Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Was Chesterton Anti-Semitic?



  1. What on Earth prompted such a question?

  2. It's a common one actually. Chesterton is often accused of anti-semitism, or at least verging towards anti-semitism. He attacked financiers and captains of industry regularly, and often spoke disparagingly of Jewish financiers in particular. He was willing to comment on the good and bad side of national character in general, including the Jewish national character. But he also attacked the Nazis for their treatment of the Jews (he died before the Holocaust). He wrote about the accusations of anti-semitism himself, and denied them. I don't think they add up to much so I thought it would be amusing to give a one-word answer to the question.

  3. I can't say I ever got the slightest whiff of such a thing from Chesterton's writing, although by modern lights (ie, secular, humanist, one-size-philosophy-fits-all lights)he would certainly be perceived as a dangerous deviant. Then again, I don't live by modern lights, and, like Chesterton, give thanks every day for the grace of not being a child of my time. Chesterton trusted Jews to be Jews, Hindus to be Hindus and Muslims to be Muslims. He recognized the difference; that's certainly not the same as condemning it. In fact, I would argue he showed more respect than the modern liberal by that recognition.

  4. Of course, I agree. Modern liberals talk about diversity and difference but only seem to like it when it's superficial and chosen. The idea of deeply-rooted national, sexual, ethnic and other differences is essentialism and to be deplored. Chesterton commented on the good and bad side of the English character, the French character, the American character, and many others. I don't understand why doing the same for the Jewish character makes him anti-semitic. But this debate is definitely there, it wouldn't be hard to find if you looked for it.

  5. Let me introduce myself. I was a tremendous Chesterton fan when I was a teenager (about 30 years ago) and have a large collection of his books. Recently I have been trying to re-read him and see how he seems to me now. He was extremely wise and witty, but he also had serious flaws (look at his heroworship of Mussolini in THE RESURRECTION OF ROME), and I'm afraid one of them was antisemitism.
    There are quite a few passages in Chesterton which can only be described as anti-semitic. In one of the Father Brown stories Father Brown denies that Jews were ever persecuted in mediaeval England on the grounds that they were specially protected by the Crown (for the efficiency of this "protection" see any biography of King Edward I; Chesterton was well aware of this because he refers to Edward's expulsion of the Jews from England in decidedly equivocal terms in his HISTROY OF ENGLAND). In the same story Father Brown also denies anyone ever committed suicide from despair in the Middle Ages; and mediaevalist knows this is just plain false.
    In THE NEW JERUSALEM Chesterton endorses Zionism explicitly on the grounds that Jews should have their own nation-state because they cannot really belong to any other nation, and states that Jews in Britain and elsewhere should be forced to wear a special dress marking them out as Jews. How is that not anti-semitic?
    I think his prejudice against Jews came from two sources (1) the old Gladstonian-Little Englander image of Disraeli as amoral oriental adventurer corrupting the traditional English virtues and leading the country to despotism through imperialist adventures. This is the emotional background to THE FLYING INN, in which (as in Belloc's THE MERCY OF ALLAH) Jews are symbolically equated with Moslems as oriental pure monotheists who are led by their non-belief in the Incarnation to accept and practise tyranny (2) Belloc's importation of French anti-semitism to England, partly because Belloc as a half-French Catholic resented being seem as an outsider and wanted to find someone else he could pick on and present as "real" outsiders. Belloc IMHO had the Jew-bug much worse than Chesterton and was a bad influence on him in this regard.
    I do believe Chesterton deserves more attention, but we must come to terms with his problematic side - that aspect which is childish, as distinct from his genius which is childlike.

  6. Thank you for your comment, Pierre Chanel. I have not read The New Jerusalem myself (I understand that is the source of his most controversial statements on the Jews) and only browsed through A Short History of England once. But I have read The Resurrection of Rome recently and must disagree with you on his "hero worship" of Mussolini. His assessment of Mussolini is far from hero worship, not even going as far as approval. He made clear that he was himself a partisan of the Catholic peasant party, rather than the Fascists; he accepted that the Fascists had a point when they claimed modern democracy was a mere tool of plutocracy and not at all representative of the people's will; but he questioned whether any faction really had the right to impose the people's will, since every faction believes itself to be the interpreter of the people's will, and since majority rule, though imperfect, has at least a consistent principle. Nowhere does he laud the Fascists.

    I cannot comment on your other references, and it may be that you are right. But I have read an awful lot of Chesterton and have never come across a passage I considered anti-semitic.

  7. I thought your comment deserved a post of its own (since I doubt anyone will read it at the end of this old post) so I have just put it up. Hope this is OK.

  8. Take this passage from G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown short story The Queer Feet (1910). At Belgravia’s Vernon Hotel, a waiter had suffered a paralytic stroke, and its Jewish owner, “marvelling mildly at such superstitions,” agreed to send for “the nearest Popish priest,” Father Brown, to hear the man’s confession:

    “With what the waiter confessed to Father Brown we are not concerned … but apparently it involved him in writing out a note or statement for the conveying of some message or the right of some wrong. … It is the mark of the magnificent tolerance of Mr. Lever that he permitted this holy place to be for about half an hour profaned by a mere priest, scribbling away on a piece of paper.”

    And the “holy place” that Chesterton ascribed to his Jewish hotel owner? A private room where he loaned money to English aristocrats.

    1. In fairness, is "this holy place" a measure of all Jews or just this one man?