The Jewish Broadcasting and Film Committee today deplored Saturday night’s broadcast of “The Merchant of Venice” over ABC-TV. It claimed that the production, by Britain’s famed National Theater Co., starring Sir Laurence Olivier in the role of Shylock, “perpetuates the anti-Semitic theme of Shakespeare’s play and its negative stereotype of the Jew.”
The statement by the Committee, a constituent of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, said that while Olivier’s introductory statement about the character of Shylock was “well intentioned,” it did “not substantially change or diminish the negative impact of the 2 1/2 hour program.” The British actor characterized the play as a “harsh portrayal of prejudice and revenge” and said he was taking the arguments stirred by its contents “too seriously to allow Shylock to be either sentimentalized or caricatured.”
“While we do not in any way seek to censor the network or challenge its right to present the play,” the Committee’s statement said, “we would have hoped that ABC-TV, relying on their own sense of sound social policy, would have refrained from presenting this production on nationwide television which reaches millions of people of all ages, many of whom have no knowledge of the history and the meaning of the play and may readily accept the anti-Semitism expressed in “The Merchant of Venice’ at face value. If the anti-Semitic content of “The Merchant of Venice’ were presented in some less formidable vehicle, it would probably be widely scoffed at and disregarded.”
The broadcast was also bitterly assailed by Benjamin R. Epstein, director of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League, who described “The Merchant of Venice” as a “classic anti-Semitic drama which has caused incalculable harm to the Jewish people over the centuries.” Epstein said the ADL “expressed its grave apprehensions and misgivings about the play’s anti-Semitic content to network officials but because of ADL’s opposition to censorship did not protest publicly before the broadcast least such action be considered an attempt to censor.”
Epstein said that because of “long-time Jewish concerns in regard to the Shylock stereotype” the ADL sought the judgement of a respected Christian leader, the Rev. Dr. David R. Hunter, Deputy General Secretary of the National Council of Churches who had previewed the production. According to Epstein, Dr. Hunter questioned ABC’s judgement in contracting for the broadcast because “The nature of our society with its devastating history of anti-Semitism, still present today actively and latently, raises the whole matter of social responsibility.”
Epstein said the ADL’s view was expressed in a letter to Alfred Schneider, an ABC executive, by Arnold Forster, ADL associate director and general counsel. A spokesman for ABC said the network was “not insensitive to these charges which have been made for a hundred years.” He said, however, that it stood on the “very eloquent remarks” made by Olivier in his foreword to the production.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.