Throwing the book at anti-Semitic literature

  • Jordan Moshe
It’s one thing to find that you relate to a book’s hero, or feel that his praiseworthy features are not unlike your own. It’s another thing altogether when you pick up a novel and find that the character with whom you share certain attributes is plotting a scheme, has committed murder, or is otherwise derided as villainous in some way.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Jun 07, 2018

It can be quite thrilling to find that an author mentions Jews, or even goes as far as including a Jewish character. However, as an avid fan of Shakespeare’s drama, I admit to feeling less than flattered when I found a Jewish character described as “an inhuman wretch, uncapable of pity”. Here was the typical caricature of the Jew rearing its head during my first reading of “The Merchant of Venice”. Like me, he is a Jew. But here was the Bard describing a typical member of my faith as a creature without compassion, an enemy of humanity who has no humanity himself.

Shaken, but not exactly put-off Shakespeare’s works altogether, I assumed the oft-used Jewish approach of shrugging my shoulders, and pushing on. Charles Dickens is one of my favourite novelists, and it’s not difficult to see why. Dickens was known as a great social reformer who tackled the more pressing issues facing society.

However, Dickens expresses sentiments which are often borderline offensive, if not outright racist. While we often attribute these less-palatable expressions to the unhealthy influences of his time, it does not make it easier to stomach the depiction of reprehensible characters like Fagin alongside the innocent Oliver.

Fagin, a major character in the story, is an underworld criminal who trains small children to be pickpockets. He is an unseemly character, and is referred to derisively as “the Jew”. The novel refers to Fagin 257 times in the first 38 chapters as “the Jew”, while the ethnicity or religion of the other characters is rarely mentioned.

Countless scholars have tried to grapple with the attitudes of Dickens and Shakespeare. In respect of the former, many refer to a letter Dickens received in 1863 from a Jewish woman who wrote that he “encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew”. Dickens altered the negative references, and included a favourable character in a subsequent novel.

Where Shakespeare is concerned, scholar Stephen Greenblatt has suggested an alternative perspective from which we might better understand the author’s intention. Though he acknowledges that Shakespeare probably never set foot in Italy and his views were shaped by his time, he goes beyond these technical explanations and focuses on the fact that Shylock is afforded a voice and disturbs the accepted status quo by opening his mouth.

Perhaps the presence of unlikeable Jewish characters can be explained by history or viewed through different perspectives. But let’s put these examples aside and consider an author whose books don’t have a trace of anything that could be read as unflattering: Roald Dahl.

It is difficult to imagine a literary world without characters such as Willy Wonka, Matilda, and the BFG. In recent years, it has come to light that Dahl was famous for insulting people, stirring up arguments with other authors, and being generally unpleasant. His first wife, Patricia Neal, nicknamed him “Roald the Rotten.” Even his publishers said he threw tantrums.

Dahl appears to have expressed contempt for Jews publicly on more than one occasion - a fact even some of his biggest fans may not be aware of. In a 1983 interview, he said, “There’s a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity… there is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason”. This from the author whose books characterised the reading experiences of thousands of children, myself included.

How do we reconcile Jewish identity with literature that may not depict us in the best light? What about dealing with books which are not necessarily anti-Semitic, but whose authors have virulently maligned Jews?

At times, I’ve considered it a betrayal to read the works of authors who would openly insult my people. At others, I’ve opted to ignore the fact that the author would consider it sinful for a Jew to so much as hold his or her book.

Recently, I hit upon a constructive solution: I would thumb my nose at the authors. Not by discarding their works and avoiding them, but by holding them as closely as possible and reading them over the imagined screams of indignation I hear from their living or dead, anti-Semitic authors. I would read these books as though they were my own property, while being cognisant of the fact that their authors are opposed to my very existence.

While some may criticise me for being grossly naïve or foolish, accusing me of feigning ignorance or betraying my Judaism, I remain convinced that I can defy authors defined by their anti-Semitism by making their books part of my reading journey. I won’t turn away from works that cause me pain as well as pleasure. Instead, I will engross myself in the vast collection of world literature as if it were the only natural place I should be.

Greenblatt writes: “What you inherit, what you receive from a world that you did not fashion but that will do its best to fashion you, is at once beautiful and repellent. You somehow have to come to terms with what is ugly as well as what is precious.”

I think I have done just that.


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