Georgia Burns, an English teacher at a High School in northeast England, reflects on discussing antisemitic English literature in the classroom.
‘From the description of Scrooge, what can we infer?’ I ask.
Awkward whispers herald the one student confident enough to voice the class’ concern. ‘Dickens is wildly antisemitic?’
Teaching literature is a joy. George R.R. Martin’s idea that a reader lives the experiences of the protagonists they read about is stretched further still when you discuss the novels with 30 opinionated teenagers each year. The discourse a teacher has will vary wildly based on the location, the cohort, the background of the students. Beliefs and ideas change over time and a text is never static; teachers encourage students to peel away layer after layer and discover their own interpretations based on their own references. When explaining this, students universally suggest I’ve plagiarised this idea from Shrek.
‘Yes. This description is antisemitic’, I say.
Another student shows confused and muted outrage, ‘but… why are we studying it then?’
Navigating antisemitism and the continuation of damaging stereotypes is not a new part of teaching English literature. But I am not Jewish. Very few of my students are or have been. However, over time my students have been increasingly well versed in the discourse surrounding prejudice, injustice and the importance of language. I was expecting this discussion.
Social media has allowed young people to engage with political and social ideas like never before. My ignorance or privilege meant that my understanding of antisemitic tropes developed slowly in university, with access to nuanced articles from a range of sources. Their understanding is based on the raw pain these tropes can cause.
‘Well… let’s explore that.’
Language is important. It can engage and educate, inspire and free. It is also a weapon. A metaphor can be so powerful. It transcends the limits of the written word. I introduce the dangers of antisemitism into my lessons by looking at the infamous front page of a 1939 issue of a Viennese newspaper, Das Kleine Blatt. The headline alleges Jews were making ‘enormous profits’ on the New York Stock Exchange. Meanwhile, a horrifying and dehumanising editorial cartoon depicts Jewish people as rats being swept out of Germany.
My students are always repulsed but often try to minimise the effect. Surely one newspaper couldn’t be anything other than offensive? It is not my pain, but it’s never pleasant to explain this concept further. It is usually met with incredulity and anger; the subversion of the dehumanisation in Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning Maus is cathartic in lessons. But thankfully, as I’m always told, ‘it couldn’t happen now’. It is usually at that point that we analyse the Katie Hopkins column depicting refugees as ‘cockroaches’ and the depictions of conspiracy theories regarding George Soros.
‘Why do we still study texts that contain antisemitism?’ I ask.
‘It’s still here. People are distanced and dehumanised to make cruelty more acceptable. If we can’t see it, we can’t challenge it’, comes the answer.
Teaching a context like this is difficult. There isn’t one way to do it and I have to adapt my approach to avoid sensationalising events or traumatising more sensitive students. However, it is important. Dickens’ portrayal of Scrooge is negative and his reader is encouraged implicitly to lean into their prejudices to read the character as ‘wrong’ and ‘othered’ before his eventual redemption through, of all things, Christmas. Despite this, it is also a story that depicts the value of kindness and generosity as well as the plight of those in poverty. It is valuable for students to recognise these layers.
My students have taught me as I have taught them. In my experience, they are increasingly eager to obtain the language and tools to navigate these ideas, to address and challenge them. Ultimately, I have hope that with increased engagement and literacy, this generation will not forget the lessons taught by history and literature. I wish for them to be better.