HE created some quite grotesquely sinister adults and pitched them against adorable children, whose tenacity triumphed over the grown-ups’ malice.
Roald Dahl’s dark stories illuminated the power of good over evil and generations of kids were weaned on such epics as James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and The Big Friendly Giant (BFG), not forgetting Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – all of which transited onto the silver screen and/or became mega-hit stage musicals.
In all, the workaholic author, born in Wales to Norwegian parents, wrote 19 novels, which – to date – have sold over 250 million copies and been translated into 59 languages. They scooped a fortune for their creator and earned him the accolade of ‘One of the greatest storytellers for children of the 20th century’.
And, not content with entertaining a pre-pubescent audience, Dahl added poems, macabre short stories for adults and movie screenplays – the 007 thriller, You Only Live Twice, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – to his bibliography.
Apart from his extraordinary imagination and ability to commit it to paper, the tall, melancholic writer led a remarkable life, too…soldier, WW2 fighter ace, who survived a near-death crash, intelligence officer and diplomat in Washington, tasked in 1940 with urging the USA to join Britain in defeating Nazi Germany.
So it’s entirely understandable that Dahl – who died in 1990, aged 74 – is celebrated this month on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
However, as the literati of academe and glitterati of showbiz rush to laud the memory of the great man, scarcely a word is written or syllable uttered about his outrageous anti-Semitism. Because, beneath the donnish exterior, Dahl harbored deep animus towards Israel in tandem with rabid Jew-hatred. And he was never less than forthcoming in broadcasting his racism.
Quiet what stirred such venomously flawed passions has never been fully explained or documented. And the fact that his agent and publisher were Jews, along with Amelia Foster, his managing director, tends to gloss over the repugnance of what coursed through the innermost sanctums of writer’s raging mind.
Bizarrely, Dahl also maintained friendships with a number of Jews, including philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin, who once observed, ‘I thought he might say anything. Could have been pro-Arab or pro-Jew. There was no consistent line. He was a man who followed whims, which meant he would blow up in one direction, so to speak.’
Foster’s apologia for Dahl was similarly vague: ‘He refused to take anything seriously, even himself. He was very angry at the Israelis. He had a childish reaction to what was going on in Israel. Dahl wanted to provoke, as he always provoked at dinner.’
Capricious incitement over fillet steak and fine claret, however, cannot diminish odious bigotry and, long before anti-Semitic discourse became acceptable claptrap in the salons of self-proclaimed bien pensants, Dahl was years ahead of his time in hatred.
In an early 1980s interview with the New Statesman, he claimed, ‘There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews.’
And, for good measure, he added, ‘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.’
The author was also not above labeling Holocaust victims as cowards for being murdered, as he explained in the same controversial interview.
‘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 were always submissive,’ he said of Jews murdered in Nazi death camps.
Elsewhere, Dahl brandedIsrael’s 1982 intervention in Lebanon to root out the vipers’ nest of PLO terrorists as ‘bestiality’ and posed the rhetorical question, ‘Must Israel, like Germany, be brought to her knees before she learns how to behave in this world?’
In fact, Jews were rarely off the writer’s crackpot radar – a point he made transparent in the Literary Review in 1983, with a slanderous tirade against ‘those powerful American Jewish bankers’ who ‘utterly dominate the great financial institutions’, while lambasting the media for being ‘entirely’ owned by Jews who cover up Israel’s atrocities.
In his final years Dahl’s hostility towards Jews even hardened and, in 1990 he told The Independent newspaper, ‘I am certainly anti-Israel and I have become anti-Semitic,’ attributing some of his racism to the presence of ‘Jewish [people] in another country like England [and] strongly supporting Zionism.’
But what isn’t generally known is Dahl was an equal-opportunity bigot and many of his best-sellers had to be heavily edited to remove his contempt for women, blacks and the disabled, who were oftendepicted in hideous stereotypes.
Journalist Alex Carnevale, an expert on Dahl, explained, ‘He believed in a world government and was extremely sympathetic to Hitler, Mussolini and the entire Nazi cause.’
Contemporary history is littered with creative geniuses who subscribed to outrageously anti-Semitic tropes – the poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound among the more notable. And it took seven decades before the music of Jew-loathing Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favorite composer, was played in Israel.
However, Dahl fits into a different category, because he wrote and spoke in a post-Holocaust world and at a time – unlike today – when anti-Semitism was rightly scorned and proponents of such bunkum held up to public vilification.
So should we stop buying his books and deprive our kids of Matilda, Charlie, The Fantastic Mr. Fox or the BFG?
Of course not. But nor should we forget theses incredible characters were the products of a cranky, demented and warped mind or – as Abraham Foxman, then National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote in the New York Times – that ‘talent is no guarantee of wisdom.’