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Looking Back on the Anti-Semitism in Roald Dahl’s THE WITCHES

1990’s The Witches, an adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel, is something of a cult classic. But while the forthcoming remake has generated buzz and excitement, some Jewish fans remain wary. Expressions of skepticism point to the anti-Semitic tropes and caricatures that fill the original film, as well as its source material.

It’s fair criticism, and not new. Connections between Jews and witches and witchcraft go back throughout literature. Jewish stereotypes in general have existed in media for most of history. Chaucer’s Middle English story collection Canterbury Tales, for instance, features an entry about Jews kidnapping and murdering a small child. Centuries of negative Jewish representation in fiction has resulted in a robust canon of Jewish stereotype tropes. And children’s media is no exception.

The Witches book cover

Samuel French Ltd.

In an article for the Free Library of Philadelphia, librarian Joel Nichols refers to the complexities of rereading problematic childhood favorites. Nichols notes that, as adults, we’re more aware of messaging that slips in, especially from older authors. In revisiting The Witches as adults, we may notice three primary anti-Semitic tropes in play: the association of “Jewish features” with evil or wicked characters; blood libel/child-snatching; and wealth as a symbol of power and corruption.

Attributing Jewish features to “bad witches” goes back centuries. In an article about the origins of archetypical witches, Elie Bufford writes, “The stereotype of the ‘Jewish nose’ is often used in anti-Semitic media, including Nazi propaganda such as ‘The Eternal Jew…While in early folklore it was likely not initially tied to antisemitism, the feature is used in modern times to code characters as Jewish.”

She highlights The Wizard of Oz as an example, noting Glinda the Good Witch’s bubbly, glowing personality and attractive features against the Wicked Witch of the West’s (who, in pre-Wicked days, doesn’t even get a name) long, hooked nose. Furthermore, Nichols references a Facebook post by librarian and children’s author Kyle Lukoff concerning The Witches. Lukoff noted references to large noses in both the book and original film. He cites Dahl’s mention of “queer noses” and “enlarged nostrils,” adding, “they gave Angelica Huston a f***ing foot-long hook in the movie. [sic]”

Anjelica Huston's witch form in The Witches

Warner Bros.

The child-snatching and blood libel tropes of The Witches also have their roots in folklore, going all the way back to Chaucer. Bufford notes, “Blood libel was a charge frequently leveled at Jewish people during the Middle Ages. People believed that any time a gentile (non-Jewish) child went missing that Jewish people had kidnapped and killed the child, either for ritual purposes or to use for food.”

She references the witch in Hansel and Gretel, as well as Mother Gothel in Rapunzel, whose character design in Disney’s Tangled is problematic at best. The titular witches of the Dahl story plot to turn all the world’s children into mice, leading their parents to then unknowingly trap and kill them. (At the end of the story, the witches themselves turn into mice and are thusly exterminated. Lukoff wryly describes this as “an ingenious final solution.”)

Wealth, too, plays a role here. Probably the best known Jewish stereotype is that of greed. We can trace this back to Medieval Europe. Society excluded Jews from land-owning and guild membership, leading to a higher percentage of Jews in banking and moneylending. Shylock, of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, is considered the archetype of the “moneylending Jew” in English literature. The trope rose in prevalence and impact until it peaked as a significant player in Nazi propaganda. Going forward from the 1940s, it appeared more frequently as a dog whistle, often in reference to centralized banking and conspiracy theories. 

Lukoff quotes Dahl, writing, “The Grand High Witch is ‘Simply rolling in money. Rumour 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.’” This calls back to anti-Semitic dog whistles of banking conspiracies and global control. The Grand High Witch’s plan to turn the world’s children into mice relies particularly on the Witches’ wealth. They will use the magical money-printing machine to purchase sweet shops packed with candies. Then they will lace those candies with the mouse-transformation potion. 

Anne Hathaway leads other witches

Warner Bros.

The book and film’s problematic tropes are not exclusively anti-Semitic. Dahl notes that “no country is free of Witches,” describing the Witches as a race in diaspora living among “normal people.” We can recognize that as a dog whistle often used against Jews as well as Romani people. Sexism has been a frequent criticism. One writer cited The Witches as an example of “how boys become men who hate women.” In the book, Dahl writes, “A witch is always a woman. I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely. But the fact remains that all witches are women. There is no such thing as a male witch.” Yikes.

The 2020 remake of The Witches has made significant changes to the original. The film takes place in 1960s Alabama and features a more diverse cast. It tones down the the exaggerated features of the original’s facial prosthetics. But there are holdover themes. Witches, with their wealth and stealthy presence in our societies, are coming to steal (at best) innocent children. No one (or at least, very few people) is calling to cancel the remake. No one is invalidating the fond childhood memories people have of enjoying or being terrified by the original film or text. In 2020, though, we’re past pretending these tropes are invisible. They contribute to anti-Semitism. These portrayals and stereotypes impact real-life Jews. No matter how glamorous Anne Hathaway looks in that hat.

Featured Image: Warner Bros.