Judges on a UK Employment Tribunal have dismissed as “not well-founded” Ronnie Fraser’s case against the University & College Union (UCU) for “institutional anti-Semitism.” The UCU’s shameful track record: passing an assembly line of inflammatory anti-Israel resolutions that, in effect, created a hostile environment in which union members like Fraser sympathetic to Zionism were demonized as “racists.” Here’s these three judicial wise men’s reasoning that such hateful treatment was kosher: “a belief in the Zionist project or an attachment to Israel cannot amount to a protected characteristic.” (Much more can and will be said about this ruling. See, for example, Leslie Klaff’s excellent post on this blog about it.)
In other words, anti-Zionist vitriol, however loathsome, is not anti-Semitism, whatever may think the overwhelming majority of world Jewry, including of British Jews. Statistics in the end may not matter, but historic heart-felt convictions do.
In the UK, as Cole Porter might have played on the piano, “Anything Goes” when it comes to defamation of Judaism and Jews—the judges left up in the air what exactly they would consider “anti-Semitism”—while any pointed criticism of Islam or Muslims may get you on the criminal docket. (If Salman Rushdie came out today with The Satanic Verses—assuming he could find a publisher in the UK—would he be in hiding or rather in custody?)
Fraser was defended by famed solicitor Anthony Julius. Julius is also a distinguished historian of English anti-Semitism—which his book, Trials of the Diaspora, argues is particularly “literary” in inspiration, from before Shylock, to Dickens’ Fagin, and beyond. Indeed today, Julius may feel as if he has just performed in a courtroom sequel to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
In that play, Shylock—the usurious Jew whose bloodthirsty, pitiless, greedy disposition mirrors that of his “tribe”—had a fool for a client when he tried to use Venetian law to exact “a pound of flesh” from his rival and tormentor. It is Christian Antonio—not Shylock the Jew—who is the righteous, loving, and generous “merchant of Venice.” Though Fraser had a superlative lawyer in Anthony Julius, this did not forestall a judgment against him that it is justifiable hyperbole to call a modern, milder, politically correct version of the Venetian Court’s judgment stripping Shylock of at least half is fortune in addition to his daughter Jessica, and giving him the choice of conversion or death.
Sentimental stagings of The Merchant—like the 2004 movie version starring Al Pacino that Ron Rosenbaum dubbed “The Usurer on the Roof”—have always downplayed the play’s anti-Semitism while playing up Shylock’s self-pitying lament:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands,
organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same
food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases,
heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter
and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? . . .
And if you wrong us, do we not revenge?
As recent Merchant mavens including Stephen J. Greenblatt, James Shapiro, Janet Adelman, and David Nirenberg have shown, “humanizing” productions invariably hide Shakespeare’s overriding purpose in exploring permeable early modern boundaries of religion, race, and nationality in order ultimately to re-harden them—with Shylock locked on the ignominious side of the distinctions between redeemed and reprobate, citizen and alien, generous soul and vengeful scoundrel.
Thus the portentous opening question asked by Antonio’s advocate Portia, disguised in male attire as a Doctor of Law: “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” From the vicious controversy over the Jew Bill of 1753 that had legalized the naturalization of Jews only to be repealed the next year, to the bitter opposition to the admission of Lionel Rothschild to Parliament a century later, law and politics imitated literature in England where Shakespeare’s question was transmuted into: “Which is the Englishman here, and which the Jew?”
Now, three English judges take it upon themselves to define “who is the Jew” telling Ronnie Fraser “to include himself out” (to paraphrase Sam Goldwyn) of the “protected” category. His Zionism—despite three thousand years of Jewish attachment to the Holy Land, reinforced in the last century by the terrible lesson the Holocaust taught about the Jews’ survival need for “the insurance policy” of the New Zion—don’t qualify as core Jewish.
It may seem that the three judges asked a more benign question—”which is the Jew, and which the Zionist?”—than Shakespeare. To these Jesuitical jurists (is that a protected or unprotected slur?), the “Jew” belongs to a “protected” class, while it is open season only on the “Zionist.” One problem with this is that who’s protected and from what is uncertain in the opinion, while the disowning of “Zionism” as not part of “Judaism” is clear-cut.
Shakespeare’s Shylock—betrayed and robbed by his own child—initially has difficulty deciding what was more important: “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!” Ultimately, he places revenge in higher regard than either his daughter or his 3,000 ducats. He was Shakespeare’s personification of the murderous Jew, albeit only a wannabe executioner—the antithesis of the bible’s reluctant Abraham, so relieved not to have to wield the knife.
In the twenty-first century, Jews need yet again to unite against new false projections evolving from Shakespeare’s own, this time by those who, whether legal or literary deconstructors of the promises to the Hebrew patriarchs, would rob us of the right to protect ourselves—and, yes, our “tribe”—against new threats to Jewish self-definition and survival. We do not seek—and never sought—a “pound of flesh,” but neither should we offer ourselves up anew on the sacrificial altar of “non-Jew” defining “Jew.”