Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Shylock moment

I was away while the comments thread here was unfolding, but am going back to it now. One of the topics was Eric Lee's "Shylock moment", described here. He is talking about speaking in support of Israel at debates like this one in my neighbourhood.
“The questioner will speak softly. Their face will show real concern, even pain. And what you’ll hear is not an accusation, but a real question, because the person is genuinely confused.
They will say something like this: “I’ve been watching the scenes from Gaza on TV. I’ve seen small children standing in front of the ruins of their homes. I’ve seen parents weeping over the loss of their children. And I can’t understand how you can see all this and still support Israel.”
Noga, who blogs here, wrote this long comment, which I thought deserved some space of its own:
This is what Eric Lee calls “the Shylock moment”. An impossibility to break through an impenetrable barrier.. A moment when he suddenly realizes that it’s not his politics that are being questioned but his very humanity. According to Lee, he succumbs to it. He pleads for recognition of his humanity.

From whom?

Shylock’s words are probably the most famous speech in the Merchant of Venice. But we tend to overlook the situation in which it is made. In the play, Shylock addresses them to Salanio and Salarino, two very minor characters who were accessories to Jessica's elopement. They mock Shylock, ridiculing him for speaking of his daughter as his "flesh and blood". Jessica, they say, is no more like Shylock than ivory is to jet, or Rhenish wine is to red wine. Jessica had renounced her ancestral home, robbed her own father and married one of his enemy’s most loyal friends. That is what makes Jessica human in Salanio and Salarino’s eyes. Her only path to human respectability. Only by these acts of betrayal did she reinstate her claim to humanity, according to these two.

It’s a humiliating scene.

We should not allow people to abdicate their elementary responsibility to question their own premises, their own knowledge, and their own ethics. These people should be challenged as to why they think like they do, why their pity is so exclusive, lopsided, so uni-directional, so devoid of genuine understanding and human compassion.

These people must be forced to confront the question of why they are so impervious to the pro-Israel arguments and facts.

My husband calls it “the coffee machine syndrome'”. It has to do with the story of an automatic coffee machine which he had bought for me a few years ago. It suddenly stopped working, the display instructing me to: “check water level”. As if there was not enough water in the water tank. The only problem was, the tank was full to brim. It was the sensor that failed. And the malfunctioning sensor prevented the machine from producing my espresso. The faulty sensor acted as the ultimate arbiter in this matter and the machine, quite healthy in all other respects, obeyed its decree. There was no built-in manual alternative to the sensor. So the ruling of the sensor could not be circumvented. I could see the water level, and knew the problem was in the sensor, but I could not communicate this to the machine. So the damn machine refused to prepare the coffee.

Presumably, the person who asked Lee a question that seemed to distrust Lee’s very humanity is in the same spot as my coffee-making machine. His trust in the sensor to relay the information is so complete, that he never so much as considers the possibility that the problem might not lie with the actual level of the water. In other words, the asker completely forgets his own responsibility, independently- thinking agency and, yes, his own humanity, implicit in which are vulnerability, proneness to misjudge, and a keenness to believe the worst about others, that is, to believe sensors even when they are so obviously malfunctioning.

2 comments:

ModernityBlog said...

Bob,

on a related theme

you'll have to ask Chris of Cafe Creme, if he and other anti-Israelis are boycotting google now?

see http://modernityblog.wordpress.com/2009/04/07/will-they-boycott-google/

I doubt it!

The Contentious Centrist said...

Thanks Bob. I forgot about this comment.