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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the iWatch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Astronauts could be kept asleep for days or even weeks
scienceScientists are looking for a way to keep astronauts in a sleeplike state for days or weeks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Administration Assistant / Apprenticeship Industry

£16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity for an e...

Recruitment Genius: NVQ Assessor

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Private Training Provider off...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own