Dr. Dawn Eden Goldstein writes a necessary piece on Chesterton’s Anti-Semitism

It is not a secret to my readers that I owe a huge debt to G.K. Chesterton. Thanks, in particular, to his Orthodoxy, and St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, as well as The Everlasting Man, I was introduced to the Catholic intellectual tradition and given a huge, healing experience that saved me from an enormous amount of trauma from the well-intentioned, but deeply defective and destructive amalgam of semi-gnostic charismatic Evangelicalism, alloyed with the demented triumphalist Calvinism of the Dominionist Christianity. This, combined with sundry psycho-emotional wounds peculiar to my upbringing came mighty close to destroying me, and an enormous part of the healing I received from God for all that came through the work of Chesterton.

I am not such an ingrate as to overlook all this and so I feel an obligation to preface what follows with that statement. I could say much more in gratitude to Chesterton, but because of what follows, I think it more appropriate (and something Chesterton himself would heartily approve in what I believe to be his genuine humility) to refrain from all that and face what is well-overdue to face: his deep and inexcusable record of anti-semitism.

My friend, Dawn Eden Goldstein was asked to address the big summer confab of the American Chesterton Society on the subject of “Chesterton and the Jews”. She did her homework and presented a paper that was both charitable and formidable. Following Chesterton’s own counsel in St. Thomas Aquinas, she held Chesterton (and therefore the audience) not to somebody else’s standards, but to his own.

The results are indisputable. He was deeply anti-semitic. Here’s some of the talk. Go here to see note only her notes, but her copious documentation:

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I recently spoke at the @ChestertonSoc conference on “Chesterton and My Jewish/Catholic Journey.” When Society prez Dale Ahlquist asked me to speak on being a Jew who converted to Catholicism after reading GKC, I told him I wrestled with Chesterton’s writings on Jews. (1/35)Dale encouraged me to speak honestly of that wrestling, and I am grateful. I’d like to share some highlights from my talk.

I’ll skip the part about how I discovered Chesterton, as I’ve discussed that elsewhere (see thomasaquinas.edu/news/healing-m…). (2/35)

The Healing of Memory: An Interview with Dr. Dawn Eden Goldsteinhttps://www.thomasaquinas.edu/news/healing-memory-interview-dr-dawn-eden-goldsteinThe first part of my talk focused on how Chesterton shaped my understanding of morality. I identified six moral imperatives I learned from him. Then I read quotations from him on Jews. Finally, I recommended judging his writings on Jews by his own moral imperatives. (3/35)

I said that where there were writings of Chesterton’s where he failed to practice the morality he preached, the Chesterton community should disavow those writings and repent of them. And I offered suggestions of how to do so. (4/35) 

So that’s the outline of my talk. Here are the moral imperatives along with slides showing the Chesterton writings from which I learned them.

1. I must always place language at the service of truth.

2. I must always place personal judgment at the service of truth.

3. I must call out sin for what it is.

4. God gave me the gift of reason. I must use it!

5. I must recognize and follow permanent standards of morality.

6. Being Christian means resisting evil within myself and within society. (6/35)

After listing moral imperatives I learned from Chesterton, I turned to examine representative writings of Chesterton’s on the Jewish people. I showed a famous photo of him with the Jewish author and poet Israel Zangwill. (7/35)

Those seeking to absolve Chesterton of charges of anti-Semitism often point to his friendship with Zangwill. Chesterton did have Jewish friends. However, they never mention that Zangwill, although friends with him for a time, came to be disgusted with his writings on Jews. (8/35) 

In 1916, Zangwill wrote that The New Witness, which Chesterton edited, was more properly called The False Witness and its editors were a band of “Jew-baiters” who should go to confession. (See the screenshots and see this link for context: google.com/books/edition/….) (9/35)

Works of Israel Zangwill: The war of the worldhttps://www.google.com/books/edition/Works_of_Israel_Zangwill_The_war_of_the/I_gzAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=israel%20zangwill%20war%20for%20the%20world&pg=PA23&printsec=frontcover&bsq=%22false%20witness%22Elsewhere Zangwill called Chesterton and Belloc anti-Semites, and said they were always bragging about having Jewish friends.

I learned about Zangwill’s criticism of Chesterton from @mayerssd’s excellent book Chesterton’s Jews (simonmayers.com/chestertons-je…). (10/35)

Chesterton’s JewsChesterton’s Jews: Stereotypes and Caricatures in the Literature and Journalism of G. K. Chesterton [2013] G. K. Chesterton was a journalist and prolific author of poems, novels, short stories, tra…https://simonmayers.com/chestertons-jews/

In Chesterton’s Jews, Mayers catalogues stereotypes of Jews in Chesterton’s writings. I highly recommend the book over the one @chestertonsoc endorses, Ann Farmer’s Chesterton and the Jews, not least of all because Mayers finds a number of writings that Farmer ignores. (11/35) 

I told the Chesterton Conference that what I read in Chesterton’s Jews shocked me. Before sharing examples, I forewarned the audience—as I’ll forewarn you—that they are difficult to take. For a Chesterton fan such as myself, it takes time to process these things. (12/35) 

One of the essays that I discovered through Simon Mayers’s book is so offensive that when Frank Sheed reprinted it in an anthology, he excised its most offensive language. @IgnatiusPress’s collected works of Chesterton retains Sheed’s censorious edit. (13/35) 

I shared the uncensored version of that essay in my talk at the Chesterton conference. But before I shared it, I discussed two other examples of Chesterton’s writings on Jews. The first was taken from his observations on Henry Ford in What I Saw in America (1921). (14/35) 

At the time Chesterton wrote on Henry Ford, the auto mogul was propagating vile anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in his Dearborn Messenger. Every Ford dealership carried free copies of the newspaper. Dealers were instructed to put copies of it into each car they sold. (15/35)

Chesterton prefaces his remarks on Ford by claiming “[Americans] are accustomed to a cosmopolitan citizenship, in which men of all bloods mingle and in which men of all creeds are counted equal.” (Apparently he’d not seen how the US then treated blacks, immigrants, etc.) (16/35)

Then he takes up this weird line of logic where he claims that a prejudice isn’t a prejudice if it’s true. And somehow he doesn’t believe that this is a hasty generalization fallacy, neither does he see it as the racialism that he condemns in numerous other writings. (17/35)

I’m not sure why he concludes, “That is the meaning of the incident of Mr. Henry Ford of Detroit; and you will hardly hear an intelligible word about it in England.” The context suggests he’s gibing at UK reports that called Ford prejudiced. Perhaps he’s being contrarian. (18/35)


Still, as I noted in my address to the Chesterton Conference, there’s no good in being contrarian simply for contrarianism’s sake. And of all the things in the press that he could counter, why does Chesterton choose to counter reporters who are concerned about prejudice? (19/35) 

One might think that once Hitler came to power and began to send out his Brown Shirts to attack Jews, Chesterton would soften his stance towards the Jewish people. In fact, his writings on Jews from that time onward grew only more flippant. (20/35) 

In late July 1933, Chesterton wrote in G.K’s Weekly of “The Judaism of Hitler,” in which he claimed that Hitler’s idea of the master race had its origin in Jewry. As you can see in this slide, he said of the Jews that “they have been too powerful in Germany.” (21/35)

Two months later, Chesterton did give an interview to the London Jewish Chronicle in which he harshly criticized Hitler’s actions against Jews. As we read his comments and how they were reported, we’ll see how Chesterton was viewed in comparison with his contemporaries. (22/35) 

Chesterton did say he was ready to believe he and Belloc would die defending the last Jew in Europe. But he added, “Thus does history play its ironical jokes upon us.” A Jewish reporter agreed it was ironic; GKC was “among the outstanding anti-Semites in the world.” (23/35)

The final example that I cited in my talk was one of GKC’s last public writings on Jews and Judaism. His essay “On War Books,” ran in G.K.’s Weekly October 10, 1935, eight months before his death. It is this essay that was censored by Frank Sheed, as I noted earlier. (24/35)

In “On War Books,” Chesterton wrote that Hitler’s men “beat and bully poor Jews in concentration camps.” Sheed let that stand. On their own, it appears to be an indictment of Hitler. However—and I nearly broke down when I read this aloud in my Chesterton Conference talk— (25/35) Sheed censored the clause that followed. The full, uncensored sentence read, “They beat and bully poor Jews in concentration camps; and, what is even worse, they do not beat or bully rich Jews who are at the head of big banking houses.”

See the photo in the next tweet. (26/35) And that horrific crack is Chesterton’s way of leading up to his big point, namely that “Herr Hitler and his group” did one good thing: they burned All Quiet on the Western Front.

Frank Sheed and, later, @IgnatiusPress, did a disservice to GKC fans by covering this up. (27/35)

***

There is much more, which I urge every Chestertonian to read. Or, if you prefer, you can see the whole talk here:

For my part, what strikes me most is the holy simplicity of Dawn’s moral demand in the last line I quote: Stop covering this up. Stop pretending this is not part of Chesterton’s legacy. Stop pretending that he did not commit this sin.

Chesterton himself felt no obligation to pretend he was not a sinner. Asked why he became a Catholic, his answer was simplicity itself: “To get rid of my sins.” Asked to answer the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” he replied without hesitation, “Dear sir, I am. Yours sincerely, G.K. Chesterton”.

Somewhere (and I wish I could find the quote) Chesterton likewise records his abject shame over his racism as he contemplated the figures of the Magi. The Magi represent the biblical understanding of the three races of men descended from Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham stood for the African peoples, which is why one of the kings is always depicted as a black man. The point of the image is that they are the first fruits of all the Gentile people who would come to Christ and Chesterton, contemplating the adoration of the Magi, was suddenly struck with shame at his easy mockery of black people, common social currency in the world of imperial and interwar Britain. It is a moving piece and speaks well of his ability to repent a sin that was seldom repented in that world.

But there is little evidence he ever really grasped the sinfulness of his anti-semitism that I am aware of–and disturbing evidence that he doubled down on it. On that score, he failed–a fact we should face, not hide. He could not have foreseen the Shoah, of course. But he could look back on a thousand years of pogroms and know that words like his could lead to violence because they had often led to it before. That he could not foresee the scale of the violence that was to come is not an excuse. As the denial of Christ was Peter’s great failure and the abuse scandal was JPII’s, so this is Chesterton’s.

The wisdom of the early Church was to forthrightly admit Peter’s failure. The folly of the modern Church has been to live in denial of the sins of Catholics admired by fanboi. I think it speaks to our failure to believe in the forgiveness of sins at some level. I pray for G.K. Chesterton to find the mercy of God he himself said he needed. Chesterton’s sins, like Peter’s, require forgiveness, not excuses and not defenses.

So, for that matter, do mine.

Brava, Dawn Eden Goldstein, faithful daughter of Israel and faithful daughter of the Church, for speaking the truth in love!

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14 Responses

  1. Who is the man at the end of the video, the one who says they are running out of time. I assume it is one of the people organizing this. Why is he defending the notion that when we define the words ”Jewish Problem” as claiming Jews have no land and will therefore always be (on some level) in conflict with the host country, that this is *not* anti-Jewish? To my best knowledge, this is generally considered as the mother of all ant-Jewish tropes.

      1. I found the entire Q&A part very disturbing. Dawn Eden Golstein handled it gracefully and tried to answer in a way that would be helpful, but it was horrible. After a very nuanced and gentle lecture on this topic, the audience couldn’t come up with anything better than ”but he wasn’t LITERALLY Hitler, and by the way, if we’re honest (sic) we have to admit that saying Jews are traitors to the nation and Zionist people with dubious loyalties”.

      1. I don’t know Mr. Ahlquist, but he’s not quite ready for a conciliatory speech at Yad Vashem 🙂

        As for Chesterton, I agree that his anti-seminitism is inexcusable *and* that he was a man of his time. There have been men who died opposing Hitler that said similar things about Jews

        Still, I’d rather use my energy in defense of someone like Pius XII than trying to defend Chesterton from what’s not excusable.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. Most people would say that Belloc was the more anti-Semitic of the pair and my hunch is that that is true. However, Chesterton’s is Harder to explain away. He isn’t merely parroting what others say. That would be a character like Archie Bunker who could entertain stereotypes of Jews in general but then show genuine tenderness towards the individual Jew. Chesterton’s statements sound anti-Semitic at first and often just confusing when examined. What comes to mind are two phrases which I may not have perfect: “the money ways
    Of the Jews” and “National Socialism is a queer German Zionism”
    Ultimately, I think the problem lies in the fact that he was a savant of sorts who wrote too much and was bound to trip up.

  3. As I read through your lengthy musings about Chesterton, what didn’t shock me in the slightest is what I have said many times on these very pages: not all bigotry is hate. Hate is bigotry’s trashy cousin, “the one who drinks too mich at parties, does boring imitations, wears a lampshade for a hat, and when he gets tired of that, he tells dirty stories, then passes out in the morning glories.” Hate is the splash of ham gravy on that White Armani tuxedo. Hate is what the Truly Genteel won’t be caught spitting out even when they have a mouthful of it, lest the maitre d’ deny them their special, coveted, perpetual table at the Best Boys Club. Sometimes the Good Girls Club— best is always better than merely good, ya know? I learned that in grammar school.

    So much of the time, bigotry is the unwavering, unwarranted, always present, always assumed faith in a self-assigned, otherwise completely imaginary superiority as— pick as many as apply— usually, in Western Culture, at least— a white person, a man, a Christian, a moral person, a heterosexual, a cis gendered person, a human being. The categories are of course arbitrary and incomplete. Where, who. and when you are may change the categories, but the generalized attitude remains the same, and is characterized not only by how pervasive it is, both individually and societally, but by the kind of excuses that are made to justify it. You might refer to those as the fig leaf of social propriety placed conveniently over the inconvenient genitalia on that highly erotic Statue of David. Everyone knows what is behind the fig leaf, everyone gets off on it, but its presence means WE DON’T HAVE TO TALK ABOUT IT.

    LBJ put it perfectly. This is what he was talking about when he said: “I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Another word for this comes from that most Catholic of fantasy books, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever: DESPITE. That is truly the key to Chesterton and the Jews, Anita Bryant and Teh Geyz, George Wallace and The Negroes, Former Guy and anyone he perceives as weak, and a host of others that just goes on and on forever.

    I AM BETTER THAN YOU, AND I WILL MAKE SURE THAT YOU KNOW IT. WHATEVER I DO TO YOU IS JUSTIFIED BY THAT, AND BY THAT ALONE.

    F. Bailey Smith, of recently late and definitely unlamented memory, former presidunce of the SBC, inadvertently farted in that crowded Baptist elevator in 1978: “God almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” It ripped that fig leaf right off, and the Babtists were shocked…SHOCKED, I tell you… at what anyone paying the slightest attention knew was underneath. Out the door he went. Auntie Mame knew all about it in 1958.

    Former Guy, President Grabby McP: “when you’re famous, they let you do anything…”.

    A faggot is the homosexual gentleman who just left the room.

    That Joo is the hook-nosed gentleman who just left the bank.

    The really twisted ones are the objects of the bigots’ disaffections who, through luck, money, or birth, land the highly coveted roles of Steppin Fetchit in “Birth of a Nation”, Shylock in “Merchant of Venice”, Michael in “Boys in the Band”, or any anonymous Handmaid in “the Handmaid’s Tale.”

  4. She does a fantastic job. Thanks for sharing.

    Chesterton’s anti-Semitism reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s anti-Catholicism. It’s ugly and inexcusable. But it goes to show that despite their brilliance they were still men of their time and culture and not immune to its prejudices.

    1. “The tension between cultural tolerance and ethical negligence must be a matter of continuous scrutiny.” – Captain Mercer, on the Orville (yes, really)

      There MUST be a limit to how much reprehensible behavior we are willing to excuse in people because of being “of their time/culture”. It would be better to just acknowledge that Lewis and GKC were bigots, and put a big asterisk behind any wise things they might have said on other issues.

      – joel

      1. > I don’t know Mr. Ahlquist, but he’s not quite ready for a conciliatory speech at Yad Vashem 🙂

        Ha! Even if I might try to correct Mr. Ahlquist’s point he made at the end, at least to clarify, I don’t think he’s a villain. Remember that he was the one who encouraged Ms. Eden Goldstein to present all this research in the first place. Even if his understanding of Chesterton might require some refinement here, I genuinely think he is on the side of the angels. Remember that even St. Peter required some correction now and then.

        > It would be better to just acknowledge that Lewis and GKC were bigots, and put a big asterisk behind any wise things they might have said on other issues.

        Nah. That is Chronological Snobbery at its worst. Must every thinker of past ages meet all our modern moral requirements to be considered “acceptable?” If so, then toss out Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, pretty much all the great Roman philosophers, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Gandhi, Malcom X, … in fact, you can pretty much toss out anyone who ever wrote anything before 2015.

        And that is silly.

        Or we could do what Ms. Eden Goldstein rightly suggests in her talk, not only with Chesterton but with Wagner, whose views were WAY more problematic that GKC’s on this and other issues: Acknowledge the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in their work, but don’t shy away from the Ugliness and Error either. Confront it, acknowledge it for what it is, but don’t toss out a clean baby with the dirty bathwater.

      2. @ joel

        I think it is generally wiser to put the asterisk behind the things we find objectionable.

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