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8 October 2021

From the NS archive: Tale of the unexpected

26 August 1983: Roald Dahl continues to voice his anti-Semitism.

By Michael Coren

In this short piece from 1983, “New Statesman” writer Michael Coren contextualised the contemporary argument “raging” over Roald Dahl’s “virulent attack on Israel” in the form of a book review in the “Literary Review”. In it, Dahl compared Israeli leaders to the Nazis, a stance widely condemned as “clear anti-Semitism”. When Coren interviewed the author, known for bestselling children’s novels such as “James and the Giant Peach” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, he was met with “a series of startling comments” about Jewish people – and these comments, as published here, cemented Dahl’s reputation as anti-Semitic. Following the news in September 2021 that Netflix has bought the rights to Dahl’s children’s books, Coren revisits his encounter with Dahl in a new article for the “New Statesman”. “He was polite and not unfriendly,” Coren writes, “and entirely grotesque.”

Argument is currently raging over the publication by author Roald Dahl of a review of God Cried, the book covering the Lebanon tragedy, in The Literary Review. In the 2½ page article Dahl makes a virulent attack on Israel: “Must Israel, like Germany, be brought to her knees before she learns how to behave in this world?” and repeatedly compares Israeli leaders to the Nazis. But what has so angered Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike, is his failure to distinguish between Israeli and Jew, and what is seen as his “clear anti-Semitism”.

Dahl writes: “Never before in the history of man has a race of people switched rapidly from being much pitied victims to barbarous murderers. Never before has a race of people generated so much sympathy around the world and then, in the space of a lifetime, succeeded in turning that sympathy into hatred and revulsion.”

He goes on to condemn “Jewish financial institutions” and “American Jewish bankers”, and concludes his review with: “Now is the time for the Jews of the world to follow the example of the Germans and become anti-Israeli. But do they have the conscience? And do they, I wonder, have the guts?”

Union of Jewish Students Chairman Matthew Kalman sees the article as “one of the most vitriolic pieces ever written about Jews in a British publication”, and when Roald Dahl was asked about it by the NS he made a series of startling comments. Referring to “do they, I wonder, have the guts?” Dahl said: “Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that, but it came from my wartime experience [in the RAF], we saw almost none of them in the armed forces then. I mean 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 were always submissive.”

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He continued: “This I did not dare to say, but 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 Hitler, 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…”

Literary Review owner Nairn Attalah has been put in a difficult position by the article. A Palestinian, Attalah is a supporter of a homeland for his people, but not even the crudest Zionist could accuse him of anti-Semitism. “Mr Dahl romanticised to me about his wartime experiences in Palestine and, after first refusing, agreed to write the review,” said Attalah. “I wanted someone who was fresh, not one of the usual Arabist writers. I can’t really comment on any of my contributors … I would say that in my opinion the best way to convince people is through moderation.”

The Jewish community is outraged by the affair but does not think the article is actionable in law. Henry Morris, chairman of the Jewish Board of Deputies’ Defence Committee, said: “I regard the article as being deeply offensive and insulting to Jews. This might be added to his Tales of the Unexpected, with just as much credibility.”

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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