Home » Antisemitism » Cecil Chesterton and the Jews

Cecil Chesterton and the Jews

Cecil Chesterton (1879-1918), like his close friend and fellow journalist-author Hilaire Belloc, and his brother G. K. Chesterton, frequently caricatured and stereotyped Jews in his newspaper articles (in particular in the Eye Witness and New Witness newspapers). A number of studies of Jewish stereotypes have shown that over the centuries, “the Jews” have occupied a special place in the Christian imagination. Sometimes they are stereotyped and deprecated as diabolic villains, and sometimes they are stereotyped and praised as virtuous, but they are rarely portrayed simply as normal human beings, with the same failings, virtues and gifts as everyone else. There are “good Jews” and there are “bad Jews”, but in either case, the Jew is different, distinct, “the other”. This observation would seem to apply in particular to Cecil Chesterton. On the one hand Cecil denied that he was antisemitic, rejected any call for Jews to be persecuted, and stated that he liked “many” Jews as individuals. For Cecil, there was something peculiar, quaint and foreign about Jews. He could not help but obsess with them. He stated that “even the less pleasant of them interest me merely because they are Jews” [my emphasis]. He explained that this interest arose because “their peculiarities fascinate me; the curious and often unexpected differences in the attitude of the mind, which mark them off from us, arrest my intelligence and pique my curiosity.” According to Cecil, “Jewish virtues,” “manners” and “morals” are distinct from those of Englishmen, and if that could only be admitted, those virtues could be admired in the same way that “the quaint virtues of the Chinese commend our admiration.” He stated that: “One would readily say to a friend: ‘do come to dinner on Tuesday: I have a Chinese gentleman coming, and he ought to be extraordinarily interesting.’ When people can say that about a Hebrew gentleman, anti-Semitism will be at an end.” Cecil Chesterton, “Israel a Nation,” The British Review, May 1913, 161-169.

As others have noted, Cecil was one of the principal anti-Jewish agitators during the prominent Marconi Affair. As far as Cecil was concerned, even though only two Jewish individuals (the Isaacs brothers) were implicated in the scandal, and were not alone in being accused, it was nevertheless a quintessentially Jewish affair. During this episode, in a satirical legal defence in the Eye Witness newspaper, Cecil Chesterton (writing under his nom de plume of Junius) patronisingly “defended” Rufus Isaacs specifically as a Jew, arguing that as a Jew, Rufus Isaacs could not be judged by, or be expected to understand, the morality of a Christian civilisation. He claimed that Rufus hid his Jewishness because he shared the “shyness” and secrecy which was “hereditary” in his “race,” but that it was this very Jewishness that constituted the core of his defence. According to Cecil, Rufus Isaacs should not be tried in an English court by an English jury as he is “not an Englishman” but a Jew. “He is an alien,” Cecil surmised, “a nomad, an Asiatic, the heir of a religious and racial tradition wholly alien from ours. He is amongst us: he is not of us.” He could not, Cecil deduced, be fairly “expected to understand the subtle workings of that queer thing the Christian conscience”. Cecil continued to attack Rufus Isaacs and his brother Godfrey Isaacs in a series of antisemitic articles in the New Witness (the successor to the Eye Witness). According to Cecil, one can locate the roots of the prosperity and political power of the Isaacs, along with other Jewish families, such as the Samuels and Rothschilds, in “usury,” “gambling with the necessities of the people,” and the “systematic bribery of politicians.” In addition to the stereotype of the greedy Jew, he also invoked the image of Jewish secrecy. According to Cecil Chesterton, when “a Jew commits the contemptible act of changing his name into some ludicrous pseudo-European one,” it was his duty to “draw attention to the plain truth about it.” Cecil Chesterton [Junius], “For the Defence: III. In Defence of Sir Rufus Isaacs,” Eye Witness, 4 July 1912, 77-78; Cecil Chesterton [Junius], “An Open Letter to Mr. Israel Zangwill,” New Witness, 19 December 1912, 201.

Cecil Chesterton’s hostility towards Jews was not however confined to, or instigated by, the Marconi scandal. As early as 1905, in a little known book entitled Gladstonian Ghosts, Cecil Chesterton informed his readers that towards the end of the nineteenth century, the “unclean hands of Hebrew finance” had pulled “the wires” of the progressive “Tory revival”. Cecil went on to warn that “one of these days our Hebrew masters will say to us: ‘Very well. You object to conditions; you shall have none. We will import Chinamen freely and without restriction, and they shall supplant white men, not in the mines only, but in every industry throughout South Africa.’” Cecil Chesterton, Gladstonian Ghosts (London: S. C. Brown Langham, [1905]), 17-18, 107.

The image of the Jews as “smart” and “intelligent” has always been something of a double-edged stereotype. On the one hand intelligence is admired, but on the other hand it can be coupled with arrogance and shrewd cunning. Cecil Chesterton’s friend, Hilaire Belloc, provides a clear illustration of this ambivalent stereotype. According to Belloc, one of the marks of “the Jew” is the “lucidity of his thought.” At his best, the Jew may be a devoted scientist or great philosopher. According to Belloc, he is “never muddled” in argument. However, he then goes on to explain that there is “something of the bully” in the Jew’s “exactly constructed process of reasoning.”  A man arguing with a Jew, Belloc contended, may know the Jew to be wrong, but he feels the Jew’s “iron logic offered to him like a pistol presented at the head of his better judgement.” Hilaire Belloc, The Jews (London: Constable, 1922), 81. In 1908, in an anonymously published book entitled G. K. Chesterton: A Criticism, Cecil Chesterton combined the stereotype of the dangerously smart Jew with that of Jewish greed and usury. According to Cecil, Jews had brains, but they lacked all the honourable and chivalrous qualities of a gentleman. He asserted that “our aristocrats were proud of being strong, of being brave, of being handsome, of being chivalrous, of being honourable, of being happy, but never of being clever. The idea that brains were any part of the make-up of a gentleman was never dreamed of in Europe until our rulers fell into the hands of Hebrew moneylenders, who, having brains and not being gentlemen, read into the European idea of aristocracy an intellectualism quite alien to its traditions.” [Cecil Chesterton], G. K. Chesterton: A Criticism (London: Alston Rivers, 1908), 4-5.

Cecil also drew upon the myth of Jewish ritual murder – i.e. the blood libel – as part of his wider construction of Jewish villainy and foreignness. In March 1911, a thirteen year old Christian boy, Andrei Yushchinsky, went missing. His body was found a week later in a cave just outside Kiev. Approximately four months later, Mendel Beilis, a Ukrainian Jew, was accused of the murder. Initially the indictment was simply for murder, but subsequently the prosecution added the charge of ritual murder. This was based on a testimony by a lamplighter, who claimed that he had seen a Jew kidnap the child (the lamplighter apparently later confessed that he had been led into this testimony by the secret police). Beilis was accused of stabbing the child thirteen times, which was supposedly in accordance with a so-called Jewish rite; there was of course no such rite, and it was later revealed that there were over forty stab wounds. Beilis was incarcerated, tortured and interrogated, before finally being brought to trial and found innocent, after a two year wait, in September-October 1913. During this episode, antisemitic leaflets were circulated in Russia, suggesting that the Jews use the blood of Christian children to make Passover matzot, though a great many Russians also leapt to the defence of Beilis. On the international stage, so-called “experts” on the Jews and “ritual murder”, such as Father Pranaitis and authors for the Rome based journal, La Civiltà Cattolica, informed the world in gruesome detail about how Jews supposedly went about ritually murdering Christian children in order to obtain their blood for religious or magical rituals. La Civiltà Cattolica, a periodical constitutionally connected to the Vatican, published two articles which set out to present “medical opinion” to the effect that “death was brought about in three stages: the boy was stabbed in such a manner that all his blood could be collected, he was tortured, and finally his heart was pierced.” This alleged evidence was held by Civiltà Cattolica to indicate “ritual murder, which only Jews could perpetrate, since it required long experience.” “Jewish Trickery and Papal Documents – Apropos of a Recent Trial,” Civiltà Cattolica, April 1914, cited by Charlotte Klein, “Damascus to Kiev: Civiltà Cattolica on Ritual Murder,” in Alan Dundes, ed., The Blood Libel Legend (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 194-196.

In response to this episode, “the Beilis Affair,” Cecil Chesterton characterised Russian pogroms as something horrible, but also something to be understood as part of an ongoing “bitter historic quarrel” between Israel Zangwill’s people (i.e. “the Jews”) and the people of Russia. The “evidence of the pogroms”, he argued, points to a “savage religious and racial quarrel.” He suggested that it was sometimes “a naturally kindly people like the Russians [who] are led to perpetrate the atrocities,” and sometimes it was the “equally embittered” Jews, who, “when they got a chance of retaliating, would be equally savage.” Referring to the Beilis Affair, Cecil endorsed the blood libel, stating that: “An impartial observer, unconnected with either nation, may reasonably inquire why, if we are asked to believe Russians do abominable things to Jewish children, we should at the same time be asked to regard it as incredible … that Jews do abominable things to Russian children – at Kieff, for instance.” Israel Zangwill, a prominent Anglo-Jewish author and playwright, countered Cecil Chesterton’s accusation, noting that following his logic, we should have to accept that if hooligans throttle Quakers then Quakers must also be throttling hooligans. Zangwill also rightly pointed out that it was implausible that a Jew would murder a Christian child for ritual purposes considering no such ritual exists in Judaism. In response, Cecil Chesterton stated that “as to ‘ritual murder’, Mr. Zangwill, of course, knows that no sane man has ever suggested that it [ritual murder] was a ‘rite’ of the Jewish Church any more than pogroms are rites of the Greek Orthodox Church.” He then proceeded to clarify that what he and others had suggested, is that “there may be ferocious secret societies among the Russian Jews,” and that “as so often happens with persecuted sects, such societies may sanctify very horrible revenges with a religious ritual.” In other words, Cecil Chesterton accepted that responsible Jews did not go around committing ritual murder, but did suggest that a sect of fanatical and vengeful Jews did go around murdering Christian children following a “religious ritual”. Eleven years later, his brother, G. K. Chesterton, similarly suggested as part of his complex multifaceted construction of “the Jew,” that “ritual murder” had occasionally been committed by Jews, not by responsible practitioners of Judaism as such, but by “individual and irresponsible diabolists who did happen to be Jews”. Cecil Chesterton, “Israel and ‘The Melting Pot,’” New Witness, 5 March 1914, 566-567; Cecil Chesterton, “A Letter from Mr. Zangwill,” New Witness, 12 March 1914, 593-594; G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (London: Hodder and Stoughton, [1925]), 136.

Cecil Chesterton also revived the host desecration myth. He stated that “the Jews may or may not have insulted the Host, as was alleged. I do not know.” “But,” he continued, “I do know that they wanted to; because I know what a religion means, and therefore what a religious quarrel means.” This insight into what Cecil Chesterton considered expected conduct in a “religious quarrel” – and his belief that Jews would be involved in the destruction of host wafers, which hold no significance in Judaism – is revealing of his polemical and pugnacious anti-Jewish mindset. Cecil Chesterton, “Israel and ‘The Melting Pot,’” New Witness, 5 March 1914, 566.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: