The name Israel means “The one who wrestles with God.” It was given to Jacob, the Number Three Hebrew Patriarch, after an all-night bout with the Angel of the Lord. And the people of Israel have indeed been wrestling with God ever since. They have also been wrestling with everybody else. Being The Chosen People may have certain advantages, but it is also a tremendous burden, whether in carrying a sacred ark across a desert or maintaining an exclusive place of worship or dealing with a carpenter who claims to be divine or being scattered across the world as a nation without a country or, most recently, becoming a country without a world.
G.K. Chesterton says, “The world owes God to the Jews.” Higher praise would be hard to come by. He calls them a “noble and historic” people, but he, too, is aware of their ongoing wrestling match with God and neighbor. He says, “Jews are a race in a unique and unnatural difficulty, cutting them off from the creative functions of a soil and the fighting responsibilities of a flag.” Their social and political dilemmas are not their fault, but their own plight has caused problems for Christians, whose traditions are entangled with theirs. Chesterton sincerely tries to disentangle all of it, and if nothing else, understand it. Solving riddles is his work as well as his play.
Consistently attacking racial theories, dismantling determinist philosophies and doubting conspiracy theories, Chesterton lays out a philosophy in his writing that represents complete thinking. And we see all of him in it. There is no secret Chesterton. He is truly an open book. He has explained himself better than anyone else has ever explained him. He has done it by being immensely prolific and profound, immensely quotable and open-hearted. What is most evident in his voluminous writings is his joy and his love of truth. He is a good man, and people have been drawn to that goodness. He tells the truth, and people are drawn to that truth as well. Yet there are people who find his truth-telling irritating. Unable to attack his truth, they attack his goodness in order to discredit his truth. The reasoning is that truth spoken by a hypocrite may be disregarded.
Unfortunately for Chesterton’s critics, the facts of his life have not fit their theories. It keeps turning out that he really is good, perhaps even heroically good. And so it has proved much easier to ignore him than to contest him. Ignoring him has proved to be an effective strategy: this literary giant is strangely absent from the curriculum, this once popular figure left out of early 20th century history, this master of controversy not invited to be part of the public debate. However, just in case a Chesterton revival should kick in and he show up again and get noticed, his critics always keep ready a reliable handful of mud that can be flung at him to make him go away again. This Chesterton, they say, was, as everyone knows, an anti-Semite. A rabid anti-Semite. Therefore, not only can he not be a saint, he cannot even be taken seriously. Case closed again. Crisis averted. It was right to have ignored him.
But those of us who love Chesterton are distressed by that ugly accusation. And, though it seems to come as a shock, those of us who love Chesterton do not hate the Jews. And what is even more shocking, Chesterton does not hate the Jews, either.
Ann Farmer has devoted an entire book to the subject. The result of years of research, it is longer than most biographies of Chesterton. She has made a thorough and nearly exhaustive case defending him against the charge that has continually and recklessly been brought against him. So let it be proclaimed still again: G.K. Chesterton is not an anti-Semite. And since that term is a slippery one, let us be even more specific: He does not hate the Jews. He is not their enemy. His ideas did not contribute to that tragedy that is the flashpoint of the 20th century: Hitler’s systematic attempt to annihilate the Jewish people in the Holocaust. Though Chesterton never lived to see it happen, he warned the world that it could happen. And he had hoped to prevent it.
In criticizing the critics, one has to walk a tightrope, because in defending someone against the charge of anti-Semitism one can in the process get the label stuck to oneself. Ann Farmer keeps her balance. She is careful and calm, scholarly and objective in presenting a massive amount of material with almost three thousand footnotes. She not only allows Chesterton to explain and defend himself, but she gives his accusers plenty of time at the podium. In citing both the periodicals of his own time and the scholarly studies on anti-Semitism since, she reveals one very troubling trend: Chesterton is constantly misrepresented and misconstrued, his comments torn out of context, his arguments disparaged and dismissed. The literature repeats the anti-Semite epithet relentlessly and reflexively, and—especially in the case of London’s Jewish Chronicle—with the worst adjectives and under inflammatory headlines. It is not surprising that Chesterton writes as much as he does about the subject: he is responding to what has been written about him. He shows much more graciousness and patience than is shown to him. For the most part he jokes about the “legend” of his anti-Semitism, but his wife Frances confided in a diary that he was “not a little hurt” by the accusation.
Jews have every right to be on guard against hatred and hostility toward themselves. However, because of an often hair-trigger sensitivity on the subject, most Gentiles are very hesitant ever to venture any criticism at all of the Jews. Chesterton is not. It is a matter of impartiality; he distributes his criticism to everyone and without malice. With America, he denounces Rockefeller and Carnegie and Ford on philosophical grounds, along with American “hustle” and commercialism. Yet he praises the democratic experiment, the pioneer spirit, and “the typical American” as opposed to “the ideal American.” With Germany, he calls out the dangerous fallacies in Bismarck and Hitler and the “German Professors” and Prussianism (which is militarism and racialism), but he praises the German peasant, German music, and of course, German beer. With his native England, he openly attacks imperialism, industrial capitalism, a corrupt Parliament, and a crumbling culture, but he praises the countryside, the thatched roofs, the English sense of humor, and the pub. With the Jews, he praises their loyalty to their families and to each other, their stubborn refusal to let their own identity disappear, their great intelligence and creativity. But he explains his concerns about the “cosmopolitan” Jew, and the “secular” Jew, and the “financial” Jew. The first is not restrained by a patriotism to the country in which he lives, the second is not restrained by his religion, and the third is not restrained by anything. None of the three represent the whole of the Jewish people or even the majority, but they represent a problem for the Jews. To deny the problem does not solve it. It is pointless to talk about Shylock and not mention the word “usury.” He warns: “A race simply rushes on to ruin when it thus ignores all that other people say about it.”
It is true that Chesterton’s harping on international finance being controlled by Jews can be compared with Hitler’s harping on the same subject. But looking in a rearview mirror one tends to see things backwards. Chesterton may have blamed international banking on a few rich Jewish families, but Hitler blamed everything on all the Jews. And the proposed solutions are quite different. Chesterton only wanted to destroy the banks. Hitler wanted to destroy the Jews. Especially forgotten is that Chesterton is one of the earliest critics of Hitler when the rest of Europe, especially England, is still asleep. And he lambastes Hitler for picking on the most famous scapegoat in history.
While attempting to present a balanced portrait, Ann Farmer concedes, sometimes too easily, that Chesterton makes some unfavorable observations of the Jews, and she does not always expand more fully on his favorable comments. She generally reports the hostile criticisms of Chesterton without any filter, but at a couple points she quietly observes that his critics come off as not only paranoid but savage. The evidence shows that they have failed utterly to understand Chesterton, and they have wrongly portrayed him as an enemy. Even if they do not agree with his assessment of the problem, even if they resent it being presented as a “problem,” they are unfair and dishonest when they characterize Chesterton as being malicious. She argues persuasively that Chesterton’s main motive is the safety of the Jews because he sees that their position in Europe is insecure. It explains why he was enlisted by Jewish Zionists at a time when many Jews were not Zionists themselves.
She also explains how Gilbert Keith Chesterton was drawn into a complicated controversy that he might have been able to approach differently had not his brother Cecil been sued for libel by Godfrey Isaacs, a Jewish businessman who had been implicated in the Marconi Scandal, a case of insider trading that involved British cabinet members, one of whom was Godfrey’s brother Rufus. Ironically, Chesterton’s loyalty to his own brother made him understand the loyalty of the Isaacs brothers.
A significant section of the book is given to exploring the ideas of George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, both of whom had much more distasteful theories about the Jews than Chesterton. They wanted the Jews to assimilate and thereby disappear, and they did not rule out heavy-handed, tyrannical measures to see their goals achieved. But their reputations have never suffered among the Jews the way Chesterton’s has. The reader is left to infer the reason: Chesterton is a Christian, the other two are not.
Though Ann Farmer writes at length about the Chesterbelloc, she concludes that G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc are actually two different people who have two different theories about the Jews, though they continue to be clumped together and regarded as one four-footed beast.
And then there is that old and unpermitted objection that some of his best friends are Jewish. But this argument cannot be so easily sneered at. There is not a believable explanation why the Jew-hating Chesterton has lifelong Jewish friends who adore him. There are even cases of Jews who do not want to meet him because of his reputation, but who become his friends and admirers after getting to know him and end up puzzled by what all the fuss was about. Ann Farmer gives quite a bit of space to the most interesting of these, the Jewish poet Humbert Wolfe, who regretted his earlier attitude toward Chesterton. And while he kept the company of Jews, G.K. resisted having anything to do with his own relative, the British fascist A.K. Chesterton. G.K. would not even answer A.K.’s letters. While Ann Farmer’s treatment of the “best friends” argument is well done, she will probably be taken to task for speculating that his very best friend, his wife Frances, was of Jewish descent.
In sum total, the book is a powerful defense of Chesterton, and the conclusion is especially provocative. Ann Farmer shows that Chesterton’s prophetic insights about the Jews have been unjustly ignored. Moreover, those who have criticized him for even saying there was a “Jewish Problem” have become the very people who are now saying there is an “Israel Problem”, but who, of course, are frightfully quick to deny that they are anti-Semitic.
This long libel against Chesterton must finally come to an end, and I hope that this fine book will help bring that about. His ideas about the Jews may not be convincing to everyone, but at least let it be admitted that he has loved and has not hated the Children of Israel. And let the Jews stand up with Rabbi Stephen Wise and say, “A blessing to his memory.”
Chesterton and the Jews: Friend, Critic, Defender
by Ann Farmer
Angelico Press, 2015
Paperback, 530 pages
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