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Roald Dahl after 100 years: Remembering beloved author's forgotten antisemitic past

Popular writer's series of comments about Jewish people widely overlooked

Maya Oppenheim
Wednesday 14 September 2016 09:28 BST
Roald Dahl photographed in the Seventies
Roald Dahl photographed in the Seventies (Rex Features)

One hundred years may have passed since Roald Dahl was born, but it remains impossible to imagine a literary world without characters he created such as Willy Wonka, Matilda, and the BFG.

Yet despite him being widely acknowledged as one of the world’s best storytellers, few will use the landmark date to highlight the darker, less child-friendly, side of the novelist.

Dahl appeared to publicly express contempt for Jews on more than one occasion - a fact even some of his biggest fans may not be aware of.

This may have something to do with the fact his more dubious views were omitted from many of his obituaries and there is something of a historical amnesia about his more controversial opinions.

Roald Dahl's best quotes

In the direct aftermath of his death in 1990, Abe Foxman, the head of the former Anti-Defamation League, an organisation which works to stop the defamation of the Jewish people, criticised The New York Times for failing to touch upon his bigoted views.

“Praise for Mr Dahl as a writer must not obscure the fact that he was also a bigot,” Foxman said in a letter penned to the editor.

In 1982, he said the Israeli invasion of Lebanon marked the moment when “we all started hating the Israelis”.

Comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, he asked: ”Must Israel, like Germany, be brought to her knees before she learns how to behave in this world?”

His remarks triggered anger, with some accusing him of antisemitism.

Nevertheless, his subsequent interview with the New Statesman only exacerbated matters.

Dahl said: ”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,” he also said.

A later interview with The Independent in 1990, eight months before his death, did little to salvage the situation.

“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,” he said.

Despite directing The BFG, which came out in 2016, Stephen Spielberg is another person who, until recently, remained wholly unaware of Dahl’s controversial views.

“I wasn't aware of any of Ronald Dahl's personal stories,“ the Jewish filmmaker told a press conference during this year’s Cannes Film Festival when asked about his knowledge of the late author's views. ”I was focused on this story he wrote.”

Nevertheless, Spielberg did not agree that Dahl was an antisemite and said the author’s remarks may have been prompted by the desire to say things which got a reaction.

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