Adam Gopnik, writing for the New Yorker magazine, thinks so (in a recent article that is not, apparently, available online). And Matthew Boudway of Commonweal.com agrees, saying, "It is a mistake to try to defend Chesterton (or Belloc) against the charge of anti-Semitism. Looking back from this side of the Final Solution, as we must, we are bound to find many of Chesterton’s arguments about the Jews — and much of his language about them — suspect or disgraceful. Nor is it any use to try to quarantine our judgment about his attitude toward the Jews from our more general opinion of his merits as a thinker and writer. Anti-Semitism was a part of the package, though never a big part."
Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society and author of several delightful books on Chesterton, some of them published by Ignatius Press (including G.K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense and Common Sense 101: Lessons From G.K. Chesterton), disagrees. He has written the following letter to the New Yorker, which he posted on the Commonweal blog:
To the Editor of the New Yorker:
Mr. Gopnik has besmirched the good name of the good Gilbert Keith Chesterton, even while sandwiching his comments between thick slices of praise. Maybe it’s just revenge. After all, Chesterton said, “New York reminded me of hell. Pleasantly, of course.”
For those of us who love Chesterton, we are always distressed to see him subjected to any vile charge. But we’ve gotten a little tired of the charge of anti-Semitism. He’s been absolved of that one too many times for us to count – from the tribute by Rabbi Stephen Wise to the official statements of the Weiner Library (the archives of anti-Semitism and holocaust history in London). Mr. Gopnik has added a new technique to making the charge stick – declaring that Chesterton’s admirers should not defend Chesterton against the horrible accusation. Hm. That is certainly one way to end the debate. I would meekly suggest that a better way would be for people to stop repeating charges that have already been dropped.
But we are still going to take Mr. Gopnik’s article as a sign of hope. Fifteen or twenty years ago, Chesterton was simply dismissed by the literary establishment as an anti-Semite and not taken seriously. Now he is at least being taken seriously before being dismissed as an anti-Semite. As the Chesterton revival kicks into high gear, we expect the trend to continue to the point where Chesterton is simply taken seriously without the obligation to mention anything about how Chesterton judges the Jews or how the Jews judge Chesterton.
In the meantime, we regret the unfortunate turn in Mr. Gopnik’s otherwise brilliant essay. There is something a little too desperate, too anxious in his attempt to prove that Chesterton is anti-Semitic. He is dancing as fast as he can to explain away Chesterton’s Zionism and his outspoken stance against Hitler for oppressing the Jews. (“I will die defending the last Jew in Europe.” What does it take to convince some people?)
Among the worn out arguments Mr. Gopnik uses is: Chesterton should not treat the Jews as if they are different because…well…they’re different. But far more troubling is his argument that Chesterton, the Catholic convert, has this pervasive nastiness woven into the very fabric of his philosophy. Whether consciously or not, Mr. Gopnik has broadened his implication to include the whole Catholic Church. Perhaps some future literary critic will be discussing Mr. Gopnik’s anti-Catholicism rather than Chesterton’s anti-Semitism. He can only hope that he will one day be considered so noteworthy a controversialist.
For now, however, the most important consideration should be of the following passage from Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man:
“…the world owes God to the Jews… [T]hrough all their wanderings… they did indeed carry the fate of the world in that wooden tabernacle…The more we really understand of the ancient conditions that contributed to the final culture of the Faith, the more we shall have a real and even a realistic reverence for the greatness of the Prophets of Israel. [W]hile the whole world melted into this mass of confused mythology, this Deity who is called tribal and narrow, precisely because he was what is called tribal and narrow, preserved the primary religion of all mankind. He was tribal enough to be universal. He was as narrow as the universe…”
Doesn’t exactly sound like the writings of an anti-Semite. Sounds more like someone who has a deep respect for the Jews. Also sounds like a pretty good argument for localism. Chesterton has thrown Mr. Gopnik’s main point into serious jeopardy. Either Chesterton is right to defend localism, which is what preserved the Jews, or localism is a menace and the Jews should have melted into their surroundings three thousand years ago. Mr. Gopnik cannot have it both ways.
President, American Chesterton Society
I'm a little late on all of this (the Commonweal post was July 1st), but just in case you missed it.
What I'd like Dale to explain about Chesterton is why the great G.K., who I admire so very much and have learned so much from, disliked jazz so intensely.
• Visit the G.K. Chesterton author page at Ignatius Insight, with a complete listing of books by and about Chesterton published by Ignatius Press.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Excerpts and Articles
• Chesterton and Orthodoxy | Carl E. Olson and Dale Ahlquist | Ignatius Insight Podcast
• Chesterton and the "Paradoxy" of Orthodoxy | Carl E. Olson
• The Attraction of Orthodoxy | Joseph Pearce
• The Emancipation of Domesticity | G.K. Chesterton
• The God in the Cave | G.K. Chesterton
• What Is America? | G.K. Chesterton
• Mary and the Convert | G.K. Chesterton
• Seeing With the Eyes of G.K. Chesterton | Dale Ahlquist
• Recovering The Lost Art of Common Sense | Dale Ahlquist
• Common Sense Apostle & Cigar Smoking Mystic | Dale Ahlquist
• Chesterton and Saint Francis | Joseph Pearce
• Chesterton and the Delight of Truth | James V. Schall, S.J.
• The Life and Theme of G.K. Chesterton | Randall Paine | An Introduction to The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton
• Hot Water and Fresh Air: On Chesterton and His Foes | Janet E. Smith
• ChesterBelloc | Ralph McInerny