Joe Biden and the Ghost of Shylock

Napoleon once famously remarked that “in politics, stupidity is not a handicap.” In few cases does this seem more apt than in that of Vice-President Joe Biden, perennial lapdog to the ADL’s Abraham Foxman. Biden has recently added to last year’s faux pas by recently committing the egregious sin of using the word “Shylocks” to describe mortgage lenders. The slip came in a speech to the Legal Services Corporation, which provides lawyers to Americans who could not afford them otherwise. In his remarks, the Vice-President described the experience of his son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, who was deployed for one year in Iraq:

People would come to him and talk about what was happening to them at home in terms of foreclosures, in terms of bad loans that were being — I mean, these Shylocks who took advantage of these women and men while overseas.

This accurate and innocuous remark drew a rebuke from the all-seeing, all-knowing, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Abraham Foxman, who will presumably continue to stalk the verbally careless right up until his retirement on July 20 2015. A rankled Foxman told Yahoo News that “Shylock represents the medieval stereotype about Jews and remains an offensive characterization to this day. The Vice President should have been more careful. … When someone as friendly to the Jewish community and open and tolerant an individual as is Vice President Joe Biden, uses the term ‘Shylocked’ to describe unscrupulous moneylenders dealing with service men and women, we see once again how deeply embedded this stereotype about Jews is in society.”

Biden, ever-aware of who his masters are, quickly reached out to Foxman by telephone, and his grovelling seems to have been sufficient for all to be forgiven. An unbelievably condescending Foxman said in a later statement that while the Vice-President “needs to bone up on his Shakespeare,” he ultimately “turned a rhetorical gaffe into a teachable moment. … There is no truer friend of the Jewish people than Joe Biden. Not only has he been a stalwart against anti-Semitism and bigotry, but he has the courage and forthrightness to admit a mistake and use it as an opportunity to learn and to teach others about the harmful effects of stereotypes.” In a later statement, Biden continued to crawl on his belly by proclaiming that, “Abe Foxman has been a friend and advisor of mine for a long time. He’s correct, it was a poor choice of words.”

At the heart of the issue, of course, is the continued employment of that irksome term “Shylock” to describe the financially rapacious. Abe Foxman and the commissars of the ADL would very much like to see it wiped from literature, from public discourse, and from popular memory. In 2009 Florida Governor Charlie Crist signed a bill removing the terms “shylock” and “shylocking” from state law. State lawmakers had inserted the term, synonymous with loan shark, into Florida’s usury laws in 1969. The Anti-Defamation League, keen to completely cleanse American life of even the slightest source of Jew-awareness, urged lawmakers to repeal the language, arguing it reinforced negative stereotypes about Jews as money hungry. Serving Jewish interests by sponsoring the bill to remove the terms was Democratic member of the Florida State Senate, and strongly-identified Jew, Eleanor Sobel.  As far as the deeper motives behind the move, Brooklyn-born Sobel let the cat out of the bag somewhat by expressing a normally un-stated Jewish grudge — that among the finest and most celebrated writers in English literature there are more than a few statements or representations unfriendly to the Jews. Sobel stated that “Shylock is dead, but Shakespeare isn’t really dead. We’ll still be reading Shakespeare. … This state did the right thing by eliminating shylock from state statutes, which really is pejorative and demeaning to all Jewish people.”

It’s very clear that Jews would love to see the death of Shakespeare and subsequently the burial of the ghost of Shylock once and for all.

In my analysis of Anthony Julius’ atrocious Trials of the Diaspora I noted the fanatical obsession of Jewish scholars with deconstructing and condemning huge swathes of the English literary canon. What Julius and the horde of other Jewish activists are really asserting in such efforts is their antagonism towards anything but positive reflections of Jews in literature and public discourse. I wrote that these efforts “have the dual function of staining the legacy of the English literary past, and shackling authors in the present, who would feel constrained to avoid having a negatively portrayed Jewish character in their works.” Looking at events in Florida and now the Biden incident, it is clear that it really goes much further than this. Terms, similes, or allusions derived from works deemed un-kosher by the Hebrew hierarchy are to be purged from public language.

As far as Mr Foxman informing Biden that he needs to “bone up on his Shakespeare,” I am assuming that what Foxman really means is that Biden should indoctrinate himself with a Jewish take on Shakespeare — perhaps a perusal through the kind of intellectual travesty produced by the noxious Julius. Pathological Gentile-hater that he is, I very much doubt that Foxman has read much Shakespeare at all. Even if he has, I even more strongly doubt that he is capable of appreciating the mastery and beauty of the written word contained therein. It is clear that Jews like Foxman and Sobel much more readily subscribe to Julius’ claim that The Merchant of Venice has been used through the centuries “to promote ignoble elation at the spectacle of a Jew’s humiliation.” That it shows “a bad Jew; it encourages us to think badly of him; it encourages us to regard him as broadly representative of all Jews, it encourages us therefore to think badly of all Jews; further, it encourages us to think badly of Judaism.” As I remarked in my own dissection of Julius’s flimsy work, the author doesn’t see fit to elaborate upon or justify this logically tendentious syllogism. Instead, in a section intended to enlighten us on the English reception of the play, he quoted the decidedly non-English August Wilhelm von Schlegel as saying that he could detect “a light touch of Judaism” in everything Shylock says and does. I continued by demonstrating Julius’ shameless manipulation of sources:

The problems with this citation are not limited to the referencing of a German who never set foot in England, and the strong impression we get that Julius doesn’t have a clue who von Schlegel was. In fact, that is the least of the problems here, because Julius is once more wilfully misleading his readers. The quote is derived and cited as being from Jonathan Bate’s The Romantics on Shakespeare. I happen to own the book, so a brief check of the quote was easy. Our good friend Mr. Julius has once again been doctoring and omitting sources according to his own taste. The reference to “a light touch of Judaism” is only the latter part of a full sentence, the former being altogether at odds with Julius’ thesis (183-4) that the character is meant to be broadly representative of all Jews; for it reads: “Shylock, however, is everything but a common Jew: he possesses a strongly-marked and original individuality.”[25]

Why doesn’t Julius quote the English Romantics whose comments on The Merchant of Venice are freely available in the same chapter? Because his thesis stands condemned by their analysis. William Hazlitt pronounces (Bate: 450) that Shakespeare’s “Jew is more than half Christian. Certainly our sympathies are much oftener with him than with his enemies.”

What of the reception of the play by its audience? Is there evidence that confirms Julius’ imaginings of English men and women gloating at a Jew’s humiliation? Julius himself read the chapter in which Heinrich Heine, who watched a performance in London, has this (Bate: 456) to say: “When I saw the play acted at Drury Lane, a beautiful pale Englishwoman standing beside me burst into tears at the end of the forth act, crying out several times, ‘the poor man is wronged.’ She had a classical face and large dark eyes which I could not forget, for they had wept for Shylock.”

The simple fact of the matter is that there is little in the substance of the play or the character of Shylock which is in any way unfair to Jews. The real grievance Jews have with the play, and with the character, is that it provided an easy and unambiguous reference to the link between Jews and moneylending. Even more devastating to organized Jewry, this link was provided by a cultural figure, in the form of Shakespeare, so great in popular esteem as to be almost unassailable. While Jewish organizations continue to assault the distribution and performance of works like Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare stands impervious and The Merchant of Venice continues to be read in schools, colleges and homes across the world. Jews are left with the sole option of preventing the ghost of Shylock from slipping into mainstream language, and they do so by ruthlessly policing what can be publicly said and by administering chastisement to the careless.

Seen in this light, we can almost taste in the bitterness in Sobel’s remark that “Shylock is dead, but Shakespeare isn’t really dead. We’ll still be reading Shakespeare.” Given the generally privileged position of Jews in American society despite the continued reverence for Shakespeare and his works, it’s really about hatred toward the traditional culture of the West and yet another illustration of Jewish power to get even the most prominent politicians to grovel.

One gets the impression that the ADL would love nothing more than to gather up the works of the Bard of Avon and cast them upon a Purim bonfire.

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