If you prick us, do we not bleed?

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Some pupils at the Yesodey Hatorah girls’ high school not too far from where I live have attracted UK and international news coverage (see, for example, here, here, here and here) over their refusal to answer examination questions about Shakespeare. Apparently, the pupils declined even to write their names on the papers, in protest at Shakespeare’s ‘anti-Semitism’, despite the fact that they had not even been studying ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and that by doing so they would forfeit the entire examination. As a result, the school has fallen drastically in the performance tables (it was, quite remarkably, first in the entire country last year and is now 274th albeit out of over 3000).

I should interject a word here about the school system in the UK. Many Jewish schools here have what is known as voluntary aided status, which entitles them to state funding for buildings, general studies teaching and a host of other things, leaving the parents to pick up the tab for the Torah curriculum. Of course, this requires the school to meet government educational standards in all relevant areas. The examination in question was a standard government test on material for which the Shakespeare section is a mandatory part of the syllabus.

The principal of Yesodey Hatorah, Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, has been interviewed several times about this curious episode, including on the prestigious BBC Radio 4 ‘Sunday’ religious affairs programme. (You can listen to the interview here: click on the link for ‘Shakespeare and anti-Semitism’). He walks a fine line between supporting the girls in their principled stand, while indicating that he doesn’t really agree with them. It is clearly not the school policy to eschew Shakespeare, since it has bought into a system that requires his works to be taught; at the very least it tolerates its inclusion in the English syllabus and assumes that its students will do likewise.

I think that the issue as to whether Shakespeare was an anti-Semite is irrelevant – it has been debated for centuries. My own opinion (to the extent that I know enough about the subject to have an informed one) coincides with Rabbi Pinter’s. While the portrayal of Shylock has anti-Semitic overtones, there are also very humane, sensitive (dare one say philo-Semitic?) aspects of his character. The bard lived in an age when anti-Semitic sentiments were common; actually it is likely that he was writing with little first-hand knowledge of Jews, as he lived at the end of the 16th century, long after the expulsion in 1290 and some while before the resettlement in the mid-17th century. As such, I am not inordinately troubled by Shakespeare’s alleged anti-Semitism.

However, two other aspects of this incident have given me cause for thought. First, even if Shakespeare was an anti-Semite, should this influence whether his works ought to be taught in Jewish schools? Second, should a school support pupils’ principled objection to a syllabus item even if by doing so it significantly damages the school and its reputation?

Tacking the second question first, one could argue that the students (and their parents, who are reported as supporting them in this case) are bound by some kind of understanding with the school, in which they have agreed to engage fully in the stated programme of study. They ‘breach’ this ‘contract’ if they do not participate in the examinations. I don’t accept this argument, as I feel that the very essence of a quality education must encourage a degree of independent thinking and allow for the students to take informed decisions, especially when they are fully aware of the consequences. This is all part of growing up, something which a school must foster; in that respect, Yesodey Hatorah and Rabbi Pinter should be very proud of their students.

Yet there must be limits to this type of freedom within an educational environment. When I was at high school, one of my co-students became an anarchist, changed his name from Darren to ‘Grover Herbivores’ and refused to wear shoes. This provoked consternation and, finally, rage from the school administration, which eventually excluded him from school life. While this extreme example is no more than quaint, it illustrates the fact that conscientious objection to accepted school norms must have limits, otherwise the institution become ungovernable. Of course, at least in the minds of the students, there is a perceived moral dimension to the Shakespeare issues which is patently absent from ‘Grover’s’ unwillingness to wear shoes. Nonetheless, there has to be a balance between personal expression and potential damage to the school resulting from the students’ ethically motivated objections. If students fail to sit examinations or perform very poorly in them the school will eventually be subject to government scrutiny, which will influence the life of every student in the school. Striking that balance is very difficult – this is a genuine clash between private and public need. We all draw the line in different places, but I would advocate maximising the students’ opportunity for personal expression (based on informed choice and awareness of the consequences), only invoking the need for public responsibility when the potential damage is significant. I, like Rabbi Pinter, do not believe that to be the case in the recent school case.

However, before voting too firmly for the girls of Yesoday Hatorah, I would like to challenge the notion that if Shakespeare was an anti-Semite (accepting this for the purposes of this discussion), Jewish schools should not study his works. I find this incomprehensible, especially in a complex and open world where it is impossible to avoid a broad range of views about Jews and, indeed, everything else. Surely studying Shakespeare, even if one vehemently disagrees with his premises, is of great educational value anyway. Perhaps ‘The Merchant of Venice’ should be discussed in a Jewish school in the context of a lesson on the history of anti-Semitism. Perhaps the students should be encouraged to debate whether Shakespeare actually was an anti-Semite and if so, consider from where he derived his information and attitude. Are we so weak-minded that we need restrict our syllabi to the comfortable, familiar and unchallenging? I certainly hope not.

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16 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    Chaim Wolfson, they were protesting being made to study Shakespeare. It is meaningless to protest the attitudes of somebody who is so long dead, he won’t change them. You can only protest the importance given to such a person.

  2. Chaim Wolfson says:

    Rabbi Belovski,
    I am in 100% agreement with you that it is inappropriate to restrict school syllabi to the comfortable and unchallenging. Dealing with controversial topics is as much a necessary part of growing up as standing up for one’s principles. I just don’t understand what the girls’ protest has to do with shying away from the challenging and the uncomfortable. The way you describe it, they weren’t protesting his works but his alleged attitude.

  3. Harvey Belovski says:

    Chaim Wolfson:

    As I make it clear in the article, ‘in that respect’ I think that Rabbi Pinter should be proud of his students. By this I meant, in case it wasn’t clear, that I feel that Rabbi Pinter should be pleased with his students for fighting their corner, although the consequences were significant and detrimental and even though he (Rabbi Pinter) disagreed with their position. It’s all part of growing up – fighting battles and learning to live with the consequences.

    However, as I say at the end of the article, I strongly disagree with the entire premise of the girls’ stance. It is borne of a foolish and dangerous assumption that it is appropriate to restrict school syllabi to the comfortable and unchallenging. I am deeply troubled by this and feel that it is narrow and destructive. Of course, this is not the policy of the school, which teaches Shakespeare, but appears to be the view of some of the students (or, most probably, their parents).

    Thus I completely reject the girls’ stance and its premise, yet accord them the right to assert it and deal with the consequences.

    Other comment writers:

    No-one, least of all the girls themselves, could have predicted the international coverage that this incident attracted. It could easily have been a one-minute wonder that made it to an inside page in the Jewish newspapers, or even gone unnoticed. In this respect at least, we should be less harsh on the girls and their parents – they could not have been expected to take such public consequences into account when deciding whether to participate in the examination.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    “I hope that the girls wrote their statement by candlelight, since Thomas Edison was a vicious antisemite
    Comment by Yitzchok Adlerstein — March 11, 2008 @ 1:24 pm”

    Fluorescent!

  5. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    I hope that the girls wrote their statement by candlelight, since Thomas Edison was a vicious antisemite

  6. Chaim Wolfson says:

    In my previous comment I forgot to mention that I do think the girls should have consulted a rav first. They should have asked him if it is halachically permitted to protest the way they did if it could cause the school a loss of money. Perhaps that is what Professor Kaplan meant as well.

  7. Chaim Wolfson says:

    I thought Rabbi Belovski raised some interesting points in his post. It seems to me, however, that the school stands to lose much more from the girls’ “principled stand” than the girls themselves do. I agree with Ori (I find myself doing that a lot lately) that they should be made to understand that fighting for principles entails sacrificing for them. That would indeed be a valuable and worthwhile lesson. Personally, I would respect the girls’ position more if their protest was ACTIVE (e.g., researching the life of Shakespeare and writing an essay explaining why they think he was an anti-semite) rather than PASSIVE (simply not taking the examination). [If failing a test is a form of protest, then I now think more kindly of my fellow high school students who “protested” not only Shakespeare but all English literature, not to mention Math, Science and Social Studies :).]

    I was somewhat puzzled, though, by Rabbi Belovski’s last paragraph, particularly its penultimate sentence: “Are we so weak-minded that we need restrict our syllabi to the comfortable, familiar and unchallenging?”. Having described the girls protest as a “principled stand” and eloquently stated the case for their right of “personal expression”, why does Rabbi Belovski think, or at least imply, that their actions reflect “weak-mindedness” and a shying-away from issues that are “uncomfortable, unfamilar and challenging”? Protests (whether or not you agree with them) are by definition challenges to authority, and I would think that they demonstrate conviction and a sturdy backbone, not weak-mindedness.

    I am also not sure why Rabbi Oberstein jumps to the conclusion that the girls’ behavior has something to do with “religious zealotry” and “out-frumming” the headmaster, or why Kayza Zajek and Professor Kaplan feel the girls have to provide halachic justification or consult with a rav. No one I am aware of ever said it is forbidden to study the works of an anti-semite. But that doesn’t mean that people can’t feel it is wrong to. There are countless people who do not feel bound by “halachah” yet refuse to step foot on German soil, or buy German products. That the works of Wagner are taboo in Israel has nothing to do with “halachah”. It’s simply an issue of emotions and personal sentiment.

    “No doubt, next they will refuse to answer any questions about Dickens” (Comment by LAWRENCE KAPLAN — March 10, 2008 @ 9:33 pm).

    Interesting that you bring up Dickens. Even during his lifetime Dickens was criticized for the way he portrayed Fagin. My copy of Oliver Twist contains an Afterword which quotes a letter that Dickens wrote to a Jewish colleague in which he defends himself against the charge of anti-semitism. I think it says something about his character that he felt compelled to respond to his critics at a time when anti-semitism (at least the “benign” form of which he stood accused) was still socially acceptable in England. [Besides, I think your average high-school student finds Dickens much more interesting than Shakespeare.]

  8. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    No doubt, next they will refuse to answer any questions about Dickens. I agree L. Oberstein that the girls were put up to this. Did they – a Kayza Zajek asked– confer with any posek?

  9. Kayza Zajac says:

    I don’t think that Rabbi Pinter should have supported the girls. But, to me it is symptomatic of a problem with the school. I highly doubt that this was the result of a group of young people who looked at an issue and then took action to right a wrong. Having not only read more than one of Shakespear’s plays, including The Merchant, and knowing a bit of the history (including the fact that there were in fact a small number of Jews in Elizabethan England) I do find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that Shakespear’s portrayal was antisemitic. (The idea of it actually being philosemitic really doesn’t hold up at all, in my opinion.)

    Can any of these girls give me a good reason why it should be assur to learn the works of an author who happened to be, by the way, antisemitic (as well as fairly prejudiced in general)? I’m not asking for a reason that would necessarily convince me, but one that was cogent and thought out. Alternatively, did any one of these girls actually ask a Rav about the Halachik status of this study?

    Absent either of these, how do these girls justify doing something so “in your face” that will certainly have a negative effect on the school? Why does the school not challenge them on that, and react accordingly?

    That is why I say that there seems to be a problem with the school. It sounds to me like a group of girls got whipped up to do something without really thinking through, and the school is not reacting accordingly.

  10. L Oberstein says:

    I suspect that someone put the girls up to this act. Someone, perhaps in religious zealotry, got this going and other girls were afraid to differ.This is typical of peer pressure. The fact that the headmaster was unable to persuade the girls tells me that either someone else is “out-frumming” him and he is being ignored because he isn’t zealous enough or that he is not being backed up by his board of directors. Something has to change in that school as there is open rebellion against the aauthority of the princcipal under the guise of religion.
    Maybe there are those who want the money from the government but don’t want to study secular studies. They are aping the situation in Israel and once again the rabbis of the Diaspora are powerless since how can we be different that the Eretz Yisroel model. If there is no rabbinic or educational leadership, this crisis will escalate.

  11. He Who Remembers says:

    The sad thing is that these girls have picked up the hateful attitudes of extreme Islamists. In an age when Jewish women (a small number) have taken to wearing Islamic garb, it is disturbing to see this story. We must not devolve into those we hold to be most against our values.

    As has been pointed out, there are very many lessons Jews in particular can take from what is in so many ways a ludicrous play, albeit one with magnificent language that should be absorbed. It is doubtful Shakespeare ever met a Jew in the Judenrein England of his time, nor is there evidence he ever traveled anywhere that Jews actually existed.

    Where will be if we do not know the culture of the surrounding civilization? To know it is not to subscribe to it as a modern day way of life for ourselves. After all, is usury offensive to the Mastercard world of double digit interest in which we live with our non-Jewish fellow citizens? For that matter, there is little remaining of the societies reflected and/or imagined in Shakespeare’s writing.

    And yet, Shakespeare is worth study by all.

  12. Ori says:

    Jacob Haller: Considering the ingratiating gestures the Brits have recently made to keep things calm with Ishmael’s grandchildren (knighthood for the not-so-moderate Iqbal Sacranie and Ken Livingstone’s nicities towards final solution advocate Yusuf al-Qaradawi) will they apply the same standards (forfeiting major exams and removing ‘voluntary aided status’) should their schoolchildren take umbrage at certain academic material?

    Ori: I hope so – not for the sake of British Jews as much as for the sake of British Muslims. Appeasement towards a group makes the extemists of that group stronger, and the moderates weaker. Eventually when people figure appeasement failed and the pendulum swings the other way, that group tends to get suffer a lot more than it would have had with a reasonable standard from the start.

    To take the classical example, Chamberlin didn’t do Germany any favors by giving Hitler what he demanded. Hitler’s early victories consolidated his power base, and prevented the sane Germans from deposing him. This meant that the rest of the world had to depose him, with considerably more collateral damage. At the end of the war Germany was in ruins, many of its people dead.

    Getting appeased is a temptation to become so extremist people can’t live with you. That is not a temptation I think any Jewish group should desire.

  13. Jacob Haller says:

    At the risk of sounding like polemic ethnocentrist, it’s inevitable that the UK educational system will encounter similar issues with their Islamic schools. Considering the ingratiating gestures the Brits have recently made to keep things calm with Ishmael’s grandchildren (knighthood for the not-so-moderate Iqbal Sacranie and Ken Livingstone’s nicities towards final solution advocate Yusuf al-Qaradawi) will they apply the same standards (forfeiting major exams and removing ‘voluntary aided status’) should their schoolchildren take umbrage at certain academic material?

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    Take a look at R Zevin ZTL”s Lor HaHalacha in which he analyzed The Merchant of Venice’s central issue from the POV of Halacha. That would seem to be a good starting place for a classroom lesson.

  15. Ori says:

    Rabbi Harvey Belovski: Second, should a school support pupils’ principled objection to a syllabus item even if by doing so it significantly damages the school and its reputation?

    Ori: Doing something out of high moral principles doesn’t make it right. To pick an extreme example, imagine one of these girls converted to Christianity. Not out of spite, or as a rejection of Judaism – but because she truly and really believed that she was doing the will of G-d. Her religious fervor and genuine desire to please G-d, laudable as they may be, would not help her stay in the school.

    They have the right not to take exams that offend them, for whatever reason. But having failed a class on purpose they do not have a right to subsequently complain if they receive a failing grade and have to suffer the consequences to their education. Fighting for one’s principles is good, but it does occasionally requires that you sacrifice for them.

    BTW, didn’t anybody teach those girls the connection between forgetting one’s history and repeating it?

  16. cvmay says:

    ACTIVISM is a lost trait, to read that female teenagers have an opinion and have acted on it truly gives me HOPE!!
    (Do not restrict the school’s curriculum rather discuss and research the hatred and ill-treatment of Jews, and then ACT on the information.)