The family of the late British novelist and screenwriter Roald Dahl has given the Jewish people an early Hanukkah gift.
What could that be, you will ask? What do you get the people who have everything?
The Dahl family has issued an apology for the late author’s anti-Semitism:
“The Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company deeply apologise for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by some of Roald Dahl’s statements. Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations. We hope that, just as he did at his best, at his absolute worst, Roald Dahl can help remind us of the lasting impact of words.”
“Incomprehensible?” We can only shake our heads and wonder: What had the Dahl family been ignoring?
Like, “The Witches” — which, as Dara Horn explained in the Jewish Review of Books, contains latent and even blatant anti-Semitism.
Here are some of Dahl’s greatest “hits” against the Jewish people, per The Forward:
• “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason … if you and I were in a line moving towards what we knew were gas chambers, I’d rather have a go at taking one of the guards with me; but they (the Jews) were always submissive.”
• “I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic.”
• He accused the United States government of being “utterly dominated by the great Jewish financial institutions over there.”
• The Israeli military activity in Lebanon, he said, “was very much hushed up in the newspapers because they are primarily Jewish-owned.”
• When further discussing the Lebanon war, he wrote: “makes one wonder in the end what sort of people these Israelis are. It is like the good old Hitler and Himmler times all over again.”
Dahl was engaging in a particularly British style of anti-Semitism: what Anthony Julius has characterized as the anti-Semitism of the “remark” — an intellectual, snarky, often subtle offhand comment, which is like a paper cut. You don’t realize that you have been hurt until you see the blood.
You will ask: Can they apologize for the sins of Roald Dahl?
In a Jewish sense: no. Each person is responsible only for his/her own sins. Sins are not hereditary; they do not follow the bloodline. Dahl’s relatives can certainly regret, be saddened by, be angered by, even be shocked by the late author’s statements. But they cannot — and should not — apologize.
But let’s broaden this discussion. Among great literary figures, Dahl was certainly not alone in his anti-Semitism.
Consider the great American author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Anti-Semitism rumbled beneath the surface of this great writer.
In “The Great Gatsby,” Fitzgerald described the Jewish gambler Meyer Wolfsheim as “small flat-nosed,” with his “tiny eyes” and “two fine growths of hair” in his nostrils. In “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” he wrote of “a fat Jewess, inlaid with diamonds.”
Again, in “Gatsby,” he put white supremacist diatribes into the mouth of Tom Buchanan. They accorded with his own opinions; in a 1921 letter to Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald wrote: “The negroid streak creeps northward to defile the Nordic race. Already the Italians have the souls of blackamoors.”
Or, consider one of my favorite subjects — rock music.
• John Lennon. Dec. 8 happens to be his 40th yahrzeit. I will yield to no one in my admiration of Lennon’s gifts and almost unsurpassed influence on popular culture. But that should not blind us to his many flaws — which, according to his biographer, Albert Goldman, included anti-Semitic remarks and anti-Semitic poems in his book “A Spaniard in the Works.”
• Roger Waters. The former Pink Floyd frontman called for an international cultural boycott of Israel. More than this: He performed with the floating image of a pig adorned with the Star of David, dollar signs and the hammer and sickle.
Or, if not specific anti-Semitism, then flirtations with fascism:
• The iconic guitarist Eric Clapton supported Enoch Powell and his racist platform: “I think Enoch’s right, I think we should send them all back. Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white.”
• The late David Bowie expressed support for fascism and Hitler: “I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader” and “Adolph Hitler was one of the first rock stars.”
How do we interpret these manifestations of cruelty, emerging from the hands and mouths of those whom we might otherwise admire?
It would be impossible to impose an asterisk on the music of Lennon, Waters, Clapton and Bowie. I still love the music, mostly (I could never stomach Pink Floyd), even as their ideologies sicken me.
As for Dahl’s work: It is still being performed. Perhaps it would be useful to reproduce the apology in the program notes, in order to admit the mixed legacy of this author.
One last thing about Dahl’s anti-Semitism.
It was inconsistent — typically inconsistent.
In one breath, he says that he despises the Jews because they were weak and “submissive” during the Shoah.
In quite another breath, Dahl did not like it when “the Jews” were too aggressive, as well; in his eyes, in the war in Lebanon, Israel became like the Nazis.
There you have it: the classic double bind of anti-Semitism.
For anti-Semites, Jews are simultaneously:
• Too clannish, or too eager to mix in.
• Communist and capitalist.
• Stingy or overly generous.
• Asexual, or too sexual.
• Too rigid, or too compromising.
And, yes: unwilling to defend themselves, or too willing to defend themselves.
Yes, Roald Dahl — the author of those sweet children’s books — was a Jew-hater.
As I have often noted: Inside the warmest of hearts there beats a heart that is cold to the Jews.
Editor’s note • The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.