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8 October 2021

Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitism was grotesque. I should know – I saw it first hand

When I interviewed him in 1983, Dahl was polite and not unfriendly. But he was a bigot.

By Michael Coren

Last month, Netflix announced that it had bought the rights to Roald Dahl’s children’s books from the late author’s family. As well as controlling film and television productions, it will produce stage shows, spin-off games and, for all we know, a Roald Dahl theme park where eager visitors can experience Charlie’s chocolate factory, the BFG or Matilda dancing with the witches. While the exact cost hasn’t been revealed, we can assume the sum to be large: in 2019 alone the Dahl estate earned £26m from the author’s works.

This is all very well for Dahl’s family and fans. But it’s not entirely reassuring for those of us familiar with his repugnant and clinical anti-Semitism. The estate made a brief, conveniently timed and not-easy-to-find apology on its website in December 2020, and when this deal was made public there were a few references to Dahl’s comments about Jewish people – but that was mostly it. That simply wasn’t an adequate response, and I should know because I was the person who first highlighted Dahl’s anti-Semitism in 1983, in this very magazine.

I was just out of journalism school, in my early twenties, and intimidated about writing for the New Statesman. Dahl had just reviewed the book God Cried, about the Israeli war in Lebanon, and his comments and criticisms of Israel were extreme and jarringly sweeping. There seemed to be something visceral about his anger, something more personal and dark than anti-Zionism or empathy with the Palestinians. He’d written of “a race of people” – the Jews – who had “switched so rapidly from being much-pitied victims to barbarous murderers”, and that the US was “so utterly dominated by the great Jewish financial institutions” that “they dare not defy” Israel.

Even so, Dahl was eager to be interviewed, and I was the person chosen to speak to him. He was polite and not unfriendly. And entirely grotesque. “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews,” he carefully explained. “I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere.” Pause. “Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”

It’s always difficult to recall specific emotions. I think I was more confused than anything. Was this some sort of deep irony that was over my head, or a satire that he was about to explode or explain? Nope. With little change in tone, and still courteous, he told me that during his service in the Second World War he and his friends didn’t see any Jewish men fighting. He was about to say something else when I finally responded.

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Firmly but not rudely I told him that my father was Jewish, that my grandfather had won all sorts of medals in North Africa and Europe, that Jews fought in enormous numbers in all of the Allied armies, were often over- rather than under-represented, and that this slimy canard of Jewish cowardice was beneath him. At which point he coughed, mumbled something about “sticking together”, and then promptly ended the interview.

After the article appeared I heard nothing from Dahl or his people, and in those days before social media and 24-hour news his comments were largely forgotten. I was told that he might be senile or – most memorable of all – “just having a bad day”. That bad day was clearly a long one because seven years later he gave another interview with the Independent in which he said, “I’m certainly anti-Israeli, and I’ve become anti-Semitic… It’s the same old thing: we all know about Jews and the rest of it. There aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere, they control the media – jolly clever thing to do – that’s why the president of the United States has to sell all this stuff to Israel.”

There was never any apology from Dahl, clearly because he thought that there was nothing to be sorry about. The paragraph of contrition on his official website took a very long time to come, and while my interview has been quoted every few years, Dahl’s reputation has hardly been trashed. In a recent biopic of the man, To Olivia, Dahl was portrayed by Hugh Bonneville, best known for being kind and nice in Downton Abbey. The film is about the death of a child, and nobody was expecting it to feature the author marching around ranting at alien conspiracies, but even so! Saintly Hugh?

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Dahl’s works are undeniably impressive, and arguments about separation of creator and creation have raged for generations. What does bite, however, is the fact that Dahl seems to have largely got away with his bigotry. We’re not speaking of Wagner or Ezra Pound here, but authors and artists who have made far more ambiguous comments about race than Dahl, and ones often soaked in anachronism, are frequently given a much harder time than him.

It’s facile and reductive to compare minority status as if it were a competition. Jews do matter, anti-Semitism isn’t pervasive, and most critics of Israel certainly do make that vital distinction between objections to the policies of a nation state and downright racism. Not Dahl though, and he never even pretended otherwise. It’s difficult but possible to deal with anti-Semitism expressed before the Holocaust. But from someone with full knowledge of the Shoah, it’s a struggle, and something I’m not sure we should even attempt.

Steven Spielberg directed The BFG, Taika Waititi, a self-described “Polynesian Jew”, is working on a series based on the world of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as part of the Netflix deal. Even I read Dahl’s stories to our children when they were small. But always with a heavy heart. His words beyond his books will never entirely leave me. I’m sure he would have regarded that as a “lack of generosity” on my part.

[See also: From the NS archive: Tale of the unexpected]