Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Response to My Denial of Chesterton's Anti-Semitism

Some time ago, I published a rather flippant post with the title "Was Chesterton Anti-Semitic?", the post itself consisting of the single monosyllable "No".

Today, a reader by the name of Pierre Chanel left a comment which makes some interesting points. Since it is unlikely to be noticed by anyone on the original post, I thought I should publish it as a post of its own. I haven't read The New Jerusalem or A Short History of England or (so far as I can remember) the Father Brown story in question. It would be interesting to learn if any other readers who have read these books agree.

In any case, I thank him for his contribution, which follows:

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.


  1. It's too late at night and I'm too tired to get into it at the moment, but it is a very serious mistake to judge the actions of people dead 75 years by the standards of our current society's check-list, tick-box liberalism. For the present, this link may shed some light on the question.

  2. Thanks to the blog-owner for this response. Pierre Chanel is a nom de blog, BTW.
    I certainly do not believe in "check-list, tick-box liberalism" or I wouldn't be here, but I think there is a real question to answer.
    To refer to one argument used on the Wikipedia post to which corrigan1 refers - the alleged parallel between Chesterton's recognition of the Irish as a distinct nationality entitled to self-government and his views on the distinctiveness of the Jews. Did Chesterton ever suggest that people of Irish Catholic descent and religion living in Britain should not be entitled to regard themselves as British even if they were born there; that they should be compelled by law to go around in leprechaun costumes in order to mark themselves out as such? HEre is the relevant passage from the Wikipedia entry in question, with my comments in square brackets:

    Against Chesterton are also cited remarks in The New Jerusalem (1920).[23] Chesterton was, in a real sense, a Zionist. He was not, however, a Zionist without conditions. The following is from the introductory remarks in that book:
    "I have felt disposed to say: let all liberal legislation stand, let all literal and legal civic equality stand; let a Jew occupy any political or social position which he can gain in open competition; let us not listen for a moment to any suggestions of reactionary restrictions or racial privilege. Let a Jew be Lord Chief justice, if his exceptional veracity and reliability have clearly marked him out for that post [This is a slap at Rufus Isaacs, one of the politicians involved in dodgy share dealing during the Marconi scandal, who had been appointed Lord Chief Justice by his party. In my opinion Isaacs was indeed a crook who happened to be a Jew; the problem is that Chesterton implies he was a crook because he was a Jew - CHANEL].
    Let a Jew be Archbishop of Canterbury, if our national religion has attained to that receptive breadth that would render such a transition unobjectionable and even unconscious [Chesterton is not here referring to a Jewish or Jewish-descended convert to Anglicanism; he is parodying the 'liberal Anglican' theory that the Church of England should be broad enough to include any shade of religious opinion by suggesting this logically implies that just as it is possible for an atheist, a semi-Catholic or an evangelical Protestant to be an Anglican cleric, it should be possible for an unbaptised Jew to be one - CHANEL.]
    But let there be one single-clause bill; one simple and sweeping law about Jews, and no other. Be it enacted, by the King's Most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and the Commons in Parliament assembled, that every Jew must be dressed like an Arab. Let him sit on the Woolsack, but let him sit there dressed as an Arab. Let him preach in St. Paul's Cathedral, but let him preach there dressed as an Arab. It is not my point at present to dwell on the pleasing if flippant fancy of how much this would transform the political scene; of the dapper figure of Sir Herbert Samuel [Liberal Cabinet minister wrongly accused of involvement in the Marconi scandal - CHANEL] swathed as a Bedouin, or Sir Alfred Mond [founder of ICI and a government minister under Lloyd George - CHANEL] gaining a yet greater grandeur from the gorgeous and trailing robes of the East. If my image is quaint my intention is quite serious; and the point of it is not personal to any particular Jew. The point applies to any Jew, and to our own recovery of healthier relations with him. The point is that we should know where we are; and he would know where he is, which is in a foreign land." [Try the mental exercise of substituting Kevin MacNamara, Paul Murphy, or Ruth Kelly for the Jewish politicians named by Chesterton, and the leprechaun suit for the Bedouin robes, and what would we think of it - especially the last sentence?]

  3. I regret Chesterton writing this and think he was wrong to write it. All the same, I think calling him anti-semitic on that basis is a stretch. I have just been reading his Illustrated London News articles from 1933 when he ardently opposed Hitler's oppression of the Jews; that should be decisive, I think. Chesterton wrote vast amounts of words on every topic, and he wrote a lot about the Jews. All the accusations of anti-semitism seem to centre on this book, and this passage, as far as I can tell, which is surely putting too much weight on it. Chesterton was also very ambivalent about female suffrage, but nobody accuses him of being anti-woman because of that. I think a term like "anti-semitism" should be confined to those who have explicitly attacked the Jewish people. Do I think he was wrong to suggest Jews should be forced to wear special clothing to identify themselves? Yes. Do I think that makes him a hater of the Jews? No. If he had made a similar comment about the Irish, I would certainly resent it, but I would not consider him anti-Irish. Nonetheless your point is a fair one.

  4. I have just been reading his Illustrated London News articles from 1933 when he ardently opposed Hitler's oppression of the Jews; that should be decisive, I think.
    Indeed, it should. Hitler's persecution of the Jews was NOT specifically ordered by the Pope of that time, and thus represented a grave and present danger to the centrality and autocritas of the one true Catholic and Apostolic Church.