The head of a Toronto private school has left abruptly after some parents complained that an adaptation of a Shakespeare play performed for senior students was anti-Semitic and made light of the Holocaust.
Bishop Strachan School (BSS), an all-girls private school, said in a letter to parents on Friday evening that it had “parted ways” with its head of school, Judith Carlisle, and also apologized to students and their families.
“Some of the girls who saw the play were deeply disturbed by it. The process failed to adequately prepare the students or provide appropriate context which exacerbated the damage, a reality for which we are deeply sorry,” said the letter, sent on behalf of the school’s board of governors.
"This has hurt and divided our community and for that we apologize unconditionally.”
In mid-October, students in Grade 11 and some in Grade 12 saw a performance of what the school described as a “modern and deliberately provocative” adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, presented by a British theatre company.
A letter sent by 15 parents to the school on Oct. 21 said they were not opposed to teaching The Merchant of Venice or other literature that raises controversial and racially charged themes. They wrote that the “blatant anti-Semitism” in the adaptation was intended as satire, and may have been recognized by adults in the room, but it was inappropriate for a young audience that was asked to “participate by chanting in agreement with anti-Semitic content without the necessary preamble and debriefing” from educators.
According to the letter, many Jewish students whose families were personally affected by the Holocaust felt “extremely uncomfortable and alienated" when students were encouraged, for example, to yell “Hallelujah” in response to the actor onstage shouting anti-Semitic statements including “burn their synagogues,” “take away their holy books” and “burn the Jews.”
Further, they said that school staff and Ms. Carlisle continued defending the adaptation “without engaging in the necessary discussions and reasoning behind the bigoted content. The only apologies have been for Jewish students feeling hurt with limited efforts to rectify the issues.”
Box Clever Theatre said in a statement on Monday that it was sorry to hear students were upset. The company said the adaptation was first produced in 1998 and has been performed in schools and theatres in Britain and Ireland. “The production seeks to challenge hatred in all its manifestations and remind audiences of the dangers and consequences of unchallenged discrimination,” it said. “The company was, is and will remain opposed to anti-Semitism and all other forms of discrimination.”
Ms. Carlisle released a statement on Friday through her lawyers and just before the school announced her departure, stressing her commitment to the education of young girls. She said the production was also performed at a school in Britain when she was the head, and there were no complaints regarding the performance.
“I would never deliberately offend students entrusted to my care or their parents. That was not my intention. I deeply regret that that there was not a plan in place to ensure that teachers were fully prepared to engage the students on the play,” Ms. 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.”
One of Ms. Carlisle’s lawyers said on Monday that she had no further comment.
BSS named Angela Terpstra its new head of school; she was previously the school’s deputy head. The school had “parted ways” with Ms. Carlisle “due to an inability to align on a strategy for moving forward for the future, and after a process of intensive engagement with the board of governors,” spokeswoman Kate Jamieson said in a statement on Monday. Ms. Carlisle joined the school at the beginning of the 2017 school year.
In their letter, the parents said the theatre company “exaggerated the anti-Semitic sentiment of the play and introduced the Holocaust in a humorous light that minimized its impact and offended many of the Jewish students whose families were personally affected."
They recommended BSS contact several agencies, including B’nai Brith Canada, to help provide support to students. Michael Mostyn, chief executive of B’nai Brith, said his organization has reached out to the school to offer support. He said the school should take this opportunity to educate students about the Holocaust and reach out to those affected by the adaptation. “This is a situation that must be rectified,” he said.