One argument that is often advanced against the claim that G. K. Chesterton was antisemitic is that some Jews have defended him from the charge. This is true. Michael Coren, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, is just one recent example. No doubt there were other Jewish fans of Chesterton then as there are now. Laurence Solomon, one of Chesterton’s friends, no doubt defended him from the charge. It would be interesting to know how he perceived and reacted to Chesterton’s caricatures and stereotypes. As Richard Ingrams recently asked in the Tablet, did Chesterton really believe that his Jewish friends would be okay with being “forced to wear an Arab-style headdress in public” and being forced to “live in a ghetto?”  Did these ideas irritate his Jewish friends Did they simply ignore them? Did they find them amusing? In most cases there is no way to know. The author Gladys Bronwyn Stern, another Jewish convert to Catholicism, regarded Chesterton as a saint. As early as the 1950s she wrote that she would “offer no apology for the habit which has gradually stolen in on me, of regarding two close friends whom I have never met, G. K. Chesterton and Baron von Hügel, as undoubtedly saints” .
However, the fact that some Jews have defended Chesterton as a saint, though true, is a questionable defence. As Joseph Pearce, one of Chesterton’s most fervent defenders, has noted, “it is true that the adage ‘some of my best friends are Jewish’ is not, in itself, an adequate defence against the charge of anti-Semitism” . Whilst some Jews have defended Chesterton, a number of his Anglo-Jewish contemporaries regarded him as an antisemite. The Anglo-Jewish author Israel Zangwill has been cited in Chesterton’s defence on a number of occasions. It is often claimed that they were close friends. It took some digging but I did in fact find a couple of letters that suggest that prior to 1916 some sort of amicable relationship may have existed between the two authors. However, from 1916 onwards, Zangwill argued that Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton were antisemitic on a number of occasions. For more on this, see the claim that Chesterton and the Anglo Jewish author Israel Zangwill were friends.
The three prominent Anglo-Jewish newspapers during Chesterton’s lifetime, the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish World and Jewish Guardian, were all critical of Chesterton’s antisemitic discourse. In June 1918, the Jewish Chronicle criticised G. K. Chesterton for his accusation that the Jews carelessly trampled people underfoot as they rushed to the tube stations during air raids. The paper stated that “we cannot congratulate Mr. G. K. Chesterton on the reply he makes to the Jewish World on the questions that journal addressed to him. Mr. Chesterton’s paper, the New Witness, referring to the last air raid, asserted that while the attack was dealt with in a highly satisfactory way ‘the conduct of Jews of all classes during these raids continues deplorable in the extreme.’” The Jewish Chronicle observed that based on a “hotch-potch” of so-called evidence from “a lady sub-editor [i.e. Ada Chesterton], her maid, and unknown chatterers at Euston, Jews of all classes … are accused of deplorable cowardice and bad conduct in the extreme.” It stated that this was “a cruel and reckless libel upon a Community which has sent its sons by the thousand to the Front, and is every day called upon to suffer new pangs and fresh bereavements.” The Jewish Chronicle reported that Mr. Chesterton argued that it was more important to understand the cause of these Jewish rushes than to deny “so vast a popular impression as that of the different attitude of Jews and Gentiles towards the War.” “The spectacle of Mr. G. K. Chesterton bidding us bow down before a ‘vast popular impression,’” was, the paper concluded, “deliciously funny” . When quizzed by the editor of the Jewish Chronicle as to whether he himself had witnessed Jews cowering in tube stations, Chesterton admitted that he had not personally witnessed this, but he argued that it was a matter of common knowledge. He stated that “the problem of aliens in air-raids is a thing that everybody knows.” He also argued that he could not be expected to go looking “for Jews in the Tubes, instead of going about my business above ground.” He concluded be stating that: “if my London affairs had led me, as well as my colleagues, into the Tubes during an air-raid, I suppose I should have seen what they saw; and the editor [of the Jewish Chronicle] would have refused my testimony as he refused theirs.” .
Referring to “Mr. G. K. Chesterton” in an article on 11 October 1918, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle concluded that: “The argument against active self-defence, the surest of which, is counter-attack, is the well-known one – suppose our counter-attack fails? But that is, in essence, cowardice. This way lies disintegration and defeat. This way lies biting the dust of our eternal heritage. It were far better to fail in a counter-attack against the enemies of our people; it were far better to fail in active self-defence than not to try. It were far better to fall than to allow the ruthless, venomous Chestertons and Bellocs et hoc genus to trample upon our prostrate bodies with their brutal, heavy-footed, relentless anti-Semitism. Hit back! Hit back! Hit back! is the lesson for us, to be learnt by us from the ages through which we have lived” .
The Jewish World also criticised G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. For example, a series of articles from 23 June through to 22 September 1920, criticised Chesterton for suggesting that the Anglo-Jewish newspapers published the honour rolls of German-Jewish soldiers killed in the war, with the added twist being that Chesterton claimed that this was by no means unreasonable as Jewry constituted a separate and distinct nation . “Mr. Chesterton,” the Jewish World concluded, “now pretends that he does not see why we are so anxious to repudiate his allegation. That is really touching. He starts out to show that English Jews are not loyal to this country though they are its citizens, and then expresses surprise that we desired to repel the insinuation by showing that the proof he relies upon is false” .
For more examples from the Jewish Chronicle and Jewish World, I would recommend an article by Dean Rapp, “the Jewish Response to G. K. Chesterton’s Antisemitism, 1911-33,” published in Patterns of Prejudice .
Chesterton’s The New Jerusalem, published in 1920, argued that Jews could never be proper Englishmen. Chesterton suggested that Zionism should be supported as a way of getting rid of the Jews in England, and that those Jews who choose to remain in England rather than travel to Palestine once that option has been made available to them should be given a so-called “special position best described as privilege; some sort of self-governing enclave with special laws.” “Privilege” was one of Chesterton’s and Belloc’s frequent euphemisms for segregation. Exhibiting his prejudice and stereotypes about both Arabs and Jews, Chesterton suggested that Jews by law should be obliged to go about “dressed like an Arab” . The Jewish Guardian responded by stating that Chesterton had contrived to “write a really stupid book.” The paper suggested that Chesterton would probably “account it a sign of inherited financial preoccupation if one poor Jewish bookman remarks that 12s. 6d. is a high price to exact for 300 empty pages” . On 11 November 1921, the Jewish Guardian reported a lecture by Chesterton to a Jewish organisation called the “Ghetto Circle.” The paper suggested that Chesterton proposed to discuss “national traditions in Europe,” whilst the Ghetto Circle “no doubt would discuss whether he was an anti-Semite.” The Jewish Guardian concluded that this “seemed a very fair division of labour” .
In conclusion, the fact that some Jews have defended Chesterton as a saint does not prove that he was not an antisemite; and in fairness, the fact that some Jews have argued that he was an antisemite does not by itself prove that he was. The case must be decided on the basis of the evidence (i.e. what he wrote as a journalist and author) and not the claim that some Jews have defended him, or the myth that the Wiener Library defends him.
Notes for G. K. Chesterton and the Anglo-Jewish Newspapers
1. Richard Ingrams, “More sinner than saint,” Tablet, 12 October 2013, 9.
2. G. B. Stern, The way it worked out (London: Catholic Book Club, ), 106. See also G. B. Stern, All in Good Time (London: Sheed and Ward, ), 63.
3. Joseph Pearce, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996), 448.
4. “A Reckless Charge,” Jewish Chronicle, 14 June 1918, 4.
5. G. K. Chesterton, At the Sign of the World’s End, New Witness, 21 June 1918, 148.
6. Leopold Greenberg [Mentor, pseud.], “Hit Back! Hit Back! Hit Back!,” In the Communal Armchair, Jewish Chronicle, 11 October 1918, 7.
7. See Jewish World: “Englishman and Jew” and “An Astounding Statement,” 23 June 1920, 3-4; “Mr. Belloc and the ‘Jewish World,’” 14 July 1920, 2-3; “Now then, Mr. Chesterton!,” 21 July 1920, 3; “Our Challenge to the ‘New Witness,” 28 July 1920, 3; “The Witness,” 18 August 1920, 3; “Mr. Chesterton and the ‘Jewish World,’” 25 August 1920, 2; “Mr. Chesterton and the ‘Jewish World,’” 1 September 1920, 2; “Mr. Chesterton and the ‘Jewish World,’” 8 September 1920, 8-9; “Mr. Chesterton’s ‘Roll,’” 22 September 1920, 2.
8. “Why?,” Around the World, Jewish World, 22 September 1920, 2.
9. Dean Rapp, “The Jewish Response to G. K. Chesterton’s Antisemitism, 1911-33,” Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 24, nos. 2-4, 1990.
10. G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Thomas Nelson, ), 227, 248.
11. “‘G.K.C.’ in Jerusalem,” Jewish Guardian, 3 December 1920, 7.
12. “Mr. G. K. Chesterton at the Ghetto Circle,” Jewish Guardian, 11 November 1921, 4.