BY ED WEST
K CHES EATON was an anti-Semite who had an "ugly and obsessive" hatred ofJews, according to a leading American magazine.
Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker magazine to mark the centenary of The Man Who Was Thursday, accused the celebrated Catholic author and journalist of possessing a "troubling" anti-Semitism. "Chesterton is a difficult writer to defend," he writes. 'Those of us who are used to pressing his writing on friends have the hard job of protecting him from his detractors, who think he was a nasty antiSemite and medievalising reactionary, and the still harder one of protecting him from his admirers. who pretend that he was not."
Mr Gopnik, one of America's most respected essay writers, also said that Chesterton's Jew-hatred was linked to his Catholicism, saying he was attracted by the Church's "authoritarian and poetic" solutions.
"And right around here is where the Jew-hating comes in." he said. "A reader with a casual interest in Chesterton's life may have a reassuring sense, from his fans and friendly biographers, that his anti-Semitism really isn't all that bad... that he had flushed it out of his system by the mid-20s and anyway, that it was part of the time be lived in... Unfortunately, a little reading shows that there's a lot of it, that it comes all the time, and that the more Chesterton tries to justify it the worse it gets."
In 1912 Chesterton's brother Cecil lost a libel case to Jewish businessman Godfrey Isaacs over the Marconi scandal, and Mr Gopnik said that this, and Cecil's death in the First World War, poisoned his brother's views. "Chesterton's hatreds became ugly and obsessive... From then on, however, Chesterton hammers relentlessly at the idea that there is 'a Jewish problem', the problem being that Jews are foreigners, innately alien to the nations into which they've insinuated themselves.
"It's a deeply racial, not merely religious, bigotry; it's not the Jews' cupidity or their class role it's them. In his autobiography, Chesterton tries to defend himself by explaining what it is that makes people naturally mistrust Jews. All schoolboys recognise Jews as Jews, he says, and when they did so 'what they saw was not Semites or schismatics or capitalists or revolutionists, but foreigners, only foreigners who were not called foreigners.— Chesterton condemned Nazi persecution, the author admitted, but in the context of the inter-war period "his jocose stuff is even more sinister than his serious stuff. He claims that he can tolerate Jews in England, but only if they are compelled to wear 'Arab' clothing, to show that they are an alien nation. Hitler made a simpler demand for Jewish dress, but the idea was the same.
"The trouble for those of us who love Chesterton's writing is that the anti-Semitism is not incidental: it rises from the logic of his poetic position. The anti-Semitism is easy to excise from his arguments when it's explicit. It's harder to excise the spirit that leads to it the suspicion of the alien, the extreme localism, the favouring of national instinct over rational argument, the distaste for 'parasitic' middlemen, and the preference for the simple organ-grinding music of the folk.
"He dreamed of an anti-capitalist agricultural state overseen by the Catholic Church and governed by a military for whom medieval ideas of honour still resonated, a place where Jews would not be persecuted or killed, certainly, but hived off and always marked as foreigners... his ideal order was ascendant over the whole Iberian Peninsula for half a century. And a bleak place it was, too."
Chesterton has often attracted criticism, largely because many fascists adopted his distributionist economic views, but his supporters have always rejected claims of anti-Semitism.
Dr William Oddie, former Catholic Herald editor and author of The Making of GKC: Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy, 1874-1908, to be published in November, dismissed the allegation that Chesterton was an anti-Semite.
He said: "I-lis views on Jews were eccentric, but were no different from that of Zionists, that Jews were exiles, and would never be happy until they had their own country. There are several examples in the 1890s of him passionately attacking anti-Semitism. He particularly disliked persecution of the Jews. Mr Gopnik is quoting grotesquely out of context.
"The most obvious reason for scepticism about the recurrent accusations of anti-Semitism against Chesterton is his lifelong friendship with Jewish individuals. At school, he and his friend E C Bentley founded a debating society with a restricted membership determined by them: one third of the members were Jewish.
"His only actual hatred was for an individual who happened to be Jewish, Godfrey Isaacs, who corruptly used his position in the government, and who then sued Cecil for criminal libel, an injustice that led to an enduring fury against Isaacs personally."