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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.”