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The debate: Was Chesterton an anti-Semite?

GK Chesterton: a ‘true saint of God’, or obsessed with ‘the Jewish problem’? (Getty)



Of all the writers won to Rome, GK Chesterton is among the most prized. The late convert was the happiest of Catholic warriors, an apologist whose epistles brimmed with cheerful pessimism and savoured the ironies of human fallibility. They also brimmed with anti-Semitism, one of the reasons recently given by the Bishop of Northampton for not opening a Cause for sainthood.

The decision has dismayed Chesterton’s vigorous disciples. Writing for Patheos, Mgr Eric Barr, a retired priest in the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois, deplores “the mediocrity of the British hierarchy” and their “attempt to assassinate the faith and integrity of a true saint of God”. American Chesterton Society president Dale Ahlquist insists his hero bore “not a wisp of hostility toward the Jews”, allowing only that some of his writings were “awkward by our modern standards of political correctness”.

I’m afraid not: Chesterton was an anti-Semite. In Chesterton’s Jews, Simon Mayers records statements such as “the Jewish
Problem, once regarded as a fad, is now recognised as a fact: and a fact which fills the world”; and “the Jewish Problem was capitalist long before it was communist”.

In seeking to rationalise persecution of Jews in the Middle Ages, Chesterton branded them “powerful”, “the capitalists of the age” and “the men with wealth banked ready for use”. To object to literary depictions of Jews as “the ruthless money-lender” or “the receiver of stolen goods” was “to complain of facts and probabilities”.

Even when Jews were not his direct target, he drew on grotesque caricatures, as in “The Logical Vegetarian”, an acid verse against priggish modernity:

Oh, I knew a Doctor Gluck,
And his nose it had a hook,
And his attitudes were anything but Aryan;
So I gave him all the pork
That I had, upon a fork
Because I am myself a Vegetarian.

Chesterton also sought to excuse the anti-Semitism of others, and not just his brother Cecil and friend Hilaire Belloc. After meeting Henry Ford, whose ferocious anti-Semitism impressed Hitler, Chesterton wrote: “If a man of that sort has discovered that there is a Jewish problem, it is because there is a Jewish problem. It is certainly not because there is an anti-Jewish prejudice.”

Ahlquist points to occasions when the polemicist condemned more extreme and violent persecutions of Jews – a risible rebuttal. Chesterton was not a philosemite for being less of an anti-Semite than others.

A common plea in mitigation is that Chesterton, who lived from 1874 to 1936, was a product of his time. Mgr Barr demands that “time-conditioned statements” be considered “in the context of Chesterton’s spirituality”, otherwise “every Catholic saint before Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate would be disenfranchised”. This is the weakest of defences. Chesterton has not been judged by an ahistorical standard: his anti-Semitism was noteworthy during his lifetime.

The author Rebecca West (1892-1983) accused him of “writhing in the paroxysm of anti-Semitic or anti-feminist hysterics”, citing his commentary on the 1913 Dublin strike, in which the socialist Dora Montefiore offered to rehouse the workers’ starving children in England until the dispute was over. Her efforts were physically resisted by the Dublin priesthood, spitting Anglophobia and conspiracy theories about a Protestant plot to convert Catholic babes. Chesterton’s argument was less artful still: Montefiore was a Jew. “The mere surname of one of the great Jewish financial houses,” he warned, “has probably done more harm than we can easily cure.” As was often the case, Chesterton was careful to reassign his anti-Semitism to others: “I am not talking about what I think; but about what the Dublin populace might rationally have been expected to think.”

Montefiore was not Jewish (though her husband was). Chesterton saw Jewish perfidy where even Irish nationalist clergy did not.

The time-and-place mitigation falls too, because it supposes that virtue is contingent on circumstance. This we do not believe. St John Paul II reaffirmed in Veritatis Splendor “the intrinsic and unbreakable bond between faith and morality”, and rejected the notion that moral decisions are “left to the judgment of the individual subjective conscience or to the diversity of social and cultural contexts”. Had Chesterton merely been caught up in the passions of his age, the Church could understand his folly, but it still could not venerate his character. Halos seldom attend those who join the crowd.

To canonise Chesterton would have done grave injury to the Holy See’s interfaith work. Pope Francis has declared that an anti-Semite cannot be a Christian, recognised the anti-Semitic intent behind many attacks on Israel, and during his pontificate the Vatican has ruled out institutional missionary efforts directed towards Jews.

At a time of rising anti-Semitism, we must redouble our efforts against an evil that Catholics have too rarely challenged and too often practised. Denying sainthood to an eloquent apostle of the faith is a small matter compared to the hurt and alarm his canonisation would cause “our elder brothers”.

Those who still wish to pursue his Cause ought to reflect on the words of the man himself: “Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.”

Stephen Daisley is a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail



Writing before the Holocaust, GK Chesterton was bound to be scrutinised through that lens, with every comment – and especially every joke – studied for its potential to lead to genocide: post hoc ergo propter hoc. It is claimed that Chesterton’s works “brimmed with anti-Semitism”, but Chesterton died before the Holocaust, and although calling someone “a product of his time” cannot excuse anti-Semitism, a more complex picture emerges when they are studied in context.

Chesterton reflected on issues from every angle, including his own, but many have painted a negative portrait by selectively quoting him.

Stephen Daisley cites Rebecca West’s criticism of Chesterton when Dora Montefiore, the wife of a Jewish banker, tried to bring to London the children of striking Dubliners. Without doubting her probity, Chesterton detected the Fabian socialist approach, and the strikers, supported by their priests, violently repelled the attempt. West accused Chesterton of anti-Semitism: Mrs Montefiore was not Jewish and, as a socialist, went to Dublin at the request of English workers.

However, like other minorities, the Irish were on the receiving end of prejudice, being seen as ignorant, drunken and feckless, and although Mr Daisley says that in interpreting their reaction Chesterton was “careful to reassign his anti-Semitism to others”. But clearly the strikers were unhappy with having their children taken away (as in the famine), possibly to be “de-Catholicised”. Typically, Chesterton’s article, “I Told You So” – which called for Irish independence – was a defence, not an attack.

Regardless of who was responsible, it seems strange to remove strikers’ children rather than providing financial support; and the Fabians did see education shaping the future by re-shaping young minds.

West – no fan of GKC’s – bore HG Wells’s child out of wedlock and advocated sex education, the very antithesis of Chesterton’s approach to marriage, children and family. (Despite her political and sexual radicalism she later married a banker.)

Chesterton distrusted all millionaires but defended the poor, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Anti-capitalist but also anti-socialist, he was criticised on all sides, but although he “was not a philosemite for being less of an anti-Semite than others”, those others expressed views that sound equally blunt to our ears.

Public figures from Winston Churchill to Wells proposed remedies for the “Jewish problem” – the seemingly endless cycle of anti-Jewish persecution – all shaped by their worldviews. As patriots, Churchill and Chesterton embraced Zionism; both were among the first to defend the Jews from Nazism.

West embraced racial theories, but the “anti-Semite” Chesterton rejected them long before the rise of Nazism; and his initial defence of American millionaire Henry Ford – who financed publication of the anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – turned to criticism over Ford’s attitude to Zionism. Mr Daisley says “an anti-Semite cannot be a Christian”, and it would indeed be remarkable for a racist to worship a Jew, as Christianity demands. Far from hailing fascism, in 1933, Chesterton’s “The Other Cheek” ridiculed “Adolf the Aryan” and poured scorn on the New German Protestants for erasing Jewish references from Christianity.

Chesterton found all noses – including his own – hilarious; the oft-quoted “Logical Vegetarian” verse satirised race theories and vegetarianism long before the two obsessions were combined in Hitler. But in the same work he foresaw the resurgent power of Islam and its promotion by the ruling classes.

He did however suffer from association with his combative younger brother Cecil, who embroiled GKC in the notorious Marconi case, involving Jewish politicians and “insider dealing” in Marconi shares. GKC loyally defended him, and after Cecil’s death at the end of the Great War he saw it as “a sacred trust” to carry on his brother’s paper, The New Witness. However, while grief briefly but seriously unbalanced GKC, leading him to emphasise Jewish “difference” – but also influenced by the Zionists Theodor Herzl and Israel Zangwill – there was a qualitative contrast in his approach. Playful rather than fierce, although not an anti-Semite, he echoed some of Cecil’s points, albeit in a more conciliatory way. However, his conversion to the Catholic Church seemed to turn the page on Cecil’s obsession. A defender of Jews in his youth – a conciliator as well as a defender – GKC returned to the defence when the Jewish people needed it most.

Such issues have been addressed in my book Chesterton and the Jews and also Denis Conlon’s GK Chesterton: A Reappraisal, Joseph Pearce’s Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of GK Chesterton, William Oddie’s The Holiness of GK Chesterton, and Dale Ahlquist’s Knight of the Holy Ghost. Chesterton’s massive output does not “brim with anti-Semitism”. It is rather that the same examples are advanced time and time again; but they still jar to modern ears – as well they should, for we must never become inured even to that which can be explained by the historical context.

Today, both Catholicism and Judaism are under pressure: Rebecca West would applaud schoolchildren receiving compulsory sex education, indoctrinating them in left-wing progressivism; ironically, their unhappy parents are regarded as fundamentalists even while real religious extremists threaten Israel’s survival, emboldened by the same Western, left-wing worldview that regards Israel as illegitimate and ignores the plight of the most persecuted religion worldwide: Christianity.

Ex-Labour politician Ken Livingstone claims Hitler was a Zionist, despite Hitler seeing Zionism as a Jewish plot; and while the Far Right denies the Holocaust, some on the Left dismiss Holocaust concerns as a distraction from Israel’s “racism”, failing to recognise the anti-Semitism in their own worldview – one that emphasises minority rights, inspired by the horrors of the Holocaust.

It would be tragically ironic if we were so busy condemning individuals who died before the Holocaust that we failed to prevent a new genocide arising from developments long ago foreseen by Chesterton.

Ann Farmer is the author of Chesterton and the Jews (Angelico Press)