In Roald Dahl’s 1983 children’s dark fantasy book The Witches, the titular witches wear wigs, have ugly noses, print the world’s money, and though they are not numerous, are part of secret societies formed in every country. They are evil, and their stated goal is to kill the children of the world.
Sound antisemitic? You wouldn’t be the first to think so. It doesn’t help that Dahl, while still beloved by many, was a notorious antisemite.
So, is The Witches antisemitic? Let’s get into it.
Okay, first, what’s Roald Dahl’s deal?
The iconic children’s author of Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was actually an awful antisemite, sorry to say. His first wife called him “Roald the Rotten,” and when you see all the facts, it’s kind of hard to disagree.
In 1983, Dahl said Hitler was justified in the Holocaust.
“There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity. I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason,” Dahl said.
Later on, he doubled down on his hatred of Jews, repeating the antisemitic idea that Jews control the media: “There aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere, they control the media – jolly clever thing to do – that’s why the president of the United States has to sell all this stuff to Israel.”
As A.R. Vishny wrote in Alma, “Just so we’re clear: He was proud of it. He never apologized. He went to his grave believing that Jews control the media and that Hitler ‘didn’t just pick on them for no reason.'”
Plus, he wasn’t just antisemitic; he was also very racist. (See: the first descriptions of Oompa Loompas, described as a tribe of “African Pygmies.”)
Why do people think The Witches is antisemitic?
For two main reasons: the descriptions of the witches themselves, and the way the plot plays into two key antisemitic tropes (Jews control the banks, and Jews kill Christian children).
Let’s turn to the text, shall we?
The plot of The Witches is about a young 7-year-old British boy who goes to live with his Norwegian grandma (“Grandmamma”) after his parents die in a car accident. Grandmamma tells our protagonist all about the evils of the witches, as she is a retired witch hunter.
She tells him how to spot witches:
(1) They’re always wearing gloves, no matter the weather
(2) They wear a wig and itch their scalp
(3) They have larger noses than an ordinary person
(4) They don’t have toes
(5) Their spit is blue, like ink
Let’s specifically focus on 2 and 3: the wigs and noses.
Witches, Grandmamma explains, are all bald: “A REAL WITCH always wears a wig to hide her baldness. She wears a first-class wig. And it is almost impossible to tell a really first-class wig from ordinary hair unless you give it a pull to see if it comes off.” (pg. 25)
Plus, Grandmamma says, “Witches have slightly larger nose-holes than ordinary people. The rim of each nose-hole is pink and curvy, like the rim of a certain kind of seashell.” They have such big nose-holes because “she has the most amazing powers of smell. She can actually smell out a child who is standing on the other side of the street on a pitch-black night.” (pg. 26)
Why are wigs a Jewish thing?
In many traditional Jewish communities, women cover their hair. This hair-covering comes in many forms: hats, scarves, or wigs, called sheitels. So, many Orthodox women cover their hair with wigs as a sign of modesty.
Okay, what about noses?
Well, let’s be clear, there’s no such thing as a “Jewish nose.” Jews come in all shapes and sizes and have many different kinds of noses. However, a “large, hooked nose” has become synonymous with antisemitic stereotypes of Jews.
“Caricatures of Jews with grotesque features, and specifically with large noses, was ubiquitous in antisemitic propaganda deployed by Nazi Germany,” Community Security Trust Director of Policy Dr. Dave Rich told Media Diversity. “It is a technique used to stir up a sense of disgust and repulsion towards Jews, either collectively or individually, and is often found alongside other antisemitic motifs involving money, power, conspiracy and blood.”
And guess what? The Witches has all four of those other antisemitic motifs.
Tell me more.
Will do. Let’s take them one at a time:
The Grand High Witch, the witch in charge of all the other witches, is “simply rolling in money. Rumor has it that there is a machine in her headquarters which is exactly like the machine the government uses to print the bank-notes you and I use.” (pg. 40)
Later, our protagonist overhears the Grand High Witch at a meeting saying, “Money is not a prrroblem to us vitches as you know very vell.” (pg. 79)
(Side note: The accent of the witches is vaguely foreign/Eastern European, which also feels wrong, but like, plenty of people besides Ashkenazi Jews are from Eastern Europe. Their accent is described as “harsh and guttural,” with “trouble pronouncing the letter w.” (pg. 69))
The antisemitic idea that Jews are good with money, are greedy, and control the banks… you can see all of this in the relationship between witches and money.
The Grand High Witch has total power that works in mysterious ways. Some people believe this about Jews, playing into antisemitic tropes of Jews being the “puppet masters” of the world.
The entirety of The Witches is about a conspiracy by the witches to turn all the children of England into mice. Ignoring this fantastical element, many of the language describing the conspiracy can easily place onto antisemitic tropes of tricky/evil/plotting Jews.
- “Luckily, there are not a great number of REAL WITCHES in the world today. But there are still quite enough to make you nervous. In England, there are probably about one hundred of them altogether. Some countries have more, others have not quite so many. No country in the world is completely free from WITCHES.” (pg. 9)
- “‘Wherever you find people, you find witches,’ my grandmother said. ‘There is a Secret Society of Witches in every country.'” (pg. 38)
Plus, they have a secret meeting every year, plotting their evil-doings.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the most antisemitic documents of all time, “portray[s] Jews as conspirators against the state. In 24 chapters, or protocols, allegedly minutes from meetings of Jewish leaders, the Protocols ‘describes’ the ‘secret plans’ of Jews to rule the world.”
We can see some similarities, hbu?
The hatred of the witches is focused on children, whom they want to kill.
Guess what this calls to mind? The blood libel, a centuries-old antisemitic allegation that Jews murder Christian children to use their blood for ritual purposes. (In 2020, this is eerily similar to the theories of QAnon.)
The idea that Jews want to kill children is paralleled in the witches hatred of children.
Agh, this feels pretty antisemitic.
Many people on Twitter agree!
witches is antisemitic roald dahl was a nazi this is not the story thats being told rn
— eli (@MonicaJewinsky) October 2, 2020
roald dahl was a very loud and proud antisemite and all of his writings exemplify that and in particular the witches does. so PLEASE be mindful of harmful antisemitic stereotypes that fiction perpetuates.
— connor 🍓 (@kinglyfae) October 4, 2020
So how should I feel about the movies?
There are two Witches films: one from 1990, starring Anjelica Huston, and one coming out in 2020, starring Anne Hathaway. Here are the trailers:
Of course, you can feel however you want about the movies. But it’s important to be mindful of the problematic nature of the source material.
Also, uh, this is the Grand High Witch in the 1990 film:
Let’s just remember films are separate from books. As Vishny wrote in Alma, “Dahl was always tetchy about film adaptations. He notoriously disliked the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (starring Gene Wilder, who yes, was Jewish!).” Vishny also praised the fact that Taika Waititi, a Māori Jew, was announced to adapt Dahl’s work: “Perhaps this is the solution for the kinds of bigot too entrenched in the cultural narrative to condemn to obscurity. Perhaps this is the way to honor a beloved story while dishonoring dishonorable creators and righting a text’s worst failures.”
Roald Dahl was an antisemite, and his book The Witches is filled with antisemitic tropes. Bye!
All quotes of Roald Dahl’s The Witches are from the 1985 Puffin Books edition. Header image: cover of The Witches.