An old ad campaign in New York displayed photos of Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese Americans and other ethnic types with the headline, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye.” This May, theatergoers at the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon will again discover that you don’t have to be Jewish to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. The role will be performed by a Palestinian. It’s a good thing.
No one demands that Shylock be ethnically cast. Al Pacino was fabulous in the 2004 film. In movies, non-Jews usually play Moses (think Charlton Heston). Jesus, too. So while casting Makram Khoury, who grew up in a Lebanese refugee camp and received the Israel Prize for a distinguished fifty-year acting career, might seem big news, it shouldn’t be. Openness is a hallmark of Western thought.
A week ago, a call for openness was issued by another non-Jew playing a “Jewish role.” George Deek, 30, an Arab Orthodox Christian, works for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He recently served in Israel’s embassy in Oslo, Norway and before that in Abuja, Nigeria.
I saw a YouTube speech of Deek’s recently then went to Congregation Sherith Israel to hear him. His message was straightforward and instructive. Israel is not a perfect nation, but it offers its Arab citizens opportunities to build good lives. Moreover, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza can enjoy those same opportunities. The key, according to Deek, is a people not being fixated on where it has been but focused on where it’s going.
Israel, often called “Startup Nation,” has turned to technology to produce a vibrant economy. (No, not everyone shares in the production of wealth; they don’t in the U.S. or anywhere else.) According to Deek, when the Palestinian Authority and Hamas foster more education and business development in a peaceful environment rather than turn to the international community for aid, Palestinian lives will improve dramatically.
The problem, says Deek, is a culture of victimization. He understands. When Arab armies attacked the new state of Israel in 1948, Arab authorities instructed many of their people to flee the battle zones. They promised that the Jews would soon be routed. Deek’s grandfather fled with his family to Lebanon. But the Jews weren’t routed. Israel, in fact, gained more territory than it had been accorded by the United Nations partition agreement. Deek’s grandfather smuggled the family back to Yafo (Jaffa). There, he worked and raised educated, successful children.
Few Palestinians followed that example. In 1948, they could have accepted Israel and built their own state. They didn’t. Nor did they following wars in 1967 and 1973. Sadly, Palestinians remain refugees in the Arab world—and a people apart. Deek has cousins born in Arab lands. They have no citizenship. Yet his cousin in Canada is a native-born citizen and former Olympian, part of the fabric of Canadian life as Deek is part of the fabric of Israeli life.
My friend Dan has a buddy in Israel. His name, as it happens, is Israel. He checked out George Deek, “I wish he grows up to become foreign minister,” Israel emailed. He added, “Israeli Christian Arabs are an untapped asset.” When an Israeli Jew concerned about his nation’s perilous situation offers that opinion, you see why casting Makram Khoury as Shylock is simply good theater.
Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.
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