Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Dahl portrait

One of the most beloved children’s authors of all time, Roald Dahl (1916 -1990) is also one of the most prolific, having sold more than 300 million copies of his works worldwide. His children’s books are legendary for their unsentimental, macabre, and often darkly comic mood, featuring villainous adult enemies of the child protagonists while simultaneously manifesting an underlying warm sentiment and championing the tenderhearted and compassionate. His best-known works include James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Witches, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The BFG, The Twits, George’s Marvelous Medicine, and Danny the Champion of the World.

Dahl also had a successful parallel career as the writer of chilling adult short stories, which often blended humor and innocence with surprising plot twists. He wrote more than sixty such stories, and his works for older audiences include the short story collections Tales of the Unexpected and The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More. The Mystery Writers of America presented him with three Edgar Awards for his stories, many of which were published in American magazines such as Colliers, The New Yorker, Harpers, and Ladies Home Journal.


Dahl’s first published work, A Piece of Cake, published on August 1, 1942, was based upon his adventures during World War II and was later purchased by the Saturday Evening Post and published as Shot Down Over Libya. Born in Wales to affluent Norwegian immigrant parents, he served in the Royal Air Force during the war as a fighter pilot and then as an intelligence officer, ultimately rising to the rank of wing commander. He crash-landed in the western desert over North Africa, fractured his skull, and recovered in a hospital in Alexandria, after which he was stationed in Haifa. Suffering debilitating headaches, he returned to England, where he played an important role in convincing the isolationist United States to enter the war – and, according to some credible analysts, spied on the U.S. for Great Britain. Drawing on the same aviation theme, his first children’s book was The Gremlins (1943), the story of mischievous little creatures that the pilots blamed for all problems with their aircraft and were part of Royal Air Force folklore.

Dahl also wrote many screenplays, including an adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; it was produced as the film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), which he later renounced because, among other reasons, it had deviated too much from his original plot. He also adapted for film works by other authors, including two by Ian Fleming – the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).


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Dahl’s children’s books have been translated into 55 languages, and more than twenty million copies of Charlie alone have been sold worldwide. In Israel, Charlie was first translated in 1977 by Uriel Ofek, an Israeli children’s author, editor, lyricist, poet, translator and literary scholar who served as a medic, was captured by Jordan during Israel’s War of Independence, and is credited with laying the foundation for the Bibliography of Jewish children’s literature in Hebrew and Yiddish. The illustrator for the Israeli edition was Joseph Schindelman, who was the original illustrator of Charlie and who modeled his drawings of Charlie after his son. Like Dahl, he was also a World War II airman, serving as a non-gunner for the U.S. Army Air Corps and flying 51 missions over Germany.

Dahl has been in the news recently in the wake of Netflix’s acquisition of rights to his entire catalog for over half a billion dollars and because of the bitter criticism leveled against Puffin Books for its sickening “woke” – and often senseless (but I repeat myself) – rewriting of Dahl’s children’s books to reflect “modern sensibilities,” including removing language related to race, gender, weight and mental health. It is worthwhile to note that this is not the first contemporary example of woke interference with the original text of great children’s literature; for example, in 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises (Seuss/Theodore Geisel was a great philosemite) pulled six of his books that “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”

British stamp sheetlet featuring several of Dahl’s works.

Interestingly, the bowdlerizers of Dahl’s books did not deem it necessary to affect any edits to his extensive antisemitic characterizations, as will be detailed below, because, as in most of the woke world, antisemitism is not only not a problem but is actually an important value. In any event, many people are unaware that the racism and sexism in his work were such that his editor, Stephen Roxburgh, removed some of his writing from the original manuscript, particularly in The Witches and Charlie, which received extreme alterations.

Ironically, although he fought as a fighter pilot against the Nazis, Dahl believed in a world government and he was extremely sympathetic to Hitler, Mussolini, and the entire Nazi cause. That he was a rabid antisemite is beyond dispute; in fact, he proudly and unabashedly declared so publicly. Moreover, as we shall see, his stories included antisemitic canards and hateful Jewish caricatures.

In a 1983 interview with the British magazine New Statesman, Dahl said:

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.

Adding insult to injury, he claimed that he never saw any Jews fight during World War II, about as bold a baldfaced lie as can be conceived. In one of his most disgusting comments, Dahl blamed Holocaust victims for being murdered:

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. (Emphasis added)

In a 1980 letter written to a friend, he referred to Jews as “those big-nosed, hairy-chested types,” and in his memoir Boy: Tales of Childhood, he described a family friend as having a “hooked nose.” According to Dahl’s biographer, Donald Sturrock, the author once privately described an American film producer as “the wrong sort of Jew . . . his face is matted with dirty, black hair. He is disgustingly overweight and flaccid though only forty-something, garrulous, egocentric, arrogant, complacent, ruthless, dishonorable, lascivious, slippery.” Another Dahl biographer, Jeremy Treglown, further cites a correspondence that the author wrote in 1947 to his friend, Charles Marsh, which was full of savagely violent jokes about Jews and Zionism.

When the Nazis attacked Greece, Dahl and his fellow airmen were evacuated to Haifa, where they used a secret Jewish landing strip at Ramat David to engage with the Vichy air force then in Syria and Lebanon. In a chapter titled “Palestine and Syria” in his memoir, Going Solo (1986), he writes about being greeted by many Jewish children excited by his plane, and he recounts his discussion with an unnamed German Jewish refugee in charge of the orphaned children, who was a passionate Zionist. While admitting that he knew nothing about Jews and their quest for their own homeland, he depicts the refugee as a “nut” and as someone planning to steal Palestinian land rather than integrating into other countries.

In 1983, three years before Going Solo was published, Dahl had written a rare book review of God Cried about the Lebanon War and in which he starkly opposed a Jewish state. His criticisms of Israel were intense, broad, and seem visceral; accusing the Jewish State of “bestiality” in Lebanon, he claimed that the IDF behaved like Nazis in its aggressive treatment of terrorists. In a 1983 article for Literary Review, he asked, “Must Israel like Germany, be brought to her knees before she learns how to behave in this world?” and commented:

Never before in the history of man has a people switched so rapidly from being much-pitied victims to barbarous murderers. Never before has a state generated so much sympathy around the world and then, in the space of a lifetime, succeeded in turning that sympathy into hatred and revulsion. It is as though a group of much-loved nuns in charge of an orphanage had suddenly turned around and started murdering all the children . . . it makes one wonder in the end what sort of people these Israelis are. It is like the good old Hitler and Himmler times all over again.

Dahl further claimed that Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon were “almost the exact carbon copies in miniature of Hitler and Goering;” that they were “equally bloodthirsty” and as deserving as the Nazis to be arraigned by a war crime tribunal; and that “if only Israel had stuck to her part of the bargain and been willing to share the land, all the subsequent wars would have been avoided.” He also alleged that Israel’s crimes were hushed up in the newspapers because they are primarily Jewish-owned:

I’m certainly anti-Israeli and I’ve become antisemitic in as much as that you get a Jewish person in another country like England strongly supporting Zionism . . . 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 – jolly clever thing to do – that’s why the president of the United States has to sell all this stuff to Israel.

He further referred to “those powerful American Jewish Bankers” and proclaimed that the United States government was “utterly dominated by the great Jewish financial institutions over there.” A few months before his death in 1990, he could not have been more unambiguous: “I’m certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic.”

In Dahl’s second adult novel, Fifty Thousand Frogskins, which was never published, he writes of “sly, knowing” Jews, and his leading character in his short story, Madame Rosette (1946) is, “a filthy old Syrian Jewess.” In his first novel, Sometime Never (1948) he wrote of “a little pawnbroker [a profession overwhelmingly Jewish] called Meatbein [a Jewish name] who, “when the wailing started, would rush downstairs to the large safe in which he kept his money, open it and wriggle inside on to the lowest shelf where he lay like a hibernating hedgehog until the all-clear had gone.”

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the character of Mr. Slugworth, depicted as a sinister figure who is revealed to be a spy working for a rival candy company, is described as having a “pointed nose.” Moreover, the enigmatic factory, which operates behind mammoth locked iron gates – and from where “no one ever comes out” – continuously belches pillars of smoke out into the air, an unmistakable analogy to Nazi crematoria. Furthermore, Charlie’s Chocolate Factory’s chief competitor is factory owner “Ficklegruber,” and it cannot be mere coincidence that Hitler’s birth name was Schickelgruber.

However, Dahl’s antisemitism in his published work probably manifests itself most clearly in The Witches (1983). First, the witches have big, ugly noses, consistent with the ancient antisemitic canard about a common physical characteristic of Jewish anatomy; see, e.g., Der Stürmer. Dahl writes that they have “large nose-holes, like tunnels” and “claw-like fingers” and that the Grand High Witch has a “hooked nose.”

The witches wear wigs, like the sheitels worn by Orthodox Jewish women and, Dahl writes, the Grand High Witch has a “large, bald head.” Moreover, these are no cheap head-coverings; as Dahl writes, a witch always wears “a first-class wig,” which she puts “straight on her naked scalp.”

The witches speak a language different from the public vernacular. Dahl says of the Grand High Witch:

[She] had a peculiar way of speaking. There was some sort of a foreign accent there, something harsh and guttural, and she seemed to have trouble pronouncing the letter w. As well as that, she did something funny with the letter r. She would roll it round and round her mouth.

Though small in number, the witches are part of secret societies formed in every country (see, e.g., Protocols of the Elders of Zion). Dahl has his character, Grandmamma, explain to her grandchild:

Wherever you find people, you find witches. There is a Secret Society of Witches in every country . . . An English witch, for example, will know all the other witches in England . . . Once a year, the witches of each separate country hold their own secret meeting. They all get together in one place to receive a lecture from The Grand High Witch of All the World . . .

In language evoking the worst of the Third Reich, Dahl writes:

Luckily, there are not a great number of real witches in the world today. But there are still quite enough to make you nervous. In England, there are probably about one hundred of them altogether. Some countries have more, others have not quite so many. No country in the world is completely free from witches.

The witches print the world’s money, a well-known notorious antisemitic fabrication dating to antiquity. When the young boy asks Grandmamma, “Is she [The Grand High Witch] rich?” she answers:

She’s rolling. Simply rolling in money. Rumor has it that there is a machine in her headquarters which is exactly like the machine the government uses to print the bank-notes you and I use . . . Those machines can make Chinese money if you want them to . . .

Later in the story, the Grand High Witch is overheard at a meeting saying, “Money is not a prrroblem to us vitches, as you know very vell. I have brrrought with me six trrrunks stuffed full of Inklish bank-notes, all new and crrrisp.”

When the child skeptically asks “If nobody has ever seen the Grand High Witch, how can you be so sure she exists?” his grandmother answers: “Nobody has seen the Devil, but we know he exists.” Dahl has Grandmamma affirm that this is “the gospel truth” (the italics are in the original) and emphasizes that she “went to church every morning of the week and she said grace before every meal, and somebody who did that would never tell lies.” As Grandmamma warns her dear boy, “All you can do is cross your heart and pray to heaven.”

The witches take great delight in murdering children, evoking the infamous Blood Libel. Writing with an accent that one can easily hear as Yiddish, Dahl has The Grand High Witch explain to her secret society how they will lure England’s children by buying high-end sweet shops and poisoning the candy. The heart of the story is a conspiracy by the witches to turn all the children of England into mice, and much of the language that Dahl uses to describe the conspiracy is evocative of antisemitic stereotypes and platitudes about sneaky and evil Jews – not to mention Third Reich depictions of Jews as rodents.

In September 1983, Israeli TV withdrew all broadcasts of Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected to avoid having to pay royalties to an antisemite. Dahl thereby became only the third person in Israel’s history (along with Wagner and Strauss), to have his work banned from the nation’s airwaves.

The controversy surrounding Dahl’s antisemitism became a subject of broad public interest in 2018, when the British Royal Mint rejected a proposal to issue a commemorative coin to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth because he was “associated with antisemitism and not regarded as an author of the highest reputation.” Jewish groups in Great Britain, including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, publicly supported the move: “The Royal Mint was absolutely correct to reject the idea of a commemorative coin for Roald Dahl. Many of his utterances were unambiguously antisemitic. He may have been a great children’s writer, but he was also a racist and this should be remembered.”

In December 2020, it came to light for the first time that the Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company had issued an apology on the author’s official website for Dahl’s antisemitism. Although it remains unclear when the statement first appeared on the website – it arguably could have been months, or even years, earlier – some critics see the apology as a disingenuous preemptive move to deflect criticism of important and forthcoming projects, including particularly the Netflix deal, discussed above:

The Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company deeply apologize for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by some of Roald Dahl’s statements. Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations. We hope that, just as he did at his best, at his absolute worst, Roald Dahl can help remind us of the lasting impact of words.

The Campaign Against Antisemitism responded that although it was encouraged by the family’s admission of the author’s antisemitism, the acknowledgement by “those who profit from his creative works” was long overdue:

The admission that the famous author’s anti-Semitic views are ‘incomprehensible’ is right. For his family and estate to have waited thirty years to make an apology, apparently until lucrative deals were signed with Hollywood, is disappointing and sadly rather more comprehensible. It is a shame that the estate has seen fit merely to apologize for Dahl’s anti-Semitism rather than to use its substantial means to do anything about it. The apology should have come much sooner and been published less obscurely.

The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews also spoke out against the timing of the admission/apology:

This apology should have happened long ago – and it is of concern that it has happened so quietly now. Roald Dahl’s abhorrent antisemitic prejudices were no secret and have tarnished his legacy.”

In a statement to the Sunday Times, the family attempted to offer some context to its original apology:

Apologizing for the words of a much-loved grandparent is a challenging thing to do but made more difficult when the words are so hurtful to an entire community. We loved Roald, but we passionately disagree with his anti-Semitic comments . . . This is why we chose to apologize on our website, an apology easily found on Google . . . These comments do not reflect what we see in his work – a desire for the acceptance of everyone equally – and were entirely unacceptable. We are truly sorry.

In a December 23, 2020, article in the Washington Post, the family was severely criticized for the apology (!) because it promoted “the debased state of apologies” and because “it is pointless for the descendants of an antisemite to apologize for comments over which they had no control. Such an apology is worse than silence.” (One cannot help but wonder if the Post ’s reaction would have been the same while reporting on an apology by a white family for the hate and racism of their ancestors.) Incredibly, in the face of massive evidence to the contrary, some of which has been discussed above, the writer goes on to allege that “[Dahl’s] views on Jews do not seem to have infected his work.”

At the end of the day, the best observation about the Dahl family’s apology may have been by the commentator who observed that the apology was issued by “the heirs of an unashamed anti-Semite [hoping] to escape the mob by covering their backs with an apology short enough to get lost in the virtual ether.”

Defenders resort to the usual panoply of apologetics that mark all such reactions to the antisemitism of their heroes: Dahl merely reflected the tenor of his times, he didn’t really mean it, it was taken out of context, some of his best friends were Jews, etc. etc. One of Dahl’s defenders was, sadly, Steven Spielberg, who claimed not to know about Dahl’s statements when he made The BFG for Disney in 2016, but later argued that Dahl didn’t mean any of it:

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 . . . 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.

I think that the Times of Israel got it right: “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.”

Similarly, Amelia Foster, the director of the Roald Dahl Museum in England, attributed Dahl’s antisemitic comments following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon to the author’s knack for being provocative without believing everything he says. Dahl apologist Dr. Shai Rudin, director of the Levin Kipnis Center for Children’s Literature at the Levinsky College of Education in Tel Aviv, has a more interesting excuse: “Roald Dahl hated everyone, so we don’t hate him.”

As I have written many times in these pages, G-d, for reasons known only to Him, has sometimes chosen to vest great talent in hateful people, and I have always argued that it is important to be able to separate the art from the artist and to reap the benefit of the former while condemning the latter. This issue has arisen most notably in the context of whether the Israeli Philharmonic should be performing works by Richard Wagner and whether scientists should avail themselves of scientific studies conducted by Mengele, yimach shemo v’zicro min haolam. I think it would be folly to reject any possible benefit from Mengele’s studies (whether any such benefit exists is a question of fact and a matter of great dispute), and I similarly believe that children should continue to enjoy Dahl’s work – unbowdlerized – for generations to come.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].