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Orwell and the Jews
D. J. Taylor on the writer's attitudes to Jews and Jewishness
‘Orwell and the Jews’ was originally published in Orwell: The Life (2003). It is reproduced here by kind permission of the author to accompany our current serialization of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933).
In February 1933 Victor Gollancz received a letter from a Mr S. M. Lipsey, a recent reader of Down and Out in Paris and London. It was not complimentary. ‘On its merits or otherwise I have no desire to comment’, he commented, ‘but I am appalled that a book containing insulting and odious remarks about Jews should be published by a firm bearing the name Gollancz.’ A spirited correspondence followed - Gollancz was not the man to take slights of this kind lying down - there were threats of legal action and finally the row fizzled out. Its shadow, though, hangs over much of Orwell’s early writings and indeed his whole attitude towards Jews, Jewishness and, later on, the foundation of a Zionist state. It is also apparent in an odd remark made by Malcolm Muggeridge in his private account of Orwell’s funeral. Muggeridge was intrigued by the large number of Jews present, believing the dead man to have been ‘at heart strongly antisemitic’.
Orwell’s later writings show a serious interest in the idea of Jewishness, or at any rate in the somewhat abstract notion of ‘the Jew’. Among other items he wrote a long essay for the Contemporary Jewish Record on ‘Anti-semitism in Britain’, reviews of books on Jewish subjects (including a notice of Satre’s Portrait of the Anti-Semite) and several ‘As I Please’ columns which turn, directly or indirectly, on the question of anti-Jewish prejudice. His friend Tosco Fyvel, who later made a careful survey of these articles, divided Orwell’s thoughts on Jewishness into three categories. On the one hand Orwell was shocked by the sheer vehemence and extent of the anti-Jewish feeling he detected. On the other he was anxious to demonstrate that the arguments in favour of anti-Semitism were irrational, usually nothing more than an attempt to find a scapegoat for an economic grievance. And yet there was a third side, Fyvel believed, which was uneasily conscious that expressions of popular feeling had to have a cause. In the last resort the man in the tobacconist’s queue who referred mockingly to the ‘chosen race’ did not do so quite arbitrarily. Anti-Semitism, it seemed to Orwell, must have an explanation, however misguided the stimulus or doubftul the evidence.
Some context is in order. English novels of the 1930s are full of what in retrospect we might want to mark down as disparaging references to the Jews. Equally, the English novelists who made them - and their number included Waugh, Greene and Priestly - would have laughed at the imputation of anti-Semitism. Anthony Powell, when someone pointed out a Jewish reference in Afternoon Men (1931) sixty years after the book appeared, replied somewhat stiffly that it was simply what one wrote at the time. To step back into the English literature of the century before is to enter a spiritual locker room full of the deadliest insults to ‘low, disgusting Jews’ (Trollope) or grotesque caricatures of ‘sheenies’ (Thackeray). ‘Jew-baiting’ - which incidentally Orwell was concerned to distinguish from anti-Semitism - turns up as regularly in the Victorian novel as sadism or the misplaced will. Orwell recognised the existence of this tradition, to which he several times refers and by implication deplores. Nevertheless, there is an odd intensity to some of his early references to the Jews, which would have struck many a less vigilant reader than S. M. Lipsey.
Down and Out in Paris and London, for example, has barely entered its third chapter before Orwell is describing ‘a red-haired Jew, an extraordinarily disagreeable man’ to whom he used to sell clothes in Paris. ‘It would have been a pleasure to flatten the Jew’s nose, if only one could have afforded it.’ Then there are the anti-Jew rants put into the mouth of Boris, his partner in grime, bearing on the latter’s experiences in the Russian army. ‘“Have I 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 …”’ This is reportage, obviously, the recollection of another person’s harangue, but there is something fascinated in it, and the phrasing (Boris is allowed to go on for half a page) is clearly Orwell’s own. As is its characteristic: the abstract concept of ‘the Jew’, a figure seen in terms of his Jewishness and nothing more. Coming back to England, practically the first thing that Orwell does is to wander into a coffee shop at Tower Hill where ‘in a corner by himself a Jew, muzzle down in the plate, was guiltily wolfing bacon’. Not even ‘a Jewish-looking man’, you see, simply ‘a Jew’. If it comes to that, how does Orwell know that the emotion he detects is guilt? There is something gratuitous, too, about the reference to ‘muzzle’ - as if the man in the cafe is not quite human and the explanation for this sub-humanity has something to do with his being Jewish.
‘The Jew’ makes regular appearances in Orwell’s diaries over the next ten years. Out tramping in the summer of 1931 he fell in with ‘a little Liverpool Jew of eighteen, a thorough guttersnipe. I do not know when I have seen anyone who disgusted me quite as much as this boy’, Orwell noted solemnly, going on to record his revulsion at ‘a face that recalled some low-down carrion-eating bird’. Queerest of all, perhaps, is an entry from October 1940 describing the wartime confusion of the London Underground. Detecting ‘a higher proportion of Jews than one would normally see in a crowd of this size,’ Orwell decided that what was ‘bad’ about the Jews that they were not only conspicuous but went out of their way to make themselves so. He was particularly annoyed by the sight of ‘a fearful Jewish woman, a regular comic-paper cartoon of a Jewess’, who ‘fought her way off the train at Oxford Circus, landing blows on anyone who stood in the way’. Now, it is perfectly possible that the woman in question resembled an extra from Fiddler on the Roof and that the incident took place exactly as Orwell recorded it. Even so, it is safe bet that few early twenty-first century onlookers will be able to read it without clenching their teeth.
If the rumours of the 1930s had awakened liberal consciences to the Jewish question, then the Second World War made the plight of the Jews in Nazi Europe unignorable. There was also the debate about what would happen after the war’s end and the possible creation of a Jewish state. ‘The Jew’ was no longer a slightly sinister English comic-book staple but a symbol of the evil that men could do to one another. Orwell, who had countless Jewish friends (Koestler, Fyvel), Jewish publishers (Gollancz, Warburg) and Jewish colleagues (Jon Kimche and Evelyn Anderson at Tribune) would have had this pointed out to him unceasingly. Undoubtedly it made him reflect on his attitude to Jewishness, what could and could not be said about it, and what in the past he had said about it himself. ‘I have no doubt that Fyvel thinks I am anti-semitic’, he ventured in a letter to Julian Symons, who - neatly enough - was half-Jewish himself. Roy Fuller, who had complained that a Tribune reviewer had alleged he was anti-Semitic, was reassured that it was impossible to mention the Jews in print ‘either favourably or unfavourably’ without getting into trouble.
In one way Orwell’s public musings on Jewishness, which began around 1944, may have been an attempt to make amends for past insensitivity. There is an odd vignette in the Contemporary Jewish Record essay when he recalls being accosted by a ragged boy in Rangoon in the 1920s, ‘whose manners and appearance were difficult to place’. ‘“I am a Joo, sir,”’ the boy explained, when questioned. ‘He admits it openly,’ Orwell represents himself as remarking to the friend he was with. Yet he was still intrigued by anti-Semitism’s popular roots, the idea that in the end it is not quite without foundation. An Observer review from January 1944 of two books on Jewish themes distinguishes between ‘true anti-semitism, an essentially magical doctrine’ and straightforward xenophobia. The problem, as Orwell saw it, was to determine why persecution of the Jews, pre-Christian in origin, had begun and why it had endured when so many similar superstitions had perished. Two weeks later he returned to this theme in Tribune. The weakness of the left-wing attitude to anti-Semitism, he alleged, was that it approached the subject from a rational angle. This could never explain the deep-seated resentment of Jews that runs through English literature and the countless passages (perhaps including his own) ‘which would be called anti-semitic if they had been written since Hitler came to power’.
It would be idle to classify Orwell as ‘anti-Semitic’. The complexities of what he thought and wrote about the Jews defy easy summary. And yet there is something odd in the implication that insulting Jews is acceptable as long as one knows they won’t end up in a gas oven. Tosco Fyvel, a long-term and essentially sympathetic registrar of Orwell’s attitudes to Jewishness, remembered this argument surfacing in a discussion of ‘Jew’ references in T. S. Eliot’s early verse. These, Orwell thought, were ‘legitimate barbs for the time’. Despite Orwell’s opposition to the idea of a Zionist state - he had a ‘curiously distant’ attitude, Fyvel noted, to the post-war fate of the Jews of Eastern Europe - they had only one serious quarrel. This arose out of the 1945 article ‘Revenge is Sour’, a report of Orwell’s tour of a former concentration camp in south Germany where, among other things, he witnessed a Viennese Jew in the uniform of a US officer (referred to throughout as ‘the Jew’) kicking a captured SS man. Here, Fyvel protested, was a by-blow of the greatest crime in history and Orwell had given it a single, dismissive paragraph. Any why call the man a Jew when he came from Vienna and wore and American uniform? Somewhat astonished by this reproach, Orwell taxed his friend with over-sensitivity. But the rebuke had its effect. In the remaining five years of his life there were no more references to ‘the Jew’.
Born in Norwich in 1960, D. J. Taylor is a writer and critic. He is the author of 12 novels, numerous non-fiction books and acclaimed biographies of Thackeray and George Orwell, for which he won the Whitbread Biography Prize in 2003. Taylor’s new biography of Orwell, making use of a host of new material, will be published by Constable in 2023.
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