Why Dahl must not be chocolate coated

A production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

ISRAEL Folau’s rugby skills will never again be discussed without a mention of which groups he insensitively assigned to hell. Boris Johnson will always be remembered for his description of women wearing burqas as “looking like letterboxes or bank robbers”. Cecil Rhodes’s reputation as a pioneering magnate is finally eclipsed by an acknowledgement of his white supremacism and it is unlikely that any more statues will be erected to his memory, writes Rabbi James Kennard.

Although some insist on making allowances for different mores of the past, and prefer to judge historical figures in the context of their time, that alibi is not offered for personalities of recent decades. 

Especially in this age of 24-hour news and social media, racist or otherwise unacceptable utterances are quickly exposed and thereafter cling to their originator as firmly as an albatross around their neck.

Roald Dahl.

And yet some purveyors of hate speech inexplicably escape scrutiny, with their reputations unscathed. A fine example is the “much-loved” children’s writer, Roald Dahl. His fame (and wealth) accrued by creating Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and other well-known tales has given Dahl the status of a British “National Treasure”, whose centenary in 2016 was celebrated in the UK with only a little less excitement than a royal wedding.

But why was the author not condemned for saying in an interview in 1983: “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.”

Or in 1990 declaring “It began in 1982 when the Israelis invaded Lebanon. They killed 22,000 civilians when they bombed Beirut. It was very much hushed up in the newspapers because they are primarily Jewish-owned…”

Warming to his theme he continued, “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…” Just in case there should be any doubt, he confirmed “I’m certainly anti-Israeli and I’ve become antisemitic.”

Why is there one rule for Dahl and another for other racists? Why do so few even know of his antisemitism, despite his proudly trumpeting his views in mainstream publications? Is it perhaps because antisemitism is somehow different?

Jeremy Corbyn’s UK Labour party is accused of allowing antisemitism to fester within its ranks. His response is to claim that those with known antisemitic views are being investigated and suspended. Yet it is clear that racism against Jews is treated very differently from anything equally vile that is directed against other groups. The process is conducted at a snail’s pace, and insincere vague expressions of contrition are enough for haters of Jews to avoid discipline. The message is clear; antisemitism is wrong, but not very wrong. 

It’s the same with Dahl. Yes, maybe he had some wacky views, goes the conventional wisdom. Maybe he even was open about hating Jews and believing in Jewish conspiracies. But Matilda was a great story, and, after all, does it really matter if the Jews are upset?

This might explain the general ignorance of his despicable views among the general population, but why does the Jewish community also give the writer a free pass? I am not proposing that we cease reading Charlie to our children (though my own managed without any Dahl books, apparently with no ill effects, and when they were old enough we told them why) but how can we let his darker side be ignored? How can The Australian Jewish News (Melbourne edition) promote a new staging of the Chocolate Factory, calling it “Dahl’s chocolate-coated musical” with no reference at all to his hatred of Jews?

I do not believe in basing our Jewish identity on fighting antisemitism, nor do I favour exaggerating instances where it may have occurred. But when we are faced with a clear example of racism directed at us, of vicious rehashing of classic antisemitic tropes, we need the self-respect to call it out, even when the rest of the world deems such views unworthy of attention.

To be fair to my native land, the celebrations of Dahl’s centenary in Britain were not totally unrestrained. A plan to issue a commemorative coin in his honour was quietly dropped by the Royal Mint because of his antisemitic views. Dahl’s face did not, in the end, adorn any of the money that he believed would be hoarded by greedy Jews.

While too many insist on treating antisemitism as “not so bad”, it is noteworthy that the British establishment can acknowledge in at least some way the writer’s deeply flawed attitudes, and deny him an accolade accorded to other celebrated figures. Is it time that we do the same.

Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College.