In the small town of San Dona di Piave near Venice last Friday, an imam, Raoudi Albdelbar, asked Allah to, "Kill them all (the Jews), down to the last one; make poison of their food; transform the air that they breath into flames, and put terror in their hearts.” The imam was so proud of his sermon that he made a video of it and posted it on his Facebook page -- from where it went viral. Earlier this week, Italian antiterrorist police showed up and arrested the imam on charges of inciting violence, and began the process of expelling him to his native Morocco.
There's a doleful, five-century-old parallel to the iman’s prayer. In his “Trials of the Diaspora,” Antony Julius, a polymath British lawyer, has taken Shylock’s trial in the Merchant of Venice as the ur-trial of diaspora Jews, seeing in it a subtle re-imagining of the old blood libel. In Shylock's pitiless pursuit of a pound of flesh cut from the merchant Antonio's body, Julius detects another instance of Jews seeking Christian blood.
Shakespeare gave Shylock a speech that seemed to challenge the dehumanization at the heart of anti-Semitism – “Hath not a Jew eyes. ... If you prick us, do we not bleed?” -- even as the play drove inexorably to the ghastly humiliation of the Jew. But Shakespeare did not know any Jews; they had been expelled from England in 1290 after centuries of oppression and were not readmitted till the 1650s. Shylock was a composite, born of the normal anti-Semitism of a Christian Englishman but softened by the sympathetic insight of one who recognised common humanity even as he assumed uncommon Jewish malignancy.
For the imam of San Dona di Piave, there is no such generosity. For him, the trial of the Jews should conclude with a mass death sentence -- found, as a race, collectively guilty of creating a bloodbath in Gaza, where the victims this time were not Christians but Muslims.
Some among his audience, when later interviewed by a Corriere della Sera reporter, sought to excuse the imam’s remarks. “I understood [his sermon] this way,” said a man named Ali. “There was a massacre of children in Gaza and he prayed to Allah to punish those who did the killing. It's normal, it seems to me.”