By the time the celebrated children’s author, Roald Dahl, died in 1990, he was most certainly a splenetic and bad-tempered old man.
Neither attribute can possibly excuse Dahl’s sustained and all-too-frequently uttered anti-Semitism, which found expression in a series of public outbursts in the 1980s but which, his biographer Jeremy Treglown recorded, may well have dated as far back as 1948 when Dahl was 31.
There seems to have been something about us Jews that got under Dahl’s skin. In an interview with the Independent eight months before his death, he said: “I’m certainly anti-Israel and I’ve become antisemitic inasmuch as that you get a Jewish person in another country like England strongly supporting Zionism.” Asked by a Jewish journalist if he could elaborate, Dahl spluttered: “Why are you being so persistent? It is not a trait of your Jewish race to be rude but you are certainly being rude… I am an old hand at dealing with you buggers.”
In 1983, in the wake of the Lebanon War, he reviewed a strongly pro-Palestinian book for the Literary Review, in which he found it necessary to write: “It makes one wonder in the end what sort of people these Israelis are. It is like the good old Hitler and Himmler times all over again.”
That year, he told the New Statesman: “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. 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.” He claimed he never knew a Jew who had served in the British armed forces, and was convinced that no one else had seen one, either.
And now the celebrated film-maker, Steven Spielberg, a fiercely proud and identifying Jew, has made a film based on Dahl’s story, The BFG, or Big Friendly Giant, which, as it happens, stars the remarkable actor, Mark Rylance, who has not been backward in revealing his discomfort with Israel.
But those critical of Israel do not all fall into the same category. Rylance’s support for campaigns such as BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, ought not to make him less of a BFG. In fact, it ought to make him a perfect target for asking him to re-think his opinions.
Dahl, however, is quite another matter (not least because he is dead). Spielberg confessed this year that he had not looked into Dahl’s views as thoroughly as he might. But he sought to downplay the visceral extent of Dahl’s anti-Semitism by saying that a) Dahl was a maverick who said whatever came into his head in order to provoke, and that b) his opinions were typical of those of his generation, and they did not detract from his literary genius.
I beg to differ. Looking back at Dahl’s public utterances – which are shocking enough to make one wonder what on earth he said in private – I don’t buy that he was inconsistent in his attitudes towards Jews, or said things just to see if he could enrage people. At one point he complained: “The Israelis killed 22,000 civilians when they bombed Beirut – it was very much hushed up in the newspapers because they are primarily Jewish-owned… there aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere”. So not just an antisemite, but a liar.
And as for the claim that his views did not bleed into his fiction? Several of Dahl’s stories featured derogatory caricatures of Jews, including the tale of “a little pawnbroker in Houndsditch called Meatbein who, when the wailing started, would rush downstairs to the large safe in which he kept his money, open it and wriggle inside on to the lowest shelf where he lay like a hibernating hedgehog until the all-clear”.
In 1983, Tommy Lapid, father of the present-day politician Yair Lapid, and then director-general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, made a dignified announcement, saying Israeli TV would not show a proposed new series of Tales of the Unexpected, based on Dahl’s stories, because it did not want to pay royalties to a man who could make such anti-Jewish statements.
To which I say, bravo, Tommy. And, are you paying attention, Steven?