Everyone knows that children’s book author Roald Dahl loved orphans and outcasts. From “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to “James and the Giant Peach,” there are few writers more beloved. And with Friday’s US opening of the eagerly anticipated film version of “The BFG,” his readership is only expected to grow.
But few of even the author’s most die-hard fans know that Dahl frequently went on record to express contempt for Jews and other minorities. Steven Spielberg certainly says he didn’t.
According to “The BFG” director, this aspect of Dahl’s public life was not on the table when he began work on the film. At a press conference during the Cannes Film Festival in France last month, Hollywood’s most accomplished Jewish filmmaker said he “wasn’t aware of any of Roald Dahl’s personal stories” before shooting “The BFG” for Walt Disney Pictures.
Written in 1982, “The BFG” centers around an orphan and a giant, who team up to battle child-eating monsters. It won numerous awards and hatched a stage play and TV film.
“I was focused on the story [Dahl] wrote,” said Spielberg, the creator of “Schindler’s List” and founder of the Shoah Foundation. “I had no idea of anything that was purportedly assigned to him, that he might have said,” Spielberg told journalists in Cannes.
‘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’s death in 1990 prompted some critics to denounce the author’s frequent expressions of bigotry, a side of Dahl that was mostly buried in the obituaries. Writing that Dahl was a “blatant and admitted” anti-Semite, former Anti-Defamation League head Abe Foxman took The New York Times to task for its Dahl obituary, which neglected to mention this aspect of the author’s public statements.
“Praise for Mr. Dahl as a writer must not obscure the fact that he was also a bigot,” wrote Foxman in his December 7, 1990 letter to the editor, which went on to quote some of Dahl’s anti-Semitic remarks.
“There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews,” said Dahl in a 1983 interview with New Statesman. “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 told the British magazine.
The author was also not above blaming Holocaust victims 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,” said Dahl of Jews murdered in Nazi death camps.
Dahl’s anti-Semitic commentaries increased during his twilight years, notably with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. That conflict gave Dahl an opportunity to blend classical anti-Semitic motifs with news coverage of the carnage, as the Jewish state sought to remove the chokehold of PLO terrorists on northern Israel.
Accusing Israel of “bestiality” in Lebanon, Dahl said the IDF behaved “like Hitler and Himmler” in its aggressive treatment of terrorists. In the same 1983 article for Literary Review, Dahl posed the question, “Must Israel like Germany, be brought to her knees before she learns how to behave in this world?”
In Cannes, Spielberg told The New York Times he had “no excuse” for not researching Dahl’s public statements. But the 69-year-old director also pushed back on allegations that Dahl was a diehard anti-Semite, comparing the author’s Jew-baiting to that of old-school Hollywood types who denounced Jews from time to time, some of whom — i.e., the Disney brothers — Dahl was close friends with.
“Later, when I began asking questions of people who knew Dahl, they told me he liked to say things he didn’t mean just to get a reaction,” Spielberg told The New York Times. “And all his comments, which I’ve now read about — about bankers, all the old-fashioned, mid-30s stereotypes we hear from Germany — he would say for effect, even if they were horrible things,” said Spielberg.
In an effort hushed up until today, Dahl’s children’s books were edited to remove content that expressed his contempt for women, blacks, the disabled
Unfortunately for those looking to diminish Dahl’s bigotry, the author was not exactly a “private” bigot whose comments were reported second-hand. The creator of “The Twits” put himself on the record — many times — as being against Jews and other minorities.
In an effort that was hushed up until today, Dahl’s world-renowned children’s books were heavily edited to remove content that expressed his contempt for women, blacks, the disabled, and other groups Dahl enjoyed marginalizing, often with over-the-top stereotypes.
Even “Matilda,” that super-rare Dahl book with a heroic female lead, was actually about a “devilish little hussy,” until editor Stephen Roxburgh removed Dahl’s woman-hating content from the original manuscript. “The Witches” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” also received extreme makeovers to cut back on misogynist and racist content, respectively. Dahl once memorably called Cinderella a “dirty slut.”
As contemptuous of women and minorities as he was, Dahl surrounded himself with helpers — some of them Jewish — to whitewash his depictions of marginalized groups, stereotypes he advanced on both the page and public stage.
A lifetime of bigotry
Following a childhood spent at rigid boarding schools in Wales, Dahl served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. After surviving an emergency landing with serious injuries, he made his way to Hollywood and forged a deep friendship with Walt Disney, that real-life Willy Wonka and fellow accused anti-Semite.
As put by Dahl expert Alex Carnevale in 2011, the author was “an unhappy and bullied little boy, in adulthood he longed for the kind of dominance he never achieved as a child.” Dahl was “six-foot-six, a gargantuan man who still desired to be a boy,” said Carnevale, who probed Dahl’s early, unedited writings for hateful content.
“[Dahl] believed in a world government and he was extremely sympathetic to Hitler, Mussolini, and the entire Nazi cause,” said Carnevale. “His stories were filled with caricatures of greedy Jews. …Dahl’s attitude towards women and Jews resembled Willy Wonka’s perspective on union labor,” wrote the journalist.
‘I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic,’ Dahl said months before he died
A book review Dahl penned for Britain’s Literary Review in 1983 allowed him to point out “those powerful American Jewish bankers” who “utterly dominate the great financial institutions over there,” for instance. He also lambasted the media for being “entirely” owned by Jews who cover up Israel’s atrocities.
“I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic,” Dahl told The Independent in 1990, eight months before his death. The author attributed some of his anti-Semitism to the presence of “Jewish [people] in another country like England strongly supporting Zionism.”
There were people close to Dahl ready to downplay the author’s public statements, despite knowing that even Dahl’s books for children had to be purged of disparaging stereotypes. The director of the Roald Dahl Museum in England, Amelia Foster, attributed Dahl’s anti-Semitic comments following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon to the author’s knack for provoking.
“This is again an example of how Dahl refused to take anything seriously, even himself,” Foster 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 of her former boss.
“For somebody who has proclaimed himself anti-Semitic, to be telling stories that just do the opposite, embracing the differences between races and cultures and sizes and language, as Dahl did with ‘The BFG,’ it’s a paradox,” said Spielberg in Cannes last month.
It is possible, however, that since the legendary filmmaker needed the permission of Dahl’s estate to make his film, Spielberg was not about to lead a “teaching moment” on the BFG-sized load of bigotry stripped from Dahl’s books.
“To be so gifted and yet so full of disdain for others was Dahl’s problem,” wrote journalist Carnevale. “His creations reflect that self-hatred, but if they did not, they would not be honest explications of a cruel and merciless world.”