No one needs posthumous apologies from an anti-Semitic writer

Unfortunately, Roald Dahl got a pass for Jew-hatred during his lifetime and even after his death. But that doesn’t mean that we should now cancel his beloved children’s books.

Roald Dahl signs books for children in Amsterdam on Oct. 12, 1988. Credit: Rob Bogaerts/Anefo via Wikimedia Commons.
Roald Dahl signs books for children in Amsterdam on Oct. 12, 1988. Credit: Rob Bogaerts/Anefo via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The apology was as gratuitous as it was unsatisfactory. Some 30 years after author Roald Dahl’s death, his family and the Story Company that markets and profits from his literary legacy, as well as manages the museum built in his honor in England, issued a statement saying that they “deeply apologise for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by some of Roald Dahl’s statements.”

The reason for this belated mea culpa from people who actually had nothing to do with the statements in question was Dahl’s open anti-Semitism. Dahl may be the author of beloved books and stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Matilda and The Witches, in addition to the screenplay for “Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang,” as well as many screenplays and works for adults (including one of the classic James Bond films with Sean Connery). But he also hated Jews.

In a 1982 interview in The New Statesman, he 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 is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” In 1983, he wrote in the Literary Review that America was in thrall to “powerful American Jewish bankers,” and that Jews “controlled the media” since “there aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere.” In 1990, he told The Independent, “I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic.” He went on saying, “We know all about Jews and the rest of it.”

Yet should this mean that we stop reading his stories to children?

Dahl isn’t the only famous artistic figure to be guilty of anti-Semitism, as the ongoing ban on playing Richard Wagner’s music in Israel indicates. But perhaps in the wake of the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has led to a surge in iconoclasm and attacks on literary giants of the past such as Walt Whitman and Laura Ingalls Wilder for some of their comments about African-Americans, it’s possible that Dahl’s family feared that he, too, would be toppled from his pedestal as one of the great children’s authors.

Dahl’s contempt for Jews was not all that unusual for someone who grew up in Britain in the first half of the 20th century. But what was unusual was the willingness of a celebrity to be so public about his anti-Semitism so soon after the Holocaust. Dahl’s ability to get away with this sort of behavior without facing any consequences from publishers or the public foreshadowed the way hate for Jews would make a comeback in the following years, especially in Britain and other Western European countries. Even after his death in 1990, his obituary in The New York Times failed to mention his anti-Semitism, though a subsequent letter to the editor from Abe Foxman, then the head of the Anti-Defamation League, pointing this out raised a futile protest.

As the years have passed—even as a rising tide of anti-Semitism has engulfed Europe and much of the world—Dahl’s hatred has not been entirely forgotten. The British Royal Mint canceled plans to issue a commemorative coin in his honor in 2016 and cited his anti-Semitism as a reason. But it didn’t stop Jewish film icon Steven Spielberg from adapting “BFG” into a children’s film that same year. Nor did it prevent Netflix from paying a reported $1 billion to Dahl’s heirs in 2018 for the right to create an animated series based on his works—an indication that for most people, his anti-Semitism remains barely a footnote.

What then prompted the Dahl family’s decision to suddenly apologize for the author’s statements?

Perhaps they thought that in the current atmosphere, in which posthumous retribution for racism on the part of long-dead figures has become endemic, would also mean that sooner or later, Dahl would be canceled for his disgraceful attitudes.

If so, it’s clear that they haven’t been paying attention to the way cancel culture actually works. It doesn’t take much for the woke mobs to demand the erasure of someone accused, rightly or wrongly, of racism. But there’s little sign that the arts world is the least bit interested in policing anti-Semitism either in the past or the present. Indeed, Dahl’s anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic views are commonplace in the British arts today and far from unusual in academic circles elsewhere.

Nevertheless, now that this issue is finally being given a full airing, does that obligate Jews or others who care about the persistence of anti-Semitism to shun Dahl’s writing or adaptations of his works? Surely, that will be the reaction of some. They will argue that not only does he deserve oblivion, but that his descendants who issued the recent apology—one that failed to directly acknowledge how he demonstrated that anti-Zionism is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism—ought not to be allowed to get away with a preemptive attempt to defend their literary gold mine.

As with so much of cancel culture, whatever benefit might be derived from tearing down Dahl does not balance out the hurt that comes from any effort to erase history or to treat art as solely a function of the artist’s biography. One can, as much of the world continues to do, admire and enjoy Wagner’s music while still correctly labeling him as an epic Jew-hater whose descendants helped tie his legacy to that of the Nazis who came to power more than 50 years after his death. And as with Wagner’s operas, which are life-affirming rather than anti-Semitic, children of all ages can still enjoy Dahl’s delightful and often wonderfully subversive stories without being infected by prejudice.

No one should ever forget Dahl’s anti-Jewish sentiments; they should be held up as an example of the seductive nature of efforts to single out Jews and Israel for hate, as well as the way belief in Jewish conspiracies fuels hate. But canceling art, even from deeply flawed people, does no good and causes much harm. In the end, as with other great artists with despicable views, Roald Dahl’s work will outlive the harm he tried to do, and we will all be far better off living in a world where the work created by those who fell short of our ideals will not be banned or burned.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin. 

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