Lecture 35: The New Jerusalem

During Christmas of 1919, G.K. Chesterton, left his home in Beaconsfield, and traveled backward through time to the place where Christmas began. His 1920 book, The New Jerusalem, is a philosophical travelogue of his journey across Europe, across the desert, to Palestine.

He says in fell in love with Jerusalem at first sight. He found there the whole history of the world, the place where east truly meets west. Interestingly enough, he arrived during an utterly rare event in that land: snow. Chesterton thought of it as “the triumph of Christmas.”

Chesterton calls Jerusalem, “the shoulder of the world,” a place that demonstrates the truth of “the hardest of all the hard sayings of supernaturalism: that there is such a thing as holy and unholy ground.” Because three different religions see it as holy ground, Jerusalem remains to this day a place of great conflict. However, if you follow that conflict in the news, you might get the impression that the conflict is merely political, or viciously racial. The news analysis never seems to mention the hard saying about holy ground and admit that there are religious questions at the heart of the conflict. Moreover, the news seems to leave out one of the religions: Christianity, the religion that founded western civilization, the religion that thought Jerusalem so important that thousands of people from kings to peasants died to protect that place though it was not their home, and spent hundreds of years trying to conquer and keep that town, and that when it lost that town, the thing known as Christendom began its long decline. That religion believed something that the other two did not: that the holiest spot in Jerusalem and in all the world was an empty grave.

But there are two other religious groups who lay claim to Jerusalem: the Moslems and the Jews. Chesterton begins his discussion of the three religions by saying that it does no harm to describe the differences between them as “irreconcilable.” He says, “We have grown used to a habit of calling things by the wrong names and supporting them by the wrong arguments; and even dong the right thing for the wrong cause.” Obviously everyone one wants peace, but we fall into the lie of saying “Peace, peace” when there is no peace.

Chesterton sees Islam as the Way of the Desert. The desert is a place of mirage and loss of perspective, and Islam personifies that loss of perspective. It is a religion that is an oversimplification of Christianity, a “monomania, in which everything is neglected that one thing may be exaggerated.” The Moslem, says Chesterton, has one thought: “the greatness of God which levels all men.” Its tautological cry that God is God is an everlasting echo across the sandy wastes, because its God did not become flesh.

The Jew presents a different kind of problem, different from anything else on earth: the problem of being a chosen people combined with the problem of being an exile. Chesterton says that being an exile “is the worst kind of bondage.” It means being everywhere in the whole world except home, which is the only place to be. The whole world is “the narrowest possible prison.” Chesterton’s solution is to let the exile return home, to give the Jew back his homeland.

The most devastating accusation against G.K. Chesterton is that he was an anti-Semite. It has been repeated so many times that not only do his enemies assume it be fact, so do many of his friends. They ignore the fact that Chesterton was a great defender of the Jews, from his schoolboy days to the day of his death. So why does the charge persist? Two reasons. One, it is a convenient way to discredit Chesterton altogether. The charge itself is as good as a guilty verdict; it suggests a fundamental flaw in Chesterton that must therefore make all of his writing suddenly suspect, especially his defense of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. Two, it ensures that Chesterton’s honest (and sympathetic) criticisms of the Jews will not be taken seriously, but will be immediately dismissed or ignored as anti-Semitic ravings.

Chesterton was puzzled by the charge of anti-Semitism in his own lifetime. He thought it strange that he could criticize everyone except the Jews. (And he did criticize everyone, most of all, himself. And his criticisms of the Jews are lightweight compared to what he said about Moslems, Buddhists, Christian Scientists, Germans, and, more surprisingly, Americans.)

The main problem is that no one bothers examining the evidence. Much of the so-called support for the charge is taken from this book. However, the quotations are carefully lifted out of context or else blatantly misquoted. There is not space to deal with all of them here, but in any case, it is a crime against Chesterton to characterize his statements as hostile or hateful.

His initial point is that it is absurd to say that Jews have only been oppressed and have never been the oppressor. His main argument about Jews being the oppressor is the consequences of usury in the Middle Ages. It is an issue no one ever wants to discuss. In fact, no one ever dares to discuss the reason why Jews were historically unpopular in Europe. The problem is epitomized by the literary discussions of Shakespeare and Shylock that never mention the word “usury.” Chesterton insists that Shylock is not disliked because he is a Jew but because he is a usurer.

Chesterton is frank in his criticism of wealthy international banking firms run by Jewish families that have a huge influence on European political and commercial affairs in his own day. But again, his attack on them is not that they are Jewish but that they are too rich and too powerful and make for an unjust world. Chesterton is always a defender of the poor and always a gadfly of the rich. The chief character in the New Testament was much the same way.

But the real “Jewish Problem” as Chesterton calls it, is that the Jews were a people in exile, a people without a homeland. Patriotism is a natural virtue, always praised by Chesterton, but the Jew’s patriotism is for a land that he has lost and not for the land in which he is an exile, no matter how well his host country treats him. It is important to note that he is talking about the Jew in Europe, not the Jew in America, where we are an entire nation of exiles, who have a loyalty to this country that is always mixed with a loyalty to our ethnic heritage and national origin. It was not that way in Europe, where a nation was a more organic thing, and the Jew, through no fault of his own, was always an outsider.

Chesterton was invited to Palestine by a group of Jewish Zionists who saw him as an ally in their goal to achieve a Jewish homeland. They obviously did not consider him an anti-Semite. And when he stood at the Mount of the Rock, where a Moslem mosque sits on the site of the ancient temple of Israel, he could not escape the idea that the land belonged to the Jews. Holy ground.

As with all of Chesterton’s writings, The New Jerusalem has a prophetic quality. But certainly the most chilling prophecy is Chesterton’s warning that unless England (and Europe) admits that there is a “Jewish Problem” rather than denying it or ignoring it, there could be a violent outbreak against the Jews.

It is only through a willful misreading of this book that anyone can accuse Chesterton of anti-Semitism. Or a non-reading of it. The latter is usually the case.

If you would like to purchase this book, it is available in Vol.20 of The Collected Works.

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