On 15th February, after a successful run at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Stratford, The Merchant of Venice 1936 opens at the Criterion Theatre in London’s West End. It is the brainchild of Tracy-Ann Oberman, who is playing a starring role. This may come as a surprise to some who are only familiar with her TV work on programmes like EastEnders. But Oberman began her acting career at the RSC and is an accomplished stage actress as well as a playwright.
More surprising is the fact that she is playing the role of Shylock, who is the most problematical character in what is Shakespeare’s most problematical play. Shylock is the Jewish moneylender who is ready to take a pound of flesh from a debtor in lieu of payment on a defaulted loan. And when his daughter runs off with a Christian nobleman, taking much of his fortune with her, he seems torn between grief over the loss of his daughter and grief for the loss of his money. Although Shakespeare gives Shylock a stirring speech attacking racism, he is obviously the villain of the piece and ends up losing everything while his Christian adversaries prosper.
Is the Merchant of Venice an antisemitic play? Oberman thinks so. That “pound of flesh” has entered into the English language as a metaphor for cruel and grasping greed, and for Oberman it reinforces the blood libel against Jews that has fuelled antisemitism down the centuries. She calls it a “racist romcom.” Oberman has reframed the drama by making Shylock a woman, a Jewish single parent who has to battle against the bullying, racist aristocrats who remind Oberman of the well-to-do women who looked down on Jewish immigrants like her great-grandmother, who came to Britain to escape from antisemitism and then had to confront Mosley’s fascists. She has based Shylock on her memories of her great-grandmother and in the play, retitled “The Merchant of Venice 1936”, Shylock is a shopkeeper in Cable Street.
So far so good and it sounds like an interesting production. But as well as reframing Shakespeare, in a recent interview with the iPaper Oberman also reframes history. She talks about the Battle of Cable Street in October 1936 when the working class mobilised to stop Mosley’s fascists marching through predominantly Jewish areas of the East End. She claims that attacks on Jewish people and shops in the days before the march backfired.
“When Mosley’s 15,000 supporters arrived – with the full protection of the mounted police – the Jewish community thought they would be standing on their own against them. But, in one of Britain’s most incredible civil rights moments, all the working-class communities came out to resist the blackshirts.”
The implication is that this was a spontaneous “moment” of moral outrage at the immediate, physical threat to the Jews. In fact the mobilisation was the result of months of political argument and organisation by the Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Antisemitism (JPC) which sought to mobilise local Jews against both antisemitism and fascism, while building links with non-Jewish anti-fascists.
So, when the march was announced, the JPC collected 100,000 signatures in only two days on a petition calling for the march to banned. When the government refused they issued thousands of leaflets with the slogan. “This March Must Not take Place.” The call was taken up by JPC’s allies in the Communist Party, Independent Labour Party, Labour League of Youth and by grassroots trade unionists.
The scale of the turnout was massive. Reg Weston described how he and a contingent of CP members from North London emerged from Aldgate Tube Station and there they stayed. “The pavements were packed, the whole street – Aldgate High Street – was packed solid. Crowds were everywhere as far as we could see. It was impossible to make any progress. Parked in the middle of the street, towering over the crowds, was a line of tramcars – marooned and empty. They could not have moved, even if anyone had wanted to move them.”
David Rosenberg describes how “so many tens of thousands were mobilised that they completely blockaded Gardiners Corner at Aldgate, the gateway to the East End, chanting ‘they shall not pass’”. When the police failed to break through, they tried a different tack. David Rosenberg again: “Eventually, the police sought to redirect the march further south through Cable Street, a narrow artery from the edge of the city leading towards the docks. The first two thirds of Cable Street was almost entirely Jewish, the last third, mainly Irish. Mosley had battled for the hearts and minds of the Irish community but so had the anti-fascists. On that day Irish dockers, in particular, came to the Jewish end of Cable Street to help build barricades.”
Contrary to Oberman’s account, the Jewish community knew they would not be standing alone, precisely because they had built support across communities. When the JPC held street corner meetings they made a point of having non-Jewish speakers on their platforms. The slogan, “They Shall Not Pass,” was a direct echo of “¡No Pasarán!” the slogan of the Republican forces resisting Franco’s attempt to seize Madrid in the Spanish Civil War. It was not just sympathy for the Jews or moral outrage at the behaviour of the fascists, it was also working class solidarity and a political understanding of why we had to stop fascism that brought hundreds of thousands of working class Londoners out on the streets that day.
Therefore it is regrettable that Oberman remains an unrepentant participant in the scam to smear Jeremy Corbyn for allegedly enabling antisemitism in the Labour Party. This is because, rather than trust in the working class solidarity that triumphed over fascism at Cable Street, she believes that Jews are always at risk wherever they are in the world and their only guarantee of security is the continuation of a Jewish state in Palestine. She has nothing to say about the plight of the Palestinians or the justness of their cause, despite acting as a patron of two pro-Palestinian charities. She talks of building bridges between communities while Israel builds walls.
So, while I agree with Oberman that we should remember Cable Street with pride, it is important to remember it in its totality. The fight against antisemitism and the fight for socialism were and still are indivisible.
This leads her not only to reframe history, but also to reframe the present. Anti-Israeli sentiment on the Left is not antisemitic. It is anti-Zionist. And at a time when Israel is engaged in a genocidal attack on Palestinians in Gaza and the Occupied Territories, it is the Jewish contingent who regularly turns out and marches in support of a ceasefire in Gaza that truly represents the spirit of solidarity that was shown at the Battle of Cable Street.
Life long socialist. Now retired, I have been an office junior, a bookseller, a docker and a teacher. I write a lot and read a lot more. Committed member of the Society of Authors, English PEN and the National Education Union. Never voting Labour again.