Head of Toronto all-girls school fired over anti-Semitic version of ‘Merchant of Venice’ play

The head of an all-girls private school in Toronto has been fired for failing to warn students ahead of time of the anti-Semitic contents of a play based on Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice before it was performed in front of a Grade 11 and 12 audience this month.

Administrators at Bishop Strachan School (BSS) said in a letter to parents on Friday that Judith Carlisle has been let go following a review.

“The process failed to adequately prepare the students or provide appropriate context which exacerbated the damage, a reality for which we are deeply sorry,” BSS board of governors said.

“In hindsight, it was an error. An internal review is underway to establish guidelines and procedures to ensure this will not happen again.”

The controversy surrounded an adaptation of the play which students of the school watched on Oct. 17.

A letter signed by 24 parents and sent to the school said the one-man show contained demeaning, derogatory and inappropriate language with anti-Semitic sentiment that was offensive to Jewish students.

“The Box Clever production was meant to provide a modern spin to the Merchant of Venice play and link the anti-Semitic messages to those that Hitler used in the Holocaust,” the letter wrote.

“Instead, as described below, Box Clever materially exaggerated the anti-Semitic sentiment of the original version of the play and sadly introduced the Holocaust in a humorous light that minimized its impact and offended many of the Jewish students whose families were personally affected.”

A statement released by Carlisle on Friday said the version of the play was “well received” when it was performed at Oxford High School in the U.K., while she was head of that school, but admitted she regrets there wasn’t a plan in place to ensure that teachers were fully prepared to engage the students on the play.

“I would never deliberately offend students entrusted to my care or their parents. That was not my intention,” Carlisle said.

“As head, the responsibility for that oversight ultimately rests with me. I deeply regret any hurt or offence that has been caused by this and any damage that it has done to members of the broader BSS community or to BSS, an institution that I deeply respect.”

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Carson Phillips, the managing director of the Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto, said the Merchant of Venice is a play that requires historical context so that youth can bridge the information gap between what is being covered and its meaning for contemporary audiences.

“There are moments of anti-Semitic stereotypes, perhaps meant under the guise of satire but satire itself requires education to help understand what is being satirized,” Phillips said.

“So anything that is going to create a situation where students are marginalized, where students feel they are being singled out for hatred or anti-Semitic behaviour, of course, is of concern.”

In the letter to parents, BSS issued an apology and acknowledged those who came forward to express their concerns.

“Our intent was not, and never would be, to alienate any students,” the school said.

“Creating a strong sense of belonging for all students is a core priority at BSS, and this situation had the opposite effect. Clearly, we need to be more mindful in the future and we have taken steps to ensure that will happen.”

The board announced that Angela Terpstra, the school’s deputy head, has been named head of BSS.

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— With files from Caryn Lieberman and Catherine McDonald

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