According to the opponents, the play is anti-Semitic and should not be presented by Israel's national theater of all institutions – a stance which many theater officials in the country are strongly opposed to.
Habima Theater was chosen to present "The Merchant of Venice" at the Globe to Globe festival, defined by the British press as "a unique Shakespeare festival".
The event, which will take place on April 23, Shakespeare's birthday, will include performances of the famous English playwright's work by 37 theaters from across the world – each in its own language.
"The Merchants of Venice" has often been criticized for allegedly inciting to anti-Semitism due to the character of Shylock, a ruthless Jewish moneylender in Venice of the 14th century. In the play, Shylock lends money to Antonio, a Venetian merchant who goes bankrupt, setting the security at a pound of his flesh.
Habima officials expressed their surprise at the objection to the play. "The absurd claim that the play is anti-Jewish is populist, unfounded and subject to interpretation," the theater said in a statement.
"'The Merchant of Venice' is considered one of Shakespeare's most important plays and is presented on the world's most important stages. It has already been presented in Israel several times. One of the most successful adaptations of the play, starring Al Pacino, was recently presented in New York, which has the world's biggest Jewish center."
The play's designated director, Ilan Ronen, can't understand the uproar either. "Dozens of the best Jewish actors, including Antony Sher and Dustin Hoffman, alongside other acting legends, have played the role of Shylock knowing that the play actually deals with the persecution of the Jew and xenophobia," Ronen stressed.
"As a theater, this play allows us to attack the hatred of Jews and fear of strangers," he added.
Zippi Rubin, head of the Friends of the Habima National Theater Society, clarified that the association had no mandate to intervene in the theater's decision. "This is the private opinion of some of the members, and they are entitled to their opinion," she said.
This isn't the first time the play causes objection in Israel: In 1936, "The Merchant of Venice" premiere at Habima sparked a public row. Since then, however, the play has been presented in Israel several times, including in 1959 by Habima and in 1972 and 1994 by the Cameri Theater.
Yossi Gerber, who played the role of Shylock in the 1994 production, said this week that he could not understand the objections, stressing that it was an important "anti-anti-Semitic" play which must be presented.