruction," is to notice that these depictions figure so prominently in the works of "writers such as Shakespeare."3

In Israel, the Occupied Territories, and in neighboring Arab nations, productions and discussions of The Merchant of Venice do not universally evoke the discomforting ambivalence that Western audiences have come to expect, and instead are often marked by their thematic clarity, by their presentation of Shylock as a figure either of universal opprobrium or unqualified sympathy, of broken submission or indignant defiance, and by his uncanny similarity to political figures, both past and present. This is more than simply the appropriation of iconic cultural works for use as propaganda precisely because both sides understand the same cultural signifier...


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pp. 465-492
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