Orwell’s evolving views on Jews

Orwell’s antisemitic streak is the most painful thing I have written about, because I am a great admirer of Orwell.

George Orwell Big (photo credit: Courtesy )
George Orwell Big
(photo credit: Courtesy )
English writer George Orwell said that the Hungarian-born writer Arthur Koestler was “treacherous” in leaving Britain, because he was offended with its “Palestine” policy. Thus Orwell wrote to Koestler’s sister-in-law, Celia Kirwan, around the time of Israeli independence.
Orwell acknowledged that Koestler was bitter about Britain’s policy on Palestine, but asked, what did Koestler expect? A good answer would be that if the British had heeded US President Harry Truman’s 1946 request to Great Britain – that 100,000 displaced European Jews be permitted to enter the Holy Land – the entire Middle Eastern situation might have been defused.
The footnote to this letter to Arthur Koestler’s sister-in-law says that:
“Arthur Koestler, who was living with his wife, Mamaine, in Wales, decided he would like to move to the United States. The Koestlers lived there for a while.”
Early in his administration, Truman wrote to Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill about the Jewish Holocaust survivors saying:
“There is a great interest in America in the Palestine problem. The drastic restrictions imposed on Jewish immigration by the British White Paper of May 1939 continue to provoke passionate protest from Americans most interested in Palestine and the Jewish problem. They fervently urge the lifting of these restrictions, which deny to the Jews, who have been so cruelly uprooted by ruthless Nazi persecutions, entrance into the land, which represents for so many of them their only hope of survival.
“Knowing your deep and sympathetic interest in Jewish settlement in Palestine, I venture to express to you the hope that the British government may find it possible without delay to lift the restrictions of the White Paper on Jewish immigration to Palestine.” This message was sent in late July 1945. Shortly afterward, the Conservative Party was voted out of office.
On the policy of Churchill’s successors – prime minister Clement Atlee and foreign minister Ernest Bevin – Abba Eban wrote an anonymous article in The Palestine Post (now The Jerusalem Post) in 1946 commenting that:
“Nine months have passed since the president of the United States [Harry S. Truman] proposed the admission of 100,000 Jews into the National Home. For many tedious weeks Mr. Attlee lingered beside the still waters of moral duty, reluctant to plunge and adamant against being pushed. He has appointed a committee to take the temperature of the water and estimated the relative consequences of courage and timidity.”
Arthur Koestler was a strong supporter of Jewish independence in the land of Israel. He had lived in pre-state Israel, wrote a novel based on his experience in the Holy Land, and supported the struggle for independence. The depth of Koestler’s support for the Hebrew underground is seen by his having taken a secret meeting with underground Irgun commander Menachem Begin.
Shmuel (Samuel) Katz – Israeli publisher, author, contributing editor to The Jerusalem Post and last commander of the Irgun – had asked Koestler to write a biography of Revisionist Zionist founder and leader Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky. Koestler declined, so Katz wrote his two-volume biography of Jabotinsky, Lone Wolf: A Biography of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky.
Katz wrote about his efforts to get Koestler to write a biography of Jabotinsky:
“His [Koestler’s] tremendous admiration for ‘Jabo’ had not dimmed in spite of the ideological distances,” but Koestler “did not see biography as a congenial area for his talents.”
Orwell was at best cool to the idea of Zionism. When Orwell read Thieves in the Night, he wrote to Koestler’s wife saying that he did not believe in terrorism. But he was sympathetic toward Jews trying to get to the Land of Israel. He had even suggested that England invite 100,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors to immigrate to England; and regretted that the British Dominions did not admit Jews in significant numbers, despite their large empty space. (See volume four of Orwell’s Collect Essays, Journalism, and Essays, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus Item 61; Page 238, in his “As I Please” column on November 15, 1946.)
Perhaps Orwell was one of the people that Koestler had in mind when he wrote “Put yourself into the place of a Jew” in his “Letter to a Parent of a British soldier in Palestine” in the New Statesman in 1947. Koestler specifically cites that Nathan Friedman-Yellin – one of the leaders of Lehi – lost his family in the Holocaust. Subsequently, Friedman-Yellin became a leading dove.
But does being anti-Zionist, non-Zionist, lukewarm toward Zionism, or cool toward Israel automatically make one antisemitic? Not necessarily.
Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandl, very Orthodox, very anti-Zionist, had sent a map of Auschwitz to the West with the demand that Auschwitz, and the bridges and railroad lines leading to it, be bombed. Weissmandl was successful in bribing Nazis to suspend deportations of Jews to the concentration camps from Slovakia, just after Yom Kippur 1942, which ceased until the revolt of the Czechoslovakian Partisans in 1944.
Weissmandl felt that a Jewish state could become a focal point for international conflict, and that a Jewish state could also produce increased antisemitism.
Weissmandl was also bitter that Zionist organizations did not provide the funds he needed to bribe Nazis to cease deportations. As Abraham Fuchs wrote, “When the State of Israel was established in 1948, he [Weissmandl] traveled to Washington frequently to express his opposition to it. He even wrote a pamphlet setting out his views on the subject.”
Norman Thomas, six-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of the United States, was cool to Zionism and the State of Israel. Yet Thomas was not antisemitic. Quite the opposite! He wanted many Jews admitted into the United States, and wrote against antisemitism, despite being an isolationist before the United States entered World War II.
But was Orwell’s coolness toward Zionism, which put a strain on his relationship with Koestler, a sign of antisemitism?
To be aware that Orwell had an antisemitic streak, you only have to read Down and Out in Paris and London, in which the term “the Jew” is used many times. Both Boris, a former soldier in the Czarist army and the narrator of Down and Out, who is based on Orwell, are antisemitic. Since Boris was a soldier in the Czars army, it is very possible that the character of Boris is based on someone who was involved in pogroms. Some of the many antisemitic comments in Down and Out include:
“The shopman was a red-haired Jew, an extraordinary disagreeable man, who used to fall into furious rages at the sight of a client.”
“It would have been a pleasure to flatten the Jew’s nose. If only one could have afforded it.”
There are many other such passages in Down and Out in Paris and London. It is surprising that Victor Gollancz, his Jewish publisher at that time, let all the antisemitic remarks go through, especially since Gollancz and his solicitor had gone through the manuscript for libelous material and had Orwell change passages.
Perhaps the speech of a character does not represent the views of the author. But a diary written by Orwell, in preparation for Down and Out, has many antisemitic comments. One especially mean comment was, “The other was a little Liverpool Jew of eighteen, a thorough guttersnipe.”
George Woodcock pointed out the recurring theme in Orwell’s work Hop Picking Diary, of his heroes going into the working class or underclass. Thus, it seems that the only time Orwell reverted to class prejudice was when it involved a Jew, by using the term “guttersnipe.”
There is also significant antisemitism in A Clergyman’s Daughter. In the Trafalgar Square scene there is a character called “The Kike.” This character says “Jesus” many times in a derogatory manner, reminiscent of the worst medieval antisemitic stereotypes. This is especially significant since this Trafalgar Square scene is in the form of a play.
The tendency to use terms like “the Jew,” and “pro-Jew” continues into his later writings, letters and diaries. For example, in a July 15, 1942, letter to Alex Comfort discussing the book The Clue to History, Orwell comments, “This was a rather unbalanced book and extremely pro-Jew in tendency.”
In his essay “Revenge Is Sour” published in 1945, Orwell describes a visit to a “prisoner of war camp” where he and a fellow journalist were given a tour by an American soldier, a “little Viennese Jew,” who kicked a Nazi German war criminal, and told Orwell and his companion about this man’s history.
While he expresses sympathy for this American Jewish soldier, and speculates on what may have happened to him and his family under the Nazis, he refers to him as “the little Jew,” and “the Jew.”
But there was another side to Orwell’s writing about Jews. Orwell wrote about the horror of not admitting Jews in any significant numbers into the British Dominions such as Canada and Australia, although they had room to absorb them. He even wrote about antisemitism in Britain (CEJL, III: 94), and was well aware of the very significant role that the Jews of pre-state Israel played during World War II, and that Britain deliberately did not publicize the contribution of the Jews of pre-state Israel to the war effort during World War II, and why this was done as a matter of policy.
He wrote about antisemitism of Arabs and poor French people in Morocco, in his essay “Marrakech.” Orwell even reported getting hate mail for favorable things he wrote about Jews, and against antisemitism. He published one of these in order to show the virulence of this antisemitism. One such antisemitic letter to George Orwell began:
I will not repeat it here. You can read it in Vol. III of Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. But that letter was virulently antisemitic.
Orwell commented that Churchill saw the importance of arming the “Palestinian Jews” during the Second World War. Churchill had wanted to arm the Jews of pre-state Israel during World War II – not to be confused with the calls for a Jewish army or specific Jews fighting force. Churchill’s view ran into great opposition. During World War II, Orwell wrote that it was the worst possible time to express weird theories about Jews, and people need to be reminded that Jews are people before they are Jews; and “Antisemitism…is simply not the doctrine of grown-up persons.” But, antisemitism is much worse than immaturity. It has led to the murdering of millions of people throughout the centuries.
Orwell’s antisemitic streak is the most painful thing I have written about, because I am a great admirer of Orwell.
But one does not have to compare Orwell’s views to a Dutch Calvinist’s attitude toward Jewish nationalism. Let us consider Josiah Wedgwood. Like Orwell, Wedgwood was a supporter of the left-wing non-Communists in Spain, and was at one time, like Orwell, a supporter of Britain’s Independent Labour Party (LIP) – which was to the left of the Labour Party. But Wedgwood supported the Irgun’s struggle in pre-state Israel, and was very supportive of the Irgun’s program of smuggling Jews from the Europe of the Holocaust to pre-state Israel, in defiance of the British government. Wedgwood especially liked Willy Perl, who smuggled Jews from Nazi-dominated Europe to pre-state Israel as part of the Irgun’s rescue program. Wedgwood wrote to Perl:
“You saved 2,400 souls from death…and I am very proud of your friendship.”
The good that Orwell did far outweighs his faults. He almost died fighting against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, from a severe wound in the neck on the Aragon Front in 1937. During the Blitz, Orwell was preparing to resist a Nazi invasion of Britain, and was offering the public advice on resistance. Nineteen Eighty-Four offers an insight into the nightmare of totalitarianism, whose very elements exist in a very real fashion in the United States and Britain. Orwell was the Mozart of the essay. Homage to Catalonia and “Looking Back on the Spanish War” are the seminal works of historical accuracy about the Spanish Civil War.
One crucially important thing that Orwell and Koestler tried to do, but which did not come to fruition, was to form an organization dedicated to protecting basic human rights in every country, including the right not to be deported, the right not to be arbitrarily arrested and tried, the right to vote, and the right not to have one’s movements restricted in one’s own country. As the editors of Orwell’s Letters, Essays, Journalism note, “Suggested names for the new organization were: League for the Defense and Development of Democracy and League for the Freedom and Dignity of Man.” In his culminating work Nineteen Eighty-Four, which I have come to regard as his second-most important work after Homage to Catalonia, Orwell wrote favorably about Jews, including their victimization. Orwell did overcome his antisemitic streak. He did not fully understand the struggle being waged by the Jews in pre-state Israel, nor the denial of basic civil liberties to Jews and Arabs in pre-state Israel.