Daft Friday’s Roald Dahl theme is about celebrating the books, not the author.
Roald Dahl’s works act as a place of fantastic escapism, each of which are loved by children across the world, including myself. However, a simple Google of the author can show you a litany of articles all stating the problems of him and his antisemitic beliefs. Today, more than ever, Britain is confronting the way it talks about Jewish people and the way it confronts antisemitism. How should we remember Dahl? Should we celebrate his works? Is it wrong for the Glasgow University Union (GUU) to have Dahl as a Daft Friday theme?
Firstly, I think we have to understand what we are talking about when we say Dahl was unequivocally an antisemite. I do think we often fall into the trap of taking authors out of context and ascribing the idea of modern standards to people of the past, but he was often judged even by people of his time and he was unapologetic and even doubled down on his beliefs when questioned. He doesn’t shy away from the term, as he said to The Independent, “I’ve become antisemitic in as much as that you get a Jewish person in another country like England strongly supporting Zionism. I think they should see both sides. It’s the same old thing: we all know about Jews and the rest of it. There aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere, they control the media.” The idea of a “Jewish conspiracy” in both Zionism and the media have been hallmarks of antisemitism for years. What most concerns me is what he told the New Statesman in 1983: “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity… even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” He also blames Jewish people for the Holocaust and says it is natural for them to be hated. There are a handful of other quotes attributed to him that many find disturbing, but I think it is now well established that he was antisemitic, and that this language was not acceptable then and it is not acceptable now. This isn’t a revisionist history; people then thought it was a problem, it is only recently that we have forgotten about all the associated opinions of the author.
All of this said I do not think this ruins his books. His books (including The BFG, Matilda, and my personal favourite, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), exclude anything of a massive Jewish conspiracy and instead bring a story to young people of wonder and innocence. They even lack racist undertones common with works of the day including Disney’s Fantasia or the french graphic novel, Tintin. What I think we need to do is exclude the author from appreciation. We can still read and enjoy the books, but not celebrate Roald Dahl. Take Daft Friday for example. So long as the theming is just that of the characters and scenes of the books, I think it is fine. If there is a portrait of the author or a toast to the author, that would be seriously problematic. There is no reason the work cannot be appreciated. This, however, is a perfect teaching moment; we can learn about the problematic beliefs of this man and understand how this behavior is not acceptable. There have been accusations and serious concerns over antisemitism by UK politicians across the spectrum; the SNP dropped one of its newly elected MPs over comments, the Tories opened an investigation into a freshman MP of their own, and Labour has faced much criticism over failures to root out antisemites in their party. We need to look at instances like this to understand broader issues which still occur today. I agree that we can’t spend all of our time questioning each and every piece we love about the morality of their author, because we’d quickly lose many great works; yet I think that we don’t need to celebrate men and women who believed and did abhorrent things.
Take the case of the Royal Mint. In 2014, they considered doing a Roald Dahl coin. However, after learning about his antisemitic views, decided not to go forward with it. They more or less noted that while his books were classics, we should not celebrate the man. Wes Streeting, Labour MP and co-chair of the All Party Group Against Antisemitism, agreed and said at the time, “There’s certainly no reason why future generations of children shouldn’t continue to enjoy those stories. But I think it’s absolutely clear that the Royal Mint made the right decision, because there is just no excusing or explaining away Roald Dahl’s comments and his views, which were antisemitic. It is as simple as that.”
This, I think, is the sensible answer to many of the problems we face with cases like this. The author doesn’t destroy the work itself, but I think we must be mindful when it comes to how we discuss the author and things outside the work itself.