Appeared in Vol. 12 No. 3, 4 Download PDF here
Peace to Israel:
Hilaire Belloc and “The Jewish Question”
KEVIN G. LONG
G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc have come to be regarded as the twin pillars of Catholic apologetics in the twentieth century. Both were learned without being pedantic. Both thrived on the thrust and parry of intelligent debate. Both brought to their writing a refined sense of humor.
Yet their approach to controversial issues was quite different, reflecting no doubt their diverse backgrounds and temperaments. That difference is sometimes expressed among devotees by the following maxim: “You can introduce Chesterton to anybody, but give Belloc only to close friends.” The reasons for this are many.
Chesterton is witty to the point of being flippant; Belloc is droll to the point of sarcasm. The former is engaging and affable; the latter ponderous and abrasive. It is difficult to dislike Chesterton, even for those who vehemently disagree. On the other hand, it is difficult to like Belloc, even for those in perfect accord. As a consequence, Belloc is easily and often misunderstood, especially regarding delicate and sensitive issues.
No issue may be quite as delicate and sensitive as the relations between Gentiles and Jews. The problem involves complex questions of theology, history, politics, economics and race. Even before the dawn of Christianity, relations between the two had been strained at best. The founding of Christendom made matters worse.1 Naturally, Belloc wrote an entire book on the subject.
Belloc’s book, bluntly entitled The Jews, has been virtually forgotten for decades. Many of those who are familiar with the work would like to keep it that way. Belloc brings to the discussion a degree of frankness that is generally not appreciated in controversial matters.
the book not only as “aliens” and “foreigners”, but as “parasites”. Such terms may be less provocative than “Yids”, but they are also less complimentary.
Pearce speculated that Belloc had been only a “minimal” Christian in his heart of hearts. Upon reading these passages, he might well regret giving him even that much credit. Needless to say, no Christian worthy of the name could condone hatred – much less extermination-of any individual, race or ethnic group. This applies even more forcefully when the hostility is directed toward the kinsmen of Our Lord.
To the measure in which Catholics indulge in public admiration of Belloc’s work as a whole, they may be suspected of harboring “something nasty” in their souls. In light of the texts cited above, one is tempted to follow the example of contemporary Catholic novelist David Lodge who disavows Belloc “with derisive embarrassment.”5
A more careful reading of The Jews, however, reveals a rather different picture than what has been painted so far. The disparity between any author’s actual views and the caricatures which can easily be crafted by selective quotation is well known to journalists and scholars. The famous verse of Alexander Pope is worth recalling here:
A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring
There shallow drafts intoxicate the brain And drinking largely sobers us again.6
The first point to keep in mind is that, of the many aspects of the complex relationship between Gentiles and Jews, Belloc is concerned only with the cultural. Even when he speaks loosely of “our race”, he intends merely to signify European culture in general.7
In fact, Belloc, far from adopting the racialist notions fashionable in the 1920’s, mocked the eugenic theories of the 19th-century French thinker Gobineau8 upon which 20th-century Aryan supremacist ideology was based9:
Because an eccentric Frenchman of the name of Gobineau affirmed that the principal virtues derive from a certain stock which he called Germanic (and which, by the way, he found especially pure in the Spanish peasantry!), you cannot – even if this eccentric Frenchman were divinely inspired-make certain that the people living in Germany who did not happen to be Jews are of this peculiar and god-like sort. It is tomfoolery to pretend it. It is racial vanity gone mad.10
Belloc’s observations were not political, either, in the sense that he refused to propose any specific legislation or governmental action that would jeopardize either the rights or civil liberties of Jewish citizens. Any attempt to change the law without first obtaining a settled consensus of opinion from all parties would be, in his estimation, a “reversal of the true order [which] would make all stable peace impossible.”11
Nor is Belloc’s thesis theological. Only once does he even suggest a “religious interpretation” of the historical relationship between the peoples of the Old and the New Covenants.12 His concern is almost exclusively the cultural clash between an essentially occidental tradition and a largely oriental one.
In this context, many of Belloc’s ostensibly anti-Semitic utterances are in fact nothing of the kind. For example, Belloc applies the biological metaphor `parasite’ to the Jewish community, not in a deliberately pejorative sense, but in a coldly objective one. Throughout the economic history of Europe, Gentiles and Jews have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship in which the former produce and the latter manage the wealth.13
This partnership has not always been amicable. On the contrary, it has usually often entailed a considerable amount of tension or friction – sometimes greater, sometimes less, but always present. Belloc detects in their precarious and volative relations throughout history a cyclic pattern:
[The] causes of friction permanently present tend to produce what I have called the tragic cycle: welcome of a Jewish colony, then ill-ease, followed, naturally, by a reaction and the taking up of the process all over again.14
The third and perhaps most crucial point in understanding The Jews is that it was written in 1922, just five years after the Bolshevik revolution. At the time, the world was fully conscious of a fact that is largely forgotten or ignored today, namely that the overwhelming majority of revolutionaries in Russia were Jewish. As one British historian had observed in 1920:
The part played in the creation of Bolshevism and in the actual bringing about of the Russian Revolution by these international and for the most part atheistical Jews … is certainly a very great one; it probably outweighs all others. With the notable exception of Lenin, the majority of the leading figures are Jews. Moreover, the principal inspiration and driving power comes from Jewish leaders…. The same evil prominence was obtained by Jews in [Hungary and Germany, especially Bavaria]. …
Although in all these countries there are many non-Jews every whit as bad as the worst of the Jewish revolutionaries, the part played by the latter in proportion to their numbers in the population is astonishing. The fact that in many cases Jewish interests and Jewish places of worship are excepted by the Bolsheviks from their universal hostility has tended more and more to associate the Jewish race in Russia with the villainies which are now being perpetrated.
The reader might understandably object at this point that this historian was just as much of a proto-Nazi as Belloc and merely anticipated by four years the lunatic ravings in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. However, the credibility of this particular historian lies in the fact that he later had a distinguished career in fighting the Nazis in the Second World War. His name was Winston S. Churchill.15
At any rate, the mere fact that Belloc reports a fact that everyone knew from reading the daily newspaper16 is hardly sufficient grounds for labelling him an anti-Semite.
The Bolshevik revolution precipitated a dramatic shift away from the liberalism of the 19th century. Belloc wrote The Jews precisely in response to an increasingly hysterical anti-Semitic backlash in Germany, France, England and the United States. He warned of the “grave injustice” of holding all Jews collectively responsible for the crimes of a few:
The Bolshevist Movement was a Jewish movement, but not a movement of the Jewish race as a whole. Most Jews were quite extraneous to it; very many indeed, and those of the most typical, abhor it; many actively combat it. The imputation of its evils to the Jews as a whole is a grave injustice and proceeds from a confusion of thought.17
Belloc was well aware of the way in which such confusions readily turn into a form of paranoia. Many of those who had been lulled by the doctrine of toleration into a false sense of security “had their eyes opened by the Bolshevist explosion”18. They quickly swung to the opposite extreme in which every Jew is presumed an enemy of God and country, and the willing agent of a fantastic worldwide conspiracy:
Explanations of the Russian revolution are very good specimens of the way in which the European so misunderstands the Jew that he imputes to him powers which neither he nor any other poor mortal can ever exercise. Thus we are asked to believe that this political upheaval was part of one highly-organized plot centuries old, the agents of which were millions of human beings all pledged to the destruction of our society and acting in complete discipline under a few leaders superhumanly wise! The thing is nonsense.19
By the same token, Belloc explicitly denied the other major tenet of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, namely that Jews were responsible for capitalism20. In fact, he lampoons the entire catalogue of villainies for which the Jews were supposedly responsible:
I have heard on all sides in the last few years these strange assertions proceeding from the same source, yet obviously incompatible one with the other: That modern scepticism was Jewish in its origin; that modern superstition, our modern necromancy and crystal gazing and all the rest of it, was Jewish in origin; That the evils of democracy are all Jewish in their origin; that the evil of tyrannical government, in Prussia, for instance, was Jewish in origin; that the pagan perversions of bad modern art were Jewish in their origin; that the puerility of bad church furniture was due to Jewish dealers;
That the Great War was the product of Jewish armament firms; that the anti-patriotic appeals which weakened the allied armies came from Jewish sources – and so on…. To ascribe the whole boiling to the Jew, and to make him the conscious origin of all, is a contradiction in terms.21
In spite of the patent absurdity of such notions, Belloc devotes an entire chapter to “The Anti-Semite”, warning of his power and his danger. He describes in considerable detail both his motivations22 and his techniques23.
Finally, Belloc predicts with uncanny foresight the attempt at a “Final Solution”:
Time and time again a hostile force has attempted to eliminate opposition, or even contrast, and to eliminate it by every instrument, including massacre itself…. That is the danger which menaces from the phenomenon [of anti-Semitism].24
At the same time, Belloc warned against a return to the naive liberalism of the previous century “according to which it was indecent even to mention the word `Jew”‘.25 Most 19th-century liberals had insisted dogmatically that Jews could be, and eventually would be, assimilated into an enlightened Christian society.
Yet they refused to discuss the fundamental obstacle to assimilation, namely, the existence of a de facto Jewish nation – or later, of an actual
Jewish state – and the conflict of loyalties this creates for diaspora Jews. Some liberals adopted the generous, but ultimately absurd policy “that there is no Jewish nation when the admission of it may inconvenience the Jew, but very much of a Jewish nation when it can advantage him.”26
The question of dual loyalty is not an easy matter for anyone to discuss. It is even more difficult for Catholics, especially those in the United States who have often been accused of allegiance to a “foreign despot” in the Vatican. Like the Jews, Catholics are a prime target of nationalist and nativist suspicion:
There are two and only two organized international forces in Europe today with a soul and an identity to them. One is the Catholic Church, and the other is Jewry.27
Even so, the parallel is limited and the limits point to the first major cause of the friction that Belloc sought to examine.
No matter how much a Catholic might love the Pope, he cannot be, or even imagine himself to be, a citizen of the Vatican. His obligations to the Church and his obligations to the civil society in which he lives are – whether he likes it or not – wholly separate and distinct. This is not so clear among the Jews.28
Pearce reported that Belloc opposed the establishment of the State of Israel. Yet Belloc opposed it only to the measure in which it might aggravate, rather than ameliorate the ambiguous position of diaspora Jews in their adopted countries. One of his principal concerns, the dependence of Israel’s national security on British troops29, has ceased to be a problem.30
A second cause of friction, according to Belloc, is the disparity between traditional Christian and Jewish attitudes toward private property. Modern Europe is still in many ways the heir of medieval Christendom and still bears the marks of centuries of tutelage by the Church:
The Catholic Church, not only in its abstract doctrine, but acting as the expression of our European civilization, is profoundly attached to the conception of private property. It makes the family the unit of the State and it perceives that the freedom of the family is most secure where the family owns [property]. It perceives, as do all Europeans, instinctively or explicitly, that property is the correlative of freedom…. Property, as widely distributed as possible, but sacred as a principle, is an inevitable social accompaniment of Catholicism.31
On the other hand…. our sense of property means nothing to [the Jew. It] is to him something strange, and even, I think, something comic….
[His] nation is not a collection of human beings, inhabiting one place and living by traditions rooted in its soil.32
Less important, but still significant as a cause of friction, is the peculiar ethos of Jewish culture. Belloc agrees with the enemies of that culture that the Jews are more prone to certain character traits than others. Yet when it comes to identifying those traits, he disagrees entirely.
The Jews are often accused of cowardice, avarice and treason. Belloc regards these accusations as utterly false, and even ironic since he finds within the Jewish people “innumerable instances of the highest courage, the greatest generosity and the most devoted loyalty.”33
In fact, the character traits which irritate non-Jews the most are not even moral vices. Rather they are habits and customs adopted during times of persecution which Jews – perhaps unwisely – refuse to abandon in times of toleration. One of these practices has been mentioned above, namely the use of secrecy:
A race scattered, persecuted, often despised, always suspected and nearly always hated by those among whom it moves, is constrained by something like physical force to the use of secret methods. Take the particular trick of false names. It seems to us particularly odious.
We think when we show our contempt for those who use this subterfuge that we are giving them no more than they deserve. It is a meanness that we associate with criminals and vagabonds; a piece of crawling and sneaking. …
But the Jew has other and better motives.34
Of course, the responsibility for this friction does not lie solely with the Jews. Belloc is quick to point out that Gentiles are just as often to blame. In a chapter on the causes of friction “on our side”, he lists disingenuousness, unintelligence and a lack of charity:
The last of the main causes of friction between the Jews and ourselves is lack of charity, and that in the simplest form of refusing to go half way to meet the Jew, and of refusing to put ourselves in the shoes of the Jew so as to understand his position in our society and his attitude toward it.35
In laying out his thesis, Belloc makes a number of observations, assumptions and speculations which – taken out of context – might be interpreted as hostile to the Jews. Indeed there are many passages that the anti-Semite might vigorously applaud. Yet Belloc’s fundamental purpose is diametrically opposed to that of anti-Semitism:
There is a definite line which divides the Anti-Semite from the rest of [us] who are attempting to solve the Jewish problem. It is the line dividing those whose motive is peace from those whose motive is antagonism. It is the line dividing those whose object is action against the Jew, and those whose object is a settlement.36
We are now in a position to reconsider Pearce’s indictment of Belloc as an “incandescent anti-Semite”. On the basis of a few brief quotations, that inclusion seemed altogether plausible, if not inevitable. However, in light of a more extensive examination of lengthy texts from The Jews, it appears instead that Pearce’s claims must be rejected as an understandable, but nevertheless serious, error.
In point of fact, The Jews was a desperate appeal to Christians – and especially Catholics who should know better37 – not to fall prey to the anti-Semitic hysteria that threatened to consume Europe and actually did consume Germany and part of France.
Historians may question many of Belloc’s interpretations of events, persons and developments. The purpose of the present study is not to defend Belloc’s reputation as an historian, but rather his credibility as a spokesman for the Catholic Faith. More specifically, it is to explain Belloc’s views on the “Jewish question” and to clear his name of the charge of anti-Semitism.
The questions raised here, however, are of more than historical or biographical interest. Since 1922, we have witnessed the “tragic cycle” make almost another full turn. After the genocide attempted by the Third Reich during the Second War World, the West has retreated to the pious platitudes and polite taboos of 19th-century liberalism.38
As Belloc predicted, the refusal to face unpleasant realities is leading to a resurgence of anti-Semitism. In the United States, for example, urban blacks led by Louis Farrakhan39 have renounced the collaborationist policies of the NAACP, and adopted a militantly anti-Semitic stance. Impoverished farmers in the Midwest, influenced by anti-Semitic groups and publications, blame their woes on Jewish bankers.40
In Austria, attempts by international Jewish groups to discredit Kurt Waldheim’s wartime record during his presidential campaign resulted in an anti-Jewish backlash and virtually guaranteed his election. In the Islamic world, bitterness over the unresolved status of the Palestinians and anger over the perceived Jewish domination of American foreign policy, continues to frustrate peace in the Middle East.41
Belloc proposes no infallible cures for these social and political ills. Yet his thoughtful and sober analysis of the problem is worthy of serious consideration. Had the Western World listened to him in 1922, the lives of millions of innocent Jews – as well as Gentiles – might have been spared.
“For my part, I say, `Peace be to Israel.”‘42
1Between the Catholic Church and the synagogue there had been hostility from the first century.” Belloc, Hilaire. The Jews. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1922), p. 221; see John J. Molloy, “Jesus and the Jews”, “The Eschatological Picture of Jesus”, “Jesus and the Pharisees”, “The Risen Jesus, Messiah of Israel”, The Wanderer, August 7,14,21,28, 1986.
2 Not true, actually. His classic work on political economy, The Servile State, had been reprinted by Liberty Press in 1977.
3 Pearce, Edward, “A Radical Reactionary”, Commentary. (November, 1984). p. 69 (emphasis mine).
4 Belloc, pp. 3-4.
5 Pearce, p. 70.
6 Pope, Alexander. Essay on Criticism. Part II, line 15.
7A multiplicity of ‘races’-in the sense understood by 19th- and 20th-century anthropologists -is contrary to the traditional interpretation of Genesis, namely that all men are descended from two first parents. Belloc’s frustratingly idiosyncratic use of the term `race’ suggests this unorthodox view: “This conflict [is] between the Jew and, let us say, the European … the white Occidental race . . ., though the same problem arises with all other races among whom the Jew finds himself.” (p. 119) Yet in the very next sentence, he speaks of “the race of man” in the traditional sense.
8Joseph Arthur compte de Gobineau, a French diplomat and scholar, wrote An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races in 1855. It was translated into English the following year by Josiah Clark Nott, a pro-slavery doctor in Mobile, Alabama. Gobineau carried on an extensive correspondence with Alexis de Tocqueville. On January 24, 1857, the latter wrote: “What is more clear in Genesis than the unity of humankind and the emergence of all men from the same man? … Christianity certainly tended to make all men brothers and equals. Your doctrine makes all of them cousins at most, the common father of whom is only in heaven; here below there are only conquerers and conquered, masters and slave by right of birth.” (Letter 92); Boesche, Roger, ed. Alexis de Tocqueville: Selected Letters on Politics and Society. (Berkley: University of California Press, 1985) p. 343; cf. “Introduction” and ” A Note on Gobineau” in Lukacs, John, ed. Tocqueville: The European Revolution and Correspondence with Gobineau. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959), pp. 14-28, 179-87.
9 Nisbet, Robert. History of the Idea of Progress. (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1980) pp. 288-91.
10 Belloc, “Introductory Chapter to the Third Edition”, p. xlv (emphasis in original).
11 Belloc, p. 303; cf. St. Thomas Aquinas: “To a certain extent, the mere change of law is of itself prejudicial to the common good; because custom avails much for the observance of laws, seeing that what is done contrary to general custom, even in slight matters, is looked upon as grave. Consequently, when a law is changed, the binding power of the law is diminished, in so far as custom is abolished. Wherefore human law should never be changed, unless, in some way or other, the common weal be compensated according to the extent of the harm done in this respect.” Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 97, art. 2, corpus.
12“The religious interpreter of history might say that [the Jews] had been specially endowed with this sense [of assurance and solidity] by Providence because Providence intended them to survive as a national unit miraculously, in the face of every disability; to remain themselves for 2,000 years under conditions which would have destroyed any other people in perhaps a century.” Belloc, p. 115.
13“The taking of interest on loans was forbidden to Christians by medieval canon law, and in many places the practice was prohibited by civil law as well. As a result money-lending and even most banking was for a time in the hands of the Jews, who besides lending money, gave letters of credit and bills of exchange.” Thorndike, Lynn. The History of Medieval Europe. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928) p. 355.
14 Belloc, p. 141.
15 Churchill, Rt. Hon. Winston S., “Zionism versus Bolshevism: A Struggle for the soul of the Jewish Nation”, Illustrated Sunday Herald, February 8, 1920.
16“All over Europe the Jewish character of the movement became more and more apparent. The leaders of Communism everywhere proclaimed that truth by adopting the asinine policy of pretending that the revolution was Russian and national; they attempted – far too late-to hide the Jewish origins of its creators and directors, and made a childish effort to pretend that the Russian names so innocently put forward were genuine, when the real names were upon every tongue.” Belloc, p. 63.
17 Belloc, p. 55 (emphasis in original).
18 Belloc, p. 184.
19 Belloc, p. 168.
20 “Modern capitalism, by which the Jew had so largely benefited…. he did not originate.” Belloc, p. 52.
21 Belloc, p. 150.
22 “His leading motive is a hatred of the Jewish people. He is in intense reaction against this alien thing which he perceives to have acquired so much power in his society…. But he will remain a hater of the Jewish nation when they are despised, insignificant, and neglected…. The mere fact that the Jews exist, let alone that they are powerful, poisons life for such a man…. The Anti-Semite is a man who wants to get rid of the Jews.” Belloc, pp. 148-9 (emphasis in original).
23“The Anti-Semite passion, largely based upon imaginary things, has adopted one method of action highly practical. It is a method of action closely in touch with reality, and productive of results. I mean its compiling of documents. . . . It discovered in its origin, presented as a barrier against it, the Jewish weapon of secrecy. . . .
“The Anti-Semites countered at once by making every inquiry, by collecting their information, by finding out and exposing the true names hidden under the mask of false ones, by detecting and registering the relationships between men who pretended ignorance one of the other. …
“It is to be remembered in this connection that the human mind is influenced by documentation in a special manner. The exact citation of demonstrable things with chapter and verse convinces as can no .other method, and the Anti-Semite is ready with such citation.” Belloc, pp. 153-4 (emphasis in original).
24Belloc, p. 163.
25 Belloc, p. 61.
26 Belloc, p. 19.
27 Belloc, p. 172.
28 “Outside Israel exists a vast Jewish diaspora which will not disappear in the foreseeable future. There is, and will continue to be, an intricate relationship between the diaspora and the State of Israel…. [In both] the Vatican and the State of Israel … the relationship of religion and politics plays an important role, yet these elationships are radically different.
“The Vatican is the seat of the highest authority of the Catholic church as well as its administrative center. Citizens of the Vatican are only those who have a specific function in that state. Israel is a secular state dominated by Jews. Every Jew in the world could become a citizen of that state, though it is the state which ultimately defines who is a Jew.” Friedmann, F.G. “The Vatican, Israel and `Holy Zion”‘, Commonweal, September 26, 1986, p. 490 (emphasis mine).
29 Belloc, pp. 243-4.
30However, another of Belloc’s concerns, the treatment of the Palestinians, remains a problem today; see Belloc, p. 19.
31 Belloc, p. 173.
32 Belloc, pp. 172, 176.
33 Belloc, p. 73.
34 Belloc, p. 100.
35 Belloc, p. 138.
36 Belloc, p. 155.
37 see Long, Kevin G., “All Israel Should be Saved”, The Wanderer, June 6, 1985.
38 “Under prevailing rules, Jewish [injustice] is a taboo topic. To mention it is to risk being tarred as anti-Semitic, which accusation can lead to ostracism from public discourse.
There’s no mystery about why the rules are such: they have been since the Holocaust . . . If Jews are more sensitive than other groups, it’s because they have been herded into gas chambers more recently, and if our society tends to grant them their rights to such sensitivity, it’s because we’re decent folks.
All the same, the rules need to be changed. If the charge of anti-Semitism is tobe considered a grave one – and it should be – then it cannot be thrown around as freely as it now is. It should not be levelled at everyone who criticises the state of Israel, even if many anti-Semites do mask their agenda in this way. …
The charge of anti-Semitism [should] be restricted to those who truly deserve it meaning those who sincerely and consistently wish harm to the Jewish people per se . .. To cry foul whenever someone alleges misrule by Israel in the West Bank is, in effect, to cry wolf.” David Wagner, “Anti- Semitism, Anti-Christianism, and Antichrist”, Fidelity, July,1986, p.23; cf. George Archibald, “Sobran and Jewish Critics Trade Charges Over Columns About Jews”, Washington Times, June 9, 1986; William F. Buckley, Jr. “Notes and Asides: In Re Joe Sobran and Anti-Semitism”, National Review, July 4, 1986; Richard Neuhaus, “Weeding Out Anti-Semitism”, Religion and Society Report, August, 1986.
39 Agres, Ted and Seper, Jerry; “Race Warriors: Louis Farrhakhan and His Nation of Islam”, Insight (The Washington Times), November 11, 1985.
40In fact, these two movements have forged an alliance: “White supremacists have found common cause with Farrakhan … in their disdain for Jews … Tom Metzger, former grand dragon of the California Knights of the Klu Klux Klan, said he had `personally been invited’ by Farrakhan to attend a Nation of Islam rally in Los Angeles and had donated $100 to the Black Muslim organization as `a gesture of understanding’. . . . [Metzger said] “They speak out against the Jews and the oppressors in Washington.” Agres and Seper, p. 13; see “Race Warriors, Part IV: Farrakhan and the White Supremacists”, op. cit., pp. 13-14.
41George A. Forsyth, “Food for Thought: A Review of ‘Euro-Arab Dialogue’,” Reflections, Summer, 1985; and “The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict”, Crisis, October, 1986.
42 Belloc, p. 308; This line, from which the title of this article was drawn, is the last line of the book. The phrase “Peace to Israel” also appears in Hebrew on the book’s title page.