George Orwell

George Orwell Public domain

I spent part of my vacation reading George Orwell’s essays, which turned out to be a good thing to do for someone troubled by the recent conflict in Gaza. Why? The British writer died when Israel was two years old and there was no such thing as Palestinian national identity.

Orwell was a man of the left who could write a bitter parable of Soviet Communism. He was a loyal Englishman who could write critically of his country during the Battle of Britain: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”

A few weeks ago there was a bit of a debate in the Forward  about what Orwell would have had to say about Gaza. Daniel May claimed that he would have dismissed persistent Israeli claims to the right of self-defense as the just the kind of anesthetizing political speech that he excoriated in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Gil Troy responded that Orwell, vigorous opponent of totalitarianism in all its forms, would have sided with the Israelis.

Personally, I am not sure which side Orwell would have been on. His sympathies were always with underdogs, with those who suffered most, but he was not sentimental about them. He was no particular fan of the Jews. He believed deeply in the rule of law and had little use for religion.

But at the end of the day, he was one to take sides. And what we can be sure of is that he would not have hesitated to criticize whichever side he took — even when the threat to that side seemed existential. In a conflict like Gaza, that’s the critical take-away, for me at least. Taking a side not only entitles you to turn a critical eye on it, but obligates you to do so.

Categories: Politics

Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

10 Comments

  1. And what we can be sure of is that he would not have hesitated to criticize whichever side he took

    IIRC, the mortality rate for priests and religious in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War was around 80% all told. How much would I know of that from reading Orwell?

  2. Mark Silk

    From Homage to Catalonia, you’d know this:

    “More important than this was the fact that the Spanish working class did not, as we might conceivably do in England, resist Franco in the name of ‘democracy’ and the status quo’, their resistance was accompanied by — one might almost say it consisted of — a definite revolutionary outbreak. Land was seized by the peasants; many factories and most of the transport were seized by the trade unions; churches were wrecked and the priests driven out or killed. The Daily Mail, amid the cheers of the Catholic clergy, was able to represent Franco as a patriot delivering his country from hordes of fiendish ‘Reds’.”

    • Mark, I highly recommend Anthony Beevor’s book the Spanish Civil War and the Granada TV documentary series on the subject (available on YouTube) if you want to learn the details that Orwell would have missed during his stint there.

    • The Reds were fiendish, in Spain and everywhere else. No scare quotes are needed to tell the truth.

      Orwell was in Catalonia at the time (associated with the POUM milita, IIRC). He’s implicated in the whole mess, and described with implicit approval the sacriligious activities of the Republic’s militiamen, such as defacing gravestones. You can find long passages in Homage to Catalonia of press agentry on behalf of one or another Republican faction. You’ll find not one note of regret or upset about what the historian Hugh Thomas called “the 4,000 ecclesiastical ghosts” (nearly every last one of whom was a non-combatant).

      The malicious anti-clerical and vigorous political sectary were just as much a part of Orwell as anything else you’d say about him.

  3. If you read A Homage to Catalonia or any history book on the subject (or the fantastic British series which came out in 1983), you would probably know why there was so much hostility to the Catholic Church at the time. They were supporting the Nationalists (Fascists).

    Of course Orwell also wasn’t around to report the half million people who “disappeared” during the Franco regime.

    • They were supporting the Nationalists because the Republic made itself their enemy, in spite of the efforts of Miguel Maura and others. This antedated the Civil War, when Catholic educational apostolates were seized and shut down.

      Most of Spain was in the hands of the Nationalist forces withing weeks of the war’s beginning and some of the rest was in the hands of the Basque militias, which were not anticlerical. In the remainder of Spain, one third of the ordained clergy were murdered, one third were driven into exile, and one third were shut up in hiding. There has never been a persecution of the Church as severe outside of the Stalinist ambo.

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