the foundations of oppression can't be plucked up without the anger of a multitude

The Merchant of Venice – Globe to Globe festival 29th May

with 5 comments

First, a word on the boycott issue to get it out of the way. So companies from all over the world are doing short runs of Shakespeare plays at the Globe. Habima, the Israeli National Theatre, with boring predictably that seemed not in the ‘overcoming prejudice and stereotypes’ spirit of the festival at all, chose The Merchant of Venice because that’s the one with a Jew in it. I went because my dad wanted to go.

The argument for The Globe to ‘boycott’ or not allow Habima to take part in the festival runs, in my head at least, something like this:

Habima are funded by the Israeli government. By inviting them to perform, you are giving legitimacy to the actions of the government, their funders.

Which is OK up to a point but boycotting the arts tends only to limit freedom of expression and marginalise alternative voices still further.

Also, why not, if you’re on that sort of thing, boycott the arts of other countries who occupy Arab or Muslim lands? Such as the U.S. and Britain for what they’ve done in Iraq and Afghanistan or Morocco for Western Sahara. Should we not also be boycotting the work of Cheryl Cole, David Jason, Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff, Katherine Jenkins, David Beckham, Gary Lineker, Ross Noble, Rhod Gilbert, Jason Manford, Lee Evans and Tim Westwood[1] who have all gone out to meet or perform for the British Army in Afghanistan – thereby conveying ‘legitimacy’ to that particular occupation? Why just Israeli artists? I can think of some possible answers, but none of them look that pretty.

The anti-Israel campaign leaflets that I picked up at the theatre did not make the legitimacy argument. They say that Habima performs in “settler only ‘Halls of Culture’ from which Palestinians are excluded” and that Emma Thompson says no to Israel.

Well, that’s not very good, is it? Not that I care very much what Emma Thompson thinks about international relations. But, I agree it would be nicer if Habima decided actively to take a political stance against Israeli settlement in Palestinian areas. And is it OK to ask again if anyone asked whether the Turkish Oyun Atölyesi stood up for Kurdistan? Has the National Theatre of China defended the independence of Tibet?

The protest outside wasn’t up to much. Lots of English people waving Palestinian flags and chanting. Inside it was OK. At regular intervals throughout the play, people in the audience (who presumably had had to swallow their morals and support Habima by paying The Globe £5), shouted out their messages – the best, and most predictable coming during Shylock’s famous speech when someone shouted “If you prick a Palestinian, does he not bleed?” or something similar. It meant that it was hard for the audience to forget about the Palestinian issue too long.

The counter-protest was (to take a generous view) badly planned. To protest against people protesting for a boycott which was never going to happen anyway … people stood around waving Israeli flags. Unfortunately, say the Zionists, the EDL jumped on the bandwagon and in among the Magen Davids flew some Union Jacks. This is not unfortunate. The anti-anti-Israel people brought it on themselves. Yes, the EDL want to gain that precious ‘legitimacy’ thing themselves by using support for a religious minority as a cover to shout at Arabs (or, in this case, supporters of Arabs).  But they could only do so because Zionists wrapping themselves in a national flag and chanting at Arabs is so damn similar to the EDL’s own blind nationalism that a happy home could be found for the fascists. You don’t get EDL parading around on Stop The War marches or joining the consensus decision making meetings at Climate Camp.

Why didn’t the anti-anti-Israel people make some ‘Shalom / Salaam’ banners or do a peace dance or something? Anything a bit different to the Palestinian flag-waving people. It’s like the Anti-Nazi League, all fired up and shouting at the skinheads who are doing exactly the same back at them. To be fair, there were some badges with ‘art unites, boycotts divide’ on them. Which was nice, but didn’t appear to be true by the look of things tonight. And, the Met police and the Israeli security confiscated the badges on entry.

Anyway, this has gone on too long. We need a blog post about the play and the production not the endless Israel debate. Watch this space…

Written by angrysampoetry

May 30, 2012 at 1:37 am

Posted in Books / Poetry

5 Responses

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  1. I find your rationale for imagining why Habima chose The Merchant of Venice – because it’s ‘the one with a Jew in it’, reductive and, frankly, ignorant of the considerable significance this play and the character of Shylock have. Shylock is the most famous Jewish character in Western literature (Fagin comes a distant second) and is (this varies with performance) written as a grotesque, greedy and threatening Jew obsessed with spilling the blood of a Christian – perpetuating the greatest anti-semitic myth of history; the blood libel, through the inherent narrative structure. Just because this performance occurred in 2012 does not mean the problematic anti-Semitism of the play is no longer relevant, nor does it mean that re-authorship of the play by Jews in order to revoke Shakespeare’s negative portrayal of ‘Jewishness’ is not worthwhile.

    Jo Gewitz

    May 30, 2012 at 2:14 am

  2. Thanks for the comment. It was a bit reductive, yeah. However, it was also a bit reductive of Habima to choose ‘Merchant of Venice’ as though anti-semitism is the only thing Israeli artists can talk about. Shylock is quite often – as he was by Habima – overplayed. He is not the merchant of the title. He only appears in 4 scenes and has gone by Act V. Like Falstaff in ‘Henry IV’, he is the most memorable for being the most individual, the most unrefined, most immoral, in some ways most human character in the play. We are obsessed with him partly because of this, but mainly because we, post-eugenics, have an existential, hypocritical and deeply troubled relationship to racism.

    So it is also reductive to think of the ‘MoV’ as being about Shylock. I think Shylock should be put in context with other ‘foreign’ stage-villains of the time. Of course with Barabas from Marlow’s ‘Jew of Malta’, but also with Aaron from ‘Titus Andronicus’ and Franceschina from Marston’s ‘Dutch Courtesan’. More to follow.

    (As for being “ignorant” about Shylock’s “significance” … I don’t trouble myself too much with what racists think)

    P.S. What about Leopold Bloom for ‘famous’ Jews in Western literature? Or are we only allowed to remember the anti-semitic ones?

    P.P.S. Shakespeare, either as an innate conservative or as a man with one wary eye to the assassination of Marlow, uses the ‘inherent narrative structure’ of his plays to reinforce a whole load of unpleasant myths: class, sex and race. Good kings restore peace to the kingdom, cross-dressing women get married to newly repentant sexists, a black man gets buried up to his neck in sand and a Jew converts to Christianity. However, it’s the bits underneath the suface details that are worth paying attention to.


    May 30, 2012 at 10:56 am

  3. Your views are at odds with your expressed desire to speak in the spirit of the oppressed multitudes. Considering that the points you raise have been answered time and again by the boycott campaign, I am not sure how deep your political anger runs. You don’t appear to have done any research into the issues the campaign raises, or even to have spoken to any of the protesters.

    I am one of the protesters, a co-founder of British Writers in Support of Palestine ( and also a paid up member of the Free Burma campaign. One of the co-organisers of the protest recently organised a festival of Syrian artists, promoting their freedom of expression. To imply as you do with your remark about ‘unpretty’ reasons, that we target Israel because we are anti-Semitic is as offensive as it is lazy. Are you remotely aware of how many Jewish groups are active in the boycott of Israel?

    In addition, boycott is a strategy, not a principle. Of course other countries have terrible human rights records, and certainly as a matter of individual conscience many pro-Pal campaigners will also boycott events or products that glorify the US or UK. But the people in Arab countries oppressed by our own goverment have not yet issued a comprehensive boycott call against us, as the Palestinians have done against Israel. One reason for this is that boycott is a useful tool against Israel because the economy is quite small (compared to that of the US and UK), and ‘culture’ is one of its prime exports. Because the Palestinians – 170 grassroots organisations – issued the call, if you dismiss it, you are dismissing not a bunch of ‘English people waving flags’, but the very oppressed people you claim to be angry on behalf of …

    I suggest you visit the site of the call and acquaint yourself with its history and context: I would also add that if the boycott succeeds then it will help set a precedent for the use of such embargoes against other regimes.

    Furthermore, cultural boycott is part and parcel of the campaign because in a capitalist system art is a product like any other, and in any case artists aren’t above the law. In addition, the campaign targets only state-sponsored culture, so individual artists are never silenced: they are asked to be creative and find ways of performing that don’t make them complicit in state brutality.

    In the case of Habima, you don’t seem too ‘angry’ that the theatre actively breaks international law. Shouldn’t they be punished for this, not rewarded? Defenders of Habima argue that they don’t want to play in settlements, but they ‘have to’ because they get their funding from the govt. So much for ‘free expression’. It is exactly this corruption of artistic vision and moral principles that the boycott exists to expose.

    Naomi Foyle

    May 30, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    • Thanks Naomi, I like this response a lot! You take me to task for not being on the side of the oppressed multitude and quite rightly so. It’s too easy to dismiss protests as ineffective when there are strong forces dedicated to the prevention of effective protest. Strategies and tools are important. You’re right that I should have read more than the leaflets handed out at the event and talked more to the people handing them out. Like you say, I’m lazy.

      Some points in response.

      I am not angry that anyone breaks international law. Cutlure may well be a capitalist product, but law is no better. It defends vested interests and privilege. At best it is a defence of the weak in a deeply unequal situation. I don’t like formalised, untouchable codes of behaviour. I am angry that people offend morality.

      I would like to see a borderless world where people co-exist on the principles of fraternity and cooperation. It’s not about to happen, but I am yet to be convinced that it would be any worse an idea to try to make it happen than to carry on as we are. I naively believe that the means should not be separate from the ends. For now, within a statist reality, I think the Israeli government should – for moral reasons and for its own future – change its policies and stop pretending that it’s the Palestinians who aren’t a ‘partner for peace’. I don’t think Habima needs to be ‘punished’ but I think protesters had good reasons to challenge them or not give them their money.

      As for why people in the U.K choose Israel. I said the reasons aren’t pretty. You suspect I’m accusing you of anti-semitism – something you are probably a little tired of being accused of. As you picked on it, here is something about what I suspect:

      1. It is difficult to stand alone inside your own country against the tide of popular opinion and public discourse. Calling for a boycott of Cheryl Cole or Tim Westwood would not win you many friends. It is easier to support causes from afar.

      2. Israel / Palestine has a greater hold on the world’s imagination than e.g. Morocco / W.Sahara because of Christian ideas of the holy land and because it epitomises a conflict of white vs. non white, european vs. south … except that Jews aren’t quite white and aren’t quite european so it’s easier to condemn, guilt-free.

      The fact that diaspora Jewish people and Arab people care about the state of Israel’s moral choices is a quite natural piece of partisanship. The fact that non-Jewish, non-arab British people devote more energy to that cause than to the problems of their own neo-colonial government and its occupying armies needs some explaining – probably on a socio-psychological-historical, rather than an individual level.

      Thanks again for your comments and for the link to the website. Sorry for being lazy!

      P.S. I am pleased to note that in the 2 response to this post, I have now been accused of not taking anti-semitism seriously enough AND of being too sensitive to it!


      May 31, 2012 at 1:20 am

      • Hi Sam, thanks for being so refreshingly open to critcism! And for your further thoughts. To which I will reply first that British people have a particular responsibility to work toward a just peace in Israel-Palestine because from the Balfour Declaration (1917) through the end of the British Mandate – when we abandoned the Palestinians to their fate – to the pro-Israel zeal of Michael Gove, our government has been deeply complicit in the Zionist colonial enterprise. This is not just an intellectual assessment of the situation – many Palestinians are still very bitter about their betrayal by the British, as Mark Thomas experienced on his ‘rambles’ along the apartheid Wall. I have myself just returned from the West Bank, where two older Palestinian gentlemen I met rather sternly informed me that my government had created the mess they were in. (Younger Palestinians were more interested in which football team I supported.) Naturally, I completely agreed with my interlocuters.

        As for international law, well it would be great if people could just behave decently to each other, but unfortunately they don’t tend to. I personally think that if we had a fair economic system, crimes of all kinds would be greatly reduced, but even so people, emotional beings that we are, would probably still be aggressive to each other at times. Justice is a powerful concept because all societies need some kind of system to rebalance wrongs, and hopefully change the behavior of wrongdoers. Ideally, laws should be codified moral judgments, not ways of protecting the rich and powerful. A good legal system should also be flexible, and able to evolve as cultures change.

        Currently we have reached the stage as a species where we feel able to hold states to account, and though international law and human rights legislation is very weakly applied, nevertheless it offers an arena in which political conflicts can be addressed in a rational way. In any case, international legal decisions regarding the settlements and the Wall have corresponded with the moral judgments I expect you would make about these acts of theft and collective punishment. The legal decisions are there, and the Palestinians are just asking for them to be enforced. They are the ones who are imprisoned by Israeli laws, and if they choose to seek redress in higher courts, I respect that path of action.

        Naomi Foyle

        June 1, 2012 at 3:52 pm

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