Dahl’s antisemitism ‘apology’ is a reminder to challenge the myth of Wales as a ‘tolerant nation’

Roald Dahl. This is an image from the Nationaal Archief, the Dutch National Archives, donated in the context of a partnership program.

Nathan Abrams

Much has been made of the apology by Roald Dahl’s family for his antisemitic views – but does it really count?

A statement on the Roald Dahl website, titled ‘Apology for anti-Semitic comments made by Roald Dahl’ read:

“The Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company deeply apologise 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.”

However, it is buried in an obscure part of the author’s website. One must really dig deep to find it. Second, it is unclear how long it has been up there.

And if you read the actual text, there is no mention of Jews or anything else. It is the bland sort of comment that can apply to almost everything.

There is another broader, issue here, too.

If, as has been argued, Dahl was formed by Wales, then Wales must also be held to account for his antisemitism.

Back in 2016, on the hundredth anniversary of Dahl’s birth in Cardiff, author and academic Jasmine Donahaye said: ‘We need to address it, acknowledge it, discuss it.’

 

Attitudes

Let’s put this into some wider context of the discussion on antisemitism and other forms of racism in Wales.

The Welsh government’s interim report into the curriculum, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities, Contributions and Cynefin in the New Curriculum Working Group was recently published.

It found that “There is no statutory requirement to teach specific topics of central understanding to the histories of racism and diversity, for example, the histories of slavery or the Holocaust. This is of concern.”

While Jews are not included in the scope of the report, given its BAME remit, in light of the explicit pointer to the Holocaust, one wonders how far any of the current teaching of to the histories of racism and diversity in Wales relates to the Jewish minority experience.

Turning to Annex B, “Resources to support the teaching of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic themes hosted on Hwb”, various websites are listed. Those that relate to the Jewish experience, are ‘Refugees to Wales’ and ‘Stories of sanctuary in Wales’.

By focusing on the historical refugees that came to Wales as well as those who have found asylum and refuge in Wales, the resources are slanted towards the positive experience of Jews. It thus reinforces the image of Wales as a “tolerant nation”.

The consequence of that is twofold. Firstly, it suggests that the Jewish experience in Wales is purely historical, that Jews ‘once came’. It does not emphasize the continuing dynamic coming and going of Jewish people to Wales.

Second, it does not reflect on those Jews who were born here and hence are Welsh in the first place. Not every Jewish person who came to Wales did so to escape racism, and discrimination.

Third, by focusing on Wales as a place of sanctuary, asylum and refuge, these resources overlook the less positive aspects of the Welsh relationship with Jews, both historical and contemporary. There are no resources on historical attitudes – Jews were expelled from Wales before England in the thirteenth century – and what grew up in their absence.

It does not look at more recent outbreaks of antisemitism or questionable attitudes expressed by some Welsh nationalists in the past, or by those who sought to colonise Palestine. Nor does it dwell on the Tredegar Riots of 1911, or the racist views of Roald Dahl – often much praised as a Welsh author – towards Jews.

Recommendations

While greater Holocaust awareness is encouraged – and it is concerning that the report has found that it is not the case despite the annual commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day – again this will have the effect of reinforcing the stereotype of a tolerant Wales as a historical place of refuge, asylum and sanctuary.

By pointing to the continent, this will allow our children to think of such racism as something done by others, something in which Wales has no part. This will be further reinforced by the absence of resources which, while not seeking to magnify the issue, do focus on Welsh antisemitism.

It is my hope that, in the final iteration of the report, some consideration of the history and experience of the Jews in Wales – both positive and negative – will be included in its final recommendations.

The non-apology on Roald Dahl’s website reminds us of the urgency of doing this now.

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