It’s popular to refer to contemporary issues as Orwellian, and one must wonder whether George Orwell would see echoes of his dystopian vision of 1984 in 2023. I’m not sure how many people are aware that Orwell also wrote about antisemitism in Britain, and that his observations on the subject also resonate today.
Writing in 1945, Orwell said he was speaking based on his own experience. He reported that antisemitism was increasing and had been “greatly exacerbated” by the war. He did not see visible persecution in Britain, but he believed people exhibited their prejudice by being “callous to the sufferings of Jews in other countries.”
To bolster his case, he offered several examples of remarks that were made to him. Someone he described as an intelligent woman, for example, offered this response to his offer of a book about antisemitism and German atrocities, “Don’t show it to me, please don’t show it to me. It’ll only make me hate the Jews more than ever.”
A middle-class woman said to him: “Well, no one could call me antisemitic, but I do think the way these Jews behave is too absolutely stinking. The way they push their way to the head of queues, and so on. They’re so abominably selfish. I think they’re responsible for a lot of what happens to them.”
He found that “above a certain intellectual level, people are ashamed of being antisemitic and are careful to draw a distinction between ‘antisemitism’ and ‘disliking Jews.’ ” Ultimately, Orwell deduced that “antisemitism is an irrational thing.” He said, “To attempt to counter them with facts and statistics is useless and may sometimes be worse than useless.” He added, “people can remain antisemitic, or at least anti-Jewish, while being fully aware that their outlook is indefensible.”
Orwell saw that people believed Jews were cowards and “exceptionally clever at dodging military service.” They also attracted ire because they were involved in selling goods that were in short supply during the war, such as food, clothes, furniture and tobacco, “with consequent overcharging, black-marketing and favoritism.”
Orwell, like many of us today, saw that sane people could believe “absurdities.” As an example, he mentioned an incident where a crowd gathered in an Underground station after hearing what they thought was an explosion. Dozens of people were crushed to death, and the news was spread around London that “the Jews were responsible.”
Orwell could think of only two writers who defended Jews before the rise of Hitler: Charles Dickens and Charles Reade. Otherwise, English literature is rife with antisemitic tropes dating to Chaucer. “Without even getting up from this table to consult a book,” he said, “I can think of passages which if written now would be stigmatized as antisemitism, in the works of Shakespeare, Smollett, Thackeray, Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley and various others.” He left out another author—George Orwell.
In his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell wrote a description of a “a red-haired Jew, an extraordinarily disagreeable man.” He said: “It would have been a pleasure to flatten the Jew’s nose if only one could have afforded it.”
In life, as in that fictional account, he was conscious of Jews’ appearance, which could revolt him. In one diary entry, for example, Orwell refers to “a little Liverpool Jew of eighteen, a thorough guttersnipe. I do not know when I have seen anyone who disgusted me quite as much as this boy.”
In 1984, however, Raymond Solomon noted that “Orwell wrote favorably about Jews, including their victimization.”
Antisemitism was, in Orwell’s view, a “neurosis,” but individuals could rationalize their views by observations of Jews. One example was the “plausibility” of the idea that “the Jews are the enemies of our native culture and our national morals,” which he dismissed as “nonsense.” Nevertheless, he said, “there are always a few prominent individuals who can be cited to support it.”
But he was also afflicted, as he, too, could make antisemitic observations, such as his belief that Jews had too much influence on the media.
His own attitude supported his argument that anyone could be antisemitic because “some psychological vitamin is lacking in modern civilization, and as a result, we are all more or less subject to this lunacy of believing that whole races or nations are mysteriously good or mysteriously evil.” He argued that getting to the psychological roots of antisemitism required the examination of “all the justifications for it that can be found, in one’s own mind or anybody else’s.”
Orwell failed at self-examination.
Curiously, he saw the British attitude towards Jews as beneficial regarding Palestine. “It was de rigueur among enlightened people to accept the Jewish case as proved and avoid examining the claims of the Arabs—a decision which might be correct on its own merits, but which was adopted primarily because the Jews were in trouble and it was felt that one must not criticize them,” according to Orwell. “Thanks to Hitler, therefore, you had a situation in which the press was in effect censored in favor of the Jews while in private antisemitism was on the up-grade.”
Though he seemed sympathetic to the plight of the Jews during the war, afterwards, he toured a concentration camp and saw a Viennese Jew in the uniform of an American officer, whom he referred to as “the Jew,” kicking a captured member of the SS. One of Orwell’s admirers was appalled that he had devoted one paragraph to the greatest crime in history.
This lack of sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust may partially explain his enmity towards Zionism. But Orwell virulently opposed any form of nationalism, which he considered a disease that included Catholicism, communism and pacifism. For him, Zionism was just another movement to gain power and dominate others.
At the time when the Jews were helping the British to fight the war while resisting British policy in Palestine, he said that “many Zionist Jews seem to me to be merely antisemites turned upside-down.” Hence, he concluded that antisemitism will not “be definitively cured, without curing the larger disease of nationalism.”
In yet another contradiction in his attitude toward Jews, Orwell suggested at one point that England allow 100,000 Holocaust survivors to immigrate to England. But, as Solomon observed, “He did not fully understand the struggle being waged by the Jews in pre-state Israel, nor the denial of basic civil liberties to Jews and Arabs in pre-state Israel.”
In the end, there was an Orwellian character to his relationship with the Jews, as reflected in the reaction of a journalist to the large number of Jews who attended Orwell’s funeral. Malcolm Muggeridge expressed surprise given that he was “at heart strongly anti-Semitic.”