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Friday, 29 October 2010

Here and Everywhere: The State of Being Jewish in the Jewish State and Beyond

You may think that if anything united newcomers to Israel's rainbow nation it would  be the state of ‘being Jewish’.


I fast discovered after emigrating here that to be "a Jew  means nothing". We're all special, so no-one's special and among the heroes are the scores of honourable non-Jews from many distant lands who have also made this country their home.

There were several in my ulpan (Hebrew class) in Karmiel and for a few extraordinary minutes during some lessons,  Jew and Gentile, Romanian, Russian, Indian, Korean - and Heaven knows who and what  else - were fused by a common bond.

We  discovered that we all know a little Shakespeare and  had fun attempting to translate the titles of some of his most popular plays and verses into Hebrew. Our little drama had begun with  learning the Hebrew verb,  להיות (L'Hiot - to be) - and continued some weeks later with a Hebrew dialogue based loosely on the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet

Al.Pacino.ShylockAye, there was the rub! No-one - my husband aside - ever mentioned The Merchant of Venice, whose Jewish anti-hero continues to be one of the most loved, loathed and debated figures in literary history and we both sensed the irony last week while re-watching American-Italian Al Pacino’s film version on Israel’s HOT Television.

But the fact that they were barely mentioned in class  may  mean that the character and the play hold far more horrid fascination for English-speaking - specifically British and US - Jews than they ever had for anyone else.

Recent examples of this continuing obsession have included a peculiar  piece and following correspondence published last year by  Jewish Renaissance, the Anglo-Jewish cultural magazine, about Amelia Bassano Lanier, a Marrano Jew and the putative 'Dark Lady of the Sonnets' with a suggestion that she may even have have been the Bard herself.

John.Gross.ShylockBut my all-time personal favourite book about Shakespeare is Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy by literary critic and  journalist, John Gross, whose startling  work is partly a history of European attitudes to Jews which concludes that the play, if not the author, is antisemitic.
So the writing of many books, pamphlets and articles about Shakespeare and literary antisemitism continues without end and the latest to be thrown on the heap earlier this year was A History of Anti-Semitism in England by British  lawyer and critic, Anthony Julius which was reviewed recently by Yale Professor Harold Bloom in the New York Times.
Thus Bloom wrote:
"The Jewish Question: British Anti-Semitism
“Anthony Julius has written a strong, sombre book on an appalling subject: the long squalor of Jew-hatred in a supposedly enlightened, humane, liberal society. My first, personal, reflection is to give thanks that my own father, who migrated from Odessa, Russia, to London, had the sense, after sojourning there, to continue on to New York City.
“With a training both literary and legal, Julius is well prepared for the immensity of his task. He is a truth-teller, and authentic enough to stand against the English literary and academic establishment, which essentially opposes the right of the State of Israel to exist, while indulging in the humbuggery that its anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. Endless boycotts of Israel are urged by this establishment, and might yet have produced a counter­-boycott of British universities by many American academics, whether Jewish or not. However, under British law the projected boycotts may be illegal. The fierce relevance of Julius’s book is provoked by this currently prevalent antisemitism.
"An earlier work by Julius, T. S. Eliot: Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, impressed me as the only just and responsible treatment of Eliot’s polite hatred of the Jewish people. Admiring Eliot’s earlier poetry, Julius subtly demonstrated Eliot’s evasion of some modes of antisemitism while extending others. Eliot was not Ezra Pound or Wyndham Lewis, but a great poet indulging a prejudice he himself regarded as a cultural and religious argument ...
"A remarkable solicitor, Julius casts this huge book as a series of trials, not of the Jews but of the English. His indictments tend to be fairly moderate, because only three or four European nations have been more honourable than Britain toward their own Jews, at least since state and popular violence against them ended with the medieval period, when it was dreadful indeed. After many massacres, the expulsion of 1290 effectually ended the Jewish presence in England until they were readmitted under Oliver Cromwell.
“The best chapter ... concerns the cavalcade of antisemitism in English literature, with its monuments in Chaucer’sPrioress’s Tale”, Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” and Dickens’sOliver Twist.” My only criticism of Julius is that he somewhat under­plays the ultimate viciousness both of Shylock and of Shakespeare’s gratuitous invention of the enforced conversion, which was no part of the pound-of-flesh tradition. As an old-fashioned bardo­lator, I am hurt when I contemplate the real harm Shakespeare has done to the Jews for some four centuries now.
“No representation of a Jew in literature ever will surpass Shylock in power, negative eloquence and persuasiveness. A “perplexed unhappiness” is the sensitive response of Julius, but I would urge him to go further. Shakespeare, still competing with the ghost of Christopher Marlowe, implicitly contrasts Shylock with Barabas, “The Jew of Malta” in Marlowe’s tragic farce. I enjoy telling my students: let us contaminate the two plays with one another. Imagine Shylock declaiming: “Sometimes I go about and poison wells” while Barabas intones: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” It is Shakespeare’s continuing triumph over Marlowe that such an exchange will not work. Shylock is darker and deeper forever.
“For Julius, “The Merchant of Venice” is both an antisemitic play and a representation of antisemitism. I dispute the latter: the humanising of Shylock only increases his monstrosity. Who can doubt that he would have slaughtered Antonio if only he could? But I like a fine summary by Julius: “Shylock is an Englishman’s Jew — wicked, malignant but ultimately conquerable.”
Dickens created the second most memorable Jew in his superb Fagin. There is no third figure to compete with Shylock and Fagin, not even Joyce’s Poldy Bloom, whose Jewishness is disputable anyway, marvellous as he is.
“How does one estimate the lasting harm done by Shakespeare’s and Dickens’s egregious Jews? Himself a usurer, Shakespeare must have known how much he had invested in Shylock. Is that why he punishes the Jew with such ignoble humiliation? The zest of Dickens for his urban apocalypses, burned through his own humane sense of fairness. Yet nothing mitigates the destructiveness of the portraits of Shylock and Fagin.
“The greatness of Shakespeare and of Dickens renders their antisemitic masterpieces more troublesome than the litany of lesser but frequently estimable traducers: Thomas Nashe, Daniel Defoe, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Wyndham Lewis, down to the contemporary poet Tom Paulin and the dramatist Caryl Churchill. Ezra Pound scarcely can be blamed upon the English, and T. S. Eliot, despite his conversion in citizenship and faith, remains an American phenomenon, a monument to a past illness, a literary malaise now largely vanished.
“I am grateful to Julius for his calm balance, and I do not ask him to be Philip Roth rather than himself. There is an English passion for the grotesque, of which Shylock and Fagin are among the triumphs. American literary antisemitism is now sparse indeed. The new English (and Continental) antisemitism is hatred for Israel, which among all the nations is declared to be illegitimate. The United States remains almost free of this disease, and any current writer would not be tolerated for portraits like those of Hemingway’s Robert Cohn in “The Sun Also Rises,” Scott Fitzgerald’s Wolfsheim in “The Great Gatsby” or the several Jewish males who are Willa Cather’s villains. This is hardly to congratulate ourselves, but to point out that the United States, despite bigots left and right, does not encourage the genteel anti-Semitism that is woven into the English academic and literary world.
“Early in this book, Julius links antisemitism to sadism. He might have done even more with this, since sado­masochism is something of an English vice, and is so much a school-experience of the upper social class. And yet his chapter on “The Mentality of Modern English Antisemitism” shrewdly relates bullying to the puzzle of what appears to be an incessant prejudice, never to be dispelled.
“At his frequent best, Julius refreshes by a mordant tonality, as when he catalogues the types of English antisemites. The height of his argument comes where his book will be most controversial: his comprehensive account of the newest English antisemitism.
“To protest about the policies of the Israeli government actually can be regarded as true philosemitism, but to disallow the existence of the Jewish state is another matter. Of the nearly 200 recognised nation-states in the world today, something like at least half are more reprehensible than even the worst aspects of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. A curious blindness informs the shifting standards of current English anti-Zionism.
“I admire Julius for the level tone with which he discusses this sanctimonious intelligentsia, who really will not rest until Israel is destroyed.
“I end by wondering at the extraordinary moral strength of Anthony Julius. He concludes by observing: “Anti-Semitism is a sewer.” As he has shown, the genteel and self-righteous “new anti-Semitism” of so many English academic and literary contemporaries emanates from that immemorial stench. "
What a lengthy diatribe! What’s more,  I’m not sure that I agree. It is far too easy either to dismiss The Merchant and Shylock as antisemitic or to claim loftily that the play is not intrinsically anti-Jewish and that it depends much on how and when it is staged. Both arguments are simplistic, ill-formed and futile. The debates about Shakespeare continue to rage: Was he a secret Catholic in Protestant Elizabethan England? Was he bi-sexual? Did he actually write the plays and sonnets? Was he purely a man of theatre – or was he also – as Bloom comments – not only a shrewd businessman but (contrary to contemporary Christian law) also a money lender?The.Merchant.of.Venice.03
In my view, if Shakespeare was all or any of these things they would have given him a special empathy with a character like Shylock. Here, like a successful  artiste of any era, we see a man living on the edge of the society on which he commented;  someone surviving by his wits as he dodged the authorities about his religious status; sexual proclivities and unlawful business dealings.
Further, he was living in a society bound entirely by religion and its values. To behave contrary to the precepts of the Church was to defy the law, so to be alive in Elizabethan and Jacobean England was to be ‘religious’ in a sense that only people living in tight-knit ultra-strict communities could begin comprehend in the modern world. As a result,  ‘antisemitism’ (a political term coined only in the late 19th century) became part of a person’s psyche from an early age in much the same way that the children of fanatical Islamists are taught to rant Jew-hatred from first infancy.
When someone like the essayist and philosopher Francis Bacon (whom some critics believe was the ‘real’ Shakespeare) became philosemitic in latter life, it was much more remarkable than anyone who was a Jew-hater simply because of social norms.
So what do I think?  The Merchant is one of my three favourite Shakespearian plays and the “Hath Not A Jew Eyes?” speech - so underplayed in Pacino’s version as to render it  almost vacant – could not have been written by someone who did not understand how it felt to exist as an unloved outsider. Further, it is almost certain that Shakespeare also  knew people who considered themselves Jewish (see note below) even if they did not – dared not - live as observant  Jews.
Moreover, it is a play, not only about Jew-hatred but of visceral dislike of any outsider. It is about antisemitism and the final words of Shylock’s speech, “The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction” were surely inspired by the customary meretricious mistranslations of several well-known phrases in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 24:19–21, Exodus 21:22–25, and Deuteronomy 19:21) which in truth relate to retribution, not revenge.
But it is also a piece about mercy – the most Jewish of attributes – and that the magnificent speech  given to the Christian Portia is a mirror-image of Shylock’s earlier appeal, is simply further proof of how Christian society often stole Judaism’s most precious values and made them its own.
Was Shakespeare a Jew-hater? No.
Is The Merchant of Venice antisemitic? No. It concerns antisemitism.
But so very sadly and so unfairly, although I don’t believe it was ever the author’s intention, any production of the work will serve to incite further unrest among those who continue to harbour ill-will towards us regardless of truth and reason.
  • The literary critic John Gross tells us in Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy that the Marranos were not the only Jews in Tudor London. A second group arrived during the reign of Henry VIII - musicians from Italy who had been recruited by royal command in order to raise the level of music at court. Unlike the Marranos, they were fairly quickly absorbed into English society. Most of their children married Christian partners and their descendants were unaffected by the expulsion of 1609, when King James I ordered a group of Portuguese merchants in London to leave the country when he learnt that they were secretly practising Judaism.
  • They remained aware of their origins, however, and in the view of historian, Roger Prior, it is likely that all the families concerned continued to think of themselves as in some sense Jewish ‘at least until 1600, and probably beyond’.
  • Gross also suggests that Francis Bacon, the renaissance essayist and philosopher, had become positively philosemitic by the time he wrote his Utopian tract The New Atlantis. “There are Jews as well as Christians on his imaginary island, practising their religion openly and living amicably with their neighbours. One of them, a merchant called Joabin, takes him to meet the father of ‘Salomon’s House’, the secluded scientific institute that was to serve, 35 years later, as an inspiration for the founding of the Royal Society.
  • “Joabin’s prototype was most likely the Jewish mining engineer, Joachim Gaunse, who had had a traditional Jewish upbringing and never made any pretence of being a Christian”.
    Born in Prague, he became a metallurgist (after originally studying the Talmud), and arrived in England in 1581 to advise on the smelting of copper.
  • He introduced striking improvements in the copper-mines at Keswick, Cumbria; he was also, in the words of his fellow-investigator, Thomas Harriot, the ‘mineral man’ on the Roanoke expedition to Virginia in 1585 - 1586, entrusted with the responsibility for prospecting for mineral deposits. These activities brought him into contact with a number of leading Elizabethans, including Burghley — and quite possibly, with Burghley’s nephew, Bacon, who took a strong interest in mining.
  • In 1589, while visiting Bristol, his career was cut short. He was drawn into a dispute with a local clergyman, in the course of which he denied that Jesus was the Son of God. Hauled before the magistrates, he explained that he had been raised as a Jew, and reaffirmed that he was unable to accept the central tenets of Christianity.
  • A problematic case, which didn’t fall under the usual laws against heresy. The Bristol authorities decided to send him to London, to be examined by the Privy Council — at which point he disappears from history. It seems likely that any charges against him were dropped, on condition that he left the country.
  • In spite of its abrupt termination, Gaunse’s career was a portent. He was an early example of a Jew who found social acceptance on the neutral ground of science and technology. And it was a nascent industrial capitalism which gave him his opportunities. The Company of the Mines Royal, which employed him, was the first company formed in England (in 1568) for the purposes of The.Merchant.of.Venice.02manufacture, as opposed to trading, says Gross.

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