When I first read of the nine 14-year-old students at the Jewish Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls' School in east London who refused to sit a Shakespeare test because they believed the Bard was anti-Semitic, I could well understand their feelings. Their protest against Shylock in The Merchant of Venice – reported in this newspaper last week – seemed well grounded.
However human moneylenders may be ("If you prick us, do we not bleed?"), demanding a pound of flesh from a debtor really does add to the anti-Semitic overtones of Elizabethan literature and – by implication – stokes up the racist fires of our contemporary world. But then – in paragraph four – I came across the killer line. The nine girls were not being tested on The Merchant of Venice at all – they were being examined on The Tempest. It was Shakespeare they were objecting to. If only I and my schoolboy chums had thought of such a wizard wheeze.
I always found Christopher Marlowe a bore. "Christ's blood streaming in the firmament" did not have me yearning for more of Dr Faustus and I had no desire to "ride in triumph through Persepolis" with Tamburlaine. But if I'd had the wit to protest at The Jew of Malta, I could have abandoned all my Marlowe studies. Then, of course, I could have chucked T S Eliot – and yes, I fear he was an anti-Semite, however much we may try to excuse him by remembering the "times" in which he lived – because of that horrible line in "Gerontion" about "the Jew.../ Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp".
It's not the only line of Eliot that makes me cringe (try reading "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar"). So into the bin goes Eliot's Prufrock, Murder in the Cathedral, The Cocktail Party, The Waste Land, etc. Come to think of it, even Siegfried Sassoon's poetry might have to go, given that unpleasant reference in his diary (22 February 1918) to a Jew in a British army concert in Italy, "chin out, with his curved Hebrew beak coming down to the thin-lipped mouth...". So out go "Base Details", "The General" and "Everyone Sang".
But hold on a moment. Let's take a look at the darkly anti-Semitic overtones of anti-Muslim discourse in Shakespeare. Othello was a Moor, a black Muslim, a mercenary (in the service of Venice) – and a wife killer. Even worse, the mother of Caliban, a Muslim Arab, born of an Algerian mother, is described by Prospero – in The Tempest, the very play the nine Jewish schoolgirls were supposed to take in their test – as "This blue ey'd hag was hither brought with child...? A freckl'd whelp, hag-born - not honor'd with/A human shape".
Why not a protest over this racist, provocative portrait of a Muslim Arab? For that matter, Tamburlaine – already flung into the trash heap because of another Marlowe play – scarcely improves Muslim-Western relations with its description of the Muslim warrior as "the scourge of God". But let's not stop there.
Winston Churchill exhibited some racist views of the Indians – typical of his age, no doubt, but hardly acceptable – in the Daily Mail. See his description of Indian villagers as "humble, primitive folk, who have been incapable of evolving, even in a most rudimentary form, a village government". Later, Churchill reflected on the need to curtail the entire Indian race. When he sees a wounded Sikh on the North West Frontier, Churchill describes him as "a tragic golliwog". (See My Early Life, 1935, page 156, if you don't believe me.) So I guess we'll have to chuck out Churchill's Marlborough: His Life and Times, A History of the English Speaking Peoples and The Second World War.
And then – let's not leave the anti-Muslim slant of English poets here – there's Spenser, whose Faerie Queen drove the schoolboy Fisk to oceans of boredom. But wait! When the Prince is fighting the Pagan, the latter, "all full of rage ... gan to curse and sweare,/And vow by Mahouone (Mohamed) that he should be slaine. With that his murderous mace..." etc. (For pedants, you can check Booke IV, Canto VIII, v. 44.) Anti-Muslim rhetoric again! And Spenser, let's remember, was an anti-Irish racist, too, a rapacious landlord, one of the Munster planters known locally as the "Undertakers", who wrote a vicious tract ("A View of the present State of Ireland") in which he advocated cruel measures of suppression. So – to my infinite relief – out go The Faerie Queen and The Shepheardes Calender and The Teares of the Muses and all that other late 16th-century fluff.
And so to Dante. If only I had realised, ploughing through The Inferno, that here lay yet another anti-Islamic provocation. For the Prophet himself is discovered by Dante in – Hell! "Look how Mohammed claws?/And mangles himself, torn open down the breast! Look how I tear myself. And Ali goes weeping before me..." in Robert Pinsky's imperishable translation.
But why, for that matter, leave out the texts of the great religions of the East? In the Hadith of the Prophet and the Old Testament, there are excuses for any lunatic to commit mass murder and ethnic cleansing. Mohamed dealt most savagely with the Jews of Medina. "Assuredly thou (Mohamed) wilt find/that the most violent of the people/in enmity against those who have believed/are the Jews..." (Koran 5:82 85). In the Bible, God instructs Moses to tell the children of Israel that "...When ye are passed over Jordan into the land of Canaan;/Then shall ye drive out all the inhabitants of the land.../And ye shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land..." (Number 33:50-55).
In fact, why don't we go the whole hog and spare students the sacrifice of refusing their school tests by instituting the same kind of censorship that the Arab League – surely the silliest institution in the history of the world – has just adopted in the Middle East. For yes, the 22-member League now demands that TV stations should not "offend leaders or national religious symbols ... should not damage social harmony, national unity, public order or traditional [sic] values". TV channels must "refrain from broadcasting anything which calls into question God, the monotheistic religions, the prophets, sects or symbols of the various religious communities ... erotic or obscene material".
And then – my favourite advice amid all this tosh – "freedom is to be exercised with awareness and responsibility to protect the supreme interests (again, sic) of the Arab states and the Arab nation".
The Egyptian minister of information, Anas al-Fiqi, proudly announced that Egypt would be "the first to implement" this craven document. Nor is it surprising that the decision of one of Mr al-Fiqi's predecessors in the Cairo censorship sticks in my mind. Faced with Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List and its epic portrayal of the Jewish Holocaust, he decided to ban the film. It was "too depressing", he said. Another wizard wheeze to shut down our ears and our hearts and our understanding of history.