For Whom the Bell Tolls

Last night the ABC Q&A featured the question “In a country wrestling with its conscience about asylum seekers and the stigmatisation of the Muslim community as terrorists, what do you think a play like Othello or The Merchant of Venice has to say to us?”

Panellist John Bell responded:

“I’d be interested to see a production of The Merchant of Venice where you substituted the word ‘Muslim’ for ‘Jew’ and see how that would resonate,” said Mr Bell. “If someone abuses you for long enough, and spits on you for long enough, you’re going to be like a suicide bomber.

“If you said to me 10 years ago, could you as an actor imagine yourself walking into a school with an automatic rifle and shooting 20 children, or putting on a vest and walking into a supermarket or cinema blowing up anybody, taking as many people as you could? I would have said it was impossible. No human being could do that. Now it’s a daily occurrence. So it’s no wonder Shylock does what he does, and I say good on him.”

I did not see this program, I can’t bear to watch anything on ABC, who are unable to even report the weather without injecting political bias. However upon my arrival at work this morning I was asked what I thought about the remarks, and was motivated to look up the transcript of the show.

The conversation I engaged in was typically civil, simple and well intentioned, but it brought to the fore deep concerns I have with the general attitudes towards multiculturalism within middle Australia.

My opening gambit was about the stereotypical suicide bomber, being a disaffected and uneducated victim of oppression. Intelligence services know better, and it does not take much research to determine that most suicide bombers are in fact educated activists. However this didn’t seem to impact the discussion, so we moved on to discuss Shylock. Strangely enough the stereotypical money lending Jew did resonate and conform to prejudicial character. Shakespeare contended, if you prick me, do I bleed? My question was whether the blood of a victim of terrorism is comparable to the blood of the terrorist. Scientifically it may be, but morally, this is where Mr Bell and I probably differ. Again, this part of my conversation may have been too academic for my colleague, and I felt our discussion was going nowhere.

Then we hit on something. I was asked what the differences were between the Jewish and Muslim faiths.

As always, I prefaced my response by noting that monotheism and “Abrahamic” religions share a common ancestry and many values. In my view the problems associated with religious conflict are more cultural than theological. Differences in religious thought can be respected and tolerated. However when it comes to ethos, we can’t seem to reconcile.

I provided two examples. The first related to food certification. People often look at Halal and Kosher and dismiss them both as “the same thing”. Big debates have raged over certification costs and labelling, which have in some cases seen food manufacturers cease or conceal their kosher certification due to fear of community backlash. There are substantial differences. For example in meat production the kosher focus surrounds the sensitivity associated with the act of animal slaughter, the preparation. No blessing is made on the animal. From what I understand the focus of the Halal slaughter is the religious act, and the preparatory procedures and other issues of animal welfare differ within the process. Whist the philosophy associated with both kosher and Halal may have a common base, the procedures that follow do not.

The second example related to religious legal systems. Judaism has a Rabbinic tradition and system of halacha with a strong judicial focus. Islam has a system of Sharia law. One of the distinctions is a principle built into the Jewish legal system of “dinai malchut dinai” that the civil law of the land must be observed. There are many instances where Sharia law comes into conflict with civil law, and its adherents give precedence to religious precept over the civil legal system. Not so within Judaism, whose “Beit Din” courts are an alternative forum for arbitration, but whose authority does not sit above the law itself.

Whilst both Semitic religions, Judaism and Islam cannot be substituted as interchangeable terms, and neither can the personalities, characters, and even the prejudices associated with both be loosely used as synonymous examples of one and the same.

The conversation I had landed on a very important point, making the dialogue worthwhile. Religious tolerance is a very important element of multiculturalism. As a Jew I accept the right of anybody to hold their belief system, and don’t push my beliefs onto other people as the one and only universal truth. I just demand the right and freedom to adhere to my beliefs so long as they don’t harm others. If however somebody else comes up to me and requires I either submit and accept their belief or be classified as an infidel, then tolerance is lacking. In short, as a Jew I am not going to assimilate, but at the same time I am not going to require everyone around me to adhere to my system of belief and culture. Australia’s system of multiculturalism should respect that, from the Jewish community and from other religions and cultures as well.

If the question was put to me “In a country wrestling with its conscience about asylum seekers and the stigmatisation of the Muslim community as terrorists, what do you think a play like Othello or The Merchant of Venice has to say to us?”, my response would not be to deliver an answer that is loaded with political nuance. Rather I would note that both plays portray a prominent form of racial prejudice. Othello is characterised as an outsider to white Venetian society, as is Shylock characterised as a money-grabbing Jew. Both plays progress to show the tragic consequences of appearance that prevails over reality. They both also show what occurs when a person is consumed by jealousy. I would conclude that the plays should caution us not to misdirect our sympathy and turn a perpetrator into a victim. The plays also teach that we need to overcome stereotypes and deal with the reality of the “host culture” inclusive of their laws and expectations in order to successfully manage diversity, pluralism and multiculturalism.