The Jew of Malta and the New Face of Antisemitism in France

Article excerpt

Nicole Cohn is a physician living outside Paris and president of the French- and English-speaking Liberal Jewish Congregation of Paris-Yvelines. In early November 2002, some parents of the Lycee International in Saint-Germain-en-Laye--a school her three daughters had attended--came to her with a problem that stirred her profoundly. The British section of the lycee had decided to stage The Jew of Malta, a play written in 1590 by Christopher Marlowe. The play presents, as its central character, a rich Jewish merchant named Barabas, who avenges himself against the authorities who have taken his money by committing mass murder, including killing his own daughter because she became a Christian convert. At the end of the play, he is boiled in oil.

This play has been considered blatantly antisemitic since its first production over 400 years ago in Elizabethan England, whether it has been presented since then as a farcical satire on prejudice or presented, as Hitler did, as a realistic picture of all Jews. The lycee parents who approached Dr. Cohn were alarmed at the idea of performing such an inflammatory play before an audience of high school students in the present political climate in France: a growing number of violent physical attacks against Jews in the last two years by militant Arab groups (1) has occurred simultaneously with the emergence of a new kind of antisemitism based in anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian sentiment, particularly among certain leftist groups.

Dr. Cohn felt impelled to take action. In the role of president of a Jewish congregation, she led the Jewish community in voicing its objections, with such vehemence, persistence, and strategic skill that the lycee officials finally withdrew the play, in early December 2002.

There is a new journal in France, Observatoire du monde juif, written by academic researchers in political science and sociology, that explains the political context within which this Jewish community was protesting the staging of the play. These articles characterize a new kind of antisemitism that has emerged in France, with several basic elements: (2)

1) It exists worldwide and is pervading national politics on a broader scale than represented by the parties that give it voice.

2) It blurs the distinction worldwide between Jewry and the State of Israel and demonizes Jews as "Zionists" guilty of "fascism," "imperialism," "apartheid," and "genocide."

3) This ideology encourages verbal accusations and acts of violence against Jews, and, particularly in France, forges a link between Islamic radicals and the New Left ("Neo-Gauchistes"). (3)

4) This is not the traditional antisemitism of the past that was based in the individual history of each nation and in centuries of hostility by the Church. Rather, it crosses national boundaries and is fed by certain fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, disguised under the general banner of "anti-racism." (4)

5) The germ of this New Left ideology lies in French post-World War II history; it now transforms the Jews and the State of Israel from oppressed victims to totalitarian oppressors--thus putting into question the right of the State of Israel to exist, since it is labeled the equivalent of Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. (5)

6) This New Left view also includes the accusation that both Israel and the Jewish community at large exaggerate the importance of the Shoah to maintain their own positions of power--a view that the extreme Left and the extreme Right in France have in common, partly explaining why both extremes are presently attacking the Jewish community.

7) The French media are biased against Israel. (6)

Apart from this hostile political context in which The Jew of Malta was to be performed at the lycee, there was also the classic issue of artistic and academic freedom (on the part of the lycee), versus censorship (on the part of the Jewish community. …