Home » Antisemitism » Ian Ker on G. K. Chesterton’s so-called “Semitism”

Ian Ker on G. K. Chesterton’s so-called “Semitism”

Ian Ker’s biography of G. K. Chesterton, published in 2011, seems to be widely regarded as the most comprehensive study of Chesterton to date. It is therefore instructive to see how Ian Ker deals with the accusation that Chesterton was antisemitic. Employing Chesterton’s own words, Ker notes that Chesterton and his friends (i.e. Hilaire Belloc and the staff at the New Witness) were often rebuked for “so-called ‘Anti-Semitism’; but it was ‘always much more true to call it Zionism.’” And this would seem to be the main basis for Ker’s defence of Chesterton, the argument that he was not antisemitic because he was a keen Zionist. Chesterton’s sympathy for Zionism soon waned, and by 1925 his editorials in G.K.’s Weekly were ambivalent if not deprecating towards Zionism (link for more on this). Putting aside the fact that Chesterton’s so-called Zionism largely evaporated in the mid-1920s, the very reasons given for his support of Zionism serve to further demonstrate Chesterton’s distorted views about Jews. Again defending Chesterton and his friends in Chesterton’s own words, Ian Ker argues that the substance of “their ‘heresy’” was “in saying that Jews are Jews; and as a logical consequence that they are not Russian or Roumanians or Italians or Frenchmen or Englishmen.” Ker notes that Chesterton pointed out that his Zionism was based on “the theory that any abnormal qualities in the Jew”, such as being “traders rather than producers” and “cosmopolitans rather than patriots”, are “due to the abnormal position of the Jews.” The claims that “the Jew” has “abnormal qualities” (even if “the Jew” is patronisingly excused rather than blamed for having these abnormal qualities), and that he or she cannot really be English, French, German or Italian, and neither contributes nor feels patriotism for the countries within which he or she lives – views that I am confident Ian Ker does not share with Chesterton – are not just deprecating (so much for the Jews who fought and died for their countries during the First and Second World Wars), but also rooted in pervasive anti-Jewish myths and stereotypes. And yet Ker seems to agree with Chesterton that his “Zionism” was “Semitism” rather than “Anti-Semitism: “if that was ‘Anti-Semitism’, then Chesterton was an ‘Anti-Semite’ – but it would seem more rational to call it Semitism.” I cannot help wondering, if someone was to make similarly unacceptable and bigoted claims about Catholics – and indeed the prejudiced claim was often made in England during the 19th century that Catholics were different, dangerous and disloyal (English Jews and Catholics both having to fight for their emancipation during the 19th century) – and argue that English Catholics should be encouraged to depart England for a Catholic country, and that those who choose to remain should be required to wear distinctive clothing, would Ian Ker regard such prejudiced statements as “Anti-Catholic” or “Catholic”. And if he concluded that they were Anti-Catholic, why is he happy to regard Chesterton’s views as “Semitism” rather than “Anti-Semitism”? In my mind, prejudices, whether anti-Catholic or anti-Jewish (or anti- any other cultural group), are simply unacceptable. See Ian Ker, G. K. Chesterton: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 419-420.

In fairness, Ian Ker does acknowledge that the history of persecutions and pogroms in Europe “should have made Chesterton more cautious in what he said about the Jews.” However, Ker then argues that there were “mitigating” circumstances that should be taken into account. He suggests that Chesterton made these statements after his “beloved brother had died in a patriotic war soon after being found guilty in a libel case brought by a Jewish businessman who had effectively corrupted politicians in the Marconi scandal” and also after “international finance, in which Jews were very prominent, had played a not inconsiderable part in leaving Germany only partially weakened by the Treaty of Versailles.” According to Ker: “When, then, Chesterton demands that any Jew who wishes to occupy a political or social position … ‘must be dressed like an Arab’ to make it clear that he is a foreigner living in a foreign country, we need to bear those factors in mind.” Putting aside the dubious stereotype of the corrupt Jewish plutocrat, there are other flaws in these so-called “mitigating” circumstances. Firstly, Chesterton stated that it was not just particular Jews – or Jews seeking to “occupy a political or social position” as Ker suggests – that should be made to wear the robes of an Arab, but rather “every Jew must be dressed like an Arab”. Chesterton explained that: “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.” Secondly, Chesterton did not, as Ker suggests, wait until his brother’s death (in December 1918) or the Treaty of Versailles (signed in June 1919) to make these dubious claims. For example, he had already argued that “our Jews” should be required to wear the robes on an Arab in the pages of the New Witness in 1913. See Ian Ker, G. K. Chesterton: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 422-423. G. K. Chesterton, “What shall we do with our Jews?”, New Witness, 24 July 1913, 370; and G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Thomas Nelson, 1920), 227.

Referring to Zionism, Chesterton stated that: “For if the advantage of the ideal to the Jews is to gain the promised land, the advantage to the Gentiles is to get rid of the Jewish problem, and I do not see why we should obtain all their advantage and none of our own. Therefore I would leave as few Jews as possible in other established nations”. Jews leaving Europe was, Chesterton suggested, simply the best way to get rid of the so-called “Jewish Problem”. Chesterton’s defenders would seem to believe that this demonstrates Chesterton’s warm friendly sentiments to Jews, but as Owen Dudley Edwards quite rightly concluded in the Chesterton Review: “to say that a man wishes you and all your people to live somewhere else, is not to say that he likes you. It does mean that he doesn’t want to murder you, but if you call someone an anti-Semite you are not necessarily calling him a Hitler, real or potential.” See G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Thomas Nelson, 1920), 248; and Owen Dudley Edwards, “Chesterton and Tribalism,” Chesterton Review VI, no.1 (1979-1980), 37.


2 Comments

  1. Wow! The thought of asking anyone to wear identifying attire to remind them they are ‘foreign’ is horrendous. No overall race or culture is any better than any other but it would seem that that kernal of belief still survives and continues to lead us into war.

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