Roald Dahl’s family has apologised for antisemitic comments made by the author during his lifetime, although Jewish leaders have expressed they would have liked to see his anti-Semitism acknowledged earlier by the family.
Roald Dahl is one of the most well known authors in the UK, especially amongst children, famous for his books such as Matilda, The BFG and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. Dahl died in 1990 at the age of 74 and has since then regularly topped lists of the nation’s favourite authors with his books being read by millions of children to this day with films and plays being made from his stories.
Sadly, during his lifetime, he expressed some abhorrent anti-Semitic views, displaying both a deep hatred for Israel and for the Jewish people (see below).
A statement from the Dahl family has now been posted on the website of The Roald Dahl Story Company under the title: “Apology for antisemitic comments made by Roald Dahl.”
First reported by the Sunday Times, it says: “The Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company deeply apologise for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by some of Roald Dahl’s statements.
“Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations.
“We hope that, just as he did at his best, at his absolute worst, Roald Dahl can help remind us of the lasting impact of words.”
A number of people and organisations within the Jewish community have responded to the statement.
Marie van der Zyl, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews: “This apology should have happened long ago – and it is of concern that it has happened so quietly now. Roald Dahl’s abhorrent antisemitic prejudices were no secret and have tarnished his legacy.
“The apology should be restated on the questionable Roald Dahl Day on 13 September. As well as recognising his undeniable impact on children’s literature, teaching of Dahl’s books should also be used as an opportunity for young people to learn about his intolerant views.”
A spokesperson for Campaign Against Antisemitism said: “The admission that the famous author’s antisemitic views are ‘incomprehensible’ is right. For his family and estate to have waited thirty years to make an apology, apparently until lucrative deals were signed with Hollywood, is disappointing and sadly rather more comprehensible.
“It is a shame that the estate has seen fit mere to apologise for Dahl’s antisemitism rather than to use its substantial means to do anything about it.
“The apology should have come much sooner and been published less obscurely, but the fact that it has come at all – after so long – is an encouraging sign that Dahl’s racism has been acknowledged even by those who profit from his creative works, which so many have enjoyed.”
Rabbi David Meyer, Executive Director of the Partnerships for Jewish Schools (PaJeS) welcomed the apology, but urged education about his views when his works are taught in the classroom.
“That such a creative and popular author, whose books reached millions of children across the world, could have held such insipid and intolerant views has been a long standing cause for concern.
“His family denouncing these views is an important step. Nevertheless, Roald Dahl’s abhorrent views cannot be ignored, they should be a required element when teaching about the author and used as an opportunity for schools to educate children on the far reaching dangers of anti-semitism and the importance of showing respect for all. ”
A new version of The Witches, starring Anne Hathaway, was released earlier this year, while Hollywood stars including Johnny Depp, Mark Rylance, and Danny DeVito have all appeared in big screen versions of his stories.
Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitism
Roald Dahl was a self-confessed anti-Semite who repeatedly made anti-Semitic comments throughout his life.
In 1983 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. 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.”
He went on to blame Jews for allowing themselves to become victims of the Holocaust, saying, “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.”
In an interview with the Independent in 1990, shortly before his death, Dahl claimed that his anti-Semitic attitudes began in 1982 during the Israel-Lebanon war, claiming that Israel’s actions were “very much hushed up in the newspapers because they are primarily Jewish-owned”.
“I’m certainly anti-Israeli and I’ve become antisemitic,” Dahl said.
“In as much as that you get a Jewish person in another country like England strongly supporting Zionism. I think they should see both sides. 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 – jolly clever thing to do – that’s why the president of the United States has to sell all this stuff to Israel.”
In a book review he wrote in the “Literary Review”, he referred to “those powerful American Jewish bankers” and accused the United States of being “utterly dominated by the great Jewish financial institutions”.
Conflating Israel’s actions to that of the Nazis is also anti-Semitic, and Dahl did that too. Discussion the Lebanon War, he wrote, “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.”
The comments made by Dahl are not newly found, there is a long and open history about Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitic attitudes.
Dahl’s anti-Semitism was blatant and broad. He criticised Jews as a people, spoke racist stereotypes about them, he believed anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories and hated both Zionism and the Jewish state of Israel. To try and dismiss his hatred as simply “criticism of Israel” is absurd. In fact, Dahl’s comments prove how anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, and more often than not, those who hate Israel also hate Jews.
This isn’t borderline anti-Semitism. This is classic, undeniable, blatant anti-Semitism.
It was enough anti-Semitism for the Royal Mint to reject plans to produce a commemorative coin on what would have been Roald Dahl’s 100th Birthday.
The minutes from the Royal Mint’s meeting noted: “The themes set out below were considered but not recommended. 100th anniversary of the birth of Roald Dahl. Associated with anti-Semitism and not regarded as an author of the highest reputation.”
William Shakespear and Beatrix Potter were chosen instead of Dahl.
At the time of the Royal Mint’s decision, Amanda Bowman, the vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, added: “He may have been a great children’s writer but he was also a racist and this should be remembered.”