“The Jews” by Hilaire Belloc: Our Duty

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Editor’s note: The following comprises the twelfth chapter of The Jews, by Hilaire Belloc (published 1922).

(Continued from Chapter 11: Zionism)


The solution which I propose, which I believe could be made stable, and which I further believe is the only stable one, demands a greater, a more necessary effort upon our side than upon that of our guests.

It is the average man who must do his duty in the matter, and it is upon him that the responsibility will fall, if we take up once again that wretched sequence of ill-ease, persecution, reaction, which has marked so many centuries.

We are the vast majority, we are the organism within which this small minority moves. We are, or could be if we chose, the makers of our own laws, and we are certainly the makers of our own political moods.

I know it is the custom to throw all the responsibility upon the other side, to be perpetually devising instruments for their guidance which soon become instruments for their oppression, and in general to imagine a problem wherein the part of the European is purely negative and all the work has to be done by the Jewish stranger.

That attitude is not only false but grossly undignified. When men accuse some one weaker than themselves of interference with, and even of acquiring power over, them they condemn themselves. It is in the main our fault if an equilibrium has so rarely been reached in all these sixty generations of debate. For however alien, however irritant the foreign body be, it is we who have in our hands the solvent of that irritant and of relieving the strain which it causes.

Here let me recall at the risk of repetition (for repetition is necessary to lucidity in such arguments) the logical process with which I opened this essay. I say that the vast majority, the fixed race through which in fluid and nomadic form Israel goes moving from century to century, is not free to discharge its responsibility by any one of those attempted solutions which I have condemned. No man, I trust, will have the cynicism to say that mere persecution, let alone its horrible extreme, is or should be a solution. No man can predict the same of exile either. No man can discharge our responsibility by pretending that any solution arrived at must be for our good alone and may disregard that of those who live among us.

It is a statement one hears frequently enough that the masters of house have alone to decide what shall be done under their roof: that the interloper, the alien element, has no standing and no right to complain of whatever measures may be taken for the protection of the household. The thing so put sounds plausible. It is essentially false. It is comparable to the argument applied to private property—that because private property is a right, and that because a man “may do what he likes with his own,” therefore he may use it to the manifest hurt of others. Moreover, the analogy is false; for when a man is talking of “the master of the house” having the right in his household to decide its own way of living and of treating its guests, he is considering a very small unit in a great community; his household in the whole nation: a little body which, if it discharge or in any other way deal with something alien to itself, will inflict no great injury upon that foreign body, since there is all the world for it to turn to outside. But in the relations between the Jew and Christendom, or the Jew and Islam, the parallel fails. It is precisely because there is no “outside” to which the exile can turn that a duty is imposed on us.

It is true indeed that when a small and alien minority assumes to dictate the policy of the rest, to regard its own advantages alone and subordinate to those advantages the life of all, the claim is grotesque and must be disallowed. But we should remember upon the other side that it is only by exaggerating its claim that a minority can live at all. It is only by fierce insistence upon its right to survive that its survival is guaranteed. We can arrive at justice in this matter by the process of putting ourselves in the shoes of those in relation to whom we propose to act.

Put yourself in the shoes of the Jew and ask how this doctrine of “doing what one likes with one’s own” and being “the master of one’s own household” would look to you.

A public example which very rightly made a stir a few months before this book was published, may serve as text. A learned and distinguished Jew, Dr. Oscar Levy, a man who was an asset to any community, was turned out of the country under circumstances which many of my readers will recall. He pleaded with perfect justice that as a Jew such an exile left him homeless; that the original country of which he was nominally a citizen (under the broken-down fiction that Jews can be Germans, or Austrians, or what not, and cease to be themselves) would not have him; that his interests, his livelihood had attached him to this country; he had never hidden his true nationality nor changed his name, nor used any of those subterfuges which, even when excusable, are dangerous and contemptible in so many of his compatriots. There was no conceivable reason why such rigour should be used against this man, save indeed that he was a Jew.

Put yourself in his shoes and see how the thing looks. There is no nation to which you could have returned: there is no society to receive you as a member of it. You are not permitted to remain in the atmosphere with which you have grown familiar, in the surroundings which have become those of your later life, and your consonance with which it is too late for you to change. Could there be a grosser cruelty or a grosser injustice? It is the very core of the whole problem that somewhere the Jew must be harboured, and therefore to some one of us the question must be put, “Will you harbour him, and if so upon what terms?” If each man answer, “No, I will not,” then all collectively become oppressors. It is no answer to say, “These men are not of us, and therefore they may conspire against us,” or “Their interests are divergent from ours and therefore may and do clash with ours.” All that is granted. That is merely stating the problem, not solving it. What do we say in daily life of men who merely state their grievances, harp upon them, and make no effort to put them right? What do we think of men who perpetually complain of something naturally weaker than themselves, make no effort to understand its necessities and attempt only to rid themselves of the nuisance without considering reciprocal duty and mutual relations? The same should we think of those who so act towards the Jewish community in our midst which, for all its domination and exaggerated modern power, is ultimately at our mercy, far weaker than we are in numbers and situation. Without further elaboration of what should be an obvious political and moral principle, let us consider our part in the task.

It consists, I conceive, in two very different determinations: two very different but allied lines of conduct to which we must pledge ourselves. The first, until recently the most difficult, is the determination to speak of the Jewish people as openly, as continuously, with as much interest, with as close an examination as we speak of any other foreign body with which we are brought in contact.

The second, which will perhaps be the more difficult duty to practise in the future, will be to avoid, in the individual public recognition of those with whom we must live, all futile anger and all mere reaction. I mean by mere reaction, blind reaction. The instinctive thrusting back against a thing which presses on us, the uncalculated and animal return blow, the consequences of which, either to ourselves or to others, are not weighed when it is delivered; the futile complaint, the futile rage, the futile cruelty.

Unless those two duties are undertaken together, unless the determination to practise both be of equal weight, the solution I propose will fail. To discuss the problem presented by the presence of the Jewish people, to talk of them as one would of any other, openly and frankly, to interest oneself in their history and in their present doings: all this is only to aggravate the trouble if we use that open dealing for the purpose of doing them a hurt, or if, in the course of it, we allow ourselves (merely from irritation or contrast, from the sense which all must have of opposition to things alien) to react against them without consideration of the immediate and ultimate consequences not only to themselves but to us.

Conversely, the determination to regard their interests and to avoid every possible occasion of conflict, to hold a just measure with them, is quite useless if we falsify the whole relation by secrecy and false convention.

The moment that comes in, there comes in with it a secret dissatisfaction with oneself and with the whole situation. The position is falsified, the seed of animosity greatly stimulated, the danger of mutual contempt made inevitable.

Now let us look at these two branches of what we have to do in the matter, and see what difficulties lie in the way.

In the way of frankly recognizing, examining, taking an open interest in the Jewish minority in our midst there lie three very powerful obstacles. First the inherited convention of polite society; secondly, and much the most powerful, fear; and thirdly, the very reputable desire to avoid offence.

The first of these, the fear of convention, has many roots—the necessity for harmony in a leisured life, that is, the desire to avoid friction even at the expense of truth, the mere momentum of a quiet habit, the fear of misunderstanding which may come from one side casting ridicule upon the other, which may offend the person whom we have misunderstood, or make us ridiculous in his eyes and those of our audience.

There is also, of course, as a cause, more powerful than any other, the force which lies behind all convention, the force which makes a man take off his hat in a church, which forbids his walking without boots in the street on the driest day, that is, the pressure of general practice. But the thing to realize is that in this form—I mean as distinct from any feeling of fear or of charity—the thing is a convention and a convention only. Difficult as it is to break with conventions, unless this convention is broken once and for all, the Jewish problem remains with us unsolved and growing in acuteness and peril.

You can meet an Irishman and discuss with him the conditions of his nation. You can ask an Italian when he was last in Italy, or congratulate a Frenchman upon his acquisition of your tongue or tell him that it is difficult for him to understand your own customs: but a convention arose under the Liberal fiction—to which I have devoted so much space in the earlier part of this book—that to do any of these very natural things in the case of a Jew is monstrous. Your audience is shocked if you ask some learned Jew at a public table a question upon his national literature or history. It is a solecism to refer to his nationality at all, save perhaps now and then in terms of foolish praise—in nine times out of ten praise not to the point and not desired by its recipient. And even praise must be approached most gingerly. You may not ask a Jew in London, however keen your desire for information, whether he had cousins in Lithuania or Galicia who have told him of the conditions of those distressed countries. You may not ask him when his family came to England, nor, if he be a recent arrival, what he thinks of the country. The whole thing is taboo.

More than this: you must, you are expected (or were until quite recently expected) to emphasize in a most extravagant manner the complete identity of your Jewish guest with the people among whom he lives. I do not take offence if some chance acquaintance, noting my French name, talks to me about France, and is interested in my experience as a conscript long ago in that country. Mr. Redmond did not feel himself insulted when those he met in London discussed Irish matters with him, from the most acute difficulty in politics, to the most general allusion to the Abbey Theatre. The editor of an Italian review visiting England is not shocked if you ask him when he left Florence, nor are those around you horrified at the ill-breeding of your question. But in the matter of the Jew there stands this convention cutting you off from any such straightforward and simple way of dealing with a fellow-being. That convention, I say, must be broken down if we are to get any results at all and to establish a permanent peace.

The thing was not, of course, entirely irrational in origin. No custom is. It was to be excused upon several grounds.

First, there was the fact that many people were known to cherish so strong an hostility to Jews that to emphasize the Jewish character of anyone present might awaken that hostility.

Then there was the peculiar rapid transition both of Jewish movements and of Jewish fortunes. In the case I have suggested, of asking a London Jew whether he had relatives in Galicia or Lithuania, you might be stumbling upon relations much poorer than himself in the East End of London; or, again, you might seem to be emphasizing the nomadic character of the race and thereby also emphasizing the contrast between it and our own.

But much the strongest excuse for the convention was the well-founded idea that its exercise pleased the Jews themselves. Men avoided direct mention of Jewish nationality because it was felt that such direct mention was almost an insult. It was a thing which the Jew in whose presence you found yourself desired to have kept in the background; and though we might not understand why he desired it, yet we respected his desire as we do that of anyone with whom we wish to preserve harmonious relations. Most men, for instance, are indifferent upon, say, the matter of smoking. Most men are quite at their ease when they are asked whether they smoke or not, and if they do, whether they prefer this or that brand of tobacco. But now and then one comes across a man who, from some accident of training (as, for instance, a man whose mother brought him up to think smoking a mortal sin), does not like to have it alluded to.

I myself know the case of a man of the highest culture and of considerable social position to whom you may not say anything about pigs either in connection with farming or in connection with food; for his sympathies are Mohammedan. In these exceptional cases, when we know of our guest’s particular desire, we yield to it for the sake of harmony and of right living. So is it in this matter of the former convention against alluding to Jewish nationality or Jewish interests in any form. Whether the Jews were wise or not to cherish that convention, as they undoubtedly did, does not concern this part of my argument. I am talking of our duty and not of theirs. But I say that unless the convention is softened and at last dissolved, nothing can be done. Both parties should know that it only does harm. It renders stilted and absurd all our relations; it fosters that suspicion of secrecy which I have insisted upon as the chief irritant in those relations, and it creates a feeling of exception, of oddity, which is the very worst service that could be rendered to the Jews themselves.

Some little time ago the convention went so far that even a mention, a neutral—nay, a laudatory mention, of anything Jewish in a general company led to an immediate awkwardness. Men looked over their shoulders, women gave downward glances right and left. A sort of hunt began, to see whether anyone present could possibly in any remote connection be offended by the monstrous deed. If a man said, “What a poet Heine was and how thoroughly Jewish is his irony!” and said it in a room full of people, the adjective “Jewish” acted like a pistol shot—could anything be more absurd! Yet so it was.

But the point I make is not against the absurdity of this convention but against its peril. It is an obstacle to all right handling of what is becoming daily a more and more insistent and acute difficulty.

It is obvious that the getting rid of such a convention is not to be effected by violent methods, nor immediately. But our duty is to accelerate its decline and, within reason, to enlarge every opportunity for treating the Jewish nationality precisely as one treats any other. I mean precisely as one treats any other in conversation or in writing. We all know the insane type which loves to break convention merely because it is a convention, and we shall certainly have to be on our guard against this sort of person in the near future, as this particular convention begins to break down. But without encouraging such eccentricities there is ample room for an increasing ease in the recognition of what after all we know to be reality, a reality which requires open discussion for the good of us all. The danger is lest even this merely conventional obstacle should by too long a resistance dam up forces which tend to break it down and therefore lest, when it is pulled down, we should admit the other extreme of licence, with its opportunity for insult and damage. That is what has happened in the case of other much more reasonable Victorian conventions, and we must not have it happen in the case of the convention which for so long forbade us to admit that a Jew was a Jew or to take any open interest, when he was present, in the things which he himself thinks the most interesting of all.

And if anyone shall answer that convention is necessary, lest on its decline open hostility should follow, I can only say that this is to despair of any equitable solution at all. But my whole thesis in this book is that such a solution need not yet be despaired of.

There is one more thing to be said in this matter of the old taboo. However long it may linger in the small educated class, it has gone for ever among the populace, and it is the popular instinct we shall have mainly to deal with in the difficult times ahead of us.

The populace in this country talks upon Jewish matters with a frankness which would astonish the drawing-rooms, and has so talked upon them for a generation past—ever since the great novel influx of poor Jews began to pour into our towns. It not only talks thus openly to and of Jews upon its own level, but it is thoroughly alive to the presence and power of Jews in government. Those who think that a continuance of the convention can put off the necessity for a solution would be disillusioned if they would spend a few days east of Aldgate, and mix with their fellow-citizens there.

Allied to this obstacle of convention is the very real obstacle of charity.

Now we are here dealing not with a positive charity but with a negative one and with a form of charity uncommonly like slackness.

The man who honestly thinks that any allusion to Jewish races in contemporary art, history or letters in the presence of a Jew is offensive and therefore to be avoided, from goodness of heart, and who also practises the same virtue where any other foreigner is concerned is rare indeed. There are such men, for men of exceptional goodness coupled with exceptional stupidity are to be found. But the excuse of charity as it is generally put forward is not wholly ingenuous. Where it is ingenuous our reply today must be that even at the risk of occasional ill-ease, the danger of offence must be risked; for unless we risk it there is increasing peril of a much greater offence against justice. For whatever reason open discussion is burked, even for the reason of charity, we only put off the evil day, and charity so used may be compared to the charity which refuses to take action in any other critical problem of increasing gravity. The charity which hesitates to control the supplies of a spendthrift, or to wage a defensive war in a just cause, or to defend an oppressed man at the risk of quarrelling with his oppressor, is a charity misdirected.

But, as I have said, with much the greater part of men who plead this motive the plea is, if they would only examine their own consciences, found to be false. And the test of its falsity will be apparent when the convention slackens. When it is no longer conventional to avoid all mention of Jews, how many will remain silent merely from the love of their fellow-men? One might go further and say that when the convention has gone, any need for this kind of charity will go with it. There is an exception, of course, in the case of the man whose dislike of Jews is so violent that he fears himself if he gives any rein to his tongue. That mania is exceptional; but where it is found certainly its victim will do well to keep silence. If a man cannot mention the Hebrew alphabet without a sneer, or the economics of Ricardo without betraying his ill feeling for Ricardo’s lineage, then certainly he had better hold his tongue when Jews are there. So, too, a Frenchman who raves against the English had far better not discuss the British Constitution or the genius of Newton in any society where an Englishman may be present.

There remains the chief obstacle—that of fear.

There is no doubt that the strongest force still restraining an expression of hostility to the Jew is fear.

In a sense, of course, there is a “fear” of breaking convention—but that is fear only in metaphor. I mean not this, but the very real dread of consequences: the feeling that an expression of hostility to Jewish power may bring definite evils on the individual guilty of it, and a panic lest those evils should fall upon him. How strong this feeling is, anyone can testify who has explored, as I have, this most insistent of modern political ills; and doubtless the greater part of my non-Jewish readers will recall examples to the point.

It is a fear of two consequences, social and economic, and even of both combined. Men dread lest hostility to the Jew Domination should bring them into the grip of some unknown but suspected world-wide power—some would call it a conspiracy—which can destroy the individual who shall be so rash as to challenge it. Some perhaps have gone to the length—the insane length—of reading the word “destroy” in its literal sense and of fearing for their lives. Such an illusion is laughable. But very many more are affected by the reasonable conception that they will have against them, if they provoke it, an intelligent, combined action which they cannot meet because there is no organization upon their side: because it is international; because there is behind it a great intensity of feeling; because through finance it controls the political machines of all the nations, because it is all-powerful in the Press—and so forth.

They dread, I say, the social consequences. They also (and that with more definition and more sense) dread the economic consequences. They recognize (they also exaggerate) the grip of the Jew over finance. They conceive that if they speak they will be dragged down, their enterprises ruined, their credit dissolved. And that is the most powerful instrument which can be brought to bear. When supernatural motives disappear the strongest motive remaining after appetite is avarice; and avarice is more universal than appetite and more continuous. Nor is it only avarice which is at work here, but also the respectable desire for security. There are to-day innumerable men who would express publicly on Jews what they continually express in private, but who conceal their feelings for fear that their salaries may be lost or their modest enterprises wrecked, their investments lowered, and their position ruined. Above them are a lesser number, equally convinced that their large fortunes would be in peril were they so to act.

The characteristic of all this feeling is two-fold. In the first place, as would seem to be the case with convention, though in a much greater degree, it dams up and enormously increases the latent force of anger against Jewish power both real and imaginary. It is like the piling up of a head of water when a river valley is obstructed, or like the introducing of resistance into an electric current. The suppression of resentment, though that suppression is the act of the men who themselves feel the resentment and not directly of their opponents, is a fierce irritant and accounts for the high pressure at which attack escapes when once it is loosened.

I speak only of hostility and of attack, for it is in these least rational examples that the strength of the thing is to be found. But it applies also to mere discussion. There is hardly anyone to-day who does not desire to discuss as an urgent political problem the present position, the present power, the present disabilities, the present claims of Israel. But for one that will openly discuss these things there are ten who, in varying degrees, forbid themselves so plain a freedom of speech in dread of what consequences might follow. It has, like all panic, a ridiculous element. It is informed by the most absurd illusions; it suffers from grotesque imaginings and phantasms. In some this dread of the Jewish power has very plainly passed the line which divides the stable from the unstable mind and even the sane from the insane. But it is none the less a formidable element in our problem. This obstacle, much more than that of convention, bears a character of rigidity. It works for a certain time, then it breaks down and releases a flood.

That is why the first expressions of hostility in our time were so exaggerated and ill-proportioned. That is why so many of them were plainly mad. This very character of exaggeration, this very wildness in proportion, rendered those against whom the attack was delivered more contemptuous of it than they should have been.

The forerunners of the present movement—I mean, of the movement hostile to Israel—were not calculated to excite the respect of their opponent or even to carry with them the men on their own side. They lacked that “common” sense which is the first quality of leadership. For the power of leadership implies a soul in common with those who are led. The enthusiast can lead permanently, but the extravagant man never for long.

I say that these first attacks were on that account despised: they were unduly despised by those whom they menaced.

There lay in reserve behind all the exaggeration and wildness a great bulk of very different opinion; the opinion of men normal in their appreciation of values and of proportion, not given to “seeing things,” fully in touch with reality; men who know that they have hitherto only been silent through the action of fear, who despise themselves on that account and who are the more ready to act. For the sense of fear not only degrades but angers: at least in our race. The European who admits to himself that he has restrained an instinct not from religion, nor from a general sense of right, but from cowardice, is always angry with himself and awaits the moment when he can take his own revenge upon his own past and clear himself of reproach in his own eyes.

Herein lies the peril to Israel of such a state of affairs. But with that I am not here concerned. I am only concerned with its effect upon ourselves. So long as we degrade ourselves, so long as we humiliate ourselves by our own cowardice, so long as we shirk all reasonable discussion, let alone all expression of hostility because we dread the consequences at the hands of our opponents, so long there are present in rising intensity two evil things: first, the postponement of the right solution; secondly, the turning of a reasoned policy into mere hatred with all the consequences that flow from such evil emotion.

The longer we maintain whatever remains of that barrier to free speech (happily it is already crumbling) the longer do we produce the two fatal results of postponing justice and of creating enmity. The destruction of that barrier, the ridding of ourselves of fear in the matter, is, as is always the case in the exercising of this unmanly thing, a matter for individual effort. As the proverb goes, “Some one must bell the cat,” which is another way of saying that if each man waits upon his neighbour, things will only grow worse and worse.

It is for each in his place, before it is too late, to approach the Jewish problem and to discuss it openly; to preface that discussion by a frank interest and a general expression upon all those things in the minority which directly concern its relations with the majority; to deal with the Jewish nation exactly as one would with any other.

It used to be a dictum in those who pleaded a lifetime ago for the open criticism of Scripture, that “the Bible should be approached like any other book.”[1] The result is not of good augury to my present argument and I rather dread the parallel; but since the phrase is well known I will use it as a model. It is time, I say, to be rid of treating the Jewish nation as something closed, mysterious and secret. Let us treat it “like any other nation.” It is no wonder if men, moved by nothing but a blind hatred, feel some hesitation upon the consequence of that hatred. But I am convinced that if we on our side get rid of this absurd modern fear, take the Jew in his right proportions, rid our mind of exaggeration in his regard—especially of the conception of some inhuman ability capable of conducting a plot of diabolical ingenuity and magnitude—we shall be met from the other side.

The Jews are not the only force which is international nor the only international force the dread of which has disturbed men’s judgments. They are not the only international force which has some degree of organization and cohesion. If you desire to vent your active dislike of the Scotch or of the Irish you must be prepared for a certain amount of Scotch or Irish hostility. You will come across something of an organization and suffer accordingly; but if you cherish the conception of a vast subterranean force, Scotch or Irish, watching you with a malignant power and capable of your destruction, you are, I think, out of the real world.

If you desire to vent your active dislike of the Catholic Church you will find ubiquitous opposition. But if you conclude from this that you are at grips with a monster then you are out of touch with reality.

So it is, surely, with this dread of the Jewish power, which has sullied so many men’s minds, postponed the right discussion of the problem and nourished ill-ease everywhere. If we simply act as though that dread were despicable like any other dread, and turned to perfectly open discussion of the whole affair, even to an open expression of hostility where hostility is deserved, we shall be the better for it. In any case it is our duty to ourselves as well as to the State to get rid of fear in the business, for until we are rid of it no advance towards a solution can be made.


[1] I beg leave to introduce an anecdote. An undergraduate once said to Dr. Jowett, the Master of Balliol, “I take up the Gospels and treat them as an ordinary book.” The Master answered: “Did you not find them a very extraordinary book?” So it will prove, I think, with the fascination of Israel.

(Continue to Chapter 13: Their Duty)

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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