Biden admits Shylock remark ‘a poor choice of words’

ADL head Abe Foxman says Jews have ‘no truer friend’ than VP, who ‘turned a rhetorical gaffe into a teachable moment’

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

US Vice President Joe Biden (AP/Markus Schreiber/File)
US Vice President Joe Biden (AP/Markus Schreiber/File)

US Vice President Joe Biden apologized Wednesday for his “Shylock” reference, insisting in a phone call with Anti-Defamation League Director Abe Foxman that the phrase was “a poor choice of words.”

“The Vice President reached out and we spoke today,” Foxman said in a statement. “Clearly there was no ill-intent here, but Joe and I agreed that perhaps he needs to bone up on his Shakespeare. ”

Foxman proceeded to hail the vice president for turning “a rhetorical gaffe into a teachable moment,” and praised Biden for his stance against anti-Semitism.

“There is no truer friend of the Jewish people than Joe Biden. Not only has he been a stalwart against anti-Semitism and bigotry, but he has the courage and forthrightness to admit a mistake and use it as an opportunity to learn and to teach others about the harmful effects of stereotypes,” Foxman said.

In a statement emailed from his office to JTA, Biden agreed with that characterization.

“Abe Foxman has been a friend and adviser of mine for a long time,” Biden said. “He’s correct, it was a poor choice of words, particularly, as he said, coming from ‘someone as friendly to the Jewish community and open and tolerant an individual as is Vice President Joe Biden.’ He’s right.”

On Tuesday, Jewish groups derided Biden’s use of the term “Shylock” in an address on US soldiers deployed in Iraq who face financial issues, for what the ADL termed its “offensive characterization.

“The Vice President should have been more careful,” Foxman said on Tuesday in a statement denouncing the comment.

“When someone as friendly to the Jewish community and open and tolerant an individual as is Vice President Joe Biden, uses the term ‘Shylocked’ to describe unscrupulous moneylenders dealing with service men and women, we see once again how deeply embedded this stereotype about Jews is in society,” he said.

The vice president had been describing his son’s experiences in the US military in Iraq at an event marking marking the 40th anniversary of the Legal Services Corporation.

“That’s one of the things that he finds was most in need when he was over there in Iraq for a year,” Biden said, according to CNN, “that people would come to him and talk about what was happening to them at home in terms of foreclosures, in terms of bad loans that were being… I mean these Shylocks who took advantage of, um, these women and men while overseas.”

The term Shylock originated in William Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice,” whose lead character by that name is a ruthless Jewish moneylender. Many have accused the play of having anti-Semitic undertones, and perpetuating the stereotype of Jews as money-grubbing and sly. In modern use, the word has become a pejorative term for loan sharks and usurers.

Although Biden was not referring to Jews, “Shylock represents the medieval stereotype about Jews and remains an offensive characterization to this day,” Foxman said.

Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks said the vice president “owes the Jewish community an apology” for his “tasteless, inappropriate and offensive” remarks.

“The name Shylock from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is so clearly derogatory and so clearly aimed at Jews alone that it has become shorthand for anti-Semitism. Vice President Biden was wrong to use that term and he should have known better,” he said.

JTA contributed to this report.

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