Shakespeare, Gaza, and How the World is Not Safe for Jews

What made me feel the true weight and deep presence of antisemitism was the world’s response to the October 17 explosion in the parking lot outside a hospital in Gaza City.
October 29, 2023
Shylock after the trial (from William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice). Sir John Gilbert ARA (Artist), G Greatbach (Engraver). retroimages/Getty Images

In Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” Shylock discovers the sting of antisemitism only after his daughter has eloped with the Christian Lorenzo along with a fortune in ducats and jewels (including her mother’s turquoise ring, which she trades for a monkey). “The curse never fell upon our nation ‘til now,” Shylock moans to his friend, Tubal, “I never felt it ‘til now.”

It’s not that Shylock doesn’t know from antisemitism. Antonio, Shylock tells us at the play’s start, insults him “where merchants most do congregate,” spits on him, and kicks him as if he were a “stranger cur.” But the hostility doesn’t really bother or impede Shylock. He bears it “with a patient shrug.” Shylock clearly understands that antisemitism is out there. It’s occasionally directed at him, but antisemitism doesn’t stop Shylock from carrying on his life and his business. He’s able to separate himself from the hostility that surrounds him, and carry on.

That, I confess, is how I’ve felt about antisemitism. Obviously, there is plenty of Jew hatred in the world, and more than occasionally that hostility turns fatal. In between the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, the shootings at the Pittsburgh synagogue and the Chabad Center in Poway, the bomb scares at synagogues, and the many smaller incidents recorded by the ADL, it’s hard not to feel beleaguered and under attack. Yet I did, because it’s easy to distance oneself from the losers carrying tiki torches shouting “Jews Will Not Replace Us,” the thugs who destroyed a menorah outside the Chabad House near San Diego State University, and the fake bomb threats sent to Jewish Community Centers. Perhaps I was living in a dream.

But what made me feel the true weight and deep presence of antisemitism was the world’s response to the October 17 explosion in the parking lot outside a hospital in Gaza City. Hamas immediately blamed Israel (even though they knew perfectly well that the rocket came from Islamic Jihad), and the rest of the world jumped to believe Hamas.

News sources ran with headlines screaming that Israel had deliberately bombed a hospital and over 500 people were dead. When the New York Times first reported the story, the headline was “Israel Strike Kills Hundreds, Palestinians Say.” A BBC reporter said that “it was hard to see what else this could be” but Israel bombing innocent civilians. Over and over again, “Headlines suggested Israel had bombed a Christian hospital in Gaza’ and ‘murdered hundreds of civilians.’”

As one might expect, so-called progressive politicians jumped on the bandwagon. Rep. Cori Bush, in a now-deleted tweet, announced that “500 doctors, patients, and civilians killed after a hospital in Gaza was bombed”; Rep. Rashida Tlaib tweeted that Israel, on a whim, destroyed the hospital: “Israel just bombed the Baptist Hospital killing 500 Palestinians (doctors, children, patients) just like that.” And Rep. Ilhan Omar, quoting an AP report, tweeted, “Bombing a hospital is among the gravest of war crimes. The IDF reportedly blowing up one of the few places the injured and wounded can seek medical treatment and shelter during a war is horrific.” Riots erupted across the Middle East. A mob shouting “Murderous Israel” attacked a synagogue in Spain. In Tunisia, another synagogue was attacked and set on fire “a few hours after the news of the explosion at Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza, for which Hamas pointed the finger at an Israeli missile.”

Before this event, the world’s sympathy was focused on Israel. On October 7, Hamas forces invaded southern Israel and committed atrocity after atrocity. They murdered babies, burned families alive, and slaughtered innocent young people attending a rave. Hamas terrorists killed over 1400 people, and took over 200 hostages back to Gaza, all the while livestreaming their unspeakable deeds. Some blamed the invasion on Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies, others on Israel’s over-reliance on technology for security, and no doubt both are true. But whatever Israel’s faults (and let me be clear, they are legion), the world has not seen such barbarity as Hamas showed on that day for a very long time. So the world sympathized with Israel.

Not all, of course. In progressive circles, there was already widespread empathy for the Palestinians and antipathy for Israel. A rabbi in Los Angeles told her congregants that she got the sense from her leftwing friends that “these Israeli victims somehow deserved this terrible fate” because Israel is an “apartheid state.” Others, particularly on college campuses, were gleeful. A Cornell University history prof said he was “exhilarated” by the attack.

The anti-Israel contingent, however, did not enjoy wide support. The Cornell prof, for example, apologized for his statement in the face of public outcry and condemnation by Cornell’s administration. (He has since taken a leave of absence.)

But all it took, it seems, is one false statement from Hamas, and the world’s sympathy turned on a dime. Suddenly, Hamas’s responsibility for this war—they invaded Israel, not the other way around—was forgotten. Israel is now once more the bad guy, and the innocent Palestinians in the Gaza Strip the victims of wanton Israeli aggression.

Israel is now once more the bad guy, and the innocent Palestinians in the Gaza Strip the victims of wanton Israeli aggression.

On October 18, a full 24 hours after the hospital explosion, The New York Times ran a story, trying to explain, really, explain away, why their headlines shifted from blaming Israel and claiming that “At Least 500 Dead” in the attack to “Hundreds Reported Killed in Blast.”  The article blamed the changing headlines on the fog of war: “The shifting coverage about a deadly explosion at a hospital in Gaza highlighted the difficulties of reporting on a fast-moving war in which few journalists remain on the ground while claims fly freely on social media.” “It takes time to independently verify the claims from all sides,” and so, the article concludes, news organizations should be “exceptionally careful” how they report on the Israel-Hamas conflict, and be skeptical of the claims from both sides.

Except that’s not what happened. You would think that a terrorist organization that had just committed atrocity after atrocity would not have much credibility.  But rather than treating Hamas’s claims with skepticism, instead of being “exceptionally careful,” The New York Times and practically every other reputable news organization jumped to accept Hamas’s version of events. Only much later, did they walk back their claims. Some, such as al Jazeera, continue to assert Israel’s responsibility. Neither Cori Bush nor Rashida Tlaib retracted their claims or apologized for mistakenly blaming Israel for an explosion the IDF did not cause. In fact, Tlaib has “tripled down” on this false narrative.

And here is where, like Shylock, I finally realized the depth and virulence of antisemitism. The world does not want to see Israel as the victim of unprovoked aggression. The world does not like seeing Jews as victims, especially Jews victimized by Palestinians, and they certainly don’t love Jews who fight back. When Hamas first invaded, there was no alternative, especially as evidence for their murdering the elderly, torture, and rape began to pile up.

But the hospital bombing gave the world a perfect opportunity to flip the narrative: Now the Palestinians are the victims of a monstrous attack on innocent children. And in place of demonstrations against Hamas’s brutality, there are widespread protests against Israel that veer into outright antisemitism. The “Cease Fire Now Resolution” introduced in the House of Representatives by Ilhan Omar does not mention hostages or condemn Hamas for the invasion.

The fact that Islamic Jihad was responsible for the misfired rocket, and that the initial reports of casualties were highly inflated (100-300, not 500 plus), does not seem to matter. If the world has an opportunity to see Israel as the aggressor, even when evidence shows the opposite, that is what the world is going to do.

As for the canard that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, the number of antisemitic incidents since the invasion has skyrocketed. In Paris, someone poured gasoline on the door of a Jewish couple in their 80s, and lit it on fire. In London, someone poured red paint on the gates of a Jewish school. In Warsaw, a grinning student held up a sign saying, “Keep the World Clean” with a picture of a star of David in a garbage can. The same sign has appeared at many other demonstrations, including one outside New York University in Manhattan.

I realize now, in a way I never did before, the world is not safe for Jews.

Peter C. Herman’s books include “Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11,” and “Critical Contexts: Terrorism and Literature.” His opinion pieces have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Areo, Inside Higher Ed, and Times of San Diego. 

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