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Hitchens tries to stick here to the defense that Orwell’s antipathy was in his “early” pages and that “he strove to overcome” and self-educate himself away from prejudice. But he acknowledges the “unmediated disgust” at the appearance of Jewish characteristics, and later on deals with it at further length when he writes of Orwell’s “need to know things at the level of basic experience.”
Hearing a rumor in 1940 that “Jews greatly predominate among the people sheltering in the Tube [underground station],” Orwell notes: “Must try and verify this.” Ten days later, he is down in the depths of the transport system to examine “the crowds sheltering in Chancery Lane, Oxford Circus and Baker Street stations. Not all Jews, but, I think, a higher proportion of Jews than one would normally see in a crowd of this size.” He goes on, with almost cold objectivity, to note that Jews have a way of making themselves conspicuous.
Again, this is not so much an expression of prejudice as a form of confrontation − a stage in Orwell’s own evolution. Only a few months after he expresses the misanthropic and even xenophobic view that European refugees, including Jews, secretly despise England and surreptitiously sympathize with Hitler, he excoriates the insular-minded British authorities for squandering the talents of Jewish Central European emigre Arthur Koestler. When Orwell contradicts himself, as he very often does, he tries his best to be aware of the fact and to profit from it.
Hitchens nails down Orwell’s attitude to Jews as a self-aware and useful contradiction. A man can be disgusted at the sight of easily identifiable Jews while having numerous Jewish friends and even admired Jewish contemporaries, and while he knows and writes that anti-Semitism is wrong, he also acknowledges that it is ineradicable in human society, even from oneself.
But as Hitchens himself would probably admit, Orwell defined his own feelings about Jews. In his monumental essay “Antisemitism in Britain,” he hinted at his own inner feelings, writing that the “starting point for any investigation of antisemitism should not be ‘Why does this obviously irrational belief appeal to other people?’ but ‘Why does antisemitism appeal to me? What is there about it that I feel to be true?’ If one asks this question one at least discovers one’s own rationalisations, and it may be possible to find out what lies beneath them. Antisemitism should be investigated − and I will not say by antisemites, but at any rate by people who know that they are not immune to that kind of emotion.”
This essay was first published in April 1945 in Contemporary Jewish Record, the forerunner of today’s Commentary. One wonders whether today’s bastion of neoconservatism would run such a piece and whether its writer would not have been excoriated by the Anti-Defamation League.
But Orwell was nothing if not honest, and Hitchens is right to defend him. He did try to educate himself away from his native prejudices, and even if not entirely successful in defeating them, he was scathingly honest about them. And how many other writers can we say that about?
Everyone has irrational dislikes and pet hatreds, some of them morally wrong, but we either outgrow them or they evolve with us, and we have to handle them somehow. Orwell put the handling of his own feelings toward Jews on public display, an act of daring unimaginable today by any “respectable” writer. If the involuntary thought − “what is wrong with these Jews?” − goes through my mind, does that make me prejudiced? And what if I confide that thought in my diary or to a friend?” Orwell realized the ugly truth that we are all prejudiced, and tried to deal with it out in the open.
For more, go to Haaretz.com