Netflix announced last month that it had bought the rights to Roald Dahl’s children’s books from the late author’s family. In addition to managing films and television productions, it will produce stage shows, additional games and, as far as we know, a Roald Dahl theme park where eager visitors can see Charlie’s Chocolate Factory, BFG or Matilda’s dance with the witches. Although the exact cost has not been disclosed, we can assume that the amount will be large: in 2019 alone, Dahl’s estate earned £ 26 million from the author’s work.
All this is very good for the family and Dahl fans. But that is not entirely encouraging for those of us familiar with his abhorrent and clinical anti-Semitism. The estate has made a short, comfortable and convenient an apology not easy to find on his website in December 2020, and when this deal went public, there were several links to Dahl’s comments about the Jewish people – but basically that was all. This is just an inadequate answer, and I should know because I was the person who first drew attention to Dahl’s anti-Semitism in 1983. in the same magazine…
I had just graduated from journalism school, I was in my early twenties, and I was afraid to write for New statesman… Dahl just considered book God cried, about the Israeli war in Lebanon, and his comments and criticism of Israel were harsh and harsh. There seemed to be something internal in his anger, something more personal and darker than anti-Zionism or sympathy for the Palestinians. He wrote about a “race of people” – the Jews – who “so quickly turned from very pitiful victims to barbaric murderers” and that the United States was “so strongly dominated by the great Jewish financial institutions” that “they dare not challenge Israel.
Regardless, Dahl was very eager to be interviewed and I was chosen to speak with him. He was polite and friendly. And completely grotesque. “There is a trait in the Jewish character that generates hostility, perhaps a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews,” he explained carefully. “I mean, there is always a reason why anti-something arises anywhere.” Pause. “Even a scoundrel like Hitler didn’t just pester them.”
It is always difficult to remember specific emotions. I think I was more confused than anything else. Was it some kind of deep irony that was over my head, or a satire that he was going to blow up or explain? Nope. With a slight change in tone, but still politely, he told me that while serving in World War II, he and his friends had not seen Jewish men fighting. He was about to say something else when I finally answered.
I told him firmly but not rudely that my father was Jewish, that my grandfather had won all kinds of medals in North Africa and Europe, that Jews fought in huge numbers in all the Allied armies, were often more than underrepresented and that this slimy duck Jewish cowardice is beneath his dignity. At that moment, he coughed, mumbled something about “sticking together,” and then quickly ended the interview.
After the article appeared, I didn’t hear anything from Dahl or his people, and in the days before social media and 24/7 news, his comments were largely forgotten. I was told that he might be decrepit or, most memorably, “he’s just having a bad day.” That bad day was clearly a long one because seven years later he did another interview. Independent in which he said: “I am definitely anti-Israel and I became an anti-Semite … It’s the same old thing: we all know about Jews and everything else. There are no non-Jewish publishers anywhere, they control the media – this is a very smart thing, so the President of the United States has to sell it all to Israel. ”
Dahl never apologized, apparently because he thought there was nothing to regret. The repentance paragraph on his official website took a very long time, and although my interview was quoted every few years, Dahl’s reputation was largely unaffected. In a recent biopic about a man OliviaDahl was portrayed by Hugh Bonneville, known primarily for his kindness and mercy. Downton abbey… The film is about the death of a child, and no one expected the author to march and rant about alien conspiracies in it, but even so! Saint Hugh?
Dahl’s work is undoubtedly impressive, and the controversy over the separation of creator and creation has raged for generations. What really stung is that Dahl seems to have pretty much gotten away with his bigotry. We’re not talking about Wagner or Ezra Pound here, but writers and artists who have made far more ambiguous comments about race than Dahl, and those who are often steeped in anachronism, are often much harder than him.
It is easy and simplistic to compare minority status as if it were a competition. Jews matter, anti-Semitism is not ubiquitous, and most critics of Israel certainly make this important distinction between objections to nation-state politics and outright racism. But not Dahl, and he didn’t even pretend otherwise. It is difficult but possible to combat anti-Semitism expressed before the Holocaust, but from a person fully aware of the Holocaust. It’s a struggle, and I’m not sure if we should even try to understand it.
Steven Spielberg, director BfgTaika Waititi, a self-proclaimed “Polynesian Jew”, is working on a series based on the world Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as part of the Netflix deal. Even I read Dahl’s stories to our children when they were little. But always with a heavy heart. His words outside of his books will never leave me completely. I’m sure he would have considered it a “lack of generosity” on my part.
[See also: From the NS archive: Tale of the unexpected]