Far more often than I would have liked, this column has focused on intolerance, prejudice, bigotry and hatred.

I’ve written in response to comments or despicable acts by people who attack Muslims, Jews, women, Mormons, gay people, Catholics, Palestinians, blacks, immigrants and others because of who they are, not what they have done.

I return to this theme because ignorance and prejudice continue, and I strongly believe bigots may win if they are not exposed.

That’s why I wrote a column about the vandals who defaced Roger Katz campaign signs with anti-Semitic garbage and another about people who call themselves Christian while conducting ugly protests at the funerals of soldiers killed in battle or other hate-filled ministers who burn the Quran.

Today’s column stems from two recent events — one real, one fictional — both of which deal with the roots of prejudice.

The first was a letter to the editor of this newspaper in which the writer used one of the world’s oldest anti-Semitic citations in an effort to make a somewhat confusing point that the United States is endangered by conspiracies.

The second was a brilliant production of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” in Boston — a play with anti-Semitism at its core.

“Merchant” demands that we confront prejudice and examine how it affects or infects each of us.

Unfortunately, the letter promotes prejudice by accepting an anti-Semitic diatribe as a legitimate source for discussing public affairs.

The writer claims that the country is threatened by the United Nations, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, and the Federal Reserve, which it says — inaccurately — is “owned by foreign bankers.”

Then, the letter writer cites author Henry Makow and the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” to support his claims.

The “Protocols” claims to be a historical report of a meeting in Switzerland in 1897 at which Jewish leaders discussed their goal of dominating the world by subverting the morals of Gentiles, and controlling the press and the world’s economies.

It never happened.

Historians have shown that the book is a fraud, much of which was copied from older works, including a farce about Napoleon, that were never intended to be taken as factual.

Despite that, the “Protocols” has been used to justify persecution of the Jews for more than 100 years.

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia notes that “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was “studied, as if factual, in German classrooms after the Nazis came to power in 1933, despite having been exposed as fraudulent years before. In at least one scholar’s opinion, the ‘Protocols’ was Hitler’s primary justification for initiating the Holocaust.”

I was surprised and disturbed to see that reference in the newspaper. Allowing a citation of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as if it was a source for anything other than the most hateful bigotry lends credibility to its lies.

I was neither surprised nor disturbed by the anti-Semitism in “Merchant of Venice.” I have seen it several times. It was produced by the Theater at Monmouth three years ago.

“Merchant” focuses on Shylock, a stereotypical Jewish money-lender, and his unfeeling demand for a pound of flesh from Antonio, a Christian borrower who could not repay his loan on time.

Throughout the play, Christian characters mock and belittle Shylock, spit on him, push him to the ground and call him names. The word “Jew” is used as a curse.

I find it significant that Shakespeare heaps as much scorn on Shylock for his religion as for his cruel insistence that Antonio pay with his flesh.

At the end, in a plea bargain that only Shakespeare could create, to save his life Shylock is forced to become a Christian.

Of course, the play is far more complex than this — after all, it’s Shakespeare — but the running theme of Christian and Jewish relationships makes members of the audience confront their own thoughts and feelings.

The production in Boston was staged as if the events took place today, not in 1596 when Shakespeare wrote it.

Actors used cell phones and computers and wore clothes you’d see on the streets of New York. That staging helped make it clear that the issues raised by Shakespeare five centuries ago demand attention.

After more than 500 years, Shakespeare still makes me think.

Garbage like the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” makes me sick.

David B. Offer is the retired executive editor of the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel. Email [email protected]