July 13, 2011


‘The world owes God to the Jews,’ wrote Chesterton; if anything he was pro-Jewish rather than – as the calumny alleges – anti-Semitic: He was one of the few convinced anti-racists of his time: the allegation just doesn’t add up (William Oddie, 8 July 2011, Catholic Herald)

When I published the main talks in the last Chesterton Society conference on The Holiness of GK Chesterton, together with some additional chapters, one of the chapters I found it had become necessary to add was based on a good deal of work I had done (in the Chesterton papers and other better known material), to do with Chesterton’s attitude to the Jews, as a result of which I came to the view that his attitude to Jewish people, and to Jewish culture and history, were such that I had to conclude that there was a much better case for saying that Chesterton was actually if anything pro-Jewish rather than anti-Semitic: and I ended up calling my chapter “The philosemitism of GK Chesterton”. [...]

During his journey to Palestine in 1919, Chesterton had lunch with Chaim Weizmann, later the first President of Israel: Weizmann would certainly have sniffed out an anti-Semite if Chesterton had actually been one; and there is a good deal to be said (but no space here to say it) about Chesterton’s belief in the Zionist cause. On his return, Chesterton wrote of his reverence for the Jewish spiritual tradition: “…if the Jew cannot be at ease in Zion [a reference to Amos 6:1: "Woe to them that are at ease in Zion”] we can never again persuade ourselves that he is at ease out of Zion. We can only salute as it passes that restless and mysterious figure, knowing at last that there must be in him something mystical as well as mysterious; that whether in the sense of the sorrows of Christ or of the sorrows of Cain, he must pass by, for he belongs to God.” With that, we can place the following passage on “the mission… of the Jews” from The Everlasting Man, his first Catholic masterpiece: “…the meaning of the Jews,” says Chesterton, was “that the world owes God to the Jews… The more we really understand of the ancient conditions that contributed to the final culture of the Faith, the more we shall have a real and even a realistic reverence for the greatness of the Prophets of Israel.”

Chesterton was certainly not anti-Jewish. He was, however, writing at a time of a recent large-scale and as yet unassimilated Jewish immigration; and he accepted the Zionist analysis of this phenomenon: in the words of Theodore Herzl, the founding father of Zionism: “We are aliens here, they do not let us dissolve into the population, and if they let us we would not do it. Let us go forth!” Better to understand Chesterton’s Zionist idea that Jews were not naturally a part of English culture, without perceiving it through the intervening lens of the Nazi Holocaust, we might compare it with some modern English perceptions of the Muslim community, still widely seen as being impossible to assimilate: thus, there is understood by many perfectly decent and tolerant people to be what might be termed a “Muslim problem”. The perspective of history may similarly show this “problem” too to be illusory. Chesterton, I suspect, would not be a Zionist today.

While we ought not judge him by our modern standards, James Lothian's excellent Making and Unmaking of the English Catholic Intellectual Community, offers a very balanced assessment of Chesterton's attitude towards Jews and ultimately determines that his Zionism was a significant indicator of what can only be termed anti-Semitism, even if it was a view he shared with Jewish Zionists:
Neither Belloc nor Chesterton could accept that Jews could be loyal, assimilated citizens of a non-Jewish state. One can but convclude that this was anti-Semitism. It was true that Chesterton, like Belloc, opposed violence against Jews, as their apologists have often pointed out, and that they warned in their books on the "Jewish question"--Chesterton in 1921 and Belloc in 1922--that Europe's Jews were in physical danger. Their refusal to accept Jews as fellow citizens, however, was part of the problem. Their intellectual attacks on the Jewish people helped create the climate in which physical violence could, and of course did, occur.

One can't help notice that they made the exact same mistake that many on the Right make today, underestimating the assimilative power of their own cultures and overestimating the supposed intransigence of Judaism and Islam respectively. Of course, they would also be shocked at how thoroughly Anglo-American culture assimilated the Catholic Church.

Posted by at July 13, 2011 2:10 PM

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