Suzanne Fields
"The Merchant of Venice" is back and plays for relevance, just in time for 2012. The Shakespeare drama is staged in the nation's capital, set in a troubled America struggling with cultural extravagance in New York City before the Great Depression. Al Pacino stars in a movie version, inviting reflection on the ambiguities of prejudice and greed, as familiar in 21st century Washington as 16th century Venice. There's enough corruption depicted in the play to indict an entire wasteful society. The famous "pound of flesh" is but a metaphor for all kinds of excesses of thinking and action. Anti-Semitism is only a part of it.

Scholars, in fact, now exonerate Shakespeare from sharing the Jew-hatred of his characters, since it's unlikely that the playwright ever met a Jew. Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and didn't return until 1656, when Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan, showed them tolerance. Cromwell was assisted by Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam, who acted as a Jewish ambassador to the Gentiles.

Jewish history, like everybody else's history, repeats itself. A friend who attended a joint commemoration of Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday and the 17th anniversary of the death of Lubavich Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson tells how these two men, a Christian and a Jew, worked together to free Soviet Jews in ways that were mostly kept secret.

In a program sponsored by Chabad Lubavitch centers in Philadelphia, titled "The Rebbe, Ronald Reagan and the Russian Exodus," speakers from the Reagan administration recalled how the rabbi and the president, through "quiet diplomacy," helped Soviet Jews gain their freedom.

Gary Bauer, an evangelical Christian who served as undersecretary of education and was a domestic adviser to Ronald Reagan, and Max Kampelman, a Jew who served as his chief arms negotiator, recalled the partnership of the Rebbe and Reagan and their long private correspondence. The president obtained lists of Jews who wanted to emigrate, and he personally saw that they were handed to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev agreed to ease travel restrictions for the Jews as long as his specific efforts on their behalf were not made public.

"There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go," Reagan was fond of saying, "if he doesn't mind who gets credit." Bauer believes the president's personal relationship with the rabbi helped him to alleviate the plight of the Soviet Jews at a time when he was under pressure in the White House to drop the issue. I recall meeting a group of "refuseniks" in St. Petersburg in the 1980s who were excited by Reagan's efforts. We huddled in a cold basement where they read the Torah and studied Hebrew, praying they could leave Russia for Israel.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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