I’m used to being discussed, even abused, on Twitter and Facebook. It’s the price you pay for being a journalist, and if I were influenced by negative comments at the end of my columns, I would have given up long ago. The positive comments are, of course, all routinely and absolutely accurate! Last month, the discussion was not about a recent article or television broadcast, but a couple of lines from a book I’d written in 1988: Gilbert: The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton.
Why the renewed interest? I had defended Chesterton against charges of anti-Semitism in my book, and had quoted London’s Wiener Library, an institution devoted to the study of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, explaining that Chesterton, “was not an enemy, and when the real testing time came along he showed what side he was on.”
Timing, of course, is everything; and it was announced recently that the author of the Father Brown stories, The Everlasting Man, Orthodoxy, The Man Who Was Thursday, biographies of Aquinas, Dickens, and myriad books and columns was being considered for beatification.
As soon as this was made public I wrote that the old anti-Semitic canard would be resurrected. I wish I could be wrong more often. In took very little time for Britain’s influential and respected Jewish Chronicle, a weekly newspaper, for example, to print an article under the lead, “Can this Jew-hater G. K. Chesterton be a saint?”
I think the question rather gave the answer away. Geoffrey Alderman wrote:
I never cease to be amazed at the lengths to which some will go to excuse or belittle clear expressions of anti-Semitism articulated by public figures, present or past. . . .Chesterton was a highly successful novelist, journalist and critic who converted to Catholicism. Rome likes to reward converts, perhaps in the hope of luring others to follow them. . . .But there’s a problem: Chesterton had a much-publicized aversion to Jews and to Judaism.
Mr. Alderman and I have at least two things in common. Both of us have written about Chesterton, and both of us are Jewish. I became a Roman Catholic in 1985, but to a genuine anti-Semite, I am still a Jew. If you doubt me, take a look one day at the abuse I mentioned above.
As a Jew, however, I will always be immensely and intensely grateful to Chesterton, who in so many ways guided me towards the Church. I am sure this will be of no comfort to Mr. Alderman, but there it is. And as someone who has battled anti-Semitism all of his life – as an unruly youth on the London streets and as a similarly unruly adult on the written page – I do feel that I possess certain qualifications in all this.
Yes, Chesterton did make some ugly, foolish comments, particularly after the death of his brother Cecil, who almost certainly was a genuine hater of Jews. Because Cecil had launched a campaign against a group of politicians, some of whom were Jewish, and then died prematurely in 1918, Gilbert – always strangely in awe of his far less talented sibling – allowed his grief to become anger towards Cecil’s enemies.
He left the world some fatuous lines of poetry about Jews in his novel The Flying Inn; he showed too little sensitivity in writing of Jewish people in medieval England; he was wrong and uncharacteristically banal about the Dreyfus trial; and at his worst, allowed himself to stroll along the dirty path with Cecil, and the loud but not genuinely anti-Semitic Hilaire Belloc.
We have to ask if a hater of Jews would write that, “The world owes God to the Jews,” or that “I will die defending the last Jew in Europe”? We have to wonder how he could have formed such close, intimate relationships with Jewish friends for all of his life, people who would not have tolerated affection from a Jew-hater for a moment, and wrote as much then and after Chesterton’s death.
He condemned anti-Semitism, he embraced Zionism, he was lauded by Jewish leaders, and as early as 1934 – when many intellectuals and politicians were ambivalent – called for the mass rescuing of Jews from Nazi Germany, and made repeated public condemnations of National Socialist anti-Semitism. He was a kind, loving, Christian man, who should have been more thoughtful in some of his statements, but passed the great litmus test when others failed.
“One sees great things from the valley”, he wrote, “only small things from the peak.” To interpret the man by peering up from the lowest point in that valley would be tragically myopic. Best to leave the last word to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, one of the most prominent leaders of American Jewry in the first half of the twentieth-century. “When Hitlerism came, he was one of the first to speak out with all the directness and frankness of a great and unabashed spirit.”
Saint? Who knows. Anti-Semite? Not at all.