Recently, when I found out that a famous author I had read was also an antisemite, titles of other books and writers I love flashed before my eyes. Many of them I enjoyed without so much as batting an eyelid, even when a Jewish character embodied classic antisemitic stereotypes. I don’t think that I ever looked at this issue in the context of literary antisemitism even though its appearance in literary works can be traced as far back as the beginning of antisemitism, say, to Hellenistic literature. I revisited old classics and what a letdown when viewing their work with different eyes, introspection, and a mature understanding of the world, and the role of Jews in society and antisemitism as an adaptable and unshakable force. This revelation prompted me to ask family and friends if they would continue to read the works of a writer who held antisemitic views and used distinctive literary tools, reserved for Jews only, to evince loathing of their characters. I didn’t expect so many different responses to what I considered a rather straightforward question, but what I found most of all was a kind of ambivalence — they’d rather not know, and not have to take a stand. To be fair, those writers were only echoing ideas that were already steeped in society, so it’s to be expected. Others had qualified my question by asking whether I meant writing that included fictional characters of Jews that were portrayed in a negative light. They argued that works of fiction should never be included in this conversation. Without evidence of the writer’s personal bias against Jews, they would still read the material. If you’re talking about personal opinions outside of their writing then separate the two, said a few friends. Aren’t we all guilty of some form of bias? You cannot dismiss important works of literature regardless. When approaching literature you read it with a critical, open mind, despite contradictions.
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, my eyes zigzagged back and forth over his sinister remarks; I was sure that I had misread or something. I guess we attach super-human qualities to artists or anyone in the public eye, and when we realize their flaws it invariably comes as a shock to us. I researched some of those inflammatory statements made by Dahl, and found them mentioned in numerous sources. 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? All right, here’s another one:
“I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic” (The Independent, 1990).
I pulled Dahl’s books off my son’s bookshelf and marched to the garbage can, but my husband stopped me in my tracks. He was shocked that I would dare throw away a book, any book for that matter. He asked whether I would do the same with respect to books authored by writers who had expressed a bias towards Blacks or members of the LGBTQ community while reminding me that so many of the classics of Western literature were 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 only because he’s 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 helped kill millions of Jews not that long ago. It’s the type of mind-frame that for centuries had kept all sorts of anti-Jewish myths alive and facilitated and propagated racist Jewish stereotypes — the catalyst of antisemitic legislation, one pogrom after the other, one expulsion after the next, including torture, expropriation, and so many forced conversions.
In that respect, I was done with Dahl; he disgusted me. As my eyes reviewed the scores of other authors sitting on my son’s bookshelves, I realized that Dahl would not be missed and there were many other authors he could celebrate instead.
Needless to say, my husband and I continued to argue about this for days. “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’ve ever thought of Shakespeare as an antisemite despite the way that Shylock had been portrayed in The Merchant of Venice. I also understand the complexity of Shylock’s character – Shakespeare loved his villains and excelled in showing their humanity, therefore by dehumanizing Shylock, he demonstrates his humanity. Here, we see how Shylock the “greedy Jew” evolves as a character; the more we hear about his losses and witness the others’ cruelty towards him, we see the type of archetypical Jew that everyone expects to hate. It also serves to highlight the bigotry towards Jews in English society; let’s not forget that this type of hate had reached a climax during medieval England. It made the life of Jews unbearable, and in 1144 the first blood libel took root in Norwich when Jews were accused of using the blood of Christian children for preparing their Passover matzah. Before the 17th century, Jewish stage characters were exclusively evil, dealing in usuary and guilty of host desecration — in line with Christian-antisemitism and the aftermath of the Crusades. The word “Jew” itself had transformed into a malediction, enough to set the tone of the entire play. The first time I pored over this work, I recall feeling uncomfortable but I viewed it as a historical portrait of society’s behavior towards Jews during Elizabethan times, rather than an antisemitic 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 remain unmoved, and what surprises me most is that Shakespeare could actually write those lines without knowing what it felt like to be Jewish. 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 or heard. There must have been a few Jews around, even though Jews were expelled from England in 1290. Still, Jew-baiting seemed to be a favorite preoccupation among the English intelligentsia; it appeared everywhere, even in hymns for young children where Jews represented 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 sitting 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, therefore, 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. Some ideas were rotten to the core yet they still played a role in systemic antisemitism. 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 antisemite whose poetry evoked a link between Jews and corruption, and a threat to Ango-Catholic harmony and order. H. G. Wells expressed his disdain for Jewish particularism (dietary law, marriage, dress etc.); he viewed Jews as racists with anti-social traits of vulgarity and materialism that are evident in some of his characters. In Russian literature, Fyodor Dostoyevsky also incorporated anti-Jewish themes into his work: House of the Dead and The Brothers Karamazov express a deep antipathy towards Jews by use of well-known stereotypes: moneylenders, deceivers, and opportunists. But then we have a few other writers 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 titled “J’Accuse” whereby he exposed the cover-up of their crimes and accused the French army of antisemitism. More examples of writers who defied the usual anti-Jewish stance of their countrymen were Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy. Chekhov admired Zola for his involvement and said:
“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 Chekhov and Tolstoy contributed their work to a Yiddish anthology in order to help the surviving Jewish victims, and Tolstoy added:
“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 were a handful of writers who belonged to the literary elite and still exhibited tolerance and compassion towards Jews. Their activism had reset the moral compass of their countrymen so to speak.
Jean-Paul Sartre penned Anti-Semite and Jew as a critique of antisemitism through his personal observations of his French countrymen.
“We are now in a position to understand the anti-Semite. He is a man who is afraid. Not of the Jews, to be sure, but of himself, of his own consciousness . . . In espousing antisemitism, he does not simply adopt an opinion, he chooses himself as a person. He chooses the permanence and impenetrability of stone.“ (Sarte, Anti-Semite and Jew, p. 53).
Whether or not to continue reading antisemitic authors will remain a personal decision for each and every one of us. Although I have decided to marginalize the works of a few 20th century writers who knew all too well about the grimness of antisemitism, they would have a hard time rationalizing their distinctive hate of Zionism or Jews. Their writing serves to abet and inflame antisemitic attitudes. Perhaps that’s the question that we should be asking rather: what effect does their writing have on their readers? There are always lessons to be learned when reading great literature; I will probably continue to read the majority of problematic/antisemitic narratives in view of the author’s multidimensionality. I can live happily without reading Alice Walker again, and poet Ezra Pound will be viewed with great scrutiny as will 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. I should be able to read their work in the context of the times, easier when reaching back to Graeco-Roman times rather than modern or postmodern literature, but I wonder whether they are taught with an emphasis on their prejudice too. That was not the case when I was in school. I still have a problem with thinkers such as Kant, for instance, whose dogmatic remarks about Jews 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.
As for Dickens’ Oliver Twist, his character, Fagin, is “the Jew” who snatched small boys and trained them to be thieves and the implication is that all Jews are thieves. But then he also introduced Riah, a sympathetic Jewish character in Our Mutual Friend. She says, “they take the worst of us as samples of the best, they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest and they say ‘All Jews are alike.’ ” Here we have one of Dicken’s most revealing lines, it demonstrates that he had indeed evolved as a human being and a writer.
When my husband left the country on a business trip, I was finally able to gather my thoughts and write this piece. 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 as troubling as ever, the reason I also see a flawed society that is in dire need of self-reflection. But when I view the titles of those other authors, the ones who didn’t employ a collective indictment of all Jewish people or single out any other group of people in their literary works, I also see genius, beauty, and inspiration.