Wrestling with Roald Dahl's Anti-Semitism Ahead of 'The BFG'

Should the author's bigoted opinions shape the way we look at his unrelated work?


I am hardly a religious person, but I am loyal and not infrequently combative, which makes my experience as a Jew more paranoid and wary of anti-semitism than spiritually fulfilling. My life as a New Yorker working in the media and entertainment business largely inoculates me against face-to-face hatred, but of all things, it’s the release of Disney’s family-friendly film *The BFG this weekend that has activated my internal anti-defamation league sensors.

Roald Dahl lived the life — and sometimes indulged in the vagaries — from which many of his young protagonists were rescued; he suffered through boarding schools, was shot out of the sky during a World War II mission gone awry, lost a young child, was a philanderer, and saw his first wife suffer a head injury that would ultimately help end their marriage. The man suffered, and while those misfortunes inspired him to creative heights, his imagination could not trick him into believing in a higher power. Which, of course, is totally fine (and logical!), but for whatever reason, he trained a particular animosity on the Jewish people, and their fledgling nation-state.

Several times throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Dahl expressed his hatred for Israel, which seemed to have been outed by the war in Lebanon.

“There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews,” he told The New Statesman. “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.”

He claimed that he wasn’t anti-semitic, just anti-Israel, but even he admitted that the blurry line between the two was really no division at all by 1990.

“I’m certainly anti-Israel and I’ve become antisemitic inasmuch as that you get a Jewish person in another country like England strongly supporting Zionism,” he said, months before his death.

Dahl did have many Jews in his life — agent, publisher, friends — and so I’m under no illusion that he was some sort of seething skinhead. But it’s still hard to shake off such bigoted statements, especially without having known the guy personally; I loved the books he wrote as a kid, and they were filled with generous, accepting characters — like the BFG himself — but I stopped reading them when I found out about these statements, because his hate overshadowed his books’ whimsy.

I would imagine Steven Spielberg, who directed this weekend’s BFG adaptation, could have had similar difficulties; the iconic filmmaker has worked since the ‘90s to record and preserve interviews with Holocaust survivors for his Shoah Foundation. But Spielberg side-stepped questions about Dahl’s anti-semitism when The BFG premiered at Cannes, telling the press, “I wasn’t aware of any of Roald Dahl’s personal stories,” and that “This is a story about embracing our differences.”

Director Steven Spielberg, actress Ruby Barnhill and actor Mark Rylance arrive on the red carpet for 'The BFG,' (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)

Getty Images / Jesse Grant

As the 21st century’s master of bringing to life children’s literature through motion capture — a very small niche — Spielberg also directed 2011’s Tintin movie. As it turns out, Hergé, the artist who created and drew the character’s adventures for half a century, also harbored some anti-semitic tendencies.

It’s hard to separate what Hergé had to write and what he actually believed, because for some time he was working for a newspaper in Belgium, which was under Nazi occupation. During that time, he produced Tintin and the Shooting Star, which featured a nasty stereotypical Jewish character — he had the hook nose, long curly sideburn, evil underhanded plans to enrich himself. Sure, maybe he was trying to appease people, but before that, he edited a far-right wing paper for 12 years, and produced plenty of nasty depictions of Africans and other foreigners.

Later, Hergé claimed ignorance, and his books did become progressive and advocated on behalf of the downtrodden minorities; he also re-drew and rewrote bad stereotypes for future printings of old work. But having an active — even if secondary — role in promoting the Nazi’s domination of Europe is a hard thing to live down.

Watching both the film that Spielberg made, and the cartoons that were on when I was a kid, I just couldn’t shake the idea that this series sprung from the same brain that was producing such awful and destructive stereotypes. Tintin was indeed created during that time, and so the character feels inextricably tied to those sentiments.

Of course, this is just a small taste of what ethnic minorities, so often whitewashed in depiction or ignored by Hollywood altogether, go through with just about every movie or TV show.

This feeling, thankfully rare for me, cropped up big time when I began to consider the rumors that Walt Disney was no fan of the Jews. I have a soft spot for Disney World, and the studio’s record of history and innovation, but the company places its founder and namesake on such a pedestal that it would seem impossible to divorce him from the modern iteration of the global media giant (even though it’s had a Jewish CEO since the ‘80s).

About five years ago, as I was beginning to cover entertainment — and thus Disney — more regularly, I dove headfirst into the Disney-as-antisemite accusations. What I found were a lot of Jewish friends speaking fondly and swearing that while he may have cracked an off-color joke in the ‘40s or ‘50s, and aligned himself with a right-wing version of the MPAA, there was no evidence that he had any personal animosity toward Jews. There’s more evidence some of which I documented in this story but the point is that it took this level of research to make me feel OK about going to Disneyland during a trip to LA or seeing a Toy Story movie.

I suppose the defensiveness is deeply ingrained, a product of having the unfortunate history of the Jews — the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Spaniards, and Germans all either enslaved or banished my unlucky forbearers taught to me over and over again. There’s an “always watch out” undertone that pervades the Jewish community, which is why even Americans who have never been are so adamant about the security of Israel (even if we disagree on how it should be achieved).

It’s nice to imagine that fictional characters really live in their own worlds — and the corporate push for big screen “multiverses” assists in that fantasy — but the reality is that they are reflections of their creators, for better or worse. I don’t so much need to identify with the creators, or their creations, but it’s generally nice to know that they wouldn’t dislike me for my lineage. As friendly as The BFG is — and he’s played with spectacular charm by Mark Rylance in Spielberg’s movie — I can’t help but not feel a little bit cold in my response.

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