Thoughts on an antisemitic children’s author

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. 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 [the Jews] were always submissive.

Roald Dahl (1916 – 1990)

Who was Roald Dahl?

On the chance that you are unfamiliar with Roald Dahl, the world famous children’s author, he is best known for ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, a novel adapted to film twice: in 1971 (with Gene Wilder) and then again in 2005 (with Jonny Depp).

Not only was Roald Dahl prolific, but many of his books became wildly successful and remain so to this day. You may have heard of such titles as ‘The BFG’, ‘George’s Marvellous Medicine’, ‘Matilda’, ‘James and the Giant Peach’, ‘The Witches’, ‘Danny the Champion of the World’, ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, ‘The Magic Finger’, and ‘The Twits’…

Roald Dahl in my childhood

I don’t read much fiction these days, but during childhood my nose could more often than not be found buried in a book; and Roald Dahl was, by far, one of my favorites. I estimate that I owned some 80% of his books, including some he’d written for adults. Honestly, I doubt there was a single book of his on my shelf that I didn’t reread.

Then, at some point, as a teenager, I found out that my beloved Dahl had been an open antisemite. He’d had no compunction against making antisemitic statements in public interviews, such as the quote above.

As you can imagine, I was quite shocked; but, to a large extent, I also didn’t care very much back then. After all, what was I supposed to do? Throw away my beloved children’s books? I mean… I already had Dahl’s books on my shelf – I had no intention to purchase more of his works. By then, by my late teenage years, I hadn’t acquired a new Roald Dahl book for a long time.

Roald Dahl for me as a parent

Ordering Dahl’s books for my child

My seven-year-old daughter already reads English at fourth or fifth grade level; it’s the most advanced of her three languages (she also speaks, reads, and writes Russian and Hebrew). For me, this is fun because she’s now interested in books that I can enjoy.

While we were on vacation last week, she asked me to tell her a story; and the first one that came to my mind was ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, which I relayed to her at the beach. Even from my limited recollections of the book, my daughter was completely hooked and asked me to repeat it to her several times, which I did (with a bit of eye-rolling). I realized that she would love Roald Dahl’s books, just as I had as a boy.

Without hesitation, I went online and ordered an 18 book Roald Dahl box set, not even considering his antisemitism.

Reflecting on Roald Dahl’s antisemitism

After ordering the box set, beset by memories of my childhood, I remembered Dahl’s many antisemitic remarks and was hit unexpectedly by a wave of doubt, which led to this blog post. Ultimately, having subsequently thought this through, I’ve concluded that I have no regrets.

Following is my reasoning:

1. Distinction: Hating Jews versus Hurting Jews

I draw a distinction between people who simply hate Jews and those who actively take action to hurt them.

As a world famous author, Roald Dahl could have used his international platform to promote antisemitism, which he did not do. He never actually harmed any Jews, was never a member of any antisemitic groups, nor ever produced any literature to advance antisemitism, which, as a writer, he easily could have.

Frankly, the world has long harbored many antisemites, as it does today. Sure, this feels threatening to me, but that’s reality. Actually, one of the reasons I’m as public as I am about my Jewish and Israeli identities at The Skeptic’s Kaddish blog is that I want to be accepted as I am… Antisemites are invited to go elsewhere.

2. Cutting off my nose to spite my face

How, exactly, would not exposing my child to Roald Dahl’s brilliant children’s fiction do anything to combat antisemitism?

It wouldn’t.

Of course, there are many who disagree with me, like this Jewish writer at CNN; and while I respect that perspective, I also disagree with it.

In fact, while this is not relevant to Roald Dahl’s children’s books, I am now left wondering whether or not overtly antisemitic novels should be entirely avoided. Might it not be better for thinking readers to familiarize themselves with the minds of bigoted authors? (N.B. Not something I would recommend for a young child.)

3. Roald Dahl is dead

Roald Dahl died in 1990; and in 2020 his descendants publicly apologized for his antisemitic remarks. Putting aside the legitimate discussion of whether this apology was too little too late, it’s clear that Roald Dahl himself will not be benefitting from my purchase of his books, and I have no reason to believe that any of his family members are antisemites.

So, whom would I be punishing, exactly, by choosing not to buy a Roald Dahl box set for my child?

My conclusion

Having thought about this at length, I’ve come to the conclusion that I do want my daughter to know about Roald Dahl’s antisemitism and my misgivings about having purchased his books for her, but I see no reason to deny her the joy of reading his stories.

I’ve already mentioned to her that Roald Dahl did not like Jews; and, puzzled, she asked me why. “Sadly,” I responded to her, “there are those who hate Jews and other groups of people for no legitimate reason at all, simply because they are different. There is too much irrational and fearful hate in our world.”

61 thoughts on “Thoughts on an antisemitic children’s author”

  1. David, you did a great job of explaining your way through your decision. I too have read many of Dahl’s books. If I read he had personally harmed Jewish people, I might feel differently. Not to say his words were not harmful. When I learned of MJs actions, I got rid of his music. I won’t listen to it, ever. Giving your daughter an age appropriate explanation seems like the perfect solution.

  2. You have me pause. Thank you for this insight. It is “do we throw away good art because the artist is a horrible person?”

    A big debate these days. Thank you.

  3. Dahl was not alone with his warped views that fuelled antisemitism. Fabulous writer though he was, he was still a product of his time. I agree with your conclusion. I’ve read the works of Martin Luther the 17th century reformer, and was blown away when I discovered he wrote an entire thesis against the Jews. Led to a lot of introspection. Well written piece as always sir.

      1. Yeah… Made me look at that pedestal a lot closer. So many of our “heroes” have their history glossed over..curated… I think we are better off knowing the full measure of a person. We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water.. Adults are capable of coming to their own conclusions.
        Dahls’ books are still wonderful reading.

  4. Thank you David, 🙂 😊
    I should consider it.
    We were playing a card game a couple of weeks back
    It is quite a dark-humored card game and she quoted Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and it didn’t dawn on me to say a word, it flew right pass me, like I forgotten what I read.
    I must remember to raise the topic with her.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review of Roald Dahl, particularly the rational tenderness you went about teasing out your viewpoints.
    It’s just so amazing that you are so strong and open, that in no way do you feel attacked that he expressed his antisemitic stance.
    You make a good point that he never killed anyone. And I contrast this with the movie Schindler’s Liste, in the scene where the town was raining human dust and people were quiet about it. They never said a word, just went about their business whilst human flesh was burning.
    It’s a very emotional matter for me; where I grew up so much violence was going on, boys being killed and worked to death on farms, and these hardly came to light, or not at all outside the most agitated political cases.
    Forgiveness is truly a mystical event and admirable when moved into action.
    I never knew until the internet that Dahl held these positions about the jewish people
    It pained me, my children more daughter in particular read all his books.
    Lamely enough I never told her when I found out. I have no reason to say why.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Just as well I already had a double shot of digestive Gin in my belly when I started reading your post, David. The twists and turns…. Brave of you to tackle that. I make no excuse that I loathed Dahl’s work as a child and I still do. I had no idea he made antisemitic comments and I certainly take no satisfaction from it. I might wish his descendants had kept their mouths shout and instead opened their purse to make a donation for mental health case of Holocaust survivors. On the quiet.
    Good night from me.

      1. And Raymond Briggs, who wrote The Snowman, avoided children when and wherever possible, not being particularly fond of them. 😂 A proper curmudgeon!

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