A somewhat trivial Facebook post about a row at UK supermarket chain Sainsburys over a mug, which I described – rather wittily, I thought – as “a storm in a tea-cup,” has provoked a bigger storm over Britain’s continued lionisation of children’s author Roald Dahl, the self-confessed anti-Semite.
The Sainsburys row, in case you missed it, was over a mug that bears a quote from Dahl’s hugely and deservedly popular “Matilda,” which campaigners against domestic violence allege reveals a “lack of empathy” for victims of violence.
Though definitely remaining in my view, a storm in a tea-cup, the “mug” row has reignited the anger felt by many British Jews over the continued lauding and lionisation of Dahl despite his blatant, self-confessed anti-Semitism.
For those who may have forgotten how virulently anti-Semitic Dahl was, let us recall it in his own words. In 1983, he told the New Statesman: “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity… 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.”
In 1990, in an interview with the Independent, he claimed that reports of Israel’s actions were “very much hushed up in the newspapers because they are primarily Jewish-owned …” Later in the same interview he acknowledged that he was “certainly anti-Israeli,” and added: “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… ”
While one can admire Dahl’s genius as a children’s author, and even love his literary output, one can still be horrified by his anti-Jewish racism. And by how uncritically this is viewed by Dahl devotees.
For many Jews the failure to make a clear distinction between Dahl’s literary output and his abhorrent racist views, is shameful.
While I can understand (and forgive) 10-year-old fans for being unaware of Dahl’s darker side, I cannot understand how the literary and educational establishment seem prepared to overlook and gloss over this racism.
The “glossing over” takes the form of an annual ‘Roald Dahl Day’ while the colourful, child-friendly Roald Dahl website does an excellent job of fostering an image of a benign, avuncular, literary genius, without any hint of his racism or bigotry.
For many British Jews – indeed, for many Jews, worldwide – this failure to make a clear distinction between Dahl’s literary output and his abhorrent racist views, is shameful.
And let’s be clear; it’s not impossible to publicly acknowledge a darker side to even the most beloved icon. It happened to children’s author Enid Blyton.
In pure literary terms, of course, Blyton cannot be compared to Dahl, but for earlier generations of young readers, Blyton enjoyed a similar level of popularity, fame and sales of 600 million books. Blyton was later shunned – rightfully – for her anti-Black racism, leading to disgust, ostracism and revulsion by those of a Liberal tendency.
In view of the fact that Dahl clearly believed the anti-Semitic trope that “Jews control the media,” I find it profoundly ironic that while Blyton was excoriated, Dahl’s reputation is largely intact, his sales continue to mount and thousands of schools celebrate “Roald Dahl Day.”
Let me say here that I am not – repeat not – suggesting any kind of boycott or sales embargo on any of his books or any of his literary output. But I am urging a revision of how we think of Dahl the man, and would like to suggest that the literary establishment and schools reconsider Dahl, and perhaps make a clear distinction between Dahl the author and Dahl the human-being…
Unless or until that happens, the UK Jewish community will be forced to conclude that anti-Semitism is not perceived as racism, and that anti-Jewish racism does not provoke the same revulsion (or action) as anti-Black racism.