How One of Charles Dickens’s Jewish Readers Set Him Straight about Anti-Semitism

Oct. 19 2021

The acclaimed Irish writer Sally Rooney, whose 2018 novel Normal People was adapted as a television series by the BBC, recently rejected an Israeli publisher’s offer to bring out a Hebrew edition of her most latest book, citing her antipathy to the Jewish state. (She has not expressed any objections to her book being published in China, or any other country.) Erika Dreifus sees a lesson to be learned from a previous case of literary anti-Semitism, involving no less a figure than Charles Dickens. A recent children’s book by Nancy Churnin recounts this episode:

Eliza Davis (1817-1903) refused to be daunted when writing to the famous author, whose portrayal of “the Jew Fagin” in Oliver Twist landed “like a hammer on [her] heart,” as Churnin describes it. . . . Quoting the correspondence, Churnin conveys Davis’s message: Fagin “encouraged ‘a vile prejudice’” against her people. . . . In response, Dickens declared that Fagin was based on real-life Jewish criminals. . . .  Davis tried again; evidently, Dickens didn’t write back.

But the Jewish character in his next novel—the estimable Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend—was no Fagin.

While Fagin is a gangster who seduces children into a life of crime, Riah is a moneylender made into a scapegoat by his villainous Gentile boss—and in the book’s denouement proves his kindness and generosity.

After that novel appeared, Davis thanked Dickens for “a great compliment paid to myself and to my people.” This time, Dickens responded much more warmly. He went further, notably in a magazine essay in which he referred to Jews as “an earnest, methodical, aspiring people” and in changes to a subsequent printing of Oliver Twist, when he instructed the printer to remove many instances in which he referred to “the Jew” and to use Fagin’s name instead.

Eliza Davis’s reaction to Dickens’s words—her sense of betrayal by an admired author whose compassion somehow didn’t extend to Jews—mirrors my own increasingly frequent experience. . . . I don’t expect “great compliments to me and to my people” from authorial idols and colleagues. . . . All I’m seeking is fairness—and freedom from vile prejudice.

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Read more at Jewish Telegraphic Agency

More about: Anti-Semitism, Charles Dickens, Children's books, Jews in literature, Literature

Will Tensions Rise between the U.S. and Israel?

Unlike his past many predecessors, President Joe Biden does not have a plan for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, his administration has indicated its skepticism about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. John Bolton nevertheless believes that there could be a collision between the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government and the Biden White House:

In possibly his last term, Netanyahu’s top national-security priority will be ending, not simply managing, Iran’s threat. This is infinitely distant from Biden’s Iran policy, which venerates Barrack Obama’s inaugural address: “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Tehran’s fist is today otherwise occupied, pummeling its own people. Still, it will continue menacing Israel and America unless and until the internal resistance finds ways to fracture the senior levels of Iran’s regular military and the Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu undoubtedly sees Iran’s growing domestic turmoil as an opportunity for regime change, which Israel and others can facilitate. Simultaneously, Jerusalem can be preparing its military and intelligence services to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, something the White House simply refuses to contemplate seriously. Biden’s obsession with reviving the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal utterly blinds the White House to the potential for a more significant victory.

To make matters worse, Biden has just created a Washington-based position at the State Department, a “special representative for Palestinian affairs,” that has already drawn criticism in Israel both for the new position itself and for the person named to fill it. Advocated as one more step toward “upgrading” U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, the new position looks nearly certain to become the locus not of advancing American interests regarding the failed Authority, but of advancing the Authority’s interests within the Biden administration.

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Read more at 19FortyFive

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran, Joe Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship