Roald Dahl: Your child's favourite bigot?

Roald Dahl: Your child's favourite bigot?
5 min read
13 Sep, 2016
Blog: Beneath the buckswashling witches and hopscotchy medicines, Dahl remained a writer whose life and work were underlined by contempt for women and minorities, particularly Jews.
Roald Dahl was born on September 13, 1916 [Getty]
Roald Dahl's imagination gave us not only giant peaches, twisted teachers and friendly giants, he influenced and helped shape children's literature as we know it. Yet beneath the buckswashling witches and hopscotchy medicines, was a writer who was, at times, unapologetically racist.

His sympathies towards Palestine were often seen as manifesting into a hate of Israel, although he claimed that he wasn't anti-Semitic as much as he was anti-Israel. A distinction that was often blurred through his narratives and comments, leading both readers and critics to assume Dahl was a bigot, plain and simple.

In particular, in his memoir Going Solo (1986), the chapter titled "Palestine and Syria" depicts an old Jewish man as a crook planning to steal land, claiming it for himself, refusing to integrate into Palestinian society:

"You seem surprised to find us here," the man said. "I am," I said. "I wasn't expecting to find anyone."

"We are everywhere," the man said. "We are all over the country."

"Forgive me," I said, "but I don't understand. Who do you mean by we?"

"Jewish refugees."

I really didn't know what he was talking about. I had been living in East Africa for the past two years and in those times the British colonies were parochial and isolated. The local newspaper, which was all we got to read, had not mentioned anything about Hitler's persecution of the Jews in 1938 and 1939. Nor did I have the faintest idea that the greatest mass murder in the history of the world was actually taking place in Germany at that moment.

"Is this your land?" I asked him.

"Not yet," he said.

"You mean you are hoping to buy it?"

He looked at me in silence for a while. Then he said, "The land is at present owned by a Palestinian farmer but he has given us permission to live here. He has also allowed us some fields so that we can grow our own food."

"So where do you go from here?" I asked him. "You and all your orphans?"

"We don't go anywhere," he said, smiling through his black beard. "We stay here."

"Then you will all become Palestinians," I said. "Or perhaps you are that already."

He smiled again, presumably at the naivety of my questions.

"No," the man said, "I do not think we will become Palestinians."

Charlie and the Colonialist Factory

In the first, unedited version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), the Oompa Loompas reportedly had strikingly similar features to African Pigmies.

Just as the British colonised West Africa between 1821 and 1850, insisting their efforts were to "civilise the natives" and educate them, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory tells a tale of Willy Wonka "saving" the savage Oompa Loompas and rescuing them from a life of hardship by allowing them to work in his factory in the West, introducing new technologies to communities that, in Wonka's eyes, were lacking.

The Oompa Loompas do not have a wage as such, but work for cocoa beans so that they no longer have to eat insects.

Not only that, they are also described as singing and dancing in a "war-like" chant, while allowing themselves to be subjected to experiments for the better good. They are confined to the factory, with Wonka explaining they do not need to leave as he has facilities that maintain climate control, and are constantly working under the watchful eye of their master - slaves in all but name.

Dahl's growing anti-Semitism 

Dahl frequently and explicitly expressed his animosity towards Israel, which seemed to have been derived from the war in Lebanon. But in the 1980s, this began to grow from a hatred of Israel's state war-mongering and persecution of others into a hatred of Jewish people.

Dahl lost many fans in 1983 when he described the "horror and bestiality of the Lebanon War", in the Literary Review upon reviewing God Cried by Tony Clifton and Catherine Leroy, a title that looked at the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It was at this point that he claimed "we all started hating Jews".

He said: "[It] 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."

He talked of how the US was "utterly dominated by the great Jewish financial institutions" and asked whether "must Israel, like Germany, be brought to her knees before she leans how to behave in this world?"

This not only incited a backlash in the US, but some booksellers stopped selling his titles. Dahl tried to defend his comments by stating that he wasn't anti-Jew, but anti-Israel, after many readers returned his books to publishers in protest.

"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," he told the New Statesman in 1983.

Yet Dahl isn't remembered for this. History has seemed to erase, or purposefully omitted, these remarks. Instead, children in schools are taught to admire the author that has become the embodiment of children's literature, and urged to read his stories to help inspire themselves and others in acts of kindness, a world away from his real-life comments.

Provocation?

Dahl, a former fighter pilot in the Second World War, loved to provoke a reaction, and it may have been this which sparked such inflammatory remarks, his supporters have said.

"This is again an example of how Dahl refused to take anything seriously, even himself," Amelia Foster, then the director the Roald Dahl museum, told a German newspaper in 2008.

"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. His publisher was a Jew, his agent was a Jew… He asked me to be [his] managing director, and I'm Jewish," said Foster, as reported in The Times of Israel.

Steven Spielberg, who directed this summer's smash The BFG big-screen Dahl adaptation, and who also directed Schindler's List and set up the Shoah Foundation which archives interviews with Holocaust survivors, said Dahl's anti-Semitic comments did not match his written personality, telling reporters at this year's Cannes film festival:

"For someone who has proclaimed themselves anti-Semitic, to be telling stories that do just the opposite - embracing the differences between races and cultures and sizes and language, as Dahl did with The BFG - it's a paradox."