Manhattan middle school 75 Morton in Greenwich Village, whose mission statement boasts: “It is our mission to empower every student to inquire, question, create and evolve as a part of this community to achieve success in high school and beyond,” last month canceled a scheduled production of William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” because some Jewish parents objected to exposing middle-schoolers to the antisemitic motifs in the play, The NY Post reported Wednesday.
In The Merchant of Venice, a Venetian merchant named Antonio defaults on a large loan he borrowed from a Jewish moneylender named Shylock. Shylock initially refused to grant the loan because of the abuse he had suffered at Antonio’s hand, but finally agrees to lend the sum on one condition: that if Antonio fails to repay it, Shylock may remove a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
It’s interesting to note that the argument made by the Greenwich Village parents against the play was very similar to the argument made by a member of the McMinn County, Tennessee, School Board about banning Art Spiegelman’s Maus, about the Holocaust (Tennessee School Board Bans Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’). The board member did not deny the Holocaust or the need to study about it, but not in middle school. As he put it: “If I had a child in the eighth grade, this ain’t happening. If I had to move him out and homeschool him or put him somewhere else, this is not happening.”
Likewise, the lower Manhattan parents told The Post they’re not against producing The Merchant of Venice, just not for middle-schoolers. One of them said: “The way that antisemitism is shown in this play, if you don’t have a minimum of knowledge and context you can’t understand how bad and dangerous it is.”
School officials emailed the parents that “members of our community have expressed their objection to this play due to concerns about racist and antisemitic language,” which distorted the cogent argument made by the parents and possibly betrayed those school officials’ rage about having to kill the show.
“This decision did not come lightly,” the school email said. “However, we believe this is the right decision to make at this time.”
A parent named Joe Sherinsky told The Post: “I think it needs to be properly contextualized. There are great lessons in the Merchant of Venice. You can take names like Shylock and apply them broadly into lessons about racism. But in order to teach that properly, you need to have enough context as parents to say that this is something good for the school to do.”
Which is probably the best lesson of this story: do not give children raw stuff to consume without guidance. It makes sense in the Village as it does in rural Tennessee.