Orwell and Anti-Semitism

[First published as the Afterword of Richard Keeble’s Orwell’s Moustache published by Abramis 22nd June 2021 as ‘Anti-Semitism: Moving Beyond Upbringing and Preconceptions’]

George Orwell realised that anti-Semitism was the humanitarian curse of his age, had corrupted his own personal outlook, consciousness and writings – and needed addressing as the ever-present political evil of his time.

His own writing on the subject reflects the abiding honesty with which he challenges his own past, culture and prejudices. Although he died so cruelly from tuberculosis in 1950 at the early age of 46, he lived long enough to witness what became known as the Holocaust and the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’ for world Jewry. This essay examines in detail the debate about whether he fully appreciated their significance.

Jews on selection ramp at Auschwitz, May 1944  CC BY-SA 3.0 de
 File: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-N0827-318, KZ Auschwitz, Ankunft ungarischer Juden.jpg
 Created: May 1944date QS:P571,+1944-05-00T00:00:00Z/10

The experience of concentration camp survival has resulted in some of the most haunting writing of the twentieth century. It challenges the very nature of faith, humanity and literature. Primo Levi’s observation: ‘Dawn came on us like a betrayer; it seemed as though the new sun rose as an ally of our enemies to assist in our destruction’ (Levi 1996: 16) highlights the way in which anti-Semitism threatened all notions of hope and redemption. The Holocaust represented an unprecedented challenge to writers and philosophers who experienced and witnessed it.

The Orwell Biographers and anti-Semitism
Bernard Crick

Bernard Crick highlights the way in which Orwell’s reading of Dr Ley’s statement that ‘inferior races, such as Poles and Jews’ do not need so much to eat as Germans (Crick 1992 [1980]: 143) reminds him of his witnessing racism while serving as an Indian Imperial Policeman in Burma (1922-1927). Here, he watched a police sergeant giving a coolie ‘a terrific kick on the bottom that sent him staggering across the deck. Several passengers, including women, murmured their approval’ (ibid). Crick criticises Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) for its ‘rather nasty, indeed positively anti-Semitic anecdotes about the swindling Jew who is himself swindled over the face powder that looks like cocaine’ (ibid: 201). There is also an account of Orwell’s attendance at an Oswald Mosley British Union of Fascists rally in Barnsley – reported in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – where ‘His speech was the usual clap-trap – Empire free trade, down with the Jew and the foreigner’ (ibid: 292). Crick references Orwell’s encounters with his future publisher Fred Warburg when they both serve in the same Home Guard unit in St John’s Wood, London. Orwell is the sergeant; Warburg the corporal and a Jew. Crick describes how Warburg was ‘questioned closely and rather sceptically by Orwell about Zionism and the beliefs of British Jews’ (ibid: 400).

He reports how Orwell was on the receiving end of racist abuse when ‘A dozen or more violently anti-Semitic letters followed an Observer review of 30 January 1944 of a book called The Chosen People; and his Tribune piece of 11 February about these letters touched off another barrage’ (ibid: 448).

Crick argues that Orwell’s public comments and experiences show him ‘fully purged of the mild and conventional, but none the less clear, anti-Semitism which appeared early in Down and Out in Paris and London and lingered in his War-Time Diaries’ (ibid).

His last reference on the subject is the inclusion of a letter from Orwell to Fred Warburg on 29 October 1948 when he says he has ‘just had [Jean-Paul] Sartre’s book on anti-Semitism, which you published, to review. I think Sartre is a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good boot …’ (ibid: 546).

MIchael Shelden

Orwell’s authorised biographer Michael Shelden does not address the Orwell and anti-Semitism subject at all apart from mentioning Mosley’s fascist meeting in Barnsley where ‘The blame for everything was put upon mysterious international gangs of Jews who are said to be financing among other things, the British Labour Party’ (Shelden 1992 [1991]: 251).

There is a brief reference to his views on Ezra Pound’s collaboration with the Italian fascist regime and his anti-Semitic broadcasts which Orwell describes as ‘evil’ when asked about Pound’s suitability for the Bollingen poetry prize (ibid: 365).

When Orwell witnesses ‘a young Jewish man from Vienna, who was temporarily serving in the American Army’ (ibid: 420) kicking a captured SS officer in Germany, Shelden only discusses the event in terms of being ‘fascinated by the shabby, wretched appearance of the officer’ (ibid: 421) and finding ‘he had little desire to see such men pay for their crimes’ (ibid) rather than the problematical representation of ‘the Jew’ in his later published Tribune article. ‘Revenge is sour’ is published on 9 November 1945 and recalls his visit to a prisoner-of-war camp in south Germany earlier in the year. He describes his guide as ‘a little Viennese Jew’ who has been enlisted in the US army to help with interrogations. Orwell refers to him as ‘the little Jew’ and ‘the Jew’ in various ways five times in the article. On the one hand, Orwell says he was ‘an alert, fair-haired rather good-looking youth of about twenty-five and politically so much more knowledgeable than the average American officer that it was a pleasure to be with him’ (Anderson 2006: 256). He also speculates that the ill-treatment of the SS captives is because ‘he was merely – like a man in a brothel, or boy smoking his first cigar, or a tourist traipsing round a picture gallery – telling himself that he was enjoying it…’ (ibid: 257).

D. J. Taylor

The award-winning biographer devotes an entire four-page chapter on the subject of ‘Orwell and the Jews’ (2003: 196-199).

Later on he reports how Orwell puts forward a rather prejudiced view of Zionism at a Tribune editorial meeting after the journal’s editor, Aneurin Bevan, ‘a notable friend of Israel, launched into a pro- Zionist speech.

Orwell remarked that Zionists were merely “a bunch of Wardour Street Jews who had a controlling interest over the British press”. Nothing anybody said could shake him from this view’ (ibid: 326).

Taylor is critical of Orwell’s attitudes to Jews and their representation in his fiction and essay writing. He considers the findings of Orwell’s Jewish friend, Tosco Fyvel, who sees three categories of Orwell’s thinking regarding Jews: shock at the nature and extent of anti-Jewish feeling; a belief that anti-Semitism was irrational and merely finding a scapegoat for economic grievance and, lastly, that the expressions of popular prejudice had to have a real causal factor. In other words, Jews bore some responsibility for their own persecution (ibid: 196).

Taylor does not spare the evidence of Orwell’s prejudice against Jews and later Zionism. He details the complaint that Orwell’s first publisher Victor Gollancz has from a reader about Down and Out in Paris and London. Mr S. M. Lipsey is appalled that a book ‘containing insulting and odious remarks about Jews should be published by a firm bearing the name Gollancz’ (ibid: 196). Taylor highlights how Malcolm Muggeridge is intrigued by the large number of Jews present at Orwell’s funeral when the man in the coffin has been ‘at heart strongly anti-Semitic’ (ibid).

Taylor also refers to Orwell’s war-time diary when he admits visiting the London Underground in the winter of 1940 after reports of so many Jews occupying the platforms and stations. Orwell detects ‘a higher proportion of Jews than one would normally see in a crowd of this size’ (ibid), but he thinks it wrong that they should make themselves so conspicuous. Taylor rightly suggests that the description of ‘a fearful Jewish woman, a regular comic-paper cartoon of a Jewess’, who ‘fought her way off the train at Oxford Circus, landing blows on anyone who stood in the way’ (ibid: 198) is offensive.

It is not enough that Orwell would later surmise that Jewish people from Whitechapel and the East End were desperately travelling to West End stations for refuge because the bombing in the docklands area had been so intense and the protection of shelters inadequate. That is evidence of penitence, regret and the realisation that he had been culturally and emotionally conditioned by an anti- Semitism embedded and prevalent in the society he had been brought up and educated in. The notion of ‘institutional racism’ had not been conceptualised when he writes in an essay for Contemporary Jewish Record, in 1945:

And again, the common charge that Jews behave in an exceptionally cowardly way during air raids was given a certain amount of colour by the big raids of 1940. As it happened, the Jewish quarter of Whitechapel was one of the first areas to be heavily blitzed, with the natural result that swarms of Jewish refugees distributed themselves all over London (Orwell 1970 3 [1945]: 381).

Eyebrows can be justifiably raised at the continuing use of denigrating vocabulary such as ‘swarms of Jewish refugees’. But in this essay, Orwell is beginning to question himself as much as the wider and deeper psychological roots of racism against Jews. For Orwell says ‘there is widespread awareness of the prevalence of anti-Semitic feeling and unwillingness to admit sharing it’ (ibid: 381), and that ‘People will go to remarkable lengths to demonstrate that they are not anti-Semitic (ibid: 382, italics in the original). He recognises that ‘anti-Semitism is an irrational thing’ (ibid: 380) and that ‘people can remain anti-Semitic, or at least anti-Jewish, while being fully aware that their outlook is indefensible’ (ibid). Orwell shifts the analysis from third person to second person: ‘If you dislike somebody, you dislike him and there is an end of it: your feelings are not made any better by a recital of his virtues’ (ibid).

Then later in the essay he shifts to the first person when he recalls saying to a friend in Burma, ‘partly in joke’ (ibid: 384), that he had been surprised a young Jewish boy had admitted openly to being ‘a Joo, sir!’ (ibid). He goes on to describe how he believes anti-Semitism is a neurosis ‘and will not yield to argument’ (ibid: 387) and concludes by saying that everyone, and he includes himself, needs to ask the question: ‘Why does anti-Semitism appeal to me?’ (ibid: 388, italics in the original; and see below).

Jeffrey Meyers

Jeffrey Meyers, in Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation, does not engage with the issue of Orwell and anti-Semitism in any part of the substantial text but does say how Orwell’s views about Jewish people changes over time in a note for the chapter covering the London Blitz.

Meyers references the problematical descriptions in Down and Out in Paris and London such as the Jewish owner of the second-hand clothes shop in Paris who tries to swindle his customers and how Orwell thinks ‘it would have been a pleasure to flatten the Jew’s nose’ (Meyers 2000: 354).

Meyers argues Orwell’s ‘attitude changed and hostility to Jews disappeared from his work’ (ibid) once he begins to meet Jewish friends such as Jon Kimche, Rosalind Obermeyer, Michael Sayers, Benjamin Lewinski, Harry Milton, Tosco Fyvel, Arthur Koestler, Victor Gollancz, Fredric Warburg, A. J Ayer, Julian Symons and Michael Meyer.

Gordon Bowker

Bowker deals with the issue in the final chapter of his Orwell biography, titled ‘Life after death’, which considers the author’s reputation and legacy.

Bowker appears keen to defend Orwell stating: ‘Like certain other of his contemporaries, notably Eliot, Orwell has been accused of anti-Semitism, despite his often powerful attacks on it’ (Bowker 2003: 430).

He argues that Orwell is one of the first English journalists to learn about the Holocaust and speak out against it because he sees it as ‘an evil expression of nationalism, which he deplored’ (ibid).

Bowker emphasises that Orwell is against a separate Jewish state in Palestine, ‘believing that the Arab case had simply not been heard, and he objected to British soldiers being murdered by Zionist terrorists.

If that constituted anti-Semitism then he was guilty’ (ibid). Bowker also presents Orwell’s defence of T. S. Eliot in a letter to Julian Symons in 1948 after an attack on him by Tosco Fyvel:

[In the early twenties], Eliot’s anti-Semitic remarks were about on a par with the automatic sneer one casts at Anglo-Indian colonels in boarding houses. On the other hand, if they had been written after the persecutions began they would have meant something quite different. … Some people go round smelling after anti-Semitism all the time. I have no doubt Fyvel thinks I am anti-Semitic. More rubbish is written about this subject than any other I can think of (CWGO XIX: 461).

Bowker’s comments connect the issue with the current sensitivity over separating criticisms of Israeli state policy towards Palestinians, the right of Israel to exist as an independent state, Jewish identity and the adoption of official and agreed definitions of anti-Semitism. These are all still controversial today. Significantly, Orwell sends a sympathetic letter to the novelist Roy Fuller over an attack on his depiction of a Jewish character in one of his novels:

I am sorry that you should have had this annoyance. I must add, however, that by my own experience it is almost impossible to mention Jews in print, either favourably or unfavourably, without getting into trouble (Orwell 1970 3 [1944a]: 128).

Orwell can be rightly criticised for failing to appreciate how the expression ‘go round smelling after anti-Semitism all the time’ used in his letter to Symons about T. S. Eliot must have been as offensive in 1945 as it is now.

Bowker concedes in these few paragraphs on the subject of Orwell and the Jews that his close and admiring Jewish friend Arthur Koestler did say in a letter written in 1977 to David Walton, then researching for his PhD on The Expression of George Orwell’s Racial and Social Attitudes (1981), that ‘the emotional bias was unmistakably present’ (op cit: 430).

Representing Jews in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Orwell’s evolution on anti-Semitism

In 1975, Professor Melvyn New publishes an essay, ‘Orwell and anti-Semitism: Toward 1984’ in the journal Modern Fiction Studies. The research and writing is ground-breaking because he argues that coming to terms with the implications of the Holocaust between 1945 and 1949 led Orwell to represent the victimisation of Jews in three ways in his last novel Nineteen Eighty Four. New believes Orwell ‘came to understand intellectually and, in 1984, artistically the full meaning to the future of what has come to be known as the Holocaust’ (New 1975: 81-82). New and other academics are able to survey all aspects of Orwell’s essay writings and correspondence about anti-Semitism largely because the editors of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, track, annotate and index the subject in the four volumes, published by Secker & Warburg in 1968 and Penguin in 1970. Peter Davison indexes the issue under ‘Jews’, ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘Zionism’ for the 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell, published by Secker & Warburg in 1998.

New believes Orwell and Hannah Arendt, both writing for Partisan Review in 1948, share similar conclusions about the Holocaust: ‘Both perceived that a new and frightening social organization had been conceived and practiced by the Nazis – and that a new kind of victim had been created as well’ (ibid: 94). Whereas Arendt, as a philosopher and scientist, analyses the historical and psychological reality of Germany up until the defeat of the Nazi regime, New says Orwell projects this same society into the future warning ‘that it could happen again’ (ibid).

National Socialist (Nazi) press. Men standing in front of a Der Stürmer advertising box (August 1935, No. 35) stand. The display has anti-Semitic slogans such as “Mit dem Stürmer gegen Juda” (“with the strikers against Judah”) and “Die Juden sind unser Unglück” (“The Jews are our sorrow/misfortune/disaster”) CC BY-SA 3.0 de  File: Bundesarchiv Bild 133-075, Worms, Antisemitische Presse, “Stürmerkasten”.jpg Created: August 1935 QS:P571,+1935-08-00T00:00:00Z/10

New identifies ‘three Jews in 1984, though none, significantly, is positively identified. Together they suggest that in the world of 1984, all men are Jews because all men are potential victims’ (ibid: 101): the first Jew is described in Winston’s first journal entry when he describes the war film he has viewed the previous night featuring a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean:

… there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. Then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood (CWGO IX: 10).

New says ‘the making of victims, of Jews’ is the very essence of war in Oceania and, like the inmates of concentration camps, they ‘die solely to indicate to those still surviving that existence – selfhood – is not an individual choice, but a decision of the state’ (New 1975: 101).

Second printing of the first edition of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949. Permission UCL Special Collections and George Orwell Estate.

According to Professor New, the second representation of the persecuted Jew in Nineteen Eighty Four is Emmanuel Goldstein who is portrayed as the ‘Enemy of the People’, an object of Two-Minute Hate sessions and the putative author of The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, the manifesto of the rebel Brotherhood. New says Orwell wants us to think of Goldstein as Jewish because of the description of his long Jewish face and his role as a scapegoat. New also suspects that the name ‘Goldstein’ may have been plucked from Orwell’s memory of the illustration of anti-Semitic poem he had included in his ‘As I Please’ column from 1944 which begins with the refrain: ‘The first American soldier to kill a Jap was Mike Murphy’ and ends with ‘The first American son-of-a-bitch to get four new tyres from the Ration Board was Abie Goldstein’ (Orwell 1970 3 [1944b]: 331).

The third Jew in the novel is identified by New as Winston Smith who is ‘condemned to be a victim by the simple act of his existence; condemned, that is, to be a Jew in a totalitarian state’ (New 1975: 103). He argues that the novel presents a society which is ‘no more and no less than a concentration camp, a society specifically organised to destroy its citizens’ (ibid: 105). New explains that Winston Smith can be seen as the third Jew in Nineteen Eighty-Four – particularly as he is portrayed towards the end of his tortures. Surely this description has been ignited in the writer’s imagination by the media photographs of the survivors of Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald:

A bowed, grey-coloured, skeleton-like thing was coming towards him. Its actual appearance was frightening, and not merely the fact he knew it to be himself. He moved closer to the glass. The creature’s face seemed to be protruded, because of its bent carriage. A forlorn, jailbird’s face with a nobby forehead running back into a bald scalp, a crooked nose and battered-looking cheekbones above which the eyes were fierce and watchful. The cheeks were seamed, the mouth had a drawn-in look. … But the truly frightening thing was the emaciation of his body. The barrel of the ribs was as narrow as that of a skeleton: the legs had shrunk so that the knees were thicker than the thighs. The curvature of the spine was astonishing. The thin shoulders were hunched forward so as to make a cavity of the chest, the scraggy neck seemed to be bending under the weight of the skull (CWGO IX: 284).

Forty five years after Melvyn New’s article, writer and filmmaker Christopher Angel highlights in the Orwell Society’s Journal what he sees as the ‘significant evolution’ in Orwell’s expression and experience of anti-Semitism. He has ‘confronted and moved beyond his upbringing and preconceptions’ (Angel 2020: 28) and in his changing attitude towards the Jewish faith throughout his life is prepared to ‘admit fault and move beyond ingrained social lessons, especially publicly to those he may have hurt or insulted’ (ibid: 32). Angel agrees with New that by the time Orwell writes Nineteen Eighty-Four ‘he depicts Jews as empathetic human beings in a way that underpins the horror and darkness of his novel and is an implicit criticism of anti-Semitism itself ’ (ibid).

Orwell on nationalism and anti-Semitism

Orwell writes his long essay on anti-Semitism in the same year as ‘Notes on nationalism’ and in 2018 Penguin publishes them together with ‘The sporting spirit’ which examines the use of sport for propagandist and nationalistic ends in its special £1 Penguin Modern paperback series. In ‘Notes on nationalism’, Orwell groups anti-Semitism along with Anglophobia and Trotskyism as one of the ‘negative nationalisms’ (Orwell 1970 3 [1945]: 426). This essay is written in May and published in October 1945. His essay on anti-Semitism in Britain is written in February and published in April 1945.

It could be argued that the insight and contriteness shown about his own problematic social conditioning and negative attitudes towards Jews in the earlier essay is missing in the later one when he categorises Zionism as one of his ‘positive nationalisms’ and ‘the American variant of it seems to be more violent and malignant than the British’ (ibid: 423). He is unable to separate Jewish identity, the struggle against anti-Semitism and the aspiration for a Jewish homeland in Zionism. This explains his contradictory argument in the earlier essay:

It seems to me a safe assumption that the disease loosely called nationalism is now almost universal. Anti-Semitism is only one manifestation of nationalism, and not everyone will have the disease in that particular form. A Jew, for example, would not be anti-Semitic: but then many Zionist Jews seem to me to be merely anti-Semites turned upside-down, just as many Indians and Negroes display the normal colour prejudices in an inverted form (ibid: 387).

Is this not an extension of the earlier anti-Semitism he seemed so sincere and intent on decrying?

Tosco Fyvel’s interview with Stephen Wadhams and included in Remembering Orwell helps answer the question.

Fyvel was an ardent Zionist and, indeed, the son of one of the first activists for Zionism.

Fyvel believes Orwell never lived long enough to fully assimilate the facts and implications of the Holocaust and the rise of the state of Israel:

I remember Warburg once telling me that he had a young German Jewish refugee staying with him who was going to agricultural college, and Orwell said: ‘Oh, Jews can never go into agriculture. That’s a bad joke, isn’t it?’ And after the war he thought that the Jewish refugees could just stay on among the ruins as though nothing had happened. I thought this was fearfully insensitive. I mean he simply didn’t know Central Europe or Eastern Europe. He just couldn’t understand that at all costs the Jewish survivors in Europe, the wretched survivors, whom the British navy was trying to keep from going to Palestine, should somehow be salvaged. And to him the Zionists were white settlers like the British in India or Burma, and the Arabs were like the native Burmese, which was a crude oversimplification although there was a sliver of truth in it. He was against Jewish nationalism – against all nationalism (Wadhams 1984: 122).

Fyvel had, in fact, analysed his relationship with Orwell and the subject of Jews and anti-Semitism in an article published in 1951 for the US magazine Commentary. In ‘Wingate, Orwell and the Jewish question’, Fyvel compares his friendships with General Orde Wingate and Orwell, two men born in the same year and in colonial India, the former being an avowed Zionist and the latter the exact opposite.

He writes only one year after his death that Orwell was a divided personality who still shared some of the outlook of the English upper-middle class and this included anti-Semitism: ‘On the other hand, as a writer, an intellectual, Orwell naturally rejected those prejudices out of hand – and yet this conflict in him was never quite solved’ (Fyvel 1951). Fyvel is also a compelling witness to how Orwell’s profound concerns about Jewish persecution informed the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

I asked him on one occasion why, in his Nineteen Eighty-Four, he had given the name ‘Alexander [sic] Goldstein’ to the one conceivable rebel left against Big Brother and the Party. Orwell explained that partly his ‘Goldstein’ was, of course, an obvious skit on Trotsky. But he said he also felt that the likely man to stage a hopeless last revolt against a possible totalitarian regime would be some Jewish intellectual (ibid).

Fyvel recalls they are never able to resolve their disagreement over the Zionist aspiration for refuge and homeland in Palestine:

And I tried to explain to Orwell: just as he with his strong English tradition felt deeply attached to some odd aspects of English life, so I had many Zionist family connections, I had my own Jewish tradition; all that inevitably shaped my sentiments about Palestine. ‘Yes, but …’ said Orwell, looking at me doubtfully (ibid).

David Walton undertakes the most extensive, original and detailed study of Orwell’s racial and social attitudes in his 450-page PhD thesis for Brunel University in 1981, and this forms the basis for his 1982 academic journal paper

‘George Orwell and anti-Semitism’. Walton agrees with Melvyn New that Orwell’s understanding of the Jewish scapegoat role in Nineteen Eight-Four owes much to the Nazi ‘Final Solution’ for eradicating European Jewry. But Walton goes further in arguing that this was ‘the Oceanic version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’. Walton believes ‘Orwell’s totalitarian anti-Utopia is in the same tradition as the society of The Protocols. It is highly probable that Orwell read them; he certainly referred to them’ (Walton 1981: 341-342).

German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (standing at lectern) delivering a speech at the Reichstag on the ‘Jewish question,’ threatening the annihilation of European Jewry should another war break out, 30 January 1939.  Public Domain File: Adolf Hitler’s speech in the Reichstag, 30 January 1939.jpg

Walton suggests that the prejudice Orwell had been imbued with is ‘unable to provide him with the deeper insights which he felt ought and could be attained’ (ibid). And he concludes:

As so often with Orwell, his decency, support for the underdog and appetite for truth, led him along a painful path. Even today, after scores of researchers have produced studies of anti-Semitism, the picture that emerges is enormously complicated – as complicated as the mind of the man itself. The very scope of anti-Semitism should warn us that it fulfils different things for different people (ibid: 342-343).

In 1984, John Rodden reflects on Orwell and Jewish questions in the context also of Catholicism and other religions. He is intrigued with the paradox of Jewish intellectuals claiming Orwell as their own despite his own fierce opposition to organised religions, indications of mild anti-Semitism in Down and Out and firm opposition to Zionism. During the 1940s, Orwell was seen as a supporter of Jewish causes and in his essays he could justifiably consider himself a defender and friend of the Jews particularly as so many of his personal friends were Jewish. Rodden argues: ‘Sometimes Orwell confused questions of Judaism and anti-Semitism, lumping religious belief, culture, ethnicity and politics together’ (Rodden 1984: 45). He continues:

What would he say about Zionism and the Palestine Liberation Organisation? Of course, these questions are in a sense absurd – for Orwell has been dead thirty-four years and it is impossible to extrapolate from a man’s writings what he would say about events after his death and yet most Orwell critics admit straight off, while the questions are absurd, they still feel drawn to ask them (ibid: 54, italics in the original).

In 1989, Rodden returns to the theme of Orwell, Zionism and anti-Semitism in his book George Orwell: The Politics of Literary Reputation with a sophisticated and revealing analysis of the friendship between Fyvel and Orwell. The former is seen as a home as well as work friend at Tribune. Fyvel plays a key role in the canonisation of Orwell as a prophet and Rodden considers how his representation of Orwell’s emotional and political standpoint on anti-Semitism and Zionism is more of a process of asking ‘through Orwell, those questions of identity begun in their conversations. … To what degree is an assimilated Jewish intellectual “still different, still a Jew?” … From his side too, emotionally if not intellectually, the “conflict” over Zionism was never quite resolved’ (Rodden 1989: 319).

Orwell anti-Semitism and pesent questions

John Newsinger joins the debate through his chapter ‘Orwell, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust’ in the Cambridge Companion to George Orwell published in 2007 and his monograph Hope Lies in the Proles: George Orwell and the Left, published by Pluto Press in 2018. Newsinger homes in on the evidential ‘lack’ and omissions in Orwell’s published and private writing. Why is there no mention anywhere of what Fyvel describes as ‘Auschwitz, that hell on earth’ (Newsinger 2018: 66)? Newsinger argues that Orwell considers anti-Semitism merely a ‘casual prejudice’ (ibid: 67) and he never fully comes to terms with its historic importance: ‘He never successfully engaged with the political anti-Semitism that advocated discrimination, persecution, pogroms, expulsion and even mass murder’ (ibid). While Orwell acknowledges the mass murder of Europe’s Jewish population, Newsinger complains ‘it never became a central concern’ (ibid: 69) and this despite there being ample political campaigning, including by his own publisher Victor Gollancz in 1942, to rescue Jewish refugees from mass murder.

Newsinger observes: ‘It still seems incredible that such a voracious devourer of pamphlet literature as Orwell never came across one of the most powerful and best-selling pamphlets published in Britain during the war’ (ibid: 68). Orwell is not alone in failing to understand the enormous crime of the Holocaust. But he cannot escape the charge that ‘more specific, indeed peculiar to him, though was his distaste at the punishment of collaborators and the like’ (ibid: 69). As with other critics and biographers, Newsinger cites Orwell’s Tribune column of 9 November 1945, ‘Revenge is sour’, and comments: ‘One can only sympathise with Tosco Fyvel’s outraged response to Orwell’s crass insensitivity’ (ibid: 70).

Newsinger is very aware of the divided and paradoxical Orwell on the anti- Semitism issue. In the 1940s, he expresses uncompromising hostility to anti- Semitism, yet he is unable to comprehend fully the enormity of the Final Solution. This perhaps explains why in one of his last articles for the American journal, Partisan Review, in May 1949, Orwell does not oppose Ezra Pound receiving a poetry prize. This after Pound has broadcast for Mussolini’s fascist regime and actually approved the massacre of Eastern European Jews – combining it with a warning to American Jews that their turn was coming. Orwell explains that the attempt to rehabilitate the fascist poet should be tolerated because the murder of the Jews in the gas vans was no longer going on (CWGO XX: 100-102).

Newsinger argues that Orwell fails to match his considerable understanding of the evil of Stalin’s crimes with those of Hitler’s regime. He profoundly disagrees with Melvyn New’s theory that Nineteen Eighty-Four is an attempt to explain what happened to the Jews under Hitler because there is ‘no evidence to show that this was in any way central to his thinking’ (Newsinger 2007: 123). However, Orwell’s humanitarian conscience is dominated by his understanding, fear and personal experience in Spain of Stalinism:

This was absolutely central to his thinking. Stalinism was Orwell’s most important concern from 1936 onwards and there is a striking contrast between the effort that he devoted to understanding the nature of Stalin’s tyranny compared with the effort he devoted to Nazism. … Disappointing though it might be, the evidence is that Orwell, who was so clear-sighted on so many other issues of the time, never succeeded in comprehending the Holocaust (ibid: 124).

Kristin Bluemel, in ‘St George and the Holocaust’, is curious to understand why scholars of the Final Solution so frequently invoke George Orwell when they struggle to understand ‘the most horrible of modern transformations, grossest of betrayals, the most terrifying meltings of solids into air: the destruction of bodies, identities, homes and communities of six million European Jews’ (Bluemel 2003: 119-120). Yet Orwell does not, in fact, write about the Holocaust and is ‘ambivalent about the Jews’ (ibid: 121).

Bluemel argues that Orwell was unable to write in any detail about the significance of the Holocaust because he was confused by ‘his crude analogies between Palestine and India, Arabs and coolies, Jews and the kinds of Anglo-Indian rulers and businessmen that made up his own family’ (op cit: 122). On matters of racism, nationalism, empire, Stalinism, Nazism and anti-Semitism, Orwell ties himself into ‘logical knots. Analysis of his inconsistencies says as much about his critics’ fantasies of Orwell as the man of plain, clear writing as it does about the history or forms of Orwell’s ideas themselves’ (ibid: 126). Thus, Orwell’s most explicit condemnation of English indifference and blindness to the Nazis’ Final Solution does not appear in ‘Anti-semitism in Britain’ but rather in ‘Notes on nationalism’ where it is lost among paragraphs that testify to Orwell’s own version of ‘negative nationalism’ – his obsession with ‘the evil empire of the USSR’ (ibid: 128).

Bluemel contends that close examination of Orwellian texts suggests his lingering anti-Semitism stems from his Edwardian upbringing, which explains his mistaken conviction that all nationalisms, including those of Indians and Jews, are totalitarian in nature:

Orwell’s response to the Holocaust should persuade critics to take him down from the sacred pedestal of sainthood so his halo can melt into air with the rest of modernity’s holy icons. This is what Orwell himself would have wanted (ibid: 139).

In contrast to Bluemel, the academic Andrea Freud Loewenstein argues that Orwell projects his ‘fear and loathing of the female’ on to Jewish, and especially male Jewish characters (Loewenstein 1993: 146).

Orwell on Nazi ideology and the Palestine question

As a stark contrast to the critical approaches of Newsinger and Bluemel, Danae Karydaki believes Orwell’s interest in and understanding of Nazism have been neglected by intellectual historians of his period and Orwell scholars and biographers. Karydaki considers Bertrand Russell’s tribute to Orwell in 1950 when he says he is grateful to men who, ‘like Orwell decorate Satan with the horns and hooves without which he remains an abstraction’ (Karydaki 2016: 53) and that Orwell is one of those men who has gone through ‘either personally or through imaginative sympathy experiences more or less resembling imprisonment in Buchenwald (ibid).

Orwell’s essays and journalism argue ‘for introspection, for a comparative approach to Nazi Germany, for fascism as a product of modernity and for a decisive role of emotions in politics’ (ibid: 73). Karydaki acknowledges that Orwell’s approach is fragmentary, unsophisticated and has numerous weaknesses but, all the same, he detects ‘in the self and in Britain some of the psychosocial preconditions that can lead to discrimination and genocide’ and to this extent he is ‘a remarkably insightful observer of Nazism’ (ibid).

Giora Goodman, in ‘George Orwell and the Palestine question’, suggests that Orwell’s views on anti-Semitism and Zionism resound today because they are ‘expressed at a time when the Palestine conflict peaked during the last decade of the British Mandate’ (Goodman 2015: 321) and because his largely anti-Zionist stance differs from ‘the prevailing, passionate beliefs of most left-wing intellectuals of his time, including some of his closest friends and political allies’ (ibid).

Buchenwald KZ survivors arrive in Haifa to be arrested by the British. To the Promised Land by Uri Dan (Doubleday, 1987) ISBN 0385245971 p.58 Public Domain File:19450715 Buchenwald survivors arrive in Haifa.jpg Created: Taken on 15 July 1945

Goodman agrees with Tosco Fyvel that a significant part of Orwell’s dislike for Zionism is the product of his strong anti-colonial emotions: ‘… to Orwell the Palestine Arabs were Asians and so victims, the Jews were white, technically advanced and so imperialists and oppressors’ (ibid: 327). Goodman is unable to explain fully why Orwell writes so little about the Palestine question and is not particularly active on the issue. British soldiers and civilians were being murdered by Zionist terrorists in Palestine at the time and he lives through the war of independence, recognition of Israel by the United Nations and the first Arab- Israeli war of 1948.

Goodman concludes that Orwell’s reservations over Zionism are largely based on his socialist rejection of ‘narrow nationalist solutions, for his identification of Zionism with European colonialism, and to a certain extent from his own patriotism’ (ibid: 329) They reflect his independence of thought and resonate as a ‘sharp awareness of facts and problems which many intellectuals on the British Left overlooked at the time, but are very much aware of today’ (ibid).

Michael G. Brennan, in his 2017 George Orwell and Religion, argues that by the end of the Second World War Orwell is ‘recognized as a stern voice against the dangers and barbarism of anti-Semitism and his careful analyses of the reasons for such racial hostilities and genocidal tendencies in supposedly civilised societies remain of importance today’ (Brennan 2017: 157). Brennan is also strongly critical of the ‘tone of habitual anti-Semitism’ (ibid 35) that seeps into Down and Out in Paris and London and says it ‘remains a problematic and distasteful text for modern readers’ (ibid: 36). But he suggests that personal experience brought about a growing realisation of the dangers of anti-Semitism. For instance, his 1939 essay ‘Marrakech’ explains ‘how Moroccan Jewish quarters – prefiguring the Warsaw and other European Jewish ghettoes of the early 1940s – had hardly moved on from the overcrowded, unhygienic living conditions of medieval ghettoes’ (ibid: 70). Moreover, ‘most ignominious and genocidal period of religious and racial persecution also provides a key element of the totalitarian repression in the first half of Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (ibid: 147).


Writing the afterword for Richard Lance Keeble’s insightful and inspirational book has been both a privilege and sobering reminder of how George Orwell’s writing continually invites honesty, introspection and the questioning of power and injustice. There does not appear to be any subject, idea, or aspect of the human condition during Orwell’s lifetime that does not escape his curiosity and attention. On the subject of anti-Semitism, Orwell asks the key questions in the article he writes for Contemporary Jewish Record in February 1945 – moving beyond the political to the strikingly personal. The Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps have just been liberated:

… 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 rationalizations, and it may be possible to find out what lies beneath them. Anti-Semitism should be investigated … one might get some clues that would lead to its psychological roots (Orwell 1970 3 [1945]: 388).

It is ironic that somebody who requests in his will that no biography of him should be written has had his attitudes and prejudices, whether publicly or privately expressed, so ruthlessly and relentlessly scrutinised. Yet we can surmise that he would appreciate the irony of the iconoclast being so resolutely attacked, challenged and criticised for his own cherished beliefs and viewpoints. And certainly on the issue of anti-Semitism, this essay argues that Orwell makes a major contribution.


Anderson, Paul (ed.) (2006) Orwell in Tribune: ‘As I Please’ and Other Writings 1943-7, London: Politico’s

Angel, Christopher (2020) An evolution, Orwell Society Journal, No. 16 pp 28-32
Bluemel, Kristin (2003) St George and the Holocaust, LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory, No. 14, Vol. 2 pp 119-147

Bowker, Gordon (2003) George Orwell, London: Little, Brown

Brennan, Michael G. (2017) George Orwell and Religion, London: Bloomsbury Academic

Crick, Bernard (1992 [1980]) George Orwell: A Life, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, second edition

CWGO (1998) The Complete Works of George Orwell, XX Vols, Davison, Peter (ed.) London: Secker & Warburg

Fyvel, Tosco (1951) Wingate, Orwell, and the Jewish question: A memoir, Commentary, February Fyvel, Tosco (1982) George Orwell: A Personal Memoir, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Goodman, Giora (2015) George Orwell and the Palestine question, The European Legacy, No. 20, Vol. 4 pp 321-333

Karydaki, Danae (2016) National Socialism and the English genius: Revisiting George Orwell’s political views on Nazi ideology, Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust, Vol. 30, No. 1 pp 53-73

Levi, Primo (1996) Survival in Auschwitz, New York: Simon and Schuster

Lowenstein, Andrea Feud (1993) The protection of masculinity: Jews as projective pawns in the texts of William Gerhardi and George Orwell, Cheyette, Bryan (ed.) Constructions of ‘the Jew’ in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations, 1875-1945, New York: Cambridge University Press

Meyers, Jeffrey (2000) Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation, New York: W. W. Norton & Company

New, Melvyn (1975) Orwell and antisemitism: Toward 1984, Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1 pp 81-105

Newsinger, John (2007) Orwell, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, Rodden, John (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to George Orwell, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press pp 112-125

Newsinger, John (2018) Hope Lies in the Proles: George Orwell and the Left, London: Pluto Press

Orwell, George (1970 3 [1944a]) Letter to Roy Fuller, Orwell, Sonia and Angus, Ian (eds) The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Vol. 3: As I Please, Harmondsworth: Middlesex: Penguin

Orwell, George (1970 3 [1944b]) As I Please, Orwell, Sonia and Angus, Ian (eds) The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Vol. 3: As I Please, Harmondsworth: Middlesex: Penguin pp 329-333

Orwell, George (1970 3 [1945]) Anti-Semitism in Britain, Orwell, Sonia and Angus, Ian (eds) The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Vol. 3: As I Please, Harmondsworth: Middlesex: Penguin pp 378-388; first published in Contemporary Jewish Record, April

Palmer, Andrew (1998) Orwell and anti-Semitism, Jewish Quarterly, Vol. 45. No.4 pp 41-45 Rodden, John (1984) Orwell on religion: The Catholic and Jewish questions, College Literature, Vol. 11, No. 1 pp 44-58

Shelden, Michael (1992 [1991]) Orwell: The Authorised Biography, London: Minerva

Taylor, D. J. (2003) Orwell: The Life, London: Chatto & Windus
Wadhams, Stephen (1984) Remembering Orwell, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin

Walton, John (1981) The Expression of George Orwell’s Racial and Social Attitudes, PhD Thesis, Brunel University. Available online at https://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/5779

Walton, John (1982) George Orwell and anti-Semitism, Patterns of Prejudice, No 16, Vol. 1 pp 19-34

Some useful and relevant websites and online articles

2013 saw the publication of George Orwell On Jews and Antisemitism introduced, edited and annotated by Paul Seeliger and published by ‎ Comino Verlag January 9th 2023. Available at Amazon and other online bookselling sites. This is a chronological compilation of Orwell’s fictional and nonfictional writings about Jews and where referencing them with an accompanying analysis and commentary.

Ian Bloom for the Jewish Chronicle: ‘The ever-present antisemitism of George Orwell’, 22nd June 2023. See: https://www.thejc.com/lets-talk/all/the-ever-present-antisemitism-of-george-orwell-5122MDndMJNOyUr2sd9eon

Wiener Holocaust Library event June 13th 2023- ‘Orwell Festival 2023: Orwell & Antisemitism.’ Recorded and available on YouTube.

In the words of one contemporary reader, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London contains a number of ‘insulting and odious remarks’ about Jewish people. Orwell would go on to examine his own ‘antisemitism’ and British attitudes more generally, in an article for the Contemporary Jewish Record in 1945, while a number of his wartime columns turn, directly or indirectly, to the question.
As part of this year’s Orwell Festival, join George Orwell’s official biographer D. J. Taylor (Orwell: The New Life), historian Dan Stone (The Holocaust: An Unfinished History) and chair Jean Seaton (Director, The Orwell Foundation) for this special Orwell Festival event at The Wiener Holocaust Library as they consider attitudes to Jews, Jewishness and antisemitism in George Orwell’s writing and journalism.

Mitchell Bard writes for the Jewish News Syndicate August 9th 2023 ‘Orwell’s view on antisemitism was not Orwellian. For him, Zionism was another movement to gain power and dominate others.’ See: https://www.jns.org/column/george-orwell/23/8/9/308742/

D J Taylor for the Orwell Foundation: ‘Orwell and the Jews- on the writer’s attitudes to Jews and Jewishness.’ See: https://orwellfoundation.substack.com/p/orwell-and-the-jews?utm_source=profile&utm_medium=reader2

Raymond S Solomon for the Jerusalem Post October 18th 2019 ‘Orwell’s evolving views on Jews. 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.’ See: https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/antisemitism/orwells-evolving-views-on-jews-605033


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