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Shylock’s legacy – UConn professor lifts the curtain on “the oldest hatred” in modern British drama

By Cindy Mindell

STAMFORD – In scholarly discussions about The Merchant of Venice, one question that often arises is whether William Shakespeare created the stereotypical Jewish character of Shylock to express his own personal antisemitic views or to reflect the antisemitic sentiment of his time. Whatever his motivation, Shakespeare continues to stoke the antisemitic imagination to this day, with “Shylock” still used as a synonym for “loan shark.”

The Jewish characters appearing in the works of some contemporary British playwrights are just as broadly drawn, and are created as a vehicle to present a distorted history of Israel and the Palestinians. This growing artistic phenomenon is the current research focus of Dr. Liora Brosh, who will present her findings in “Counterhistory: Anti-Semitism in Contemporary British Drama” on Thursday, Oct. 15, as part of the UConn Stamford Center for Judaic and Middle Eastern Studies’ Lunch and Learn lecture series.

Brosh teaches at UConn-Stamford and New York University, and is the author of Screening Novel Women: From British Domestic Fiction to Film (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

At the heart of Brosh’s talk is Caryl Churchill’s controversial play, Seven Jewish Children, first performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2009. The play presents Jewish parents weighing what they will or won’t tell their child at what she presents as seven key moments in Jewish history.

First, a quick etymology lesson: The term “counterhistory” is used in postcolonial theory to describe a rewriting of conventional history that exposes the ugly workings of terror and power in colonial settings, Brosh explains. “For example, Churchill reveals the brutal psychological dynamics of Victorian British colonialism in her acclaimed 1979 play, Cloud Nine, currently being performed in revival at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater in New York.”

“However, while Churchill probably thinks of her play about Jews as a postcolonial counterhistory, it is really a counterhistory in a much more dark and troubling way,” Brosh says. “It distorts and falsifies Jewish history. Distorting Jewish history in order to demonize Jews has always been a central feature of antisemitism. Seven Jewish Children begins with Jews oppressed and frightened by the Holocaust and ends with Israelis gloating over killing Palestinians. This is a particularly noxious form of counterhistory. By starting the play with Nazi oppression and ending with Israeli oppression, [Churchill’s] play veers close to what scholars of antisemitism call ‘Holocaust inversion.’ Though Churchill’s play is more subtle and indirect than most Holocaust inversion, the play does imply that Jews have become similar to Nazis. Of course, Jewish history begins in the Middle East and not during the Holocaust, but this distortion serves Churchill’s agenda.”

Brosh will address other distortions in Churchill’s work; for example, an Israeli character says that Israel had been “a land without people” before the Jews arrived. “[That] is a well-known fake ‘quotation,’” Brosh says. “This statement is attributed to the Zionist movement at various hate websites and by anti-Zionist writers, but this was actually never said by Jewish Zionists. So, one part of my talk will look at ways Churchill falsifies history in order to demonize her Jewish characters.”

Brosh contrasts Churchill’s play with David Hare’s 1998 play about Israel and the Palestinians, Via Dolorosa, referenced in Seven Jewish Children.

“David Hare wrote his play after visiting Israel and talking to a broad spectrum of Israelis and Palestinians,” Brosh says. “While it has a strong bias, it still includes references to real Jewish history and incorporates a number of Israeli perspectives. The Jewish characters in Caryl Churchill’s play, in contrast, are not rooted in any kind of real Israeli history. The whole play consists only of a group of shifty Jews struggling to find the right lie to tell their children in order to justify what she presents as the violent thieving and oppression of Palestinians. While some of David Hare’s characters are criticized, Caryl Churchill’s are demonized. This is a subtle and important distinction marking the difference between a play that is critical of Israel and a play that is antisemitic.”

Antisemitism, or anti-Judaism, is not a new meme of British literature, appearing in the works of some of the greatest British writers.

“Chaucer’s blood libel, ‘The Prioress’s Tale’ in The Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist are very central to the British literary tradition,” she says. “Adverse representations of Jewish characters in works as popular as Oliver Twist and The Merchant of Venice leave a cultural mark, a tradition of ways of representing Jews that, consciously or not, influences later writers. Although the literary discourses used to represent Jews change over time, there are some stereotypes that remain consistent. The blood libel motif, for example, appears to a lesser or great extent in all three of these great literary works and also in Seven Jewish Children.”

This “evolution” of anti-Jewish themes in British theater reflects the way antisemitism has mutated over time.

“As Robert Wistrich and other scholars of antisemitism have noted, antisemitism is a highly malleable form of bigotry that has often changed over its long history,” Brosh says. “For example, as we all know, it changed from being a religious-based animosity towards Jews to a hatred based on racial theories. Today, antisemitism usually doesn’t challenge the rights of Jews to be equal members of the non-Jewish societies in which they live. Instead, as Robert Wistrich has said, it denies ‘the rights of the Jewish people to live as an equal member within the family of nations.’ Contemporary antisemitism targets Israel as the ‘collective Jew’ among the nations. The creation of Israel has been the most significant event in modern Jewish history and Israel is central to contemporary Jewish identity and cultural life. Hence, much contemporary antisemitism is directed at demonizing and delegitimizing this Jewish achievement.”

Seven Jewish Children and My Name is Rachel Corrie are the most recent plays completely focused on presenting Israel counterhistorically, “through a distorted lens that demonizes Israelis and strips their reality of its tragedies, dangers, and complexities,” Brosh says. “However, there is a similar dynamic at work even in other contexts. When the Royal Shakespeare Company recently produced The Merchant of Venice, it chose an actor they identified as an Israeli-Palestinian for the role of Shylock. In the HD screening of the play, shown throughout the world, the performance was prefaced by an interview with the actor in which he said of Israelis, ‘They stole my house; they stole my land.’ The Royal Shakespeare Company presented The Merchant of Venice as a play that criticized the intolerance of the Christian characters towards the Jewish character, Shylock. However, by having Shylock identified as a Palestinian, the production, like Caryl Churchill’s, was employing a troubling inversion. It equated its oppressive Christian characters with Jews. A play already replete with antisemitism was given yet a new twist making it even more problematic.”

This theatrical device is just another modern-day expression of an ancient phenomenon.

“Today, when playwrights present Israelis as blood-thirsty, vengeful, child-killing liars, they are working within a pre-existing Western discourse about Jews,” Brosh says. “Part of the answer to why antisemitism persists has to do with the fact that Judaism is so central to the Western tradition. As Western culture grappled with or distanced itself from its Jewish roots, it often cast Jews in a negative light. In medieval blood libels, Jews were killers of Christian children, for the Protestant Martin Luther, Jews were liars, and for Shakespeare, Jews were out to get their pound of flesh, choosing vengeance over mercy. The image of blood-thirsty Israelis lying and stealing what belongs to others could ring true to playwrights and their audiences because it is familiar, because it is an image of the Jew that echoes similar representations that have existed in Western culture for centuries.”

UConn-Stamford Center for Judaic and Middle Eastern Studies’ Fall 2015 Lunch & Learn Lecture Series: “Counterhistory: Anti-Semitism in Contemporary British Drama” with Dr. Liora Brosh: Thursday, Oct. 15, 12 noon-1:30 pm. Preregistration required: stamfordjudaicstudies@uconn.edu / (203) 251-9525.

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