Shylock in The Merchant of Venice rightly protested against injustice towards Jews and to manifestations of malignant anti-Semitism. At this time, it is appropriate for fair -minded people to protest against the unjust assault on Israeli institutions, its culture, and its people being waged by some European professionals against fellow Israeli professionals, as well by those groups accustomed on all occasions to supporting Palestinians and condemning Israel.
These groups always apply a double standard in their automatic critical comments on Israel's behavior and actions, while rarely mentioning violations of human rights by other countries. Consciously or otherwise, the European professionals have tended to accept the Palestinian narrative of history and their present conditions that is based on negative images, myths, and malicious stereotypes about Israel and Jews.
Those participating in the campaign against Israel should heed Shylock's words to his accusers: "You have among you many a purchased slave which…you use in abject and in slavish parts." Certainly, those European and American academics who have for some time called for a boycott of Israeli universities and teachers ought to be conscious of this. More recently, cultural performers have joined this campaign calling for a boycott of particular Israeli activities and for pressure to be put on Israel to change its policies, especially on the issue of what they charge is "illegal occupation of occupied land."
On March 29, 2012 the British newspaper, The Guardian, published a letter signed by 37 actors, playwrights, and producers, including prominent individuals such as Emma Thompson, Mark Rylance, Mike Leigh, David Calder, and Jonathan Miller. The letter asked the Globe Theater in London to withdraw its invitation to Habima, (The Stage) Israel's National Theater since 1958, to perform The Merchant of Venice in its World Festival of 37 Shakespeare plays to be performed in 37 languages starting in May 2012.
The ostensible reason for this call to boycott Habima was that the company had performed in the "halls of culture" in two unnamed Israeli settlements. The two in fact were Kiryat Arba, founded in 1968 on the site near Hebron where Jews were massacred by Arabs in 1929, and Ariel, which was founded in 1978 about 11 miles east of the Green Line.
This was not the first time that groups have tried to prevent Israelis from performing. The letter in The Guardian had been preceded by a letter to the director of the Globe, in January 2012, written by a group in Israel, apparently Jewish and Arab citizens, calling itself Boycott from Within, founded in 2009. A year earlier, in August 2011, a performance sponsored by the BBC at the Royal Albert Hall in London by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, (IPO) which played works by Anton Webern, Max Bruch, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, was disrupted by Palestinian protestors and their allies. This churlish behavior led to the cancellation for the first time of a live radio broadcast by the BBC. At that time 23 professional musicians published a letter in the British paper, The Independent, castigating the BBC for inviting the IPO.
In all these cases the displays of ignorance, malice and blinded ideology are worse than farce: they are slanderous. It is difficult to accept the view of these 23 musicians that the IPO was Israel's prime weapon in the denial of human rights. It was equally difficult to accept the view that performances in Israel by American jazz artists such as McCoy Tyner and Cassandra Wilson can be regarded as supporting Israeli policies of "ethno-racial segregation and apartheid" as protestors proclaimed. It is even more difficult to take seriously the actor David Calder, one of the letter signers and who himself has played the role of Shylock with the Royal Shakespeare Company, who is quoted as saying that Habima was part of a "cultural fig leaf" for Israel's daily brutality.
The Guardian letter speaks of the Globe Theater "associating itself with policies of exclusion practiced by the Israeli state and endorsed by its national theatre company." Anyone objective observer should have been familiar, though the 37 apparently were not, with the broad range of productions of Habima which has staged plays on a variety of themes, some critical of Israel, and which as a group has no political policies of its own, nor acts on outside instructions.
Though some of the signatories of the letter, such as Emma Thompson and Mark Rylance, fine actors on the stage and screen, are unlikely to be regarded as knowledgeable, sophisticated analysts of Middle East history and politics, others such as Caryl Churchill and Mike Leigh are well known for their habitual criticism of the policies of Israel. It is regrettable, though understandable, that Thompson and others should not be fully aware of the complex issues concerning the disputed territories or the historic connection of the Jewish people to that land.
The argument in the letter that the Habima performance would be complicit with human rights violations and the illegal colonization of occupied land by Israel suggests three things; the writers need tutoring in the niceties of international law and Middle East affairs; they are, by their silence on the issues, implicitly condoning the human rights violations of the companies from China, a country which occupies Tibet, which is due to perform Richard III in Mandarin, from Turkey, a country that represses the Kurds and occupies part of Cyprus, which is to perform Anthony and Cleopatra, and from Russia which is presenting Measure for Measure; and they are disrespecting the fact that Habima is the most well known and respected Hebrew language theater in the world.
It is saddening that the prominent members of the theatrical and musical professions should be so benighted in their biased view of Israeli policies and their lack of understanding of the realities of Middle East politics. It is perhaps most ironic that the controversy they have created is about the disinterested decision of the Globe Theater. The 37 signatories of the letter should be reminded of the blue plaque outside the Theater honoring Sam Wanamaker, the American Jewish actor who was blacklisted in 1952 during the McCarthy years despite his distinguished service in U.S. forces in World War II, and who is the person most responsible for the rebuilding of the Globe as an exact replica of the one in which Shakespeare acted. What would the visionary Wanamaker, who made the Globe an international symbol of high culture, have thought of the biased, ungenerous 37? Echoing Shylock, probably "I am not bound to please you with my answers."
Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University, and author of Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under attack by the International Community.