There is a moral imperative to ask whether Chesterton was anti-Semitic

GK Chesterton is discussed in Edward Short's new book (AP)

My Jewish brother-in-law visited last weekend. He is proud of his Jewish heritage. His grandfather was an immigrant from Eastern Europe, who later bought a plot of barren land in what was then Palestine during the 1920s and turned it into a prosperous market garden that still flourishes today; his father, a keen Zionist, ran a small hotel in London; he regards himself as a secular, loyal, British Jew. It is Jewish culture rather than God which on his radar.

Seeing a book on my desk he picked it up and asked me what I thought of it. It was Chesterton and the Jews; Friend, Critic, Defender by Ann Farmer (published by Angelico Press). I pointed out that it is very hard to use a phrase such as “the Jews”, even conversationally in this post-Holocaust age. It will always seem to have a whiff of anti-Semitism about it, whether you like it or not.

I then said that Chesterton, who died in 1936, before the Nazi Final Solution had been thought out in detail but after the Nazi Party had come to power in Germany, was exercised by what he called “the Jewish question”: were British Jews patriots like other Englishmen or was there something intrinsically “foreign” about them? Was the activity of Jewish “financiers” and “plutocrats” to be deplored? Did they have a right to a homeland in Palestine?

My brother-in-law was entirely sympathetic to these (pre-Holocaust) concerns and was genuinely interested in the complexity of Chesterton’s attitude – to which I am sure I did not do justice. But even though I have not paid much attention to this aspect of GKC’s thought and writings until now it is obvious that Ann Farmer has done an extremely thoroughgoing job of it.

Indeed, she includes an enormous amount of in-depth and detailed information, not just about GKC’s own writings but about the writings of all his contemporaries on the “Jewish question”: George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, Hilaire Belloc, Churchill and Josiah Wedgwood among others. This is to place GKC’s own remarks – some of which today would strike us as offensive – in the context of British cultural life, roughly from 1900 until 1933, As Farmer points out, during this period anti-Semitism was “ubiquitous” and “insidious”; even the familiar protestation, “But some of my best friends are Jews” begins to sound a bit suspect.

If the phrase “anti-Semite” meant a racist attitude towards the Jews, GKC did not share it; indeed, like Churchill, he admired them as an admirable and gifted people. He also had individual Jewish friends from his schooldays at St Paul’s, to whom he stayed loyal throughout his life. He never thought of himself as anti-Semitic, equating this with violent attacks on the Jews. But he did go through a period when he sincerely believed that Jewish financial power was damaging – especially to the poor (he was always sympathetic to the underdog). This was also bound up with his belief that “in the absence of a homeland to absorb their formidable energies and talents, Jews would direct their loyalties to each other.”

Farmer makes it clear that when he saw what was happening in Germany during the 1930s GKC was shocked into defending the Jews. As Rabbi Stephen Wise wrote in a posthumous tribute to Chesterton, “When Hitlerism came he was one of the first to speak out with all the directness and frankness of a great and unabashed spirit.” As Farmer writes, his response to the evils of Nazism was that it “must be destroyed and the Jewish people preserved”.

Farmer argues that she has written her book because “there is a moral imperative to ask whether Chesterton was anti-Semitic or a candidate for sainthood; a prophet or a pariah.” He has an ever-growing number of admirers today and his most famous writings are constantly being reprinted. I would suggest that all who love Chesterton for his brilliance, his originality and his faith should read this scholarly, sympathetic and insightful study.