Opinion & Features

Chapter & Verse: The roots of Belloc’s prejudice

Hilaire Belloc’s anti-Semitism was arguably more French than English (Getty)

“The anti-Semite is a man so absorbed in his subject that he at last loses interest in any matter, unless he can give it some association with his delusion, for delusion it is.” This is a statement with which one is unlikely to take exception.

Many, however, might be surprised to find that its author was Hilaire Belloc, and that it comes from what he called “my admirable Yid book” – The Jews. Belloc recognised that the prejudice against Jews was generally irrational. Nevertheless, he was sure that there was a “Jewish problem”, and in that book he predicted that the antagonism – the natural antagonism – between the Jews and Europeans would lead to the most terrible persecution. That book was published in 1922 when Hitler was still ranting in Munich beer cellars.

The date is important – first because despite this warning the Holocaust was then scarcely imaginable. Accordingly one must judge Belloc’s own anti-Semitism in the context of the time. Edwardian England had known two sorts of Jew: plutocrats in Mayfair and the City, and poor refugees from Tsarist persecution who congregated in the East End of London and in poor quarters of northern industrial cities. When Belloc and his friends talked of “the Yids” and made what we now recognise as anti-Semitic remarks, it was usually the bankers and financiers they were thinking of.

There was a side of Belloc that was deadly serious when he spoke and wrote of the incompatibility of Europe and the Jews. There was also a side that, in the manner of clever adolescents, liked to shock. Much of the Bible was “Yiddish folklore”; St Paul was a frightful liar, lying as only “Yids” can lie. And such like. This amused some, offended others – and Belloc took pleasure in giving offence.

Although he recognised the irrationality of the obsessed anti-Semite, he wasn’t free of it himself. Belloc’s father (who died young and whom he scarcely remembered) was French, his mother English, a Catholic convert from a liberal Nonconformist family, and his anti-Semitism was, I should say, more French than English. He was a young man in his 20s – and still a French citizen – when France was divided and obsessed by the Dreyfus Affair. When Captain Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew, was convicted of espionage on what would eventually prove to have been forged evidence, anti-clerical republican France was ranged against Catholic France and the army. Those who insisted on Dreyfus’s guilt were moved by the conviction that a Jew could not be a patriotic Frenchman and that he had other allegiances.

The French Right was virulently anti-Semitic, the royalist and Catholic newspaper Action Française leading the way. Belloc himself was an anti-Dreyfusard. More than 40 years later, when almost everyone accepted that Dreyfus had been the victim of anti-Semitic prejudice and conspiracy, Belloc was still saying “poor darling, he was guilty as sin”. Did he believe this, or was he obstinately playing a part? Impossible to say.

At the heart of Belloc’s attitude to the Jews was his insistence that they were different. Different in religion and culture, different in their traditions and different in race. That last word is no longer permissible. We are unwilling, since the Holocaust, to speak of a Jewish race, indeed of race at all. It was different when Belloc was a young man, when he believed that the Boer War had been fought in the interest of Jewish financiers, and made hay with the involvement of Jews in the Marconi scandal.

Hitler made anti-Semitism unforgivable and inexpressible for a generation and more. That was how it was when AN Wilson’s admirable biography of Belloc was published in 1984. He wrote of Belloc’s attitude to the Jews with tact, placing it in the context of the world before Hitler. Now anti-Semitism has resurfaced: there is neo-Nazi anti-Semitism, still confined to the lunatic fringe; there is Muslim anti-Semitism, not only in the Middle East but also here in Britain and in France; and there is liberal or left-wing anti-Semitism, evident in the British Labour Party. A distinction is often made: hatred is directed, it is said, at the state of Israel and its policies in the occupied West Bank, not at Jews as such. But the distinction is often blurred, and sometimes, one thinks, dishonestly maintained.

Belloc was an anti-Zionist: no good would come of founding a Jewish state in Palestine. He believed this would exacerbate anti-Jewish feeling in Europe. He didn’t, I think, give much thought to the Palestinian Arabs – except for those who were Christian. When he met Pope Benedict XV in 1916, the Holy Father expressed his disapproval of encouraging Jews to return to the Holy Land.

C’est une honte [shame],” he told Belloc. This was a year before the Balfour Declaration. The Pope’s attitude, Wilson suggested in his Belloc book, seems “mediaeval … grotesquely religious”. Now, in the light of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it may rather appear prescient – likewise Belloc’s disapproval of Zionism. Yet, while Belloc’s analysis of what he called the “Jewish Problem” may seem acute, he had no credible solution. Perhaps the English way, which has been to deny that there is a problem, is more sensible. Heads in the sand may do less harm than voices raised in anger or hatred.

Allan Massie is the Catholic Herald’s chief book reviewer