Chesterton's alleged 'anti-Semitism'


The question of G.K. Chesterton's 'anti-semitism' has been thoroughly discussed in many biographies and journals. Chesterton certainly made anti-Jewish remarks, which today's G.K. Chesterton Institute has no wish to condone or defend. These remarks, however, need to be undertood in their social and historical context, not in order to whitewash Chesterton, but to see how they do not invalidate his entire intellectual or spiritual legacy.

Above all they need to be read in the light of important statements he made repudiating anti-semitism towards the end of his life (he died in 1936, i.e. before the Second World War). As Kevin L. Morris writes in his C.T.S. booklet G.K. Chesterton (1994), Chesterton's prejudice was largely political in nature, bound up with his opposition to plutocracy and the 'sleaze' of his day, in which several prominent Jewish figures were implicated at the time:

'far from being a racist, he ridiculed racism, had Jewish friends, admired individual Jews, valued the Jewish faith, wanted the Jews to have the dignity of a Jewish nation-state, and, with the rise of Nazi Germany, denounced the persecution of the Jews.' 'I am quite ready to believe now,' he said, 'that Belloc and I will die defending the last Jew in Europe'.

In the biography Gilbert (Jonathan Cape, 1989, pp. 209-11), Michael Coren noted Chesterton's profound literary and personal friendship with the Jewish writer Israel Zangwill (not, by the way, his only such friendship), his cordial meetings with Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, and the important statement by the Wiener Library (London's archive on anti-semitism and Holocaust history) that Chesterton was never seriously anti-semitic: 'he was not an enemy, and when the real testing time came along he showed what side he was on.'

For its part, the G.K. Chesterton Institute wishes to build on the positive legacy of Chesterton and the writers associated with him, purifying that legacy of the mistakes of judgment that afflict imperfect and inconsistent men and women embroiled in the controversies and ethos of their day. Anti-semitism is incompatible with the Christian religion, a religion that G.K. Chesterton did more than most to defend, explain and represent in a life and writings that many Jews have loved as well as Christians.

Ian Boyd C.S.B. | S. Caldecott | A. Mackey
G.K. Chesterton Institute