Time to invoke Shylock in defence of Israel

By Eric Lee, March 12, 2009

I call it “my Shylock moment” and it’s happening more and more. I’ve had the opportunity three times in the last few weeks to represent the Israeli point of view in public debates. As you can imagine, it’s not an easy task. The audiences — two British universities and at a TV studio in London — are overwhelmingly hostile.

The questions repeat themselves, as do my answers. And every time, there’s one person whose question is a little bit different; this is what triggers the Shylock moment.

The questioner will speak softly. Their face will show real concern, even pain. And what you’ll hear is not an accusation, but a real question, because the person is genuinely confused.

They will say something like this: “I’ve been watching the scenes from Gaza on TV. I’ve seen small children standing in front of the ruins of their homes. I’ve seen parents weeping over the loss of their children. And I can’t understand how you can see all this and still support Israel.”

Obviously when these words come from some propagandist for Hamas they’re designed to deceive. But sometimes it’s a genuine question and deserves a fair answer. When it happens, I find the whole room full of people disappears before my eyes and I focus directly on the person who spoke.

I pause for a moment, not for effect, but to think through what is probably the most important answer I will have to give in an evening full of difficult questions and more difficult answers.

What I need to explain to this person is not so much the tactics and strategy of the Israeli army, or the history of the conflict — I’ll have other chances to do this — but something far more difficult, something that is at the heart of the problem. I need to convince them, first and foremost, that we Jews are actually human.

I realize this sounds like a wild exaggeration — until you’ve come face to face with this kind of audience and this kind of question.

In Britain — particularly on university campuses — we are facing a rising tide of antisemitism. And antisemitism denies the humanity of the Jew. When we confront it, our job is first of all to establish our credentials as members of the same species as the audience.

We need to prove that we share their DNA.

I always begin my answer with a series of negatives. We are not monsters, I say. We do not lack empathy. We are no less horrified than you when we see the needless death and destruction in Gaza. We are not immune to the feelings that you feel.

And when I say these words, I look carefully at the face of the questioner. If I look around, trying to gauge audience reaction to my words, I stop.

I’m looking at one person and talking only to him or her. And I find that sometimes, if I get it right, I get a sign of recognition; a sense that my words are getting through.

Of course I am delighted that I can persuade some people that we Jews are not monsters, that — like them — we want to live in peace and we abhor war. In doing so, I’ve done my bit for Israel and can sleep well at night.

But I also feel like I’m re-enacting the most famous “defence” of being Jewish ever written — Shylock’s monologue in the Merchant of Venice.

I find myself telling student audiences in Britain in 2009 that we Jews are “fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons” as they are. And that if you prick us, we will bleed. And if you poison us, we will die. And it’s not just rhetoric – we really have bled and we really have been poisoned.

Appearing before hostile audiences in Britain today requires us not only to defend or explain certain Israeli actions, but to defend our very humanity. Just as Shylock was forced to do.

Yes, things really are that bad.

Eric Lee is the editor of LabourStart

Last updated: 12:29pm, March 12 2009