Part I: Bibi’s Expansion of Sovereignty Promise – Background

I am on the road again travelling west to visit our two sons living on the West Coast and then my nephew in California. We will drive back to Toronto via the U.S. My blogs will become intermittent, but I want to use the first part of my trip before I arrive at the West Coast to catch up on my thoughts about Israel.

Part I: Bibi’s Expansion of Sovereignty Promise – Background


Howard Adelman

On the evening of Saturday 6 April, just three days before the recent election in Israel, Bibi Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, promised on TV that he would extend Israeli sovereignty to settlements in Judea and Samaria (note, not the West Bank) if he were to be re-elected. On Israel’s Channel 12, he announced: “I am going to extend [Israeli] sovereignty and I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and the isolated settlements.”

It was telling that the announcement took place only two days after he had met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, the second meeting this year. Further, Putin presented Netanyahu with the remains of Zachary Baumel, who was killed in Lebanon in 1982, a public relations coup for Bibi. That meeting with Putin was held only ten days after Bibi had been in Washington to celebrate the benefits of the Trump presidency for Israel. In politics, timing is almost everything. This particular sequence was especially significant and very auspicious.

In one interpretation, the announcement following those two high level meetings was made to ensure the alliance with parties further right than Likud as well as the backing from Likud members who supported implementing such a policy. Further, Avigdor Liberman, Bibi’s former defense minister and head of Yisrael Beitenu, since his resignation from the government last November, has been a spur in Netanyahu’s side. At the time of the 6 April announcement, polls indicated that Liberman and his party might not meet the minimum threshold to take seats in the Knesset. Bibi’s visit with Putin had been timed and stage managed by Bibi to attract Russian immigrant votes away from Yisrael Beitenu; the members largely admire Putin and constitute Liberman’s base. Did the announcement on expanding sovereignty following the meeting harm a dangerous rival of Bibi’s?

The Likud-led bloc of right-wing and religious parties won 65 seats in the Knesset out of 120. Likud won just enough seats to ensure that President Rivlin would not call on Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid’s Kachol Lavan, Blue and White Party, to try to form a government. Of the right-wing parties, Avigdor Liberman passed the minimum threshold of 3.25% of the vote and held 5 seats, just enough to prevent Bibi from forming a government without his support and to force Bibi to call new elections. The ostensible reason was the failure of the government to follow through and pass the law requiring Hasidic youth to serve in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).  

During the past three months since that announcement of extending sovereignty, much has happened on the Israeli front. First, there was the diplomatic fallout from that announcement in the international arena and the domestic fallout within Israel, including the very widespread misinterpretation of the announcement that equated the expansion of sovereignty with annexation. I will expand on the difference in a subsequent blog, but suffice it for now to explain that expanding sovereignty means extending the application of Israeli law to settlements in Judea and Samaria and not annexing those areas. Nevertheless, the Haaretz headline on 6 April read: “Netanyahu Says Will Begin Annexing West Bank if Re-elected Prime Minister.” In a Haaretz poll, 42% of Israelis backed annexation.

Second, Netanyahu failed to form a government and called new elections. Third, the quest for a long-term ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas made some progress, though it seems to have been a case of two steps forward but only one step back. Fourth, the political conflict between the U.S. and Iran escalated enormously, with Israel seemingly left on the sidelines and the Revolutionary Guards in Iran put on a Terror Watch List.

Fifth, though much derided, the stream of leaks concerning President Trump’s “Deal of the Century” became a torrent as it headed either towards a carefully constructed dam which began construction in Bahrain on 25-26 June that would hold back the headwaters of further conflict or come crashing down over a precipice even steeper than Niagara Falls. The key to peace shifted from the Israeli-Palestinian border to the Arab Countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Saudi Arabia would not only throw billions of dollars at the issue, but would cede land to Jordan of an equivalent area to Naharaim and Tsofar, territory that Israel leased from Jordan on a very long-term basis as part of the Jordan-Israeli peace deal. Jordan would cede those territories to Israel as a very different version of land for peace deal.

Even though Palestinians already constituted a majority in Jordan, the country would also receive a huge infusion of economic aid and, in turn, would also grant citizenship to the remaining Palestinians, many who fled the wars in Iraq and Syria and who did not have citizenship. Egypt would open industrial zones in the Sinai to provide economic relief for Palestinians in Gaza and would also receive billions of dollars in aid, a tentative plan that was to be confirmed in a meeting between President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Washington on Israel’s election day.

Lebanon, in spite of the dominance of Hezbollah in the country, would also receive an infusion of aid in proportion to the number of Palestinians granted citizenship, while the rest would be offered resettlement places in the West in return for renouncing a “right of return.” Political issues would then take a back seat to transactional diplomacy that, while not settling the border issue and the status of Jerusalem in the Palestinian negotiations, would de facto resolve the Palestinian refugee issue.

What about the issue of the border between Palestine and Israel in a two-state solution and an exchange of land for peace? Bibi had announced prior to the election that not one settler would be uprooted from Judea and Samaria. 430,000 Jews live in the West Bank. Another 200 thousand Jews live in the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem annexed by Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967. The initiative on expanding sovereignty was also taken to shatter the main plank of the pro-annexation New Right Party.After all, expanding sovereignty in settlements was not the same as annexing Area C as Bennet had advocated as far back as 2012.

In the next blog I will analyze the difference between extending sovereignty and annexation on which subject I provided a brief headline above. President Trump had already endorsed annexation of the Golan Heights. 30 of 90 synagogues found and excavated by archeologists in Eretz Israel were located on the Golan. Further, Israel has occupied the Golan much longer by now than Syria had. The U.S. also advanced the sovereignty movement in Israel by moving its embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, though not explicitly all of Jerusalem. This advanced the right-wing agenda in Israel. Further, the Trump administration had clearly indicated that the settlements were no longer to be considered illegal and went even further in declaring them to be legitimate and not an obstacle to peace.

Before I clarify the difference between annexation and the extension of sovereignty, it will be very helpful if the views on expanding sovereignty versus annexation by West Bank settlement leaders are also provided as a critical part of the background. The issue is not about the ultimate goal of annexation by the West Banks settlers, but the approach to the expansion of sovereignty. In March in the month before the Israeli April election, Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Council, reiterated the governing doctrine of the West Bank settlers that surrendering the heart of Eretz Israel to a two-state solution would amount to the abandonment of Zionism. However, current tactics focused on sovereignty expansion, even though Yohai Damari, head of the South Hevron Hills Council, insisted that now was the time for a final resolution.

Prior to the election, West Bank settlement leaders launched a drive to expand Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank. They had significant support in the government. Ayelet Shaked, the Minister of Justice, lauded the progress towards sovereignty. The concerted campaign, however, depended on in-depth strong support from the settlers themselves. Yigal Lahav, head of the Karnei Shomron Council, reaffirmed his commitment, and that of the settlers that he led, to the goal of the application of sovereignty. Yisrael Ganz, head of the Binyamin Council, and Shay Allon, head of the Beit El Council, announced prior to the election, “The vision for activity in the coming years – sovereignty.”

Shlomo Ne’eman, head of the Gush Etzion Council, reaffirmed that commitment: “No more question marks. It’s time for sovereignty.” Eliyahu Liebman, head of the Kiryat Arba-Hebron Council, pronounced: “sovereignty is vital for the proper administration of any authority.” Up until five years ago, the progress towards increased sovereignty had been meager. But in 2019, the progress towards this goal over the past five years had become significant.

There had been a broad spectrum of government and parliamentary initiatives on behalf of the application of sovereignty in Judea and Samaria. In the Knesset prior to the elections, 18 legislative proposals had been introduced to apply Israeli law in West Bank settlements. The Likud Central Committee in 2018 had endorsed an expanded effort on increasing sovereignty for West Bank settlements, an initiative which Bibi initially resisted. The reality on the ground, however, was that the National Camp had firmly and decisively united over a vision of sovereignty. A three-day Leumiada was held in March in Eilat on the issue of sovereignty at which Minister Haim Katz announced, “I will do everything I can for the advancement of sovereignty. Minister Zeev Elkin pronounced that sovereignty would be expanded by the salami method.

The West Bank settlement movement had, by and large, abandoned an all or nothing approach to enhancing Israel’s position in the West Bank and instead adopted pushing for sovereignty by the salami method.  In return, the peace camp viewed these efforts as death to the peace process by a thousand slices. Further, the salami method was viewed as critical to the effort of pushing settlement interests from the right fringes to the centre of the political spectrum.

While annexation would mean an assertion of full sovereignty over the West Bank, the salami method would deal with irritants to the settler movement, whether dealing with the tourist ministry, environmental issues and courts of justice. Just before getting to the end of the salami, a very late slice would entail extending sovereignty over all state lands in Judea and Samaria while recognizing private ownership of land by Palestinians which would have enhanced legal security.

To be continued: Sovereign Expansion versus Annexation

With the help of Alex Zisman

Korach: Numbers 16:1-18:32 [also Korah and Korath]

Yesterday we completed the day long drive around the north shore of Lake Superior. We never tire of its magnificence. The views are spectacular. As you drive through the cuts in the granite rock of the Laurentian shield, the natural sculptures formed, the rock striations, the vistas of this enormous lake with nearby islands to provide perspective and rising mountains to the immediate north to provide a sense of grandeur, you literally have to catch your breath. And, at this time of the year, there are a plethora of wild flowers of many varieties and in an enormous palette of colours alongside the road. But then the sensual richness is enhanced by the enormous size of this lake that takes a day just to get past the northern shore. Lake Superior holds 10% of the whole world’s fresh water supply. If you stretched the shoreline south from Thunder Bay, it would reach Miami. What a day!!

After a marvelous meal at The Nook, I slept for 7 hours. Therefore, this will be an abbreviated blog.

Korach: Numbers 16:1-18:32 [also Korah and Korath]


Howard Adelman

Yesterday, Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, was ushered in with several hundred visitors praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem led by the new Minister of Education and Chair of the Home Party, Rabbi Rafi Peretz. Bezalel Zinni, head of the Joint Headquarters for the Preservation of the Sanctity of the Western Wall, commented upon the remarks Peretz made at the service. “It was only recently reported that senior Jewish Federations in the US admit that most of the public in general and in Israel in particular does [sic!] not understand or support the Reform campaign at the Western Wall, that remnant of our Holy Temple that was erased from its foundation, but to which the people of Israel are still loyal after 2,000 years. Again, it has become clear that all the talk of a ‘rift’ with Jews of the Diaspora is an invention disconnected from reality. We congratulate the Minister of Education, Rabbi Rafi Peretz, who, as he declared during the elections, arrived today and joined the masses (my italics) of worshipers to express the widespread and clear public position that the sanctity of the Western Wall must be preserved throughout its length under the authority of the chief rabbinate of Israel only, and we are certain that he will also act to realize his words.”

Masses did not attend the service and there is no clear and widespread opinion that the Western Wall should be the preserve of the Orthodox, who ban women praying at the wall. Reading this was like listening to a squeaky version of the hyperbole of Donald Trump impervious to factual checks.

Yesterday, July 4th, was also American Independence Day. In an unprecedented move, the U.S. embassy in Ottawa hosted its Independence Day celebrations at the Arts Centre rather than at the American ambassador’s residence to focus the party on U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Kelly Craft, who will shortly move to New York as the American ambassador to the UN. (She will not likely be missed since she reputedly spent only 300 days in Canada during her appointment.) If this shift from a non-partisan celebration to one focused on politics and an individual was unprecedented in the diplomatic core in Ottawa, it did not compare in any way with the militarization, politicization and grandstanding of the Washington party which Donald Trump converted into a political rally for himself. Tanks and planes, bemedaled and embarrassed generals alongside a grinning totally unembarrassed Trump, decorated the National Mall.

Non-partisanship on a national birthday be damned! Instead, ritual veneration of the Commander-in-Chief! Instead of political substance, political showmanship. Instead of policy proposals, props. Instead of modesty, pageantry and pomp. Thus do empires decline and crumble. Yesterday, Mad Magazine announced the cessation of publication because it can no longer compete with an Alfred E. Neuman who has had his teeth fixed, but wears the same enormous supercilious grin and has become president of a once great republic.

Thus, are moves towards authoritarianism reinforced by rituals. Yet, in many parts of the world, the people are taking up arms against authoritarianism. In Sudan, popular demonstrations led to the overthrow of the country’s long-serving dictator only to learn that the protests had to continue to get his replacement, a military junta, to retreat in favour of civilian government. A million people mass together on Hong Kong streets in anti-extradition protests against the interference in democracy by the authoritarian mainland regime. Tyranny may be expanding, but so are democratic responses.

On Independence Day, Jews in America, nevertheless, continued their practice of celebrating how they could both remain Jewish as well as continue to be proud Americans. They fondly recall the bicentennial celebration in 1976 when, amidst barbecues and parties, parades and fireworks across the country, Jews also celebrated the daring rescue by the Israeli Defence Forces in Operation Thunderbolt of 100 passengers and crew being held hostage in Entebbe, Uganda after their Air France flight had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. This year, will some mourn the decline in American democratic values and respect for human rights while other Jews join in celebrating Donald Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and Trump’s probable endorsement of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plans to enhance Israeli sovereignty in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank?

If American Jews were divided in their feelings yesterday, Jewish biblical commentators across the board, though with some variations, either overtly condemned Korach as a rebel and rationalized the punishment doled out to him and his allies, or remained neutral and detached as they picked apart the myriad of contradictions in the story and, using biblical critical scholarship, tried to knit it back together with more coherence.

The apologists in various ways depicted what happened as a “revolt of the mob” and/or “a conspiracy of the elite.” In their commentaries, they weighed in favouring, in this case, centralized authority versus personal autonomy and criticized Korach’s political convictions. Korach was labeled: “klever, conniving and krafty.” Korach was accused of being an ambitious politician in pursuit of leadership and a position above everyone else in the name of equality. Korach was said to be guilty of the sin of arrogance. He was not only guilty of unbridled political ambition, but of denying Moses’ claim simply to be a humble servant of God.

And the modern critical scholars?

Was Korach a rebel in the ordinary sense of the term? Was he in pursuit of authoritarianism under an egalitarian message? Was his character flawed and did he serve as a foil to the humility of Moses? They want to get the intent of the writing clear and evaluate the text rather than the ethical and political substance. And they are brilliant and instructive in their efforts. From their analyses of the role and meaning of the firepans (mahtot) in the tale and the connections with all the other references, the role of such a prop becomes much clearer in raking up the dead coals and embers from the sacrificial fire and, then, the significance in the contest between the Aaronites and the challengers.

The parashah begins as follows:

א  וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח, בֶּן-יִצְהָר בֶּן-קְהָת בֶּן-לֵוִי; וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב, וְאוֹן בֶּן-פֶּלֶת–בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן. 1 Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men;
ב  וַיָּקֻמוּ לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה, וַאֲנָשִׁים מִבְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם, נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד, אַנְשֵׁי-שֵׁם. 2 and they rose up in face of Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown;
ג  וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב-לָכֶם–כִּי כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים, וּבְתוֹכָם יְהוָה; וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ, עַל-קְהַל יְהוָה. 3 and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them: ‘Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?’

When Korach assembled Datan and Abiram and the descendants of the tribe of Reuben to confront Moses and Aaron, why is an expression of dissidence depicted as an uprising? There is no reference to the use of arms. Protest and rebellion are two very different activities. 250 leaders + of the Israelites. They were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown. This was not even a mob. Further, the dissidents were asking an important question. If God declared all of Israel holy, why are some men, particularly Moses’s brother and his children, considered more holy? Further, isn’t this a clear-cut case of nepotism?

Who was the target of the dissent – Moses’ political leadership or the elevation of the Aaron clan above the other Levites? The Reubenites joining the challenge suggests the former while other parts of the tale suggest it is just a debate over priestly privileges. Should Trump be empowered to take off her head when the captain of the American woman’s soccer team refuses to visit the White House? What is wrong with Datan and Abiram refusing to rise up and meet Moses?

And what about the punishment meted out to the dissidents? Not only is the depiction of their complaints and protest misrepresented as a rebellion, even if they were rebels in some vague sense, there is no justification offered for the punishment, let alone having Datan and Abiram swallowed up by the earth and the 250 members of the elite of Israelite society as well, possibly, of Korach and his whole household, including children and servants, burnt alive. Never mind whether the punishment was even deserved, under no decent ethical regime could it be considered proportionate in relationship to the dissidence.

My daughter Rachel was one of many scholarly commentators who wrote wonderful revealing expositions of the text. But where is the ethical and political judgement? Is this not just a case of those defending egalitarianism in the face of unaccountable drifting into authoritarianism? Is the accusation against Korach and his followers, that they were simply playing politics and acting as partisans seeking their own glory and superior status rather than equality, unfair even if possibly true of any dissident group? After all, the South African regime made the same charge against Nelson Mandela and the British monarchists charged the American rebels who actually did take up arms of the same illicit motives.

I have no time this morning to suggest answers and can only imply my dissatisfaction with the rabbinic and scholarly approaches that generally fail to take up the ethical and political issues directly. But, as can be expected, I will return to the issue when I have more time. I have to get back on the road again.

Part III: Antisemitism in Shakespeare

“A widespread independence of thought, a purer simpler faith, a deep religious earnestness, great vigour of imagination, a burning jubilant patriotism, all these are reflected in the literary outpourings of the time, the lusty spirit of the age producing new literary forms, lyrics, sonnets, pastorals, religious and metaphysical poems, and, supreme among them all, the plays of Shakespeare” (Samuel 23)

The Merchant of Venice (1600) by William Shakespeare is a response to Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589). Why did Shakespeare call his play The Merchant of Venice rather than The Jew of Venice? In both dramas, a central focus is an avaricious Jew. “Shakespeare owes Marlowe much, both in the choice of material and in the many echoes which show how his assimilative ear had taken the rich suggestiveness of his contemporary’s style.” (Humphreys 279)

Look at the other elements: revenge, father-daughter relations, an acquisitive hero, but with a Christian political-business figure in Marlowe and a Venetian aristocrat in Venice who invests in the speculative business of overseas trade. Further, the antisemitism in Marlowe’s play is much more vicious, much more aggressive and much less subtle than in Shakespeare. Marlowe invents the core wonderful plot from which Shakespeare steals, while The Merchant of Venice is crammed with marvelous poetry.

Why is money lending so important at the end of the sixteenth century? Why and how does Marlowe suck in the audience so they participate viscerally in Jew-hatred? Shakespeare, on the other hand, keeps his audience at a distance as the spectators watch a gladiatorial battle between ostensible noble ideals and the ruthlessness of the new bourgeoisie. “The Merchant of Venice… presents a plot to which we must respond as to a golden ideal, and also as to a human action.” (Humphreys 280).

Let me provide a bit of background as an answer. In 1204, Pope Innocent III issued a document entitled, “Protest to Philip Augustus of France Against Royal Protection of Jewish Money-Lenders.” In the Pope’s dispute with Philip Augustus over the seizure of Normandy by the English, a military operation allegedly financed by loans from Jews, the Pope, as the moral leader of Christendom, attacked the English for encouraging usurious practices rather than for a military assault. Philip countered artifice with misleading moves of his own. He expelled the Jews, but then surreptitiously readmitted them upon payment of a fine. Thus, he acknowledged the pope’s primacy in morality while, at the same time, he made money off his compliance.

At the same time, capitalist Christian lenders, the Caurisines, were lending money to other political and societal leaders, including the pope himself. They made the usury of the Jews appear miniscule, but they were part of the financial shakedown system. They laundered their proceeds from interest by engaging in trade. Since many of England’s elite were heavily indebted to them, they used their position to instigate the ban against Jews in England in 1290. In one stroke, they eliminated the competition and, at the same time, were applauded for their high sense of morality.

Hence, the Jews became villains, not primarily for deicide, but for their involvement in money-lending. Both Shylock and Barabas were money-lenders. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice appears also to share similar characteristics to Barabas in The Jew of Malta. One similarity is their devotion to their daughters as well as the continuity of Judaism, a continuity built on the exploitation of women.

The theme of that treatment of women can be found in both plays.

Women are doormats

The years those mats applaud

They keep their men from going in

With muddy feet to God.

Female love and self-sacrifice are counterpoised against material accumulation. Shylock and Barabas are both Jews. While Shylock fantasizes about having his pound of flesh, Barabas desires wanton slaughter. For both men, the second most important thing for them is their daughters. Greed and lust after money presumably propelled their daughters to reject their fathers and flee into the arms of gentiles. But note some crucial differences. Shylock was a money lender and fully justified in demanding repayment of his loan; Barabas used his wealth to lend out money to a political leader in need of funds to finance a war. But why would Shylock demand a pound of flesh if Antonio welched on his loan repayment because his investment in trade was totally lost because the ship sunk?

Further, it is Antonio who is the trickster and double-dealer in Shakespeare’s play. Yet the play inverts justice and turns Shylock into the villain. If my interpretation of The Jew of Malta is correct, in the inversion in Marlowe, the Christians are found more wanting than the Jews. In Shakespeare, in spite of Antonio’s bankruptcy, in fact perhaps because of it, in spite of Antonio’s breaking a solemn contract, it is Shylock who is held to be the villain. Why are they villains? Because they lack Montaigne’s empathy, his sympathy and identification with the other. In both plays, each of the main characters is offered a new deal if only they convert to Christianity. They refuse. But in the refusal, Barabas becomes a mystery while Shylock is humanized in the beautifully poetic monolog he articulates.

Or is it because they expose the hypocrisy of the Christians? Further, they are both deeply loyal to their Jewish identity. In both plays, each of the main characters is offered a new deal if only they convert to Christianity. Each refused. However, in the refusal, Barabas emerged as a secretive satanic figure while Shylock was humanized.

SHYLOCK: You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog, And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine, […] ‘Fair sir, you spet on me on Wednesday last, You spurned me such a day; another time You called me dog; and for these courtesies I’ll lend you thus much moneys.’

ANTONIO I am as like to call thee so again, To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too. (Shakespeare 1.3.121-122; 135-141)

SHYLOCK’S eventual response:

“To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason? 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, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrongs a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrongs a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute—and it shall go hard but will better the instruction.” (Shakespeare 3.1. 56-58)

Marlowe stresses the differences between Jews, at least the perceived difference – the bulbous nose, the dirty clothing, the bad manners; he exaggerates the caricature. The above soliloquy celebrates the sameness of all humans. Shakespeare performs a balancing act between the villainy of Jews and Christians while Marlowe appears to fault Jews, but a deeper probe suggests that Christians are the worse villains. If that is the case, why do members of the audience in the end of Shakespeare’s play in most modern productions often have more sympathy for Shylock while the audience would lynch Barabas if they could and if he had not been killed by the end.

Shylock’s has a passion for fair play or vengeance. However, he is really incensed at the

loss of his daughter. That helped make him human while Barabas, driven by a similar motive, becomes a monster. In Shakespeare, the Christian court shows, not blindfolded justice, but blinding injustice and bias. In the case of Barabas, there is no court to adjudicate anything and he dies inadvertently by his own hand. If Shakespeare is the better poet, Marlowe is the more sensational dramatist.

In both Shakespeare and Marlowe, for the gentile, fraud is the sign of a Jew, whereas the opposite is an act of compassion and love. Barabas has a dark personality which makes the reader feel no pity for him; he is identified with being a wrecker. Shakespeare draws a picture of the unfair situation of Elizabethan Jews. “Marlowe cuts a single-minded and powerful cleft through his startling material. Shakespeare myriad-minded and richly humane explores the varying shades and colors which make up human nature.” (Humphreys 279).

Religion is far more prominent in Marlowe, while culture and class are the more important elements in Shakespeare. He uncritically intertwines the fears of the English people reinforced by religious stereotypes – a “finger of birth-strangled babe” (Shakespeare 121; 4.1.30). The character of the Jews arises from an inordinate supply of bile from the liver, the source of the Choleric humour, explaining the bad temper and rush to rage of the Jew. In the end, the difference is anatomical resting as it does in the “Liver of blaspheming Jew.” (Shakespeare 121; 4.1.26) In effect, Jews and witches belong to the same order of humanity, worthy targets of exclusion and elimination.

That is the ultimate irony. While Shakespeare humanizes the Jew, he also provides a physiological (hence racist) and not just a cultural and anti-Judaic ground for despising Jews. Marlowe, on the other hand, provides the most extreme caricature of Jews. However, in portraying Christians as much worse, he ends up exhibiting more empathy for Jews, even though he, like Shakespeare, portrayed their character based on ignorance rather than informed opinion.

Part II: Antisemitism in Marlowe

Ignoring the academic disputes over whether Christopher Marlowe’s original text of The Jew of Malta was altered by someone else, what is the genre of the play?  I do not think that it is correct to classify the play as either a tragedy or a tragic comedy even though Marlowe labelled the play a tragedy. Barabas was not done in because of a major flaw, but because he was a total disaster.

The plot is complex. After Barabas engineers the death of both his daughter’s paramour and his best friend, he poisons everyone in a nunnery to which his daughter fled, killing a monk and framing a friar in the process, poisons blackmailers who learned what he had done, and then, by drinking mandrake juice, fakes his own death. The play appears more like a nineteenth century grotesque melodrama than a tragedy.

Is it a farce as T.S. Eliot once contended? One cannot fail to notice that the play has many of the comic elements of broad comedy. Virtually every character is a caricature. The play is often produced as a farce. However, would we or should we regard the presidency of Donald Trump as a farce since his presidency shares many of the same characteristics?

There is an answer. It depends. As a spectator, it is a farce. As a participant, it is a horror show. Barabas is the centre of the play as the generator of the action. However, he is unique as a caricature since he is portrayed in various guises further to our discussion of multiple selves in one individual by Montaigne. Barabas is the stock villain, the manipulator par excellence, the Iago of Othello, but with much greater ambition and effect. In morality plays of the Medieval period, he would have been named Vice rather Villain for he would have represented one of the deadly sins. But Barabas is a sinner ten times over and does not simply represent and express one abstract fault as a human being. He does not merely personify a vice.

He is also a clown. Jews had prominent noses signifying greed. Jews were dirty and lived off pickled grasshoppers. However, in the end, perhaps Marlowe had a greater regard for their steadfastness than he had for Christians.

Most important, unlike Othello in which there is a struggle for control of the lead role’s soul, there is no such struggle in Marlowe’s play. Instead of a single vice personified, Barabas symbolizes greed, narcissism, unfaithfulness to any creed, including his own, and a debauched worldliness. In the end, he mostly personifies his namesake, Barabbas. The latter was accused of killing a Roman soldier. Jesus was just a preacher. Barabbas was a thief, fraudster and rebel. Both he and Jesus are nailed to crosses. Yet it is Barabbas, according to the Gospels, whom the Jewish mob voted to take down from the cross rather than Jesus when Pontius Pilate offered to spare one of them. Hence, the charge of Jewish complicity in deicide which Barabas symbolizes in his very name.

But that is the greater danger. The world is given order through the word. My question and puzzle is: was Barabas both, a crook and a thief as well as a rabble-rouser and freedom fighter? In the Christian stereotypical view of Jews as guilty of deicide, Jesus not only goes to his death so that Christian believers can be saved, but materially dies so Barabbas could be spared. Jesus was sacrificed in the name of both virtue and vice. Barabbas, and by extension, all Jews, live on only because of Jesus, though, paradoxically, they are persecuted in Jesus’ name. Hence, persecution of and antisemitism against Jews are justified.

But Jews are an even more justifiable target in the particulars. After all, are we not prejudiced against Christianity? Do we not see Christianity as fatally flawed? Barabas openly and unequivocally voices such a critique to Ferneze. The fatal flaw of Christianity is the existential continuity of Jews and Judaism. Although the motives of Barabas are suspect, Christianity in its foundation holds all Jews throughout the Common Era as bearing responsibility for the death of God. Barabas accuses Ferneze of both hypocrisy and guilt, along with all other Christians; they are guilty of crimes against humanity. “Some Jews are wicked, as all Christians are.” (my italics) (Marlowe 341; 1.2.113-116) Religion for Christians is a guise for injustice, for using reason for wicked ends. Piety is used to quash rationality.

However, the greatest crime Barabas commits is the treatment of his own daughter, Abigail. He murders her along with all the nuns in the nunnery. As my daughter has written, many of the daughters in the Tanach do not do much better. Dinah, Jacob’s daughter is raped and disappears from history. (Genesis 34) Jephthah’s daughter, because of her father’s vow, is sacrificed. (Judges 11:34-40) Michal is used by her father, King Saul, to outfox his rival, David. (1 Samuel 18-19 and 25:44). The Levite reclaims the concubine, Gibeah, from her father’s house and she is gang raped. (Judges 19). Tamar, David’s daughter, is raped by Amnon, her half-brother. (2 Samuel 13)

When I was a young academic, I joined a group of nuns and priests in a group engaged in introspection, in “knowing oneself.” I was the only Jew. Simply put, the nuns told various stories of how they were chosen by their fathers to be nuns to serve God but, psychologically, to preserve their virginity. The virginity was an extension of the father’s identity and served as a pure form of defining an incestuous relationship. Barabas was a possessive individualist who, on the one side, wanted to preserve his daughter’s identification with Judaism, but in her sacrifice, sent a message that his possessive individualism extended to the life of his daughter.

In the Bible, against her father’s wishes, Abigail carries food to the future King David; she will later become his second wife. In The Jew of Malta, Abigail goes a step further and falls in love with Lodowick, the Christian son of the Governor of Malta. That betrayal of her father is the final straw. She fled to a nunnery where she hoped she would be safe. But Barabas poisons the nuns and sacrifices his own daughter. If the play had been written and produced earlier, and if Montaigne had seen it, would he have been so supportive of the Portuguese Jews sacrificing their own children rather than allowing their conversion?

In Galileo’s Daughter, which I am quite a way from finishing, Galileo cloistered his two young daughters in a Florentine convent for very different reasons, for their own safety lest the anti-science populist mobs turn their wrath intended against him and attack his daughters. Later, Suor Maria Celeste, the older daughter, would write her father about how overworked she was in the nunnery and, after commenting that there was an upside to hard work – she never had an idle moment to feel sorry for herself – rhetorically asked, “If you would teach me the secret you yourself employ, Sire, for getting by on so little sleep, I would be most grateful, because in the end the seven hours that I waste sleeping seem far too many for me.” (199) Oh, to be admired for having abnormal brain sleep patterns!

Clearly, Abigail had no equivalent respect for her own father and probably saw him much as his enemies did, as a self-centred, greedy, acquisitive, immoral and intemperate man with a passion for acquiring money. Just as his daughter betrayed him, so Barabas betrayed his former friend and ally, the governor, and hoped to profit from a prospective Turkish invasion. He gets himself nominated as governor and hatches a plot to trap and kill the Turks with whom he had allied. He, in turn, is tricked by the former governor. He dies in his own trap as Christians and Muslims reconcile.

It is shocking to me how much Donald Trump is a parody of Barabas. The two bask in self-congratulation. Both are extremely selfish and quite willing to throw former friends and loyalists to the dogs if they give off any signal of disloyalty while they themselves are the epitome of unfaithfulness. Look at how Barabas treated his three Jewish fellow businessmen when they sought advice concerning the “fleet of warring galleys.” (Marlowe 337: 1.1.144) All he can say is, I don’t give a damn.

Both Trump and Barabas are confident of their own superiority in all areas. They both treat everyone terribly. They are both frauds, though Trump is a user of money and a money launderer rather than a usurer. Avarice is the second name of each of them. When I watch the young refugees at the borders, some even infants, and see how they are treated in border facilities totally unsuited to the care of children, I think of how Barabas was so heartless in his treatment of orphans.

But there are differences. Barabas fits the stereotype of a Jew as a penny-pincher; Trump is a King Midas obsessed with displaying his gold. Second, Barabas, to write the obvious, is a Jew, the Jew of Malta.

“Who hateth me but for my happiness?

Or who is honour’d now but for his wealth?

Rather had I, a Jew, be hated thus,

Than pitied in a Christian poverty’” (Marlowe 336;1.1.110-113).

Christians who are wealthy are given respect and honours. Jews are stereotyped as greedy and avaricious. Wealthy Christians are not persecuted for their wealth. Wealthy Jews are. This is a key sign of deep-seated resentment, prejudice and hatred. But there is a third twist. Surprisingly, perhaps, Barabas would rather be hated as a Jew than honoured and respected as a wealthy Christian. He refuses an offer of conversion that would free him from an exorbitant wealth tax.

Like Shylock, but on a much more global political and economic stage living on the border between the expanding Ottoman Empire and the Christians then on the defensive in an age-old clash of civilizations, Barabas insists he means no harm to anyone. He is the victim of prejudice, of discrimination, of pogroms, of expropriation of his wealth. Why? Because he will not convert. Yet he lives on the frontier, on the borderland between Christian barbarians and an enlightened expanding Ottoman Empire. “Make account of me as of thy fellow. We are villains both; Both circumcised, we hate Christians both.” (Marlowe 2.3.213-15) One should not be surprised at his willingness to go over to the other side.

Is he laughing and mocking the description others project upon him?

As for myself, I walk abroad a-nights,

And kill sick people groaning under walls.

Sometimes I go about and poison wells;…

And in the wars ‘twixt France and Germany,

Under the pretence of helping Charles the Fifth,

Slew friend and enemy with my stratagems:

Then after that I was an usurer,

And with extorting, cozening, forfeiting,

And tricks belonging unto brokery,

I fill’d the gaols with bankrupts in a year,

And with young orphans planted hospitals;

And every moon made some or other mad,

And now and then one hang himself for grief,

Pinning upon his breast a long great scroll.

How I with interest tormented him.

But mark how I am blest for plaguing them:

I have as much coin as will buy the town.

But tell me now, how hast thou spent thy time?” (2.3.179-206)

If Barabas is a self-confessed trickster, and one more subtly trickier than even the stereotype portrayed, Marlowe is perhaps the greater trickster. For in the play, the dramatist tricks the audience into identifying with the accusers and joining with them in their despised attitude towards the Jew and, in their laughter at him, reveal their antisemitism. In provoking laughter at Barabas, the audience becomes complicit in the raging antisemitism. Christian goodwill be damned! Barabas is opposed to goodwill, to mushy sentiment, to empathy and even to fairness. They are disguises, masks behind which Christians hide their barbaric character. Barabas even makes the stereotype of Machiavelli look like a wimp. The Christians do not try to understand him. They judge him and fail to recognize how deeply loyal he is beneath his opportunist exterior.

Why? Because he is not out to save his or other’s souls. They, Christians, on the other hand, go about destroying bodies and the body politic of nations in the mysterious cause of saving souls. Barabas may be primarily preoccupied with amassing “infinite riches in a little room” (Marlowe 334; 1.1.37), but in his seemingly preoccupation with pecuniary concerns, he comes across in the end as a man of principle unwilling to join Christians in their enterprise of cultural genocide, particularly when directed at Jews. Just look at the record of the residential schools run by Christians for First Nations peoples in Canada. Barabas’ external compass may have been explicitly about self-interest and wealth accumulation, but he also had an internal moral compass firmly pointing in the direction of Jewish self-preservation and not selling out to what he regarded as the totally wicked Christians.

No wonder he is doubly despised.

Just look at the barbarism when the play first went on the stage. To propagate mass anti-Jewish feelings among the populace, in 1594, the Earl of Essex, the year after Marlowe’s death, charged Doctor Rodrigo López, a Portuguese Jew, for joining a conspiracy to try to poison Queen Elizabeth. Rodrigo López was charged. He was executed based on those trumped-up accusations, an appropriate modifier to “charges” given Trump’s advocacy of the death penalty for the falsely accused Central Park Five and his election campaign run on a chant of, “Lock her up.”

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part I: The Context of Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s Antisemitism

The two playwrights put on display the general culture of the time; one or both may have been critical. Or they might have shared those cultural attitudes. Or, third, they could have been simply dramatists who found a hot topic and put it on the stage to entertain their respective audiences. What is unassailable is that both plays portray the antisemitism extant at the time.

But were the two playwrights themselves antisemitic? Did they share those cultural values? I no sooner ask the question than I, in a Montaigne fashion, question whether the subject matter and the intentions of the authors can so easily be separated. Further, whether they shared those values or not, did the antisemitism they portrayed accurately reflect extreme antisemitism or a moderated variety? The authors might have implicitly preached tolerance, but neither offered a positive portrayal of Jews. Neither was Montaigne.

If Martin Luther provided the most paradigmatic extreme of antisemitism at the time, entailing finding Jews guilty of deicide, poisoning wells, drinking the blood of gentile children and spreading the plague, do we find these accusations in either or both plays? After all, since the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, Jews had been officially banished from England, even though many lived “underground” in London. Are Jews pictured as dirty con men and fraudsters, avaricious men with large noses signalling that greed? What about the response? Did the antisemitic portrayal treat Jews unjustly? Did they go further and exclude them from gentile institutions or even from interaction with gentiles, or, further still, exclude them from living in their nation and even slaughtering them?

Further, that antisemitic portrayal must be placed within a context of their other very clear critiques. Both Marlowe and Shakespeare were critical of Church clerics and officials. While portraying magic, as Shakespeare especially did, neither playwright sympathized with mystical religions and might, at the very least, in the case of Marlowe, they suspected all religion as being thoroughly saturated with magic. Giordano Bruno was not the idol of either writer.

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is a case in point. If one thinks that Jews are being stereotyped in The Jew of Malta (1589, full title, The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta) look at how magic and superstition and ignorance are equated in Doctor Faustus. There, satanic figures have enormous power. The devil diminishes the intelligence of Dr. Faustus. Given the greed, pride and ambition of Faustus, he is blindsided by his personal combination of enormous passion and weakened intellect. The consequence: he does not recognize his mistake. A similar combination warps the judgement of Barabas in The Jew of Malta. However, the devil has been incorporated into the very being of Barabas in Christian antisemitic theology.

Machiavelli, as a ghost of the Stoic, Seneca, is enlisted at the very beginning of The Jew of Malta to express precisely such an opinion. In doing so, Machiavelli is himself stereotyped. Marlowe calls him Machiavel, Mach-evil, he who makes evil. In previous writing, I tried to clarify what an injustice this was for it totally distorted the substance of Machiavelli’s thought in favour of  a caricature. Further, unlike antisemitism, which grew even more extreme but also, more recently, very much faded in intensity, anti-Machiavellianism remained constant and steeped in distortion. On the other hand, Jews over the last four centuries were portrayed as both inyenzi who needed to be exterminated, but also became “white” for most westerners, at least in the last six decades.

In England fifty years after his demise, Machiavelli as bogeyman became a common trope, even though none of his texts were available in English – a sure sign that interpretation was thoroughly mixed with ignorance. But it is Machiavel who utters the words, “I count religion but a childish toy/ And hold there is no sin but ignorance.” Thereby, Marlowe skewers Machiavelli, religion and ignorance in one short sentence. Machiavel in the prologue enters with an evil grin and sets the drama in motion with his bag of political tricks. And the core element in the plot is a trick. Barabas recruits his slave, Ithamore to fool the Governor’s son, who loves Abigail, into believing that his best friend was pursuing Abigail. They fight a duel. Both die.

Barabas paraphrased what was believed, wrongly, to be the essence of the Machiavellian doctrine.

For he that liveth in authority, 
And neither gets him friends nor fills his bags, 
Lives like the ass that Aesop speaketh of, 
That labours with a load of bread and wine, 
And leaves it off to snap on thistle tops.

If you are going to be a politician who exercises power, you cannot be governed by sentiment. On the other hand, the result is a friendless opportunist who in the end is an ass who cannot appreciate the taste of bread and wine for he is so busy and industrious that good taste is wasted on him.

Shakespeare too cites Machiavelli a number of times, most specifically in Richard II, and does so again in Richard III. If you recall, Machiavelli taught that the object of politics was not to surrender to fate but to push the envelope and take advantage of small openings to demonstrate a strength of will (virtu) that opposes Fortune in favour of the exercise of power. This is done, not simply to be successful politically and acquire more power, but to acquire that power to utilize it to bring about meaningful objectives.

Fortinbras in Hamlet obtains the Danish throne by countering Claudius’ political machinations with impeccable timing so that he turns misfortune into good fortune using the Poles as his scapegoats. Further, in doing so, he necessarily alienates his allies and supporters because he does not, and cannot, fulfill their expectations. And they will eventually turn on him. This happens in Richard II.

Northumberland, thou ladder wherewithal
The mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne,
The time shall not be many hours of age,
More than it is, ere foul sin, gathering head,
Shall break into corruption. Thou shalt think,
Though he divide the realm and give thee half,
It is too little, helping him to all;
He shall think that thou which knowest the way
To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again,
Being ne’er so little urged another way,
To pluck him headlong from the usurped throne.
(Richard II, 5.1.55-65)

For Shakespeare, Machiavelli’s writings are about the quest for power and not the use of power for other, more positive, purposes. The stereotype rather that the writings of Machiavelli become the basis for characterization. This is also true of both Marlowe and Shakespeare’s treatment of the Jews. They are guilty of the very sin of ignorance which they assail so vigorously.

Look at Macbeth. The witches mix their brew of “powerful trouble.” They are charms to insert evil into the world. Their incantations are accompanied by stirring a pot, a brew, that includes the “liver of blaspheming Jew” and the “finger of birth-strangled baby,” echoing the widespread belief that Jews killed babies and, like vampires, fed on their blood. The Jew was identified with bilious bile responsible for the humour, “Choleric,” associated with cholera (and the Bubonic) plagues. The Jew was charged with blasphemy and profanity. Jews were portrayed as greedy and lacking totally in any empathy for the other.

In The Jew of Malta, Barabas, the Jewish merchant, has a name deliberately intended to evoke Barabbas, the mobster, murderer and criminal who was taken down from the cross at the behest of the Jewish mob when the crowd was asked to choose between saving Jesus or saving Barabbas. This is the source of the charge of deicide against the Jews.

Christian antisemitism was on full display in Martin Luther. The Jew in Marlowe is even guiltier perhaps of greed. Barabas is introduced to us as sitting in his counting house tallying his gold coins. Barabas drools over, “infinite riches in a little room” (Marlowe 334: 1.1.37), decorated as if part of a Gothic novel with candles and cobwebs, dusty curtains and even dirtier Jews. Fagin as portrayed in Dickens’ Oliver Twist is similarly portrayed. Barabas is the epitome of the new nascent age of capitalism, of possessive individualism, of the passion for infinite greed that is often accompanied by a quest for absolute power.

However, Jews are also victimized by Barabas. Look at how he treats his fellow Jews and merchants who pleaded with him to take advantage of his friendship with the Vizier, Ferneze, to relieve them from the burden of the extremely high wealth tax needed to fight the Muhammadans, but which will ruin them financially. “‘First, the tribute money of the Turks shal all be levied amongst the Jews, and each of them to pay one half of his estate’.” (Marlowe 340; 1.2.68-70) How did Barabas respond? “Let ’em [the Muslim fleet] combat, conquer, and kill all/So they spare me, my daughter, and my wealth.” (Marlowe 337; 1.1.150-151) With my cunning, I can and will survive. Go and take care of yourselves and cease your whimpering and shrying.

How, then, can the play be antisemitic if Jews, too, are victims of this egocentric accumulator of wealth who is indifferent to the well-being of others? Did Jews need to be or became vile to protect their wealth and power? Or was avariciousness the source of their venality? Perhaps more so in the case of Shylock.

Barabas, is repeatedly identified as the Jew. The play is titled after him whereas Shakespeare’s play is not called Shylock but The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is a money lender while the Venetians are the merchants and traders. Further, Marlowe does not entitle his play, Barabas of Malta but The Jew of Malta, emphasizing him as an archetype.

Barabas emerges as the worst of a bad lot, as both a vengeful instigator of murder (Don Lodowick, Ferenze’s son, and Don Mathias, Abigail’s alleged lover) and a mass murderer himself of all the nuns. But isn’t Marlowe just as critical of the Governor of Malta? Ferneze justifies his expropriation of the wealth of the Jews of Malta by claiming that excessive wealth causes covetousness:

“No, Jew, like infidels;

For through our sufferance of your hateful lives

Who stand accursed in the sight of heaven

These taxes and afflictions are befall’n”

(Marlowe 340; 1.2.63-66).

Jews were guilty, not of crimes against humanity, not of crimes against God, but of the murder of God. Thus, qua Jew, they are inherently cursed. On the other hand, if Barabbas converts, Ferneze will exempt him from the heavy tax burden. “Why, Barabas, wilt thou be christened?” Barabas replies, “‘No, Governor, I will be no convertite.” And Ferneze’s terse reply: “Then pay thy half.’ (Marlowe 340; 1.2.82-84)

But if Barabas was willing to sacrifice his wealth for his Jewishness, how could he be so bad? The reality for the antisemite: the Jew is inherently a sinner and, unless reborn in Christ, is destined to remain so. The vile characteristics are just offshoots of that central one. And the greatest proof of the inherent evil of Jews, as Martin Luther argued, is their unwillingness to convert. Their adherence to their Judaism is not regarded as a heroic act.

Let me place the characterization of Jews within an even larger political and economic context beyond the cultural prevalence of antisemitism. Remaining Jewish was not viewed by anti-Semites as loyalty to a worthwhile religion, but as a reason for allowing one a niche that permitted wealth accumulation ad infinitum without a negative stigma. Further, there was the issue of international power and the centuries old contention between the Muslim and Christian forces.

The namesake of Suleman the Magnificent (for Islam, Suleiman the Just or the Lawgiver – Kanuni), the greatest Sultan in the history of the Ottoman Empire, was the Biblical King Solomon. During his rule, Islamic law was modernized and the laws and systems he put in place superseded Shari’ah law. He ruled from 1520 to 1566 and his empire stretched from Yemen almost to Vienna as he fought both the Persians on the east and the Christians on the west, primarily Ferdinand I from the Hapsburg dynasty who eventually became the head of the Holy Roman Empire. Suleiman was the greatest threat to Christendom and Jews were often viewed as a fifth column.

What a contrast between Christendom and Suleiman’s treatment of Jews! He absorbed Jews rather than persecuted them, especially those fleeing the Inquisition. He was also a proto-Zionist, encouraging Jews to resettle in Palestine, particularly in Tsfat or Safed. It was he who rebuilt the wall around the Old City of Jerusalem. He banned trials of Jews for blood libel. Just as many Jews proportionately serve as advisers in Washington, Suleiman’s court was populated with Jews. Jews were diplomats, bankers, merchants, doctors, lawyers. He even intervened in the pogrom of the Pope against the Jews of Ancona in Italy. Together, Jews and Muslims celebrated a cultural rebirth.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that in the Christian clash with the Ottoman Empire, Jews were even more suspect. While Europe was engaged in fratricidal war between Catholics and Protestants, Suleiman oversaw the primacy of law, justice and harmony in the Islamic world. The Christians were the cultural barbarians up until the sixteenth century. While Rome was burning Bruno and the books of Machiavelli and the writings of Erasmus were being banned, Suleiman celebrated religious inquiry, philosophy, poetry, architecture and all the other arts.

The sixteenth century witnessed an international clash of civilizations in which Jews were caught in the middle. And that middle geographically was Malta. Viewed that way, The Jew of Malta can be regarded as the front line of modernism in terms of governance – rebellion against absolute monarchy, the dawning of the bourgeois age, the initiation of a new globalism as Jewish financiers like Shylock, funded the trade with the New World. Further, Barabas, rather than a villain, can be regarded as a reborn Samson willing to take down the pillars of the Christian civilization that persecuted Jews by sacrificing his own life and taking down as many of these enemies as possible.

Is there any justification for such a favourable portrait, for a portrait of the Jew as the avant-garde against the backwardness of the Christian realm? After all, Barabas was not guilty of mass murder against anyone, but of nuns. Further, how else can one understand the extremes he went to when his daughter, Abigail, “went over to the other side”? In reprisal for the Christian forced conversion of Jews and their expulsions, Barabas could be viewed as the front line in an effort to subordinate gentile Christians to Jews. Perhaps the crimes, or potential crimes, in the economic and political spheres were feared far more than the deicide with which they were charged since classical times. For the reactionaries against modernism and globalism, Jews were the logical weak target.

On the other hand, in spite of Marlowe’s strong critique of Christianity, there was also a fear that the excessive secularism and scientism of modernity represented the quest for ultimate knowledge and, therefore, displayed the devil’s work. Shakespeare, too, seems to guard rather than provide any devotion to uncovering the secrets of the universe which can end up in destruction and damnation. As in Erasmus, folly and pride, vanity and arrogance, are the real sins of mankind.  In Marlowe, Jews exhibit that pride overtly. Christians do so subversively by pridefully insisting that Jews are guilty of that sin..

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Corpses, Memories and Spying Out the Land

I write essays that are, I hope, reflective of and meditations on reality. They are not fiction. Even when I write about my dreams, the essays are generally recordings and/or reflections on those dreams and not a mystical claim that those dreams reflect or inform reality. In a very recent blog on Montaigne, entitled “Sense and Sensibility,” I included the following assertion: “I remember counting the 17,000+ corpses removed from a mass grave in Rwanda and lined up on the benches of a technical school.”

My Norwegian colleague, with whom I authored our study of the role of the nations of the West and the international community in the Rwanda genocide, wrote me to question when I had been to that technical school site and whether I possibly dreamt it or incorporated the event into real history from a story that I was told.

The irony is that last week’s parashah was not only about the majority of the Israelite spies viewing themselves and being viewed as inyenzi, as grasshoppers, but about spying out the land. That is what I claimed to have done in the above quote. It is possible that I had misrepresented what I claimed to have seen and even possibly misconstrued that I had actually seen anything at all.

Spying and imaginative creations are, as it turns out, related. For to be a spy, you have to create an artificial world. But it has to be a fictional world that feels and sounds real and must certainly be convincing to those being spied upon. I think of the Israeli spy, Eli Cohen, who spied on Syria before the 1967 war. He had to invent and construct a past and continuously fabricate in the present. The spies Moses sent had no such onerous task. They did not interact with the enemy and did not have to fool them. They simply had to report back accurately on what they had seen.

The story of Caleb, Joshua and the ten dissident spies is a spy story bar none, about loyalty and betrayal, about intelligence and rejection of intelligence, and mostly about the complicated and fascinating world where observation and speculation interact. The Torah repeatedly portrays the Israelites as engaged in a double life, longing for freedom while nostalgic for the security of the past, risk-takers and cautious, trustful but mistrustful. All perfect ingredients for a great spy story.

On the other hand, in any deeper sense, the Israelites made lousy spies, at least most of them – too histrionic, insufficiently hypocritical, lacking in the necessary charm, too many with bleeding rather than frozen hearts usually because of parents and sisters who doted on them too much. For a spy, it is insufficient that there be a promised land in the future; there must be a wasteland inherited on the inside. The Israelites seemed to lack the deeper cultivation of deceit required of real spies.  

However, what they can do, and do to an extraordinary degree, is empathize with the other, crawl into and under the skin of the other to imagine their likely behaviour. They are able to imagine themselves as other. This is in fact what the Dissenting Ten do. And it is for that trait that they are punished. Why? They abandoned blind obedience. Their sin – the sin of uncertainty. Nay, the evil of uncertainty. Their God demanded total obedience and trust and not evidence. To be a true spy for God and for Moses, you had to absolutely report only what you were sent to observe and not your actual experience.

You had to suppress your humanity. You had to bracket any sentiments for those who would be bound to die and for the daughters who could be raped. Caleb and Joshua were not interested in defending their interpretation of what they saw, only in blackening the names of the dissenters. Truth and validity of interpretation were bracketed in the name of loyalty.

The reality – betrayal did not constitute the essence of the Ten. They never gave a sign of disloyalty. But the demand for total loyalty is the demand of an authoritarian system of any kind which breeds into each and every member of society a sense of betrayal. However, as Montaigne wrote, the real objective should be to reveal one’s contradictions and become mature enough to face the truth about yourselves even when looking is akin to peering through a glass darkly. As Montaigne advised, personal truth is about finding all the possibilities that reside within your character, a very difficult task when the certainties of liberalism and tolerance and truth and individual freedom lay around you like shattered glass. And climate change undermines faith in purpose and direction. Perhaps it was that fear and bewilderment that God was trying to counter.

In the response to my Montaigne blog and my reference to the 17,000+ corpses that I counted in Rwanda, my colleague asked: “Did you go back to Rwanda after we were there? You probably told me, but I have forgotten. When was that, and for how long?”

I wrote back:

As far as counting bodies, it was at the Technical School in either Butare or Murambi. My memory says the former but the history indicates that it must have been the latter. If you were not there with me, I do not recall the circumstances under which I was there. I do remember driving along the ridge of dusty red-earthed hills at a fast clip, and, on urging the driver to slow down, he told me that he had to drive that fast because that was the speed at which the trucks carrying soldiers positioned before and after providing our security were driving. Up until that point, I had no idea we were being escorted by soldiers.

The huge hole, which I looked down into when we arrived and from which the bodies had been dug up, I was told, had been excavated by a French contractor three weeks before the commencement of the genocide there. There was no imaginable purpose for such an enormous hole. 

I remember the very crazed old Tutsi woman who lived on the property; she had evidently survived the massacre. In every school room in the multiple one-story class rooms, bodies were laid out neatly on slat benches. They had very recently been excavated; they were bodies with rotting flesh, not skeletons. What I remember most vividly is the horrific smell as well as the sight of small children’s bodies and some women with staves still remaining up their vaginas. 

As for the circumstances that brought me there, I cannot recall. I presumed in my memory that it was when we were doing our study, but it seems not. On the other hand, it could not have been much later. If I knew when the mass grave had been dug up, I would have a better idea. However, the research was likely related to my studies of objective counts during conflicts and humanitarian crises.

As for the numbers, the official records show many more killed at the technical school at Murambi than the counts when I was there, if that is where I did the count. It would take a more involved retrospective research to determine why the Murambi Technical School memorial indicates 45,000 were slaughtered. Perhaps other mass graves were discovered after my visit. Or perhaps it was indeed a school in Butare.

In any case, the reason I was there was to check whether the actual bodies laid out corresponded to the official figure at the time. That official figure was just over 17,000. By counting 5% of the bodies and then multiplying by the average number of bodies per bench times the total number of benches, the figure seemed to be about dead on. I was totally satisfied that the authorities who dug up the bodies and laid them out had been scrupulous in their counting.

My colleague wrote back:

Your Rwandan experience is strange. I am quite sure I was not with you and witnessed what you describe. I am also sure you have not told me about this before, not when we were doing the research for the report and not when we were writing the report.  It is such a significant event that I certainly would have remembered, particularly as we were talking a lot about figures and how they were estimated.

I am also quite sure that we did not go to Butare or Murambi. Both those cities are in southern Rwanda and quite a distance from Kigali. It would have taken a couple of days to travel there and get back to Kigali. I am quite sure that you were not away for a whole day, let alone two, when we were in Rwanda. And if you had gone, you would probably have told me. We did not travel outside Kigali.

Murambi is the site of the genocide memorial, which includes a large museum, that was created by the RPF government after it came to power. The Murambi memorial has exhibits like those that you describe. The memorial and its horrific exhibits are described in some detail by Timothy Longman in his book Memory and Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda.

I then think there are three possible explanations for what you experienced:

a) You went back to Rwanda after we had been there, either on your own or on fieldwork for another project. But it is strange you did not tell me, as we were working hard on the report and the book as soon as we got back from our visit and kept in close contact. Hence this scenario is very unlikely. 

b) Your recollections are from a vivid dream. It is quite common to have so vivid recollections from a dream that they become “memories” of events actually experienced when awake. (Oliver Sacks has written quite nicely about that). And, as you wrote recently, you have vivid dreams.

(c) Your memory is of descriptions you have read or have been told to you by other people. Such transformation of information into “memories” of events experienced is also common. I remember we talked at length with a woman who described counting bodies floating down Lake Victoria. (It was such a powerful experience I can even remember we were sitting outside, it was late afternoon, she was a Tutsi from Uganda, and I can still “see” the bodies floating in towards the lake shore). We also talked to some NGO persons who had been at Kibeho, where bodies were laid out and counted in the way you described. 

I responded:

“…though I have had vivid dreams that feel real, I have never had an experience where I dreamt something and thought it was real. I simply know this actually happened. The puzzle is the circumstances and the timing. In my memory, I do not recall you being there; I simply assumed you were. Do you recall our having to check the figure of 800,000 and the new government’s counting, or did this occur later? Do you know when the mass grave at Murambi was uncovered? What really puzzles me most is that of the two possible locations in my memory, I privileged Butare in my memory and left the location vague because I was not sure in my recollection.

As for being told the story or had read it, I never read Longman’s book, but I did read about the memorial at Mugambe much later, well after I had told Nancy and my kids about the experience. Precisely because in that memorial they said there were 45,000 or 50,000 killed, I thought it must have been Butare or an experience at Mugambe well before it became a museum. As I understand it, the museum has skeletons, but the technical school I visited had rotting corpses that had very recently been dug up.

But memories and stories do play tricks. This one, though, is too sequential and too precise, I believe, to have been a dream in my mind.

I only vaguely recall the story told by the Tutsi woman from Uganda, and I mean vaguely.

Thanks for the feedback. Maybe I will figure it out. If I do, I will let you know.

She wrote:

I hope you figure it out. But I am absolutely sure that I was not with you in this experience, and also pretty sure that you were not away from Kigali when we were in Rwanda. If you had gone to Butare, I certainly would have known and remembered (it is several hours drive south of Kigali). In fact, I remember we worked so closely together that there was only one occasion when I was on my own, and that was for a few hours one day when you had a separate meeting, and that’s when you asked me to buy masks for you. (I bought two, as you had asked, but liked them so much I kept one for myself. It is hanging by our entrance door now) We kept talking about numbers and how to arrive at the best estimate, but we worked from various estimates made by others, as I recall.

As it turns out, when I informed my wife about the exchange, she confirmed that I had indeed gone back to Rwanda at least one other time. It was unlikely a dream or a construction based on someone else’s stories. Nevertheless, we must all be wary of spy stories, of descriptions of information possibly when there was no direct experience. The interpretations are most susceptible to partiality and distortion. We must recall that ideologies and faith systems inherently lack any heart of their own. To quote John Le Carré once again, blind faith, closed belief systems and ideologies are “the whores and angels of our striving selves.” 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Inyenzi: Parashat Sh’lach L’cha, Numbers 13:1−15:41

לב  וַיֹּצִיאוּ דִּבַּת הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר תָּרוּ אֹתָהּ, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר:  הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר עָבַרְנוּ בָהּ לָתוּר אֹתָהּ, אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא, וְכָל-הָעָם אֲשֶׁר-רָאִינוּ בְתוֹכָהּ, אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת. 32 And they spread an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature.
לג  וְשָׁם רָאִינוּ, אֶת-הַנְּפִילִים בְּנֵי עֲנָק–מִן-הַנְּפִלִים; וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים, וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.’

Kinyarwanda is the language spoken in Rwanda. In that language, inyenzi are cockroaches, like grasshoppers, to be feared, especially in large numbers. This was the name the perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda, Hutu Power, gave to the Tutsis. 800,000 were slaughtered in ten weeks. The spies in the Tanach, in response to anticipatory fears of his people, were sent by Moses to the Land of Canaan to “spy out” that land. Upon their return, 10 of the 12 called themselves grasshoppers. They felt like inyenzi. According to some Talmudic commentaries, they may even have been called inyenzi by the inhabitants.

For the residents of the land, from the distance, they must have looked as small as grasshoppers. In their own thoughts and from the perspective of those on whom they spied, they felt like grasshoppers. In Ecclesiastes, grasshoppers are characterized by a lack of vitality, a lack of energy, perhaps even an absence of sexual potency. “The grasshopper shall drag itself along.” (12:5)

Reports include not only observations but experiences, not only experiences of the outside world but of one’s response to that world. Reports, especially those of spies, always include interpretations and evaluations. Were the 10 of the 12 spies erroneous in their depiction of the inhabitants as tall and strong? Did they exaggerate? Whether the descriptions were or were not accurate, based on their appraised strength, were they justly to be feared? The most fascinating part is, as John Le Carré once wrote, that the world of spies is “such a reflection of the society it serves. If you really want to examine the national psychology, it’s locked in the secret world.”

What was the national psychology of the Israelites, the majority of whom were punished by God because the reports of ten of the spies pointed to a distrust of God and Moses himself as leader? Sent to spy out the land, by a 5:1 ratio, the spies urged extreme caution and communicated a sense of fear. They were not trained spies, but political leaders of the different tribes. They were specifically asked to appraise the numbers and strength of the foe. Were the inhabitants strong or weak? Were their cities well-fortified or not? Was the land fertile? In the latter case, the spies returned with grapes slung between two poles, a symbol in contemporary Israel, to prove the abundance of the land and that it was indeed flowing with milk and honey.

However, the land was reportedly also occupied by fierce peoples – Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites and Canaanites. Without contradicting that main objective impression, Caleb, however, urged an attack by the Israelites. He was a hawk. “We should go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.” (13:30) The issue was not the strength of the inhabitants, but the strength and will of the Israelites. The dissenters opposed to an attack urged, “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.”

In the Midrash, the Ten are considered cowards and sinners for delivering a negative report. Caleb and Joshua are portrayed as heroes. Caleb was fortified by faith, for he allegedly traveled all the way to Hebron on his own to pray at the Cave of Machpelah where the forefathers were buried.

To repeat, the difference between Joshua/Caleb and the Dissident Ten did not seem to be over the strength of those who then dwelled on the land. Why then did the narrator insert the judgement that the Group of Ten, the dissenters, those wary of initiating a war rashly, “spread an evil report of the land”? After all, it was just their observation and interpretation. How could that be “evil”?

The view that the inhabitants were tall and strong was not contradicted by either Caleb or Joshua. The report that the land “eateth up its inhabitants” was challenged. There was no report of either collusion among the various peoples inhabiting the land or any preparations underway to obstruct a return of the Israelites. What is meant by, “the land eateth up its inhabitants?”

Numbers 14:36 and 37 make clear that the debate was not over the strength of the inhabitants, but about “bringing a bad report about the land.” The punishment for giving a bad report was that God struck down the dissident spies with the plague. But, again, what did it mean that the land “eateth up its inhabitants?” Ezekiel in 36:13-14 described such a land as devouring men and depriving the nation of its children. Was that a projection of huge casualties no matter who won? Or of impotency? Or of both?

There is absolutely no suggestion of infertility of the land itself, as suggested in many commentaries, for the spies, as a group of 12, brought back lots of fruit to prove the abundance the land yielded. However, there is another interpretation beside considerations of the costs and possibilities of victory. It was based upon likely after-effects – the fear of assimilation, of the Israelites losing their distinctiveness. Did the spies see a great deal of intermixing of the peoples? For they reported seeing, “the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim.”

In Genesis 6:1-6, the Nephilim are referred to as “sons of God” who married the beautiful daughters of men, of humans. “The Nephilim on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God (bene Elohim) came into the daughters of men.” If the inhabitants were akin to the Nephilim, the fear was that they would rape, seduce or marry the daughters of the Israelites. But if the Nephilim were considered something like fallen angels, as in parts of the Christian tradition, who bred with human females, or even as descendants of Seth, the fear that the Dissident Ten reported was about how attractive the residents would appear to the Israelite women and not just the physical strength of the inhabitants. Why was this regarded as such a heinous piece of intelligence and interpretation?

It would appear that the Dissident Ten had a double fear. “And wherefore doth the LORD bring us unto this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be a prey; were it not better for us to return into Egypt?” (14:3) Their instinct for survival, deeply rooted in the slavery that they escaped, underpinned a wariness, a sense of suspicion.

How did Moses and Aaron respond to the report of Caleb and presumably Joshua to go on the attack versus the urge for caution by the other ten spies? Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb went into mourning. After all, they had gone through so much, had travelled so far only to learn that their weakness lay in their own fears. They urged that the people put their faith in God rather than surrendering to the angst, despair and trepidation of the other ten spies.

“If the LORD delight in us, then He will bring us into this land, and give it unto us–a land which floweth with milk and honey. Only rebel not against the LORD, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us; their defence is removed from over them, and the LORD is with us; fear them not.” (14:8-9) Simply put, “Have faith.”

The response? The people threw stones at Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb. No reasoned counter-evidence to still the fears of the populace were offered by either Caleb or Joshua. God was simply revolted by their panic and lack of faith in His leadership. He promised to send pestilence to destroy them. In other words, no toleration for dissent. The response to dissent should be destruction of the Nay-sayers.

But, if you destroy Your own people, You will lose face before the Egyptians and their gods, said Moses. You led them. You lived in the midst of them. And at the last minute, they chickened out. But the failure would be assigned to God, Moses argued. Moses then appealed to God’s other side, his human kindness.

The Lord, who presumably had cooled down by then, pardoned the people for their lack of faith. No capital punishment. But they, and their children over twenty years of age, would have to live out the next forty years in the wilderness, a home when there is no home. Except Caleb, Joshua and each of their sons over twenty years of age; they would eventually enter the Promised Land. They would get home.

Clearly dissent, even grumbling and murmurings, would not be tolerated and would be regarded by God as evil. This was the case even if the Dissenting Ten were influenced by religious concerns as well as fears, such as an anticipation that even if this nomadic people won and settled down, they would lose their religious fervour developed in the wilderness. This was the case even if the Dissident Ten were correct in their fears and anticipations concerning the physical might of the existing inhabitants. After all, when the zealots, without Moses’ authority, attacked and were roundly defeated, they were not punished.

In other words, I, God, do not want to hear about your fears and trepidations or even your abstract faith divorced from politics and war. If your faith will not or cannot overcome hesitation, then that is the end of it. You lose. There is no acknowledgement of any right of dissent or even any consideration of what turns out to be the majority argument. Either you are for Me or against Me. I demand absolute loyalty and trust. Even though you predicted defeat correctly, it is I, your God, who caused the Amalekites and the Canaanites to attack the Israeli encampment and create mayhem and wonton destruction.

“And they [the zealots, the ma’apilim, the defiant ones] rose up early in the morning, and got them up to the top of the mountain, saying: ‘Lo, we are here, and will go up unto the place which the LORD hath promised; for we have sinned.’ And Moses said: ‘Wherefore now do ye transgress the commandment of the LORD, seeing it shall not prosper. Go not up, for the LORD is not among you; that ye be not smitten down before your enemies. For there the Amalekite and the Canaanite are before you, and ye shall fall by the sword; forasmuch as ye are turned back from following the LORD, and the LORD will not be with you.’ Then the Amalekite and the Canaanite, who dwelt in that hill-country, came down, and smote them and beat them down, even unto Hormah.” (14:40-45)

What was missing? Why did they lose? Not even faith in the end. It was God who had to lead His people into battle. The conviction of the zealots was that God and Moses were just discouraging them. Their bravery and resort to action would prove their greater faith, that is, proof that they could overcome the test God put before them. However, what was required was not bravery, but loyalty. Neither dissent on one hand nor rash action on the other hand could or should instigate the direction of an action.

The irony, of course, is that it is God who treats the majority of the people as inyenzi, as grasshoppers, to be left out to die in the cold wilderness. On the other hand, it is the same God who will insist that strangers who live among the Israelites be treated like citizens and be subject to the same law. One law forbids working on shabat for Israelite and stranger alike. How are genocidal actions and the profession of humanitarianism and universal values to be reconciled?

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman