Ian Bloom

The ever-present antisemitism of George Orwell

Even those of us who are his admirers need to consider his views of Jews

June 22, 2023 11:33

Here’s your starter for ten. Which major 20th-century English author wrote these words:
“The shopman was a red-haired Jew, an extraordinarily disagreeable man … it would have been a pleasure to flatten the Jew’s nose if only one could have afforded it.”

Or these: “Have I ever told you, mon ami, that … it was considered bad form to spit on a Jew? Yes, we thought a Russian officer’s spittle was too precious to be wasted on a Jew…”

Last one: “In a corner by himself a Jew, muzzle down in the plate, was guiltily wolfing bacon.”

The headline of this article suggests the correct, if surprising, answer. All three quotations are taken from George Orwell’s first published book, Down and Out in Paris and London (Gollancz 1933). The first two occur early in his Paris days; the last when he is in a Tower Hill coffee shop back in London.

Three years later, he ended his review of a Sholem Asch book, “if you want antisemitism explained the best book to read is the Old Testament”. In 1939, he concluded another book review similarly: “The Old Testament is largely a literature of hatred and self-righteousness. No duties towards foreigners are recognised, extermination of enemies is enjoined as a religious duty, Jehovah is a tribal deity of the worst type.”

Admirers of Orwell (among whom I count myself) have long been troubled by the strain of casual and perhaps not-so-casual antisemitism found in his published work, diary entries and private letters, especially in the 1930s. The almost schizophrenic contrast between his authorial hostility to these anonymous, nameless “Jews”, identified only by their religion, and his long friendships with individual Jewish publishers (Victor Gollancz and Fred Warburg) and writers (Arthur Koestler, T.R. (Tosco) Fyvel, Julian Symons, Jon Kimche, Evelyn Anderson and others) remains puzzling.

Had he lived, Orwell would have been 120 this weekend. But unlike Moses (admittedly protected throughout his long life by a higher authority), he wrecked his chances of even three score years and ten with a reckless disregard for his health.

Two bouts of childhood pneumonia, followed by five years in Burma, then voluntarily slumming it in Paris and London, getting shot in the throat and almost killed in Spain in 1937, ignoring tuberculosis until it was too late, living in primitive conditions in Jura to finish 1984 in the coldest and longest winter of the 20th century, smoking endless foul roll-ups, it’s a wonder he made it to 46.

Literary antisemitism was the norm in England until relatively recently. If they mention Jews at all, most major 19th-century English novelists described unattractive stereotypes. Perhaps George Eliot is the shining exception, as is EM Forster in the next century. But Graham Greene, JB Priestley, Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell are all “guilty”, while HG Wells, Saki, GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc are positively odious. As for the poets, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound are simply vile. This then was the context, the prevailing milieu, when Orwell was serving both his literary and political apprenticeship in the 1930s. There was a prevailing hostility towards Jews in both spheres. If, like me, you expected better, even then, from the young Orwell, you’d be disappointed.

Before the success of Animal Farm in 1945, George Orwell was a minor novelist and a brilliant but relatively obscure freelance critic and essayist, always short of money and struggling to make a living. His major 1930s concern was the threat of Soviet-style communism. “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 [when he fought in the Spanish Civil War],” he wrote in a famous post-war essay, “has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.” And here is his key and oft-quoted sentence from his wartime article on Arthur Koestler: “The sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onwards is that they wanted to be anti-fascist without being anti-totalitarian.” There can be little doubt, without the need for lengthy quotation, that Orwell was genuinely and irrevocably anti-totalitarian, anti-imperialist and anti-colonial.

These pre-occupations, and his wartime work as a talks producer for the BBC’s Indian Service, did not leave much time for an in-depth investigation into antisemitism. One benefit-of-the-doubt explanation may be that there is only so much “bandwidth” a busy writer/commentator can have. However, once war was declared, his attitude became more nuanced.

In 1940, he met Tosco Fyvel, who became his co-editor of the wartime Searchlight Books, his successor as literary editor of Tribune (and, later in life, the literary editor of the JC) and, in a strange way, Orwell’s Jewish conscience. Fyvel certainly provoked Orwell into re-examining his antisemitism. In December 1942, in two BBC News Commentary broadcasts, Orwell made clear his horror at the accounts of the murder of a million Polish Jews. Soon after, referring to Pound, he wrote in Tribune: “Antisemitism, for instance, is simply not the doctrine of a grown-up person. People who go in for that kind of thing must take the consequences.” He followed this with two powerful “As I Please” columns in Tribune in early 1944 attacking the irrationality and inconsistencies of antisemites and expressing his bewilderment at the longevity of the prejudice.

Orwell’s last major reflection on this topic was Antisemitism in Britain, published by the Contemporary Jewish Record in February 1945. His essay, a characteristic mixture of the sociological and the personal, but which still combined ignorance with insight, showed how far his thinking had evolved in the 12 years since Down and Out appeared.

And yet, frustratingly, the complexities, ambiguities, and contradictions remained. Shortly before his death in January 1950, he praised the legitimacy of the award of a major poetry prize to Pound (although he was personally scathing about the literary merit of Pound’s work) and downplayed the antisemitism in Eliot’s early poetry. Shortly after his funeral, Malcolm Muggeridge, who had helped organise it, wrote: “Interesting, I thought, that George should so have attracted Jews because he was at heart, strongly antisemitic.” Orwell’s comment in his last letter to Julian Symons that “I have no doubt Fyvel thinks I am antisemitic” (with the implication that he did not believe it to be true) led Fyvel to protest, when he read it, “Well no, I would never have said that.” Though he may have thought it.

Finally, there’s 1984. In this bleak masterpiece, Winston Smith “could never see the face of Goldstein without a painful mixture of emotions. It was a lean Jewish face, with a great fuzzy aureole of white hair and a small goatee beard — a clever face, and yet somehow inherently despicable, with a kind of senile silliness in the long thin nose, near the end of which a pair of spectacles was perched. It resembled the face of a sheep, and the voice, too, had a sheep-like quality.” George: what on earth are these antisemitic tropes doing there in the immediate aftermath of Auschwitz?

Fyvel once asked Orwell why he had given the name Goldstein “to the one conceivable rebel left against Big Brother and the Party”. Orwell explained that this was, of course, a reference to Trotsky, but he added that the most likely man to stage a hopeless last revolt against a possible totalitarian regime would be some Jewish intellectual.

On the one hand, well aware of the horrors of the Holocaust (he reported from Germany in the spring of 1945 for the Observer and Manchester Evening News), Orwell had supported wholesale entry of Jewish refugees into Britain. On the other, he remained hostile to Zionism, as a form of nationalism. Fyvel wrote that his friend considered Zionists to be the Jewish equivalent of white settlers, like the British in India or Burma, while the Arabs were comparable to the native Indians and Burmese. Like others on the left over the last 75 years,

Orwell sought to distinguish antisemitism, which, in the end, he publicly opposed as an irrational neurosis, from anti-Zionism. But he never explained the distinction with his normal moral clarity or convinced Fyvel or Koestler.

There has been a fine larger-than-life statue of Orwell outside the BBC’s premises in Portland Place since 2017. It was cast in bronze. But if you examine it closely, you might see feet of clay.

The source of many quotations in this essay is ‘George Orwell: On Jews and Antisemitism’. Edited by Paul Seeliger. Comino Verlag 2022

June 22, 2023 11:33

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive