Jewish pupils boycott exam in Shylock protest

Teenagers at a Jewish comprehensive school have refused to sit a Shakespeare test because they believe the Bard is anti-Semitic.

Nine students at the single-sex Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls' School in Hackney, east London, took their stance as part of a protest against the portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

As a result, they were stripped of their marks for the English national curriculum test for 14-year-olds – and their school plummeted from top of the league tables to 274th.

The girls, supported by their parents, refused to answer any questions on Shakespeare or even write their names on the top of the paper, even though the play they were studying was The Tempest – not The Merchant of Venice.

Rabbi Abraham Pinter, the school's principal, said: "They refused to sit the Shakespeare test because it was their perception that he was anti-Semitic.

"Many Jewish people would not listen to Wagner on the same grounds. I do not see an exact comparison and I don't share their view, but their decision is something I respect. I think Shakespeare was reflecting the ethos of the time in his portrayal of Shylock. If he was alive today, he would probably be going on anti-war marches."

Rabbi Pinter said there had been similar actions in the past but because previous protesters had signed their names on the paper, their marks for other sections of the exam had not been forfeited.

The Shakespeare test accounts for 18 per cent of the marks so, if a pupil scored highly in the other sections of the paper, they would still acheive the level five award, the standard expected of a 14-year-old in English.

Shakespeare is the only writer to be a compulsory part of the English secondary school curriculum.

However, Rabbi Pinter said: "I think it was a bit harsh to remove all their marks. Next year I will be recommending they put their name on the paper."

He said the school was not worried by its league table position, stating: "274th out of more than 3,000 is still good." He added that it was important for young people to be able to express their sincerely held views.

The portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice has always been seen as controversial – with many viewing it as anti-Semitic. Some, however, consider the play to be Shakespeare's plea for tolerance.

Some critics say the character of Shylock, the moneylender who demands a pound of flesh from a defaulting debtor, has helped fuel anti-Jewish feeling for centuries. Others say the character can be portrayed sympathetically, citing his "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech.

Simon Gibbons, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "I do not believe The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. But it is noble of the school to take the view that the individual pupils' views are more important than their league table position."

A spokesman for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exams watchdog, said that the rules stated quite clearly that any pupil who failed to write his or her name for any section of the tests would score nothing overall.

Rabbi Pinter said he felt he might have more difficulty with protests if The Merchant of Venice had been the chosen text. It is not on the published list of works to be studied over the next few years.

Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls' School, an Orthodox Jewish school with 249 pupils, was a private school until two years ago, when it took advantage of new government legislation allowing independent schools to opt in to the state sector. It was launched as a state school with a high-profile visit from Tony Blair, then prime minister.