Recently, I discovered that a few more literary favorites of mine were in fact anti-Semites, and this revelation prompted me to ask family and friends how they would feel about a writer once discovering their thoughts about Jews. I’ve received so many different types of responses to this seemingly simple question, but what I’ve found most of all is a kind of ambivalence — they’d rather not know, and not have to take a stand. Others have qualified my question by asking whether those authors had ever injected into their writing any of those anti-Semitic thoughts, because without such evidence they would probably keep reading their work.
I have always read Roald Dahl’s stories to my children, and who’s not been a fan of the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder? When I learned of what Dahl actually said about Jews, I was very much upset and disappointed. I guess we attach super-human qualities to artists or anyone in the public’s eye, and when we realize their flaws it invariably comes as a shock to us. I researched some of those inflammatory quotations and found them mentioned in numerous sources, and the more I read the more I saw a portrait of a man whom I absolutely abhor. Certainly, not the type of man who deserves the literary accolades that he’s received, because there are other talented writers who have been just as prolific with child-like imagination and impressive magical worlds without embracing the type of sickly ideas that are anything but innocent, fuzzy, and positive.
“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. 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 [the Jews] were always submissive.” (New Statesman, 1983).
Not enough? Alright, here’s another one:
“I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic.” (The Independent, 1990).
When I pulled Dahl’s books off my son’s bookshelf and marched to the garbage can, my husband stopped me in my tracks. He was shocked that I would dare throw a book away regardless of the author’s anti-Semitic views. He asked me whether I would do the same with respect to any other book where the author had expressed a bias towards other groups of people such as blacks or gays, while reminding me that so much of the classic Western literature is rife with prejudice. And the truth is that I realized that this was one heck of a slippery slope, but I felt very strongly about getting rid of Dahl’s books anyway only because he is an example of an author who had lived long enough to know about the Holocaust, and yet he had no qualms about spreading the type of anti-Jewish sentiment that pretty much helped kill millions of Jews not that long ago. It’s the type of mind-frame that for centuries kept all sorts of anti-Jewish myths alive; it helped create and propagate racist Jewish stereotypes, and was the catalyst for one pogrom after the other and one expulsion after the next and so many forced conversions.
In that respect, I was done with Dahl; he disgusted me. When I looked around my son’s room and noticed so many other wonderful books, I realized that Dahl would not be missed and there were so many other authors he could celebrate instead.
Needless to say, my husband and I continued to argue about this for days and days — literally until today actually. “So what about Shakespeare’s Shylock, huh?” he challenged me. “Or how about Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta?” “Or Dickens’ Fagin?” he was really putting up a fight this time. “Why have you not boycotted them as well?”
I don’t think that I ever thought of Shakespeare as an anti-Semite despite of the way that Shylock had been portrayed in The Merchant of Venice, and this has to do with the fact that I had already read extensively about the history of Jews in England, and I understood that to some extent, with all of his brilliance and uniqueness, Shakespeare was no different to the rest of his countrymen — he was a product of the times. And in those days Jews were despised of course and the Jewish stereotype showed up in many dramatic works — it’s what an audience would have expected in the first place and the same views definitely molded Shakespeare’s own ideas of Jews and their role in English society. The first time I read The Merchant of Venice, I recall feeling uncomfortable and sad but I viewed it as a historical portrait of society’s behavior towards Jews during Elizabethan times, rather than an anti-Semitic play. And trust me when I tell you that I am not making excuses for Shakespeare. Whether you’ve actually seen the play or not, I think that most people are familiar with the following passage:
“I am a Jew, Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?”
I don’t know of one person who could read or hear this and not feel something, and what’s even more surprising is that Shakespeare could actually write those lines and yet he did not know what being Jewish felt like. I admit that this is all speculation, and for all I know, he may have known a couple of Jews — he may have been affected by things that he had witnessed. There must have been a few Jews about, despite most Jews having been expelled from England. Anyway, Jew baiting seemed to be a favorite preoccupation among the English intelligentsia, it appeared everywhere, even in hymns for young children where Jews were depicted as Christ-killers, what else.
Beatrix Potter is another writer who is celebrated worldwide for her lovable character Peter Rabbit, but she also had a political voice and was also recognized as a social reformer, except she was also passionate about expressing the dangers of incorporating Jews into British society.
“The strongest impelling motive of the Jewish race is love of profit as distinct from any other form of money earning.”
Voltaire was considered the champion of France’s Enlightenment writers, even spending time in jail because of views that were at odds with French authorities. He spent his life exposing corruption and hypocrisy, but he also said this:
”They are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and the Germans are born with blond hair. I would not be in the least bit surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race.”
Those who argue to the contrary will tell you that he was very much anti-a lot of things, and for this reason his anti-Semitism is marred with controversy. However, these words were not part of a play or a novel and the minute writers go out of their way to express the Jews’ uniqueness as an inherent and nasty character trait, they’ve lost me for good. When you read these thoughts, you realize that Voltaire was a hypocrite. How can they be the champions of any cause other than hate when we know that anti-Semitism is a type of irrational thought pattern that has been fueled by the educated and non-educated alike for many centuries.
T.S. Eliot was another anti-Semite and so was Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but then we have a few other Greats who stood up for justice and by doing so they publicly expressed their concern for injustices towards Jews. After the Dreyfus Affair, novelist Emile Zola published an open letter to the president of France, which was titled “J’accuse!” In this letter he exposed the cover-up and accused the French army of anti-Semitism. More examples of writers who defied the usual anti-Semitic stance of their countrymen were Anton Chekov and Leo Tolstoy. Chekov admired Zola for his involvement and said this about him:
“Zola has gained immensely in public esteem; his letters of protest are like a breath of fresh air, and every Frenchman has felt that, thank God! there is still justice in the world, and that if an innocent man is condemned there is still someone to champion him.”
After the infamous Kishinev pogrom in 1903, both Chekov and Tolstoy contributed their work to a Yiddish anthology in order to help the surviving Jewish victims, and Tolstoy said this:
“The terrible crime perpetrated in Kishinev made a painful impression on me… We recently sent a collective letter from Moscow to the mayor of Kishinev expressing our feelings about this terrible affair.”
As you can see, there are a handful of writers who belonged to the literary elite and still exhibited tolerance and compassion towards Jews — they reset the moral compass of their countrymen so to speak.
Whether or not to continue reading anti-Semitic authors will remain a personal decision for each and every one of us. Although, I have decided to ignore 20th century writers who knew all too well about the grimness of anti-Semitism, they would have a hard time debunking so much history. I can live happily without reading Alice Walker, poet Ezra Pound, and Evelyn Waugh just to name a few, and as for the rest of the bigots I will pick and choose according to what I can stomach only because I feel that I should be able to read their work in the context of the times. I still have a problem with thinkers such as Kant for instance whose pungent remarks about Jews puts into question his universal values as they pertained to him. He too was a hypocrite. Kant was part of the 18th century Enlightenment movement after all, and that cultural group of academics hoped to reform society and advance knowledge based on rational thinking!
When my husband left the country on a business trip, I was finally able to gather my thoughts and write this piece without having to hear his argument over and over again. But he did not leave without warning me to stay away from his bookshelves. Yep, at our household we have His and Hers bookshelves. There you have it — even the most successful marriages (married for 13 years this January!) don’t shy away from impassioned arguments. So what’s next? As I look at my bookshelves, I see a few missing spots here and there, and the books that I’ve kept have also come to remind me of a problem that has plagued society for centuries. It’s not part of the past — not yet — because it’s still here and it’s still a troubling issue, and for this reason I also see a flawed society that is in dire need of self-reflection. But when I look at some of my other books, I also see genius, beauty, and inspiration.