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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 sympathised with Zionism. 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 Arab costume”, 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, exhibiting his prejudice and stereotypes about both Arabs and Jews, he had already argued that “our Jews” should be required to wear “Arab costume” 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.

Zionism and “Privilege” according to G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc

G. K. Chesterton, like his friend Hilaire Belloc, believed that the so-called “Jewish problem” was an intrinsic fact. In What I Saw in America (1922), he observed that if Henry Ford, the American automobile industrialist and antisemitic author of The International Jew, had “discovered that there is a Jewish problem, it is because there is a Jewish problem.” Americans, he observed, have inherited “a prejudice against Anti-Semitism; a prejudice of Anti-Anti-Semitism,” and yet even they “found the Jewish problem exactly as they might have struck oil; because it is there, and not even because they were looking for it.” G. K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1922), 140-142.

Chesterton’s belief in the “Jewish problem” was manifest in a number of antisemitic stereotypes in his literature and journalism before and long after the Marconi Affair. The earliest example was the cowardly and secretive Jewish shopkeeper in “The Ball and the Cross,” which was first published as a feuilleton in the Commonwealth in 1905 and 1906, and later re-published as a book in 1910. G. K. Chesterton, “The Ball and the Cross,” Commonwealth: vol. 10, no. 3-12 (1905), and vol. 11, no. 1, 2, 4, 6, 11 (1906); G. K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross (London: Wells Gardner, Darton, 1910). The latest examples were a series of articles published in G.K.’s Weekly in the 1920s and 1930s. According to Chesterton, the greedy Jew, the Jewish Bolshevik, the Jewish coward, the unpatriotic Jew and the secretive Jew, were an intolerable irritant in Christian society. Chesterton also believed that Captain Dreyfus had probably been a German spy, arguing that the English press covered up all the evidence against him. He suggested that the heart of the matter was that the Jews living in England only masqueraded as Englishmen, rather than, as he conceived it, living openly as Jews. Chesterton fervently believed that to “recognize the reality of the Jewish problem is very vital for everybody and especially vital for Jews. To pretend that there is no problem is to precipitate the expression of a rational impatience, which unfortunately can only express itself in the rather irrational form of Anti-Semitism.” G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Thomas Nelson, 1920), 230-231.

Chesterton maintained his belief in the “Jewish problem” until the end of his life. In his Autobiography (1936), he stated that “I am not at all ashamed of having asked Aryans to have more patience with Jews or for having asked Anglo-Saxons to have more patience with Jew-baiters. The whole problem of the two entangled cultures and traditions is much too deep and difficult, on both sides, to be decided impatiently. But I have very little patience with those who will not solve the problem, on the ground that there is no problem to solve.” G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography (London: Hutchinson, 1936), 76.

It is often argued by his supporters that Chesterton could not have been antisemitic because he was a fervent supporter of Zionism. It is certainly true that motivated by his desire to solve the “Jewish Problem” by removing as many Jews from Europe as possible, Chesterton initially supported Zionism. Chesterton stated in The New Jerusalem (1920) 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.” G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Thomas Nelson, 1920), 248.

Jews leaving Europe was, Chesterton believed, simply the best way to remove the so-called “Jewish Problem”. Of course, as Owen Dudley Edwards rightly concluded in his essay 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.”  Owen Dudley Edwards, “Chesterton and Tribalism,” Chesterton Review VI, no.1 (1979-1980), 37.

In any case, Chesterton’s sympathy for Zionism did not last long. By 1925, the tone of his editorials in G.K.’s Weekly was ambivalent to Zionism. Zionism, one of his editorials argued, was falling into “the mud of mere commercialism.” The editorial suggested that there was “some good in the idea of Zionism; but Zionism does not include that good.” The purpose of Zionism, it observed, was to “relieve the pressure of the Jewish problem on all the other nations; to drain the Jewish element that lies everywhere in lakes or puddles, or wanders everywhere in streams or sewers, into that central sea of a real spiritual unity; the kingdom of Israel.” The problem, it contended, was that Zionism added a Jewish Problem in Palestine without diminishing it anywhere else. “We have,” it observed, “given him yet another country in which he can be an interloper and a nuisance.” The editorial concluded that the Jew is in Jerusalem as he is in any other part of the world, “but he is not at home there, for he cannot rest.” Another editorial in the paper stated that “the blow that destroyed our own Zionism was the Rutenberg Concession.” Chesterton observed that whilst he still believed in the concept of Zionism, he was now against the implementation of Zionism. He stated that he still believed in the idea of Zionism as a solution to the Jewish Problem, and that he would like to see it tried again. However, he now believed that Zionism should be attempted in some other place or places, such as Africa. Notes of the Week, G.K.’s Weekly, 4 April 1925, 27; G.K.’s Weekly, 2 May 1925, 126; Editor’s reply, The Cockpit, G.K.’s Weekly, 18 July 1925, 399-400.

For Belloc, the encounter between Jews and Christians was both a theological and socio-political conflict between fundamentally opposing factors. This can be seen in The Jews (1922). “The continued presence of the Jewish nation intermixed with other nations alien to it presents a permanent problem of the gravest character,” Belloc stated, and furthermore, he continued, “the wholly different culture, tradition, race and religion of Europe makes Europe a permanent antagonist to Israel.” Belloc drew his “solution” (i.e. a return to segregation) from the history of the Church. He explained that “wherever the Catholic Church is powerful, and in proportion as it is powerful, the traditional principles of the civilization of which it is the soul and guardian will always be upheld. One of these principles is the sharp distinction between the Jew and ourselves.” He stated that the “Catholic Church is the conservator of an age-long European tradition, and that tradition will never compromise with the fiction that a Jew can be other than a Jew. Wherever the Catholic Church has power, and in proportion to its power, the Jewish problem will be recognized to the full.” Belloc suggested that “recognition” was the solution successfully adopted by the Church for hundreds of years. He stated that segregation can be imposed by force or achieved by a mutual and amicable agreement in a way that satisfies both the “alien irritant” and the “organism segregating it.” Belloc hoped that the latter option could be adopted, with the Jews openly recognizing their “wholly separate nationality,” and the non-Jews, recognizing “that separate nationality, treating it without reserve as an alien thing, and respecting it as a province of society outside our own.” He argued that the term “segregation,” which he acknowledged “has a bad connotation,” may then be “replaced by the word recognition.” This he suggested was the most practical and moral solution. Hilaire Belloc, The Jews (London: Constable, 1922), 3-5, 209-210.

Belloc’s initial description of “recognition” implied that segregation would be “voluntary”. It was however a very odd sense of voluntariness. It was voluntary only if the Jews would embrace it; if they did not embrace it, it would be imposed anyway. At the end of his book he argued that if the proposal of recognition is “made on our side, the Jew may refuse any such bargain.” Belloc concluded that if he decides to “dig his heels in,” and continues to insist on full recognition as a Jew and as a member of “our” community, then “the community will be compelled to legislate in spite of him.” Recognition of separate national status would not be an abstract principle. He argued that Jewish institutions already in existence should be extended, such as Jewish schools, Jewish tribunals and the Jewish press, so that Jewish interaction with non-Jews can be minimised. He stated that once an atmosphere is created “wherein the Jews are spoken of openly, and they in their turn admit, define, and accept the consequences of a separate nationality in our midst,” then, finally, “laws and regulations consonant to it will naturally follow.” Belloc’s “solution” was to gradually return the Jews to a Jewish enclave or ghetto. Jews would be legally confined to operating within their own social and legal institutions and excluded from Christian civilisation. Hilaire Belloc, The Jews (London: Constable, 1922), 14, 271-274, 304.

Whilst Belloc employed the term “recognition” for his solution in The Jews in 1922, he had already outlined the core aspects of this solution in the Eye Witness in 1911, and referred to it as “privilege.” This was the exact same euphemism that Chesterton employed in the New Jerusalem in 1920. Whilst Chesterton initially supported Zionism and Belloc opposed it, there were significant similarities between their views. Chesterton stated that ideally “as few Jews as possible” would be left in other nations once they had the option of going to “the promised land,” and those who remain should, he suggested, be given “a special position best described as privilege; some sort of self-governing enclave with special laws.” “Of course,” he observed, “the privileged exile would also lose the rights of a native.” He stated that the Jews who remain in England should be allowed to occupy any occupation but with one important stipulation: they should be required to go about “dressed like an Arab.” He stated 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.” This so-called “privileged position,” he believed, should not only be assigned to those Jews who choose to remain in England when they can go to the New Jerusalem; if Zionism fails, he stated, “I would give the same privileged position to all Jews everywhere, as an alternative policy to Zionism.” Hilaire Belloc, “The Jewish Question: VIII. The End – Privilege,” Eye Witness, 26 October 1911, 588-589; G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Thomas Nelson, 1920), 227, 248.

The antisemitic proposition that Jews should be required to wear distinctive clothing was not a new idea to Chesterton. As early as July 1913, seven years prior to The New Jerusalem, he had already reported that in the Middle Ages, it was “felt about the Jews, whether they were nice or nasty, whether they were impotent or omnipotent, was that they were different.” Chesterton stated 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 Judenhut. Chesterton however had different ideas about appropriate though equally distinctive clothing. The Jews should not, he argued, be “excluded from any civic rights when they obey the civic order,” but conversely they should, Chesterton concluded, be required to “wear Arab costume.” He stated that: “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.” Chesterton 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.” G. K. Chesterton, “What shall we do with our Jews?”, New Witness, 24 July 1913, 370.

Whilst 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 prejudice against both Arabs and Jews), he closely followed Belloc in suggesting so-called “privilege” (i.e. segregation) as the alternative solution for those Jews who remained in England. Whilst they disagreed about Zionism, their solutions and terminology for the so-called “Jewish Problem”, at least for those Jews who remained in England, were very similar. This was summed up in the New Witness (the magazine that G. K. Chesterton owned and edited), according to which the “ideal solution” for getting rid of the Jews was Zionism, whereas the “alternative solution” was so-called “privilege (their euphemism for segregation). “The Case for Oscar Levy,” New Witness, 7 October 1921, 194.

For more on G. K. Chesterton’s antisemitic stereotypes of “the Jew” and his constructions of the so-called “Jewish problem” and its so-called “solution”, please see Chesterton’s Jews: Stereotypes and Caricatures in the Literature and Journalism of G. K. Chesterton (2013).