Dickens, Fagin and Me: A Tale of Two Countries

Harold Behr

Dr Harold Behr is a retired child psychiatrist and group psychotherapist. He emigrated from South Africa to the UK in 1970.

I became aware of Fagin when I was given the story of Oliver Twist in comic book form. This was one of many graphic stories published under the rubric of ‘Classics Illustrated’, a series designed to introduce great works of literature to children. The idea worked for me: after thumbing through the comic I got stuck into the novel itself and became enthralled by the terrifying world which opened up to me, peopled by the likes of Mr Bumble, Bill Sikes and Fagin.

Naturally, I identified with Oliver. I was both fascinated and repelled by his tormentors, so much so that when I reached the misty-eyed ending, in which Oliver emerges from his ordeal into a sunlit future, my own world became correspondingly brighter, while I found Fagin’s last moments in the condemned cell, on which Dickens dwells in gruesome detail, to be strangely satisfying.

In 1949, the David Lean film adaptation of OT came out. It starred Alec Guinness as a grotesquely made-up Fagin, replete with gigantic hooked nose and simpering nasal accents, at once obsequious and menacing. I remember announcing precociously to my parents my discovery that ‘Fagin was a hypocrite’ and basking in their amused approbation. But I have no recall of having paid any attention to the fact, emphasised interminably by Dickens, that Fagin was a Jew.

This lacuna in my awareness has puzzled me, especially as from childhood Jewishness was an intrinsic part of my identity. My parents were mildly observant, laissez faire with regard to synagogue attendance but in every respect they were quintessentially Jewish. Both had emigrated from Lithuania to South Africa as children and had lost close relatives in the Holocaust, although this was hardly ever talked about.

I was taught Hebrew almost as soon as I could read. Books on Judaica filled our bookshelves and the blue and white collection box of the Jewish National Fund beckoned on the sideboard. My grandparents on both sides had been devoutly Orthodox and I could even boast a rabbinic grandfather on my father’s side, but my father ploughed a different furrow. Having quietly renounced Orthodox practice he pursued an academic path, went on to train as a teacher and rose through the Christian National Education system to become head of an English Medium Primary School in a predominantly non-Jewish Johannesburg suburb. At the same time he held a part-time post as a Hebrew teacher, was an active member of the Histadrut Ivrit and retained a keen interest in Jewish matters. He set the stage for my Barmitzvah at an Orthodox synagogue and coached me through matriculation Hebrew. Our social life was lived almost entirely within a Jewish bubble. Both my parents were sympathetic to Zionism and this, combined with their misgivings about a safe future for the family in South Africa, culminated in their immigration to Israel late in their lives.

Antisemitism scarcely impinged on me during my school years. In primary school, two of my closest friends were Jewish, but I also had a fair mix of non-Jewish friends. Likewise in high school, while the four or five Jewish children in my year group played together and visited each other, I formed friendships with non-Jewish classmates.

If there were any antisemitic jibes at school they came from some of the teachers. One, a rugged Afrikaner, would tell a child (not a Jewish one) to ‘stop complaining like a bloody Jewboy’. Another, from an English background, also liked to make use of the ‘Jewboy’ epithet, in a context which I have since forgotten. None of my schoolmates seemed to mind that I was Jewish, nor was there any manifest envy of my intellectual prowess or teasing over my sporting ineptitude. I wonder today what I might have been overlooking and whether I was suffering from a kind of cultural myopia.

As I entered my teenage years, Fagin receded into the background of my consciousness as I was drawn into the iniquities of the apartheid system. In 1948 the pro-Afrikaner National Party unexpectedly defeated the United Party led by the pro-British General Smuts. The leader of the Nationalists, Dr D.F. Malan, was known for his antisemitic past and I remember a ripple of anxiety running through my family about the fate of the Jews under a Malan government.

When the 1953 general election came along I was twelve years old and absorbed in the duel between the Nationalists and the United Party. The result of the election was that the UP lost even more heavily than in 1948 and South Africa entered an era of full-blown apartheid. Throughout the fifties and sixties the Nationalists continued to strengthen their grip on power and churn out increasingly repressive legislation.

The Jewish community was divided. Some were radically opposed to apartheid and ran the gauntlet of state persecution. Others adopted a more gradualist approach towards integration, while a small minority threw in their lot with the White Nationalists in what they predicted would become an apocalyptic showdown between Blacks and Whites.

Antisemitism continued to fester; there were the usual mutterings about the affinity between Jews and Communists, but by then the Nationalist leadership had backtracked from its virulently antisemitic position of the war years. The ruling party was now more interested in rallying Whites of all persuasions to the banner of White survival.

In a material sense, life for the Jews was comfortable provided one kept one’s nose clean, but the moral dilemma of how to live with apartheid persisted and the threat of increasing Black resentment were becoming more palpable. Violence was in the air and I knew I had to act on a longstanding childhood resolution to leave the country. I timed my leaving to coincide with my registration as a doctor and set my sights on Israel. However, an attempt at Aliyah in 1965 failed dismally. My Zionist spirit quailed in the face of the reality of having to spend my life in yet another conflict-ridden zone of the world, this time without the cushioning effect of my precious English language, and I returned to South Africa for a few more years of stock taking. The next time round I found myself in the United Kingdom, to which I had long felt culturally attuned.

I knew that the virus of antisemitism had a worldwide distribution, so I was not too surprised when I discovered its existence in the UK. I had read about the early Christian demonization and massacres of English Jews during the 13th Century, culminating in their expulsion from the country in 1290, but that felt like a long time ago. More interesting to me and closer in time was the British government’s ambivalence towards Zionism in the post-war years, manifested in the struggle between the Jewish underground movement and the British Mandate authority. That continued to have resonance in the Britain of the 1970s, my first decade in the country. The Far Left presented Zionism as a racist ideology fuelled by colonialism. The antisemitism of the Far Right was a mirror image of that of the Left, more crudely racist and based on the picture of the Jew as untrustworthy foreigner or communist and therefore alien to the British way of life.

There were several variations on these themes, but as in South Africa, I felt that the problem was manageable provided one kept one’s eyes open and one’s head down. Once again, I discovered a rewarding network of like-minded friends and colleagues, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and had my professional standing to insulate me from all but the most veiled forms of discrimination. The tremors of British antisemitism hardly registered on my personal seismograph and above all I was free of the more blatant forms of racism which had surrounded me in South Africa, now firmly established in my mind as ‘the old country’.

My interest in Fagin was re-kindled when I came across an article by David Nathan, entitled ‘The Devil and Dickens’, in the (London) Jewish Chronicle of 2 December 1994. Nathan reprised the correspondence between Dickens and Eliza Davis, a Jewish woman who had accused him of doing the Jews ‘a great wrong’ by his portrayal of Fagin. Dickens indignantly repudiated the charge. If the Jews thought him unjust, he replied, they were ‘a far less sensible, a far less just, and a far less good-tempered people than I have always supposed them to be.’

Warming to the subject, he pointed out that ‘all the rest of the wicked dramatis personae are Christians’, although nowhere in the novel do we read of Mr Bumble, Bill Sikes, Noah Claypole, or indeed any of the other villains being referred to as Christians. On the other hand, Fagin, we are told ad nauseam, is ‘the Jew’.

Eliza Davis in later life

Eliza Davis in later life

Dickens must have been stung by the veracity of the accusation, because he returned to the novel in a later edition to prune some of the references to ‘the Jew’ and one wonders if his subsequent portrayal of a Jew, Mr Riah in his last completed novel Our Mutual Friend as a kind, gentle soul was offered by way of atonement. Riah is head of a small Jewish community, held in the grip of a Christian money-lender (!). Dickens puts into the mouth of one of his characters the words: ‘there cannot be a kinder people [than the Jews] in the world.’ Unfortunately, far fewer people have read Our Mutual Friend than Oliver Twist and ever since its appearance, the iconic image of Fagin the evil Jew has been blazoned across the English-speaking world, while Mr Riah nestles in obscurity.

Dickens has another argument up his sleeve. He justifies his description of Fagin by saying that ‘it unfortunately was true of the time to which the story refers that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew, which is not to say, of course, that all, or even many, Jews were receivers of stolen goods.’

But Fagin is more than a petty thief. He is a corrupter of young minds. Here he is, entertaining Oliver and the other boys with:

stories of robberies he had committed in his younger days, mixed up with so much that was droll and curious, that Oliver could not help laughing heartily, and showing that he was amused, in spite of all his better feelings.

In short, the wily old Jew had the boy in his toils. Having prepared his mind, by solitude and gloom, to prefer any society to the companionship of his own sad thoughts in such a dreary place, he was now instilling into his soul the poison which he hoped would blacken it, and change its hue forever.

This vignette, larded with language which evokes the abusive relationship between Fagin and Oliver, shows Dickens’ insight into the minds of both perpetrator and innocent child. There is no psychological naiveté about Dickens; he knows his subjects, and his readers, too well and is able to sound just the right note of horror and fascination to engage their attention. And there is no doubt that Dickens, despite his protestations, was determined to drive home the point that Fagin was a Jew. When we first meet Fagin we find him ‘…with a toasting fork in his hand, a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair. He was dressed in a greasy flannel gown, with his throat bare; and seemed to be dividing his attention between the frying pan and a clothes horse, over which a great number of silk handkerchiefs were hanging.’

With these Mephistophelean props the stage is set for Fagin’s occupation as thief and coach of pickpockets. We see him ‘shrugging up his shoulders, and distorting every feature with a hideous grin’ as he looks on a chest of stolen treasures. From this point on, the references to ‘the Jew’ come thick and fast.

Fagin is more than a petty criminal. He is the devil incarnate. Even the brutal Bill Sikes is repulsed by him:

‘That’s the way to talk, my dear,’ replied Fagin, venturing to pat him on the shoulder. ‘It does me good to hear you’ – ‘You’re like yourself, tonight, Bill! Quite like yourself.’

‘I don’t feel like myself when you lay that withered old claw on my shoulder, so take it away’, said Sikes, casting off the Jew’s hand.

‘It makes you nervous, Bill – reminds you of being nabbed, does it? Said Fagin, determined not to be offended. ‘Reminds me of being nabbed by the devil’, returned Sikes, ‘There never was another man with such a face as yours, unless it was your father, and I suppose he is singeing his grizzled red beard by this time, unless you came straight from the old ‘un without any father at all betwixt you; which I shouldn’t wonder at, a bit.’

And in a final act of wickedness, Fagin betrays Nancy, Sikes’s moll, to Sikes, for her part in rescuing Oliver, knowing that in so doing, he is sounding her death knell:

‘You won’t be – too – violent, Bill?’ The day was breaking, and there was light enough for the men to see each other’s faces; there was fire in the eyes of both; they exchanged one brief glance, which could not be mistaken.

‘I mean,’ said Fagin, showing that he felt that all disguise was now useless, ‘not too violent for safety. Be crafty, Bill, and not too bold.’

And so Bill Sikes, armed with the knowledge of Nancy’s betrayal, sets off to murder her.

In Dickens’s apology, which is not quite an apology, he says, ‘I have no feelings towards the Jews, but a friendly one. I always speak well of them, whether in public or private, and bear my testimony (as I ought to do) to their perfection such transactions as I have ever had with them.’

There is more in this vein, including this self-righteous declaration, delivered in a speech at the anniversary dinner of the Westminster Jewish Free School: ‘I know of no reason the Jews can have for regarding me as inimical to them. On the contrary, I believe I do my part towards their assertion of their civil and religious liberty, and, in my Child’s History of England, I have expressed a strong abhorrence of their persecution in old times.’

Before cynicism takes over completely, it may be worth reflecting that Dickens was a man of his time. He would not have had fore-knowledge of the escalation of antisemitism in Europe which would lead to mass atrocities and genocide. But he was the carrier, transmitter and amplifier of an age-old antisemitic tradition which held that the Jews were innately different from other groups, and therefore dangerous. Like all his heroes and villains, when Jews were good they were very, very good and when they were bad they were evil. Sadly, it was the evil ones who tended to stick in the collective consciousness of the wider community.

Attempts to re-invent Fagin as a merry old gentleman (in the stage musical, ‘Oliver!’, for instance) did not cut the mustard. Too much blood had flowed for most Jews to perceive the singing, dancing old fellow as anything other than a feeble attempt to detoxify the caricature of the Jew presented in Julius Streicher’s publication Der Sturmer and replicated in a host of antisemitic propaganda materials around the world.

As I write this, uneasily watching the story unfold in Dickens’s native country, hardly a day goes by without some fresh incident of antisemitism to stir anxiety in the Jewish community. These days, the front runner in this hate campaign is the hard left leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who was recently heard to reflect that British Jews fail to understand British irony. When a leader speaks, the way is cleared for followers to indulge in their own brand of prejudice.

No doubt the script for antisemitism would have continued being written without the benefit of Dickens, but the template which he provided through his depiction of Fagin has made it more difficult to dispel the myths which have pursued me across two continents. Whichever way I look, ‘the Jew’ simply won’t go away.

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