Rewriting his books is not the only way Roald Dahl's legacy is being whitewashed

Instead of worrying about re-writes, we should remember his vicious antisemitism


British children's author, short-story writer, playwright and versifier Roald Dahl (1916 - 1995), 11th December 1971. (Photo by Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Getty Images)

February 22, 2023 15:35

There has been significant controversy in response to the news that Roald Dahl’s works are to be edited to remove language which is widely seen as offensive in this day and age.

According to the reports, Puffin Books have worked closely with the Roald Dahl Story Company to review the texts of the many children’s classics, and change excerpts deemed controversial on issues including race, gender, weight, and mental health.

Some see this as unconscionable rewriting, while others believe it is little different to another round of the editing process which all books, including Dahl’s, regularly undergo before publication.

Those who believe it is right to change these books clearly think it is important to do so because it will remove examples of bigotry from being so easily accessed. Remove such references, the thinking goes, or make them much harder to find, and people won’t know that they exist. 

I make no comment on whether this is wisdom or folly. I would point out, however, that the Board of Deputies has seen a similar attitude adopted by the Roald Dahl Story Company when it comes to properly recognising the unpleasant truth about their namesake. 

As many in the Jewish community know, and as an increasing number of non-Jews are becoming more aware, Roald Dahl was a vocal antisemite. His public statements included his belief that the US Government was “utterly dominated by the great Jewish financial institutions over there.”

He claimed that actions of the Israeli Government were “very much hushed up in the newspapers because they are primarily Jewish-owned … there aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere.” Perhaps most notoriously, he said that “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.”

In 2021, there was an outcry after it was revealed that around the time Netflix purchased the Roald Dahl Story Company, an acknowledgement of Roald Dahl’s antisemitism had been quietly added to a remote section of the Roald Dahl Story Company website. That out-of-the-way online acknowledgment was subsequently moved to a more prominent place.

What is less well known is that The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, contains absolutely no mention or acknowledgment of the author’s egregious antisemitism. I know this because last year a member of our staff visited the site and was surprised to see this complete lack of acknowledgment regarding this significant character flaw. 

The Board of Deputies subsequently raised this issue in person with representatives of the Roald Dahl Story Company some six months ago. We were told that the museum was planning to install new exhibitions which could potentially include such an acknowledgment. When one of our staff members visited the museum this month, however, there was still no mention at all of Roald Dahl’s antisemitism, and no sign at all of any soon-to-be-installed exhibits.

Similarly, our conversations with Netflix on the issue of Roald Dahl’s antisemitism have reached an impasse. The streaming company has spent hundreds of millions acquiring the back catalogue of Roald Dahl’s works, with a view to creating “a unique universe across animated and live action films and TV, publishing, games, immersive experiences, live theatre, consumer products and more.”

We have repeatedly made it clear to Netflix that focusing on what they refer to as the “universal themes of surprise and kindness” of Dahl’s works, without any acknowledgement of the reality of Dahl’s antisemitism, would strike an incredibly discordant note for many Jews. We emphasised that there was a golden opportunity here, to potentially develop, for example, a documentary focusing on the author’s antisemitism, dissecting the bigotry and explaining how even those who can promote admirable messages in other areas can fall prey to the oldest hatred. These suggestions have effectively been rebuffed. Sadly, in the Dahlian universe of love and understanding Netflix seems to envision, there appears to be no room for cold hard facts about the realities of anti-Jewish racism. 

Meanwhile, as the Roald Dahl Story Company changes works of fiction to remove passages which may cause offence, maybe they will also take time to properly focus on facts. Hiding examples of bigotry may come from a place of good intentions, but failing to properly acknowledge their existence tells a very different tale.

Marie van der Zyl is President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

February 22, 2023 15:35

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