THE Royal Mint’s decision not to produce a commemorative coin honouring Roald Dahl — as reported in last week’s JT — highlights the thorny dilemma of whether an artist’s works should be feted if he is a racist bigot.
The decision to shun Dahl — only just revealed — was made in 2014 when the Mint’s sub-
committee decided that, as a result of his obsessive and vitriolic antisemitism, marking the centenary of his birth was “not recommended” and that he was “not regarded as an author of the highest reputation”.
It was a refreshingly worthy judgement call from the makers of our money and one that should set a standard in due diligence for similar institutions when it comes to celebrating the ostensibly great and good.
Unlike other errant celebs whose utterances damn them as antisemites but whose profuse apologies lend us to believe they’ve recanted their bigotry, Dahl was an unrepentant, stand-out Jew-hater.
While he created some grotesquely sinister adults and pitched them against adorable children, his dark stories reflect his perverted, racist perceptions.
But quite what stirred such venomously flawed mania for defaming Jews and Israel has never been fully explained. 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 the writer’s raging mind.
In a 1980s interview with the New Statesman, Dahl 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.”
For good measure, the author 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.”
Dahl was also not above labelling Holocaust victims cowards for being murdered, as he explained in the same 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 remarked of Jews murdered in Nazi death camps.
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.
However, what isn’t generally known is that Dahl was an equal-opportunity bigot and many of his bestsellers needed heavy editing to remove his contempt for women, blacks and the disabled, who were often depicted in hideous stereotypes.
Historically, of course, literature is strewn with antisemites, some of the obvious 20th-century examples being T S Eliot, G K Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and the American fascist poet Ezra Pound.
And much critical debate still surrounds Shakespeare as to whether Shylock was simply an illustration of the antisemitism of his day or The Merchant of Venice was an attempt to humanise Jews, notably when the money-lender asks plaintively: “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”
There’s much less ambiguity, though, over Dickens. In Oliver Twist, the notorious villain Fagin is repeatedly referred to — no fewer than 257 times in the first 38 chapters — as “the Jew” even if the author tried to mitigate himself, claiming: “Unfortunately, this was true of the time to which that story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew.”
An argument can be made that Shakespeare and Dickens merely echoed the prevailing prejudice of their times and neither Shylock nor Fagin should be judged by today’s far more forensic appraisal of antisemitism.
However, where does that leave Dahl, who died in 1990? Do we deny kids the delight of James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and The Big Friendly Giant (BFG), not forgetting Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, all of which transited on to the silver screen and/or became mega-hit stage musicals?
Of course not. No more than eschewing a Ford car, because Henry Ford was a diehard antisemite who believed America was in thrall to Jews.
All the same, Dahl should be remembered for what he was... as a writer, a charmer of children; as an individual, hugely disgusting.
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