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G. K. Chesterton’s “Daft” Suggestion: “Every Jew must be dressed like an Arab”
According to a report in the Catholic Herald on 3 March 2014, Canon John Udris, who has been appointed to conduct an initial fact-finding investigation into the possibility of starting a Cause for the canonization of G. K. Chesterton, observed that the accusation of antisemitism was the main obstacle to the Cause. According to the report, Canon Udris observed that “Chesterton said some ‘daft things’, including a suggestion that Jewish people should wear distinctive dress to indicate they were outsiders.” He concluded that: “You can understand why people make the assumption that he is anti-Semitic. But I would want to make the opposite case.” Mark Greaves, “G K Chesterton ‘breaks mould of conventional holiness’, says Cause investigator,” Catholic Herald (online), 3 March 2014.
The most notable instance of this “daft” suggestion – “quaint” but “quite serious” according to Chesterton – can be found in The New Jerusalem (1920). Chesterton argued that the Jews in England should be allowed to occupy any occupation but with one important stipulation: “But let there be one single-clause bill; one simple and sweeping law about Jews, and no other. Be it enacted, by the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and the Commons in Parliament assembled, that every Jew must be dressed like an Arab. Let him sit on the Woolsack, but let him sit there dressed as an Arab. Let him preach in St. Paul’s Cathedral, but let him preach there dressed as an Arab. It is not my point at present to dwell on the pleasing if flippant fancy of how much this would transform the political scene; of the dapper figure of Sir Herbert Samuel swathed as a Bedouin, or Sir Alfred Mond gaining a yet greater grandeur from the gorgeous and trailing robes of the East. 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.” G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Thomas Nelson, ), 227.
This was not the first time that Chesterton had suggested that Jews should be required to wear distinctive Arab clothing. In fact, Chesterton’s suggestion that all Jews should be legally required to wear distinctive “Arab costume” when in public was a part of his peculiarly Chestertonian construction of the Jew (exhibiting his caricatures and stereotypes about both Arabs and Jews). For example, in 1913, seven years prior to The New Jerusalem, he had already harked back to the Middle Ages for his solution to the so-called Jewish Problem. He observed that in the Middle Ages it was felt that the Jews, “whether they were nice or nasty, whether they were impotent or omnipotent… were different.” He noted that this recognition was expressed by “a physical artistic act, giving them a definite dwelling place and a definite dress.” This was a clear allusion to the ghetto and the Jew hat. Chesterton however had different ideas about appropriate though equally distinctive clothing. The Jews, he argued, should be required by law to “wear Arab costume.” “By all means let [a Jew] be Lord Chief Justice; but let him not sit in wig and gown, but in turban and flowing robes.” He observed that the “modern mood” is such that “I must advance it as a joke,” but he regarded it as a very real issue. He concluded that “if the Jew were dressed differently we should know what he meant; and when we were all quite separate we should begin to understand each other.” Similarly, in 1914, he stated in his regular column in the Illustrated London News, that the Jews may one day come to realize that they risk trading the faith of Moses and Isaiah for that of the Golden Image and the Market Place, and they may “wish they were sitting like an Arab in a clean tent in a decent desert.” G. K. Chesterton, “What shall we do with our Jews?”, New Witness, 24 July 1913, 370; G. K. Chesterton, Our Notebook, Illustrated London News, 28 February 1914, 322.