In his Introduction to a reissue of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, published by Bantam Books in 1981, Jewish author Irving Howe directs the reader’s attention, for nearly four pages, to modern Jewish polemics surrounding Dickens’ Fagin, an archetypical Jewish villain. As preface to the novel, readers are served a mini-history of Jewish objections to the Fagin character. A Jewish woman, it seems, had even written a complaint to Dickens that the character was too negatively stereotypical. Dickens wrote back to her, saying, “Fagin is a Jew because it is unfortunately true, of the time to which the story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was Jewish.” (A real life model for Dickens may have been Ikey Solomon who had undergone a much-publicized trial in England a few years before the book was written.)
Of course the disturbing precedent Howe’s framing of the novel sets (for those who have the power to enforce such things) is that any literature must be subject to polemical rebuttal in a kind of aggrieved “class action” to begin (and essentially merge with and reframe) the original writing itself. Hence, a major literary work becomes — first and foremost — a polemical lecture on Jewish history and identity.
One of the most famous negative portrayals of Jews in English literature is the avaricious moneylender Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which was written in the late 1590s. Shylock reflects the prevailing Christian perception of Jews: he is greedy, usurious, villainous, fraudulent, exploitative, and cruel. His radical isolation from the Christian community in Venice is voluntary: “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you” (Merchant of Venice 1.3.29-32).
As early as 1912 Jewish American organizations were successfully lobbying the College Entrance Examination Board to remove The Merchant of Venice as a required reading for its tests. As Nathan Belth explains, “school superintendents in all cities of 10,000 population or more” were then lobbied by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith to remove the text from study, and “between 1917 and 1920 many school systems discontinued study of the play.”
“The most effective way of making the play acceptable to post-Holocaust sensibilities,” Jewish critic John Gross writes, “in the view of many directors, is to underscore the prejudices of the Christian characters, and generally show them in an ugly light.” In some productions of the play, Shylock is even completely reconstituted, as in Arnold Wesker’s version, where Shylock becomes “scholarly, impetuous, and warm-hearted.” In 1999, the Los Angeles Jewish Times reported, an actor on tour from South Africa, Percy Sieff, portrayed Shylock as “a worldly, successful businessman who has become embittered by discrimination and compensated by focusing on money.” One French critic, Pierre Spriet, has even gone so far as to dismiss the play entirely, suggesting the work is so anti-Semitic that “it must be abandoned.”
In 1980s the Canadian Jewish Congress intervened in a planned performance of The Merchant of Venice by the Stratford Festival. The play was finally performed, but only, notes Jewish activist Sol Littman, after it was agreed that “care would be taken to make sure that the representation of Shylock steered clear of crude stereotyping and — best of all — that the festival would arrange seminars for young theater-goers to explain the historical context of the play and the social prejudices of the period.”
Similarly, in 1994 Rabbi Richard Litvak spearheaded a protest of a performance of The Merchant by a Shakespearean theater group in Santa Cruz, California. Jewish lobbying resulted in a plan for “discussion groups” and “program notes” to express Jewish concerns about the Shylock character. Rabbi Litvak noted the effect of Jewish protest, which turned the performance of a Shakespeare play into something else: “The director and the festival have expressed a commitment to try to make the play a vehicle for raising awareness of anti-Semitism.”
“It was with great trepidation that I agreed to undertake the responsibility of commenting on yet another production of William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice,” wrote censorial Jewish professor Racelle Weinman in 2001. “In this instance the venue is the PBS Masterpiece Theatre series. . . . I have come to the conclusion that the Holocaust negates the untenable premise of The Merchant of Venice. It should not be produced.”
Shakespeare’s Shylock embodies, in a dramatic character, a number of stereotypical traits that Christian Europe often attributed to Jews: exclusiveness and self-imposed ethnic separation, fueled by a powerful ethnocentrism, from the larger society around them; exploitation and manipulation of gentiles; double moral standards for Jews and non-Jews, etc. Nowadays to impute such traits to Jews is deemed “anti-Semitic,” which is not much different from declaring that the stereotypes that Shakespeare’s character embodies are false and groundless. Shylock becomes therefore an expression of bigotry and prejudice, a libel having no real basis in historical reality.
Yet it is a fact that the closest parallels in our own time to the Orthodox Jews of Renaissance Europe are the black-clad, self-cloistered Orthodox Hasidim of which there are today hundreds of thousands in Israel and America. If we want to understand Shakespeare’s Shylock, we can profitably look to his counterparts in our own era.
The ultra-Orthodox Hasidic movement, which was created in the 1700s and represents a particular back-to-basics strand of Judaism, eventually numbered about half of the Eastern European Jewish population. David Berger writes that “with the dawn of the 19th century, Hasidism . . . became the dominant form of Judaism in much of Eastern Europe, the heartland of 19th-century Jewry.”
The perceptions by many secular Jews today — most particularly in Israel — of the self-segregated Hasidim (also called Haredi) communities are very similar to the anti-Jewish stereotypes common in medieval and Renaissance Europe. An Israeli professor, Menachem Friedman, notes the characterization of these Ultra-Orthodox talmudists by secular fellow Jews in Israel: “The alienation and isolation of the Haredim, their eagerness to claim exemption from service in the Israeli army, their demands for increasing allocations for their society of scholars and sometimes unrestrained use of political power arouses resentment and even hatred among large sections of the Israeli public.”
“Hatred of the ultra-Orthodox has deep roots [in Israel],” Israeli critic Laor Yitzhak wrote in 1998. “There is no offense so great that one cannot tag it on the Haredim — especially the guy with the black hat, frock coat, and side curls beloved of modern anti-Semites. . . . ‘Death to the black hatters’ is scribbled on toilet doors at the Tel Aviv School of Humanities; if fliers showing Haredi children and screaming ‘Kill them while they’re young!’ are being distributed in Kfar Saba, then it is those who participate in fomenting hatred against the Haredi minority who must prove there is not something behind their behavior frighteningly like anti-Semitism.”
In 1986 the Jerusalem Post reported an Israeli poll that found one-fourth of its secular Jewish respondents called the Ultra-Orthodox — who like their ancestral counterparts have retreated into self-created ghettos, even in Israel — “opportunists, liars, and charlatans.” “There is much hostility to the Orthodox rabbinate among the majority (about 70% of the Jewish population) of secular Israeli Jews,” says Adam Garfinkel. “They see the rabbis as coercive and intolerant . . . excessively political and unspiritual . . . seeming never to have a word to say about kindness, humility, and God’s love for humanity. . . . To be blunt, some secular Israelis see the haredim as fanatical atavistic freeloaders who have yet to discover modern hygiene.”
In 2000, the results of study by Jerusalem’s Hebrew University about “hate” in 168 secular Israeli schools indicated that “47% of the [secular] Jewish students hate haredim.” A Jewish religious organization, Ahavat Israel, has even posted an entire section at its Internet site about what it calls “anti-Semitism in Israel”:
Today, the attack upon the religious Jewish population is most heavily felt in the Israeli media, including newspapers, radio and TV . . . In a recent 9 (Dec 98) column, Israel Eichler charges that many of the stereotypes used by the Nazis against Jews have been translated into Hebrew and employed to delegitimize the haredi (religious) public . . . [Meretz political party founder] Shulamit Aloni described the haredi population as “suck[ing] from the same sinister passions which nurtured the Nazis” . . . “We have to storm Mea She’arim [a famous Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox enclave] with machine guns and mow them down,” recommends left-wing darling Uri Avneri. “I would take all those weird people from Shas, Aguda, and Degel Hatorah and tie all their beards together and light a match,” says Popolitika’s Amnon Danker. Yonaten Gefen announces his willingness to cast the first stone in the intifada [uprising] against haredim, and Prof. Uri Arnon tells a Kol Ha’ir interviewer, “Haredim should be suspended on an electricity pole”. . . . Today ‘bloodsucker’ is a favored term for haredim. . . . “Parasite” has become used so frequently in connection with haredim that the two have become virtually synonymous. . . . “When I see the haredim surrounded by their large families, I understand the Nazis,” wrote sculptor Yigal Tumarkin — a statement which did not prevent him from being honored by Yad Vashem [Israel’s Holocaust memorial center]. And Tommy Lapid sees the haredim as having usurped the traditional Jewish role of “taking advantage of the gentile, trading in his blood, and laughing at him,” only this time with the secular [Jewish] public in the role of the gentile.
In 2000, the Cleveland Jewish News reported that, in Israel, “there have been many instances of anti-haredi graffiti on haredi synagogues, and even, in 1998, the torching of two haredi classrooms in Pardess Hanna, where local secular [Jewish] residents tried to keep haredim from moving into their neighborhood.”
Evelyn Kaye, a woman raised in an Orthodox Jewish community in New York, wrote in 1987 an indicting volume, The Hole in the Sheet, about her life within it and the religiously enforced racism of the ancient sages that still holds firm in Jewish communities to our present day. The foundation of “being Jewish” against the rest of humanity is manifest in the fundamentally hostile attitudes towards non-Jews. Kaye writes that
the mark of a truly devout Hasidic or Orthodox Jew, as well as many other Jews, is an unquestioned hatred of non-Jews. This is the foundation of ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic philosophy. . . . There is a complete litany of all the terrible things about non-Jews which apply to every single one and which are believed implicitly by the Orthodox. . . . [T]he essence of anti-Goyimism is passed to Jewish children with their mother’s milk, and then nurtured, fed and watered carefully into a full-blown phobia throughout their lives. In order to avoid being contaminated by these terrible creatures, the Ultra-Orthodox go out of their way to avoid them. . . . Children . . . manage to grow up without seeing one of these dangerous people close up. Their attitudes are then perfectly formed. They know whom to hate.
In the 1990s, secular Jewish professor Stephen Bloom tried to connect to his Jewish heritage via a Chabad Lubavitcher (ultra-Orthodox/Hasidic) community in the little town of Postville, Iowa. He went there with the legends of Jewish historic identity and was stunned by what he found. Jews in the Iowa town, Bloom observed in his book Postville, don’t want to touch gentiles, they resist eye contact with them as they walk down the street, they have no knowledge or interest in gentile life around them, they appeared “obnoxious and imperial” to local people, they cheat local merchants, and they use oil in their candelabras because oil, which doesn’t mix with other liquid, symbolizes Jewish separateness from all others. “Wherever we go,” one Chabad leader said, “we don’t adapt to the place or the people. It’s always been like that and always will be like that. It’s the place and the people who have to adapt to us.”
“Postville people, by and large, were tolerant,” says Bloom, “. . . [but the Hasidic Jews] were downright rude. They seemed to go out of their way to be obnoxious, especially when it came to business dealings. . . . At first, the locals welcomed the Jews, but even the simplest offer — a handshake, an invitation to afternoon tea — was spurned. The locals quickly discovered that the Jews wouldn’t even look at them. They refused to acknowledge even the presence of anyone not Jewish.”
Bloom’s book explored taboo topics such as bargaining, poor hygiene, atrocious manners, disrepair of homes, Jewish elitism, sexism, crime and prejudice directed at gentiles. Bloom writes:
In response, I’ve received dozens of hate letters, all from Orthodox Jewish readers . . . To these readers, to criticize any aspect of Judaism is patently unacceptable. To them, I wasn’t a journalist doing my job. I was a self-loathing Jew, the worst kind of anti-Semite. I was embarrassing the family. . . . When journalists parachuted into Postville, if the locals said anything bad — or even neutral — about the Hasidic Jews, the response was swift and to the point. Mayor John Hyman was labeled an anti-Semite when he told a reporter for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that the Jews in Postville don’t pay their bills on time [which Bloom found to be a true assessment].
What does all this mean? The foundation of animosity (labeled as “anti-Semitism”) towards “traditional” Jewish behavior, as most clearly manifested today by the cloistered, seclusionist, Jewish haredim/hasidic communities — a behavior that was a mainstay for centuries for all Jews in Europe — is so great that even other (secularized) Jews today express vehement disdain and outrage towards their obsessively “particularist” and exploitive fellows. And this is crucial: today’s haredim merely reflect meticulous attention to the ages-old religious laws of Jewish orthodoxy. As Michael Govrin notes, living under the Halacha — Jewish religious law — “until two hundred years ago was the only way a Jew could define him or herself.”