Was George Orwell an Anti-Semite?

New Diaries Offer Clues and Christopher Hitchens Weighs In

By Anshel Pfeffer (Haaretz)

Published August 04, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

Orwell achieved critical and commercial success only when he was already dying from tuberculosis, and yet 62 years later, most of his writings still resonate clearly in a world facing the challenges he was first to detect and define. Hitchens admitted that “George Orwell has always meant everything to me” and we can sympathize with that feeling. But his admiration seems to have clouded partly his critical faculty, for Orwell never fully grew out of his ill feelings toward Jews.

Hitchens and other admirers of Orwell have sought to cleanse him of this accusation of judeophobia by citing the long English literary tradition, from the days of Chaucer until well into the 1930s, of villainous Jewish characters, and by emphasizing the thoughtful way Orwell wrote about anti-Semitism later in his career and, of course, his large number of Jewish friends.

One of his most able biographers, D.J. Taylor, who has dealt seriously with the issue, quotes journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who was surprised by the number of Jews who attended Orwell’s funeral, since he thought that he was “at heart strongly anti-Semitic.” Other contemporaries record Orwell, at late stages of his life, remarking to them about the preponderance of Jews working for the Observer newspaper for which he wrote, and indeed in his diaries he refers to the control of Jews over vast swathes of the media.

It is true: Nowhere in his later writings does Orwell write of Jews as crudely as he did in his very first book − “Down and Out in Paris and London” where, in addition to fantasizing about punching in the face a Paris pawnbroker, a “red-haired Jew, an extraordinarily disagreeable man,” the first thing he notices upon returning to London is in a coffee shop where, “in a corner by himself a Jew, muzzle down in the plate, was guiltily wolfing bacon.”

Even in his last years ‏(he died in 1950‏) Orwell was always quick to identify people, gratuitously, as Jews, in a way in which their Jewishness is seen an explanation to their situation, actions or appearance.

His idol’s prejudices

We will probably never know why Hitchens, who described himself “as a wretchedly heretic and bastard member of the tribe” − famously discovering at the age of 38 ‏(after he had already discovered Orwell’s work‏) that his late mother was Jewish − found it hard to seriously address one of his idol’s deepest prejudices. And it is rather ironic that his most serious consideration of this is seeing light posthumously. Hitchens must have realized, though, that readers of the Orwell diaries, coming upon repeated disparaging references to “Jews,” would demand some sort of answer.

“One of the many things that made Orwell so interesting,” he writes in the introduction, “was his self-education away from such prejudices, which also included a marked dislike of the Jews. But anyone reading the early pages of these accounts and expeditions will be struck by how vividly Orwell still expressed his unmediated disgust at some of the human specimens with whom he came into contact. When joining a group of itinerant hop pickers he is explicitly repelled by the personal characteristics of a Jew to whom he cannot bear even to give a name, characteristics which he somehow manages to identify as Jewish.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.