Comment on the Comments
Comment on the Comments

Comment on the Comments

William Oddie FAITH Magazine November-December 2008s


The Philosemitism of G. K. Chesterton

This column generally takes its starting-point in topical questions which have arisen in the press, Catholic or secular. This time, I am going to concentrate on one piece, an attack on G.K. Chesterton by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, which appeared in July. For, though it is now several months old, its freshly disinterred allegations are still being taken seriously, and something needs to be said: more than I have space for here, but a start must be made.

According to Gopnik, G. K. Chesterton had an “ugly” and “obsessive” hatred of Jews. Gopnik claims to be an admirer of Chesterton. Chesterton is “a difficult writer to defend”, he writes: “[t]hose of us who are used to pressing his writing on friends have the hard job of protecting him from his detractors, who think he was a nasty anti-Semite and medievalising reactionary, and the still harder one of protecting him from his admirers, who pretend that he was not” [my italics].

Gopnik has his own agenda: he claims, for instance, that Chesterton’s supposed Jew-hatred was linked to his conversion to Catholicism, saying he was attracted by the Church’s “authoritarian and poetic solutions” and therefore went for its endemic anti-Semitism too. But there is more: “[i]t’s a deeply racial, not merely religious, bigotry; it’s not the Jews’ cupidity or their class role – it’s them.’[My italics] The trouble for “those of us who love Chesterton’s writing’, he argues, “is that the anti-Semitism is not incidental: it rises from the logic of his poetic position.” This leads Gopnik to some quite grotesque accusations: in one way, this is useful, since it demonstrates clearly how profoundly ignorant he is of Chesterton’s real beliefs. “He dreamed”, Gopnik ludicrouslyclaims, “of an anti-capitalist agricultural state overseen by the Catholic Church and governed by a military for whom medieval ideas of honour still resonated [What! Where?], a place where Jews would not be persecuted or killed, certainly, but hived off and always marked as foreigners… his ideal order was ascendant over the whole Iberian Peninsula for half a century.” This almost answers itself: Chesterton demonstrably believed in nothing remotely like this authoritarian, centralising, anti-localist, clericalist and militarist nightmare.

The best place to begin, perhaps, is with the accusation against Chesterton of an obsessive and racially based loathing of Jews, since the question of race (with its connections with Eugenics and its goal of racial purity – a pseudo-science of which Chesterton was virtually the only major opponent) is fundamental to the “anti-Semitism” of Chesterton’s lifetime. The term was invented around 1873 by one Wilhelm Marr to describe the policy toward Jews based on “Racism” that he and others advocated. The theory asserted that “humans were divided into clearly distinguishable races and that the intellectual, moral and social conduct and potential of the members of these races were biologically determined. As elaborated in the Aryan myth, it maintained that Jews were a race and that, notonly were they, like other races, inferior to the Aryan race, but also that Jews were the most dangerous of those inferior races” [1].

Chesterton was, in fact, brusquely impatient of current ideas about racial superiority: “I shall” he wrote in 1925, ”begin to take seriously those classifications of superiority and inferiority, when I find a man classifying himself as inferior. …. It is so with the men who talk about superior and inferior races; I never heard a man say: Anthropology shows that I belong to an inferior race. If he did, he might be talking like an anthropologist; as it is, he is talking like a man, and not infrequently like a fool.”[2]

Thus, not only was Chesterton not a racist, he was positively and with deliberation intellectually hostile to the philosophy underlying “racism” and hence to that underlying its derivative, “anti-Semitism”. But we need to say more: as a matter of historic record, he was, quite simply, too genuinely friendly toward far too many individual Jews throughout his lifetime for the charge even of a general dislike of or distaste for Jews – let alone of Gopnik’s fanatical charge that he was a “Jew-hater” whose hatreds were “ugly and obsessive” – to be even remotely plausible. On any occasion of discrimination against or cruelty towards Jews – whether individual or collective – he was, instinctively, firmly on the Jewish side. As he puts it in his Autobiography, “I lived to have later onthe name of an Anti-Semite; whereas from my first days at school I very largely had the name of a Pro-Semite… I was criticised in early days for quixotry and priggishness in protecting Jews”, a reference to his habit of intervening when boys were being bullied for being Jewish. Chesterton’s Autobiography is not always a reliable source; but there is corroborating evidence for these protective feelings from his childhood onwards: and since this evidence is virtually unknown, it is probably best here to take this opportunity to publish it for the first time (much of it will appear in my forthcoming book Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy, though I discovered some of it too late for it to be included) rather than repeat old arguments.

Some of this evidence is to be found in the notebooks which he kept from his childhood until the end of his life. In one notebook he kept an unfortunately short-lived diary in which he recorded his strong feelings about Russian oppression of the Jews, feelings which had been triggered off by reading in a magazine article of the case of a “respectable young girl of honest parents” who had been seduced by a Christian who had promised to marry her. When she reminded him of his promise, he replied that
 “ he would have her sent out of the city for her presumption. And he did. A cousin of his is serving in the police department, and he had no difficulty to obtain an order for her banishment as a disorderly Jewess. But how could you bring yourself to do such a damnable act? [the article’s author] asked. Oh, she is only a Jewess! he answered. What else is she good for? Besides, everybody else does the same.”[3]

Chesterton’s reaction was explosive:

[Diary. Monday Jan 5th, 1891] Expect Bentley. Read in Review of Reviews. Various revelation[s] of Jews in Russia. Brutal falsehood and cruelty to a Jewish girl. Made me feel strongly inclined to knock some-body down, but refrained.

Chesterton’s feelings about Russian anti-Semitism were reflected in a series of pieces published during 1891 (written in the form of fictional Letters) in The Debater, the school magazine of which he was co-founder and a prolific contributor:

[Debater, iii, 11]
What do you think of the persecution of the Jews in Russia? It has, at least, done one service to orthodoxy. It has restored my belief in the Devil.

[Debater, iii, 29]
I am going to Russia, I think the most godless, hell-darkened place I can think of, to see if I can’t… help the Hebrews… or do something else that will be for the good of humanity. The series comes to a dramatic end with a fictional letter, written as though from St Petersburg, in which Chesterton’s alter ego, “Guy Crawford”, describes himself as joining a rebellious mob in which he recognises an obviously Jewish student called Emmanuel, and as springing to his defence, sword in hand, as the Czarist troops attack: but Emmanuel sustains a fatal blow and dies in the street, “a champion of justice, like thousands who have fallen for it in the dark records of this dark land”.[4]

These feelings of extreme hostility to persecutions of the Jewish people were maintained throughout his life, and were in no way modified by his feelings about certain individual Jews: towards the end of his life he wrote that he was “appalled by the Hitlerite atrocities” (he died in 1936 before anyone knew of the full extent of what was to become the Nazi attempt at a’ final solution’): “They have absolutely no reason or logic behind them. It is quite obviously the expedient of a man who has been driven to seeking a scapegoat, and has found with relief the most famous scapegoat in European history, the Jewish people.”

The youthful Chesterton had personal reasons for feeling strongly about cruelty to the Jews in Russia. Of the twelve members of the Junior Debating Club – the exclusive membership of which was determined by Chesterton and by his friends Bentley and Oldershaw – four were Jewish: the Solomons, Lawrence and Maurice and the D’Avigdors, Digby and Waldo. Chesterton stayed with the Solomon family during at least one school vacation; Lawrence Solomon was to be a lifelong friend, who even moved to Beaconsfeld in Chesterton’s wake so as to be near him; he and his wife were frequent visitors to Chesterton’s house.

Chesterton’s view of Jews in general was exactly that of the Zionist movement: that Jews were exiles, and would never be happy until they had their own country. Chesterton simply thought that Jews were foreigners who had no desire to lose their separate identity: the “Jewish problem”, in the words of Theodore Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, was that “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!”[5] [My italics]

Chesterton, indeed, claimed to be a Zionist himself. He once explained this (to a Jewish audience) by saying that “while all other races had local attachments, the Jews were universal and scattered. They could not be expected to have patriotism for the countries in which they made their homes”. This view may be disputable (time has certainly made it so); but it is not anti-Semitic. Chesterton’s claim to be a Zionist may seem eccentric to us: but, again, it is hardly anti-Semitic: nor was it unusual (there was at the time a well-established tradition of Christian Zionism, of which A.J. Balfour is the most obvious example): it is why a group of Zionists invited Chesterton to Palestine, where he met and had a day-long discussion with Chaim Weizmann, later the first President of Israel, whoas a result became an admirer of Chesterton: Weizmann would certainly have sniffed out an anti-Semite if Chesterton had actually been one. The resulting book, The New Jerusalem sums up Chesterton’s view:

“ …if the Jew cannot be 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.”

The New Jerusalem, however, poses a problem: for, though it can certainly be seen as evidence for Chesterton’s Zionism and for his appreciation of the “mystical as well as mysterious” dimension of the Jewish heritage, it also contains passages which explain why Gopnik perceives Chesterton’s agreement with the Zionist’s perception that “we are aliens here” in a sinister light. At one point, Chesterton seeks to explain his feeling that Jews are foreigners and should not take on the airs of the English establishment (undoubtedly thinking of the galling attainment by his arch-enemy from the Marconi affair, Rufus Isaacs, of the Vice-Royalty of India and the title of Marquess of Reading) by indulging in a joke: a joke, however which from our own historical standpoint has turned sour:“Let a Jew be Lord Chief Justice [as Rufus Isaacs had been]”, says Chesterton, “if his exceptional veracity and reliability have clearly marked him out for that post. Let a Jew be Archbishop of Canterbury…But let there be one single-clause bill  [enacting] that every Jew must be dressed like an Arab…. If my image is quaint my intention is quite serious…. The point is that we should know where we are; and he would know where he is, which is in a foreign land.” “Hitler”, says Gopnik, “made a simpler demand for Jewish dress, but the idea was the same.” But “the idea” ABSOLUTELY WAS NOT THE SAME: Hitler wanted the Jews identified so that they could be first dispossessed and then annihilated: Chesterton wanted them to be given special privileges and protection. No accusationbetter exemplifies Gopnik’s entire lack of basic credibility.

Better to understand Chesterton’s idea that Jews were not naturally a part of English culture without the inevitably determinative intervening lens of the Nazi holocaust, we might compare it with modern English perceptions of the problem of multiculturalism as it applies particularly to the Moslem community, still widely seen as being impossible to assimilate: thus, there is understood by many decent and tolerant people to be what might be termed a “Moslem problem” (just as many decent and tolerant gentiles in Chesterton’s day thought there was a “Jewish problem”). The perspective of history may or may not similarly show this problem too to be illusory.

Gopnik dismisses Chesterton’s claim to be a Zionist by saying that many anti-Semites cynically made the same claim, as a kind of polemical trick. But Chesterton was entirely sincere, as Weizmann undoubtedly perceived; and by the time he visited Palestine he had held these views for at least three decades. In one of Chesterton’s youthful notebooks, which we can date around 1893, he recorded the following pensée: “No Christian ought to be an anti-Semite. But every Christian ought to be a Zionist.” His Zionism, that is to say, is defined here in the context of the hostility to anti-Semitism which he had recently expressed in his diary and in the Debater articles I have quoted. The terms “Zionism” and “Zionist” had in fact been coined only three years before; andChesterton’s use of them predates the existence of an actual Zionist movement: the first Zionist Congress took place in 1897. Thus, we can say that this was a question that had fascinated him from the beginning: and that his understanding of what Zionists too called “the Jewish problem” was from the outset determined in the context of his hostility to anti-Semitism and did not arise later in the contexts of his hostility to particular plutocratic Jews (in 1911, he was reported as saying that “speaking generally, as with most other communities, “THE POOR JEWS [ARE] NICE AND THE RICH JEWS [ARE] NASTY”“) [My italics].

There is more to be said; and I have come to the end of my space. I could have quoted Chesterton’s poem in praise of Cromwell for his toleration of the Jews and his poem of bitter disappointment with republican France in the wake of the Dreyfus affair. But I have surely said enough to establish, at least prima facie, my own case: that there is as much evidence for Chesterton’s philosemitism as for his alleged anti-Semitism. With his “salute” to “the Jew”, “that restless and mysterious figure, knowing…that… he belongs to God” we can place the following passage on “the mission…of the Jews” (which apart from anything else refutes the notion that Chesterton’s Catholicism led him to anti-Semitism) from The Everlasting Man, his first Catholic masterpiece: “...the meaning of the Jews”, says Chesterton, was
“ … that the world owes God to the Jews…. through all their wanderings… they did indeed carry the fate of the world in that wooden tabernacle …. 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. As it was… this Deity who is called tribal and narrow… preserved the primary religion of all mankind…. He was as narrow as the universe.”

So much for Gopnik’s argument that Chesterton’s “national spirit” and “extreme localism” led him to his supposed anti-Semitism: they were, in fact, precisely what gave him his respect for other nations and other cultures, including that of the Jews, to which the world owed its knowledge of God, “as narrow as the universe”. It is the paradox of the sacramental principle, in which infinity is contained within the limited and tangible; but Adam Gopnik, resolute secularist and anti-Catholic that he is, cannot be expected to understand that.

William Oddie’s Chesterton and the romance of Orthodoxy: The making of GKC, 1874-1908 is to be published by the Oxford University Press this month.

[1]Gavin I. Langmuir, Toward a Definition of Antisemitism, University of California Press, Berkeley (1990), 311.
[2]G.K’s Weekly, (April 25,1925).
[3]Review of Reviews (October, 1890), ii, no 10, 350.
[4]The Debater, iii, 71.
[5]Alex Bein’s 1941 biography.

Faith Magazine