Jacob, Laban, and “The Merchant of Venice”

Nov. 20 2015

This week’s Torah reading tells the story of Jacob’s sojourn with his uncle Laban, whose flocks he tends and whose two daughters he marries. Laban tricks Jacob, first by substituting one daughter for the other and then by trying to deprive him of his wages—which are to be paid in sheep. Jacob responds with some trickery of his own, getting his due by a feat of biblical genetic engineering. In The Merchant of Venice, the character of Shylock cites Jacob’s example in this passage as justification for usury. Herbert Basser argues that Shakespeare here is engaging in a subtle analysis of the biblical text:

Shylock . . . recognizes that, . . . since a patriarch would never steal, Jacob is taking “interest” for the years of unpaid work. He calls it “indirect” interest as it came from natural increase and not added coin. Shylock also . . . notes that Jacob’s mother, Rebecca, was shrewd in helping him usurp Esau’s birthright. For Shylock this constitutes wisdom. It would seem that Shakespeare means to paint Shylock—and probably Jews in general—as the type of people who muddy the lines between smart business and deceitful practices, as Jacob does. . . .

Antonio . . . denounces Shylock’s biblical interpretation. . . . Shylock, Antonio believes, uses Scripture to justify his malicious practices, since Jacob could not possibly have been involved in usury. Jews, he tells Bassanio, are devils and devils misuse Scripture, looking outwardly pious but harboring nefarious schemes. The charge of Jewish hypocrisy was and is often encountered in Christian teachings. Shakespeare himself allows their positions to speak for themselves. . . .

The very debate Shylock and Antonio are having virtually reflects the dissonance [within] the story of how Jacob became wealthy. . . . [A]s a careful reader of Scripture, Shakespeare picked up on the tension inherent in the account, and chose to express this tension, this inner biblical dialogue, in the form of a debate between the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, and the Christian merchant, Antonio.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Arts & Culture, Genesis, Hebrew Bible, Jacob, Literature, William Shakespeare

Will America Invite Israel to Join Its Multinational Coalitions?

From the Korean War onward, the U.S. has rarely fought wars alone, but has instead led coalitions of various allied states. Israel stands out in that it has close military and diplomatic relations with Washington yet its forces have never been part of these coalitions—even in the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraqi missiles were raining down on its cities. The primary reason for its exclusion was the sensitivity of participating Arab and Muslim nations. But now that Jerusalem has diplomatic relations with several Arab countries and indeed regularly participates alongside them in U.S.-led joint military exercises, David Levy believes it may someday soon be asked to contribute to an American expedition.

It is unlikely that Israel would be expected by the U.S. to deploy the Golani [infantry] brigade or any other major army unit. Instead, Washington will likely solicit areas of IDF niche expertise. These include missile defense and special forces, two areas in which Israel is a world leader. The IDF has capabilities that it can share by providing trainers and observers. Naval and air support would also be expected as these assets are inherently deployable. Israel can also provide allies in foreign wars with intelligence and cyber-warfare support, much of which can be accomplished without the physical deployment of troops.

Jerusalem’s previous reasons for abstention from coalitions were legitimate. Since its independence, Israel has faced existential threats. Conventional Arab armies sought to eliminate the nascent state in 1948-49, 1967, and again in 1973. This danger remained ever-present until the 1978 signing of the Camp David Accords, which established peace between Egypt and Israel. Post-Camp David, the threats to Israel remain serious but are no longer existential. If Iran were to become a nuclear power, this would pose a new existential threat. Until then, Israel is relatively well secured.

Jerusalem’s new Arab allies would welcome its aid. Western capitals, especially Washington, should be expected to pursue Israel’s military assistance, and Jerusalem will have little choice but to acquiesce to the expeditionary expectation.

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Read more at BESA Center

More about: IDF, U.S. military, U.S.-Israel relationship