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George Orwell: Oracle, Political Visionary, Antisemite?

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Martin Elliot Jaffe considers the reputation and writings of George Orwell.

During my years as a graduate student at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio during the 1970s I read a great deal of political theory and history of England during the 1930’s— the denial of the reality of European fascism, insularity, class-bound decadent aristocratic political leadership. I was immersed in the writings of Orwell, from The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalonia, 1984, various biographies.

When I earned my M. A. in political theory in 1974 I displayed a copy of my diploma over my shipping clerk bench at the George Whaley tool warehouse in Cleveland, Ohio in case there was a need for political theory clarification as my colleagues and I packed drill bits and industrial tooling.

The pen name George Orwell was inspired by the River Orwell in the English county of Suffolk. Photo: Wikipedia

Recently during the endless pandemic, I was reading Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks ( 2018). I was only on page 35 when Ricks introduced me to a side of Orwell that I missed during my readings in the 1970s.

Describing Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris ( 1933), Ricks notes, ‘a repellent thread runs through the book—a kind of quick and casual prejudice against the Jews he encounters.’ Ricks goes on to quote Orwell’s description of a coffee shop where ‘ in a corner by himself, a Jew, muzzle down in the plate…guiltily eating bacon.’ Ricks notes the paradox that while Orwell wrote extensively about antisemitism he also displayed what Ricks calls, ‘a tin ear regarding Jews.’

Photographs of Eric Blair (George Orwell) from his Metropolitan Police file. Date: c.1940. Photo: Wikipedia

So, my head spinning I began my research on this previously unknown aspect of Orwell, fired up the laptop I am writing on now, properly socially distanced and used the skills seeking objective well-sourced material that I learned in my graduate programme in Library Science at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio in 1975. I am curious if this material is new to readers in the UK, been covered earlier by better writers and thinkers, etc. Please do comment.

I begin with an anecdote from a sympathetic to Orwell source, the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. Muggeridge expressed his surprise at the number of Jews at Orwell’s funeral since Muggeridge stated, ‘Orwell was strongly antisemitic.’

Award-winning Journalist Anshel Pfeffer. Photo: PBS

An in-depth summary of Orwell as antisemite comes from Anshel Pfeffer writing in Ha’aretz March 8, 2012. Pfeffer seems to have closely read Orwell’s diaries and notebooks and notes that hearing a rumour in 1940 during the blitz Jews were predominant in underground tube shelters Orwell investigates and finds, ‘not all Jews, but I think a higher proportion of Jews than one would normally see in a crowd to this size’ Orwell goes on to state, ‘ Jews have a way of making themselves conspicuous.’

Orwell kept notebooks as well and while I can’t say I have seen them first hand in archives, commentators note they are often filled with characterizations, i.e. ‘Polish Jew’ ‘Jewess’ ‘ Charlie Chaplin- JEW’ ( incorrect in this instance) Is this journalist shorthand? Notes for articles?

In a diary of Orwell’s from the time he was writing Down and Out in Paris and London, he described ‘a little Liverpool Jew of 18, a thorough guttersnipe.’ In a 1945 essay, ‘Revenge is Sour’, Orwell described a tour of a liberated POW camp conducted by an American soldier, described as, ‘ a little Viennese Jew.’

George Orwell: A Personal Memoir Hardcover – 2 Sept. 1982, by T.R. Fyvel

According to the perspective of a Jewish Friend of Orwell, Tosco Fyvel, Orwell’s views are more reflective of anti-nationalist or anti-Zionist sentiments, rather than antisemitism (sort of Corbynism before Corbyn). Fyvel was involved in the Zionist movement in Palestine, assistant to Golda Meir, trade unionist, and succeeded Orwell as editor of the Tribune. He wrote a book, George Orwell: A Personal Memoir.

According to Fyvel, commenting on Orwell’s opposition to a Jewish state in Palestine, ‘ Zionists were white settlers like the British in India or Burma. And Arabs were like native Burmese. He was against Jewish nationalism.’

Orwell spoke on many BBC and other broadcasts, but no recordings are known to survive. Photo: Wikipedia

Orwell echoed that theme in a long 1945 essay for the Contemporary Jewish Record  where he stated, ‘the disease loosely called nationalism is now almost universal… antisemitism is only one manifestation of nationalism and not everyone will have the disease in that particular form—a Jew, for example, would not be antisemitic but then many Zionists Jews seem to be merely antisemites turned upside down.’

Just to add some nuance here. After reading Thieves In The Night, Arthur Koestler’s novel about a kibbutz and Arab-Jewish relations, Orwell writes to Koestler’s wife of his sympathy for Jews trying to get to Israel and suggesting that England invite 100,000 survivors to immigrate to England.

George Orwell in Hampstead On the corner of Pond Street and South End Road, opposite the Royal Free Hospital. The bookshop has long gone.

What are we to conclude here? Will Orwell become a future target of cancel culture? Was he a man of his times flawed, complex, visionary? Should the pandemic ever end I hope to drop by the Orwell archives in England and continue my research over a pint of  Newcastle Brown Ale.

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Martin is a retired career counsellor from Jewish Family Services in Beachwood, Ohio.  He is a musician and writes and performs music with his wife Sheila Ives.
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Martin Jaffe
Martin Jaffe
24 days ago

I love the way the editor Mr. Abrams illustrates my text I feel honored to share this work I do hope for comments, accolades, curses, I just hope I have contributed some thoughtful analysis in a world that often seems to be reduced to tweets, photos of dinner plates on facebook and general sharing of egotism ( I plead guilty as well with facebook music videos.

Nathan Abrams
Editor
Reply to  Martin Jaffe
24 days ago

Alas, I cannot take credit. The illustrations are done by Gus Condeixa so he deserves all of the praise.

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