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School Board Bans Shakespeare Play After Anti-Semitic Incidents

July 25, 1986

TORONTO (AP) _ Ninth-graders in an Ontario school threw coins at Jewish students and scrawled swastikas on their desks after the class began studying William Shakespeare’s classic drama of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender.

Parents complained and the local school board banned ″The Merchant of Venice″ until the Education Ministry or Human Rights Commission rules whether it is anti-Semitic.

Some people praise the decision July 10 by the board in Kitchener-Waterloo, 50 miles southwest of Toronto, but others call it absurd.

″I find it preposterous that after 400 years this play gets banned,″ said veteran actor John Neville, artistic director of the annual Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario.

Jewish scholar W. Gunther Plaut of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple argued, however, that the play would have been relegated to library shelves long ago were it not by the Bard of Avon.

Writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Plaut acknowledged that Shylock utters the memorable plea for tolerance: ″I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passion?″

″But these lines hardly counterbalance the overwhelming thrust of the story, which depicts the Jew as basically greedy, a veritable anti-Christ who, accompanied by the merry laughter of the audience, gets his just desserts,″ Plaut said.

In the play, Shylock lends money to Antonio, a Christian, and demands a pound of flesh when the debtor defaults. At the end, Shylock’s daughter elopes with one of Antonio’s friends and a judge strips the moneylender of his fortune.

Scholars have debated for generations whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic, at a time when there were virtually no Jews in England, or was ridiculing bigotry.

Complaints to the Waterloo County board of education about teaching the play to students at such a junior level arose in 1966.

Last month, nine Jewish students testified to the board about being called ″Jew moneylender,″ and of other discriminatory treatment by classmates.

″I get coins thrown at me and told to ‘Pick them up, Jew,‴ one said. ″This has happened more times than I can count. I never had a coin thrown at me until we studied ’The Merchant.‴

A girl student said she was chosen for the part of Shylock when the teacher asked the class to act out parts of the drama.

″Here I was, nervously playing a man who was called Jew-dog, Jew-devil and so forth,″ she complained. Later, classmates covered her desk with swastikas.

Parents asked the board to restrict study of the play to high school seniors.

″If you are 14 and the only Jew you know is Shylock, and at some point you hate him for his villainy, you tell me if you might not at some point also hate him for his Jewishness,″ said one parent, Monna Zentner.

The likely solution, according to Toni Silberman of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, is a set of guidelines for teachers on how to present sensitive racial and ethnic issues. The commission also has received complaints about Mark Twain’s references to ″niggers″ in ″The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.″

The League for Human Rights of B’nai B’rith records about 100 anti-Semitic incidents a year in Canada, including bomb threats, vandalism and harassment, national director Alan Shefman told The Associated Press.

He said the group’s annual survey indicates up to 15 percent of Canadians are anti-Semitic. The nation’s population of 25 million includes only 300,000 Jews.

Shefman likened Shylock to another Jewish character in English literature, Fagan in Charles Dickens’ ″Oliver Twist,″ and said both must be taught within historical and social context.

A model solution comes from the North York school board in metropolitan Toronto, which has a race and ethnic relations program and guidelines for material with racial bias.

It permits use of the play, and English coordinator Ellen Anderson said students are taught how an author’s characterization reflects the bias of his times.

North York board member Tony Marzilli, who emigrated from Italy at 17, said: ″If we start nit-picking every text and saying this line is no good and that line is no good, we’d have mechanized teaching. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a classic and should be understood and studied.″

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