Englishmen and Jews
Bible and Sword
by Barbara W. Tuchman
New York University Press. 268 pp. $5.00.
Probe into almost any period of British history and you come on men and women striking dramatic attitudes against the background of Israel and Israel’s Scripture. Mrs. Tuchman’s study, which is concerned to show the longevity of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of identification with Israel and to separate and define several versions of it, richly documents this fact with case-history after case-history, which must catch the imagination of anyone who has brooded on the appeal of Jerusalem and Jewry to the Northwestern mind.
Henry Bolingbroke arrives in Jerusalem, a pilgrim, with one donkey carrying his provisions; many years later, after he has deposed a king, assumed the crown, and is reigning securely, he is obsessed by the thought that he must die in Jerusalem, and actually dies in the “Jerusalem Chamber” at Westminster. John Sanderson travels the Levant in 1601 in the company of Jewish merchants from Smyrna, Damascus, and Constantinople, receives their friendship, learns to admire them, notes their conviction that “Jerusalem shall be built againe and their Messias come and make them princes, as they have been in time past, but then to govern all the wourlde.” In the 17th century the reformers preach and fight and rule in an ecstasy of almost complete identification with the nation of the Old Testament. They Hebraicize their thinking and conduct—Milton is the most famous case in point—and correspondingly they all but Hebraicize the laws of England. In sign of their orientation they give their infants the obscurest of Old Testament names—a practice which, after three hundred years, has not entirely disappeared, but smolders, as I know from names in use in my father’s family only a little while back, among the grimly moralistic workingmen of the dour Pennine valleys. By way of reaction from the fanaticism of the 17th century the English Augustans are the least enthusiastic for Israel’s past, since their overt preference is for the rational, and that tends, even though the irrational cracks through the frame of their expositions, to favor the acceptance of the status quo. Yet the tradition has not been stifled, is alive among the common people who are always readiest to nourish it, and is tapped there by the non-conforming preachers, is recovered, and in the 19th century it sweeps the country again.
The Victorian interest in Israel is, I suppose, the most fascinating to the reader who views this subject in the light of the modem emergence of the Jewish nation. A curious thing has happened. The 17th century vehementists imagined their own country, and their own inner and outer selves, remade in terms of the ancient Israel. That image was transformed by a century underground and then by the sudden social change, the growth of industry and the disclosure of its potential, which encouraged the pragmatic objectivization of all human hopes in material terms. So in the 19th century the Israel image gradually acquires a political and territorialist character, and the ideal of the British Gentile who cherishes it is to play a part in assisting the remaking of Israel as a nation on the original soil. Defined that way, the conduct even of the best Victorians may seem more complacent than that of their Puritan predecessors, but nevertheless is more meaningful, and undeniably more agreeable. The period of English history in which most of us can rejoice most not to have lived, is the period of Cromwell. But we could have lived with some excitement and pleasure as the contemporaries of some of the Victorians Mrs. Tuchman analyzes. Of Alexander Mac-Caul, for example. His goal in life was misguided—the conversion of the Jews to Christianity—.but his conduct was admirable: he left a promising career at Trinity College, Dublin, went to Warsaw, learned Hebrew; during the spare hours of a busy life he wrote out the Pentateuch in Hebrew eight times. Equally remarkable was his daughter, who learned Hebrew at three and taught it at twelve years old. She married James Finn, the celebrated British Consul at Jerusalem, where she worked with him under the drive of the idea that the Holy Land should be reopened to “its lawful owners, the Hebrew nation.” One is reminded of another Victorian lady, whom Mrs. Tuchman does not have space to include, the lady who became Mrs. Israel Zangwill: she belonged to a Gentile family devoted to Hebrew scholarship, the language and the history were in her blood.
Indeed, among the Victorians the passion for Israel appears ubiquitously. Apart from such familiar cases as George Eliot’s, of which Mrs. Tuchman gives an excellent resume, we know of Browning’s interest in the language, of Hardy’s sensitivity to the tradition, even of Trollope’s presence at meetings where the future of Jerusalem was debated.
These were passionate people. In them an old profound hope rekindled at the thought of a Jewish nation resettling in its original land. Mrs. Tuchman desires to designate them and their predecessors through the first component of her title: the Bible. But there is a second component: the Sword. The purpose of her title, which becomes apparent and is cogently pressed from the middle of her narrative onward, is to show that the interest taken by Britain in the peace of Jerusalem has been the result of Bible and Sword in combination. The Biblical impulse has been entangled with its converse, calculations of polititical profit, these in turn being dependent on the demand for material profit. The point is clearly dramatized in a chapter describing relations between Shaftesbury and Palmerston. Shaftesbury’s impulses were “Biblical.” The consuming religious fervor that led him in other contexts to press for so much humane legislation, convinced him in respect of Jewry that the British government should help to make a return to Israel practicable. He knew the world, however, and with a certain foxiness won Palmerston’s support at the political level by arguments couched in terms of imperial strategy. In response to these Palmerston “came through handsomely.”
A possibly even more impressive demonstration of the dual motivation of British action lies in the case of Balfour. His one mind encompassed both poles of the duality. I am inclined to conjecture, though I clearly admit that Mrs. Tuchman does not think so, that even at the moment of Balfour’s crucial first meeting with the young Chaim Weizmann in 1906 the duality was operating in Balfour in a personal, microcosmic way. He asked to meet Weizmann, saying that he wished to understand (and could not learn from his “assimilationist Reform” friends) why the Zionist party had rejected Uganda. My conjecture is that Balfour both genuinely wanted to understand the Zionist position, and also wanted, by his gesture in seeking to meet Weizmann, to gain the support, in the election he was then fighting in that city, of some of Manchester’s Jewish voters. However that may be, it is certain that eleven years later, when he made his famous Declaration, he fully represented both Bible and Sword. The Declaration satisfied him imaginatively after his long meditation on what he had learned from Weizmann, and similarly satisfied all those in Britain whose sympathies had been accumulating for a National Home; and yet it satisfied the political and military school of thought. Particularly it satisfied the latter by its elusive and disputable wording, that made it a passport for Britain to a bridgehead in the Levant yet did not commit her irretrievably to a partisan policy. In Balfour the dualism of Bible and Sword is epitomized.
When Shaftesbury collaborated with Palmerston the two approaches to the Middle East, the religious and the political, converged. After the Balfour Declaration they begin to diverge. So divergent were they a quarter of a century later, when Britain evacuated Palestine, that the combination of terms “Bible and Sword” had acquired new implications. The Victorians had believed that an Englishman’s Bible and Sword were partners. In our time they have begun to seem mutually antagonistic. The Middle East has often been spoken of recently as the testing point compelling the great powers to choose between morality and expediency.
What was it, when all is said and done, that led so many Britishers to equate an active interest in the fate and future of Israel with duty and morality? Mrs. Tuchman has marshaled a good deal of material that enables us to consider this radical question. For the Celts the Jewish people became “our original selves.” For the Anglo-Saxons they became “our purest selves.” The very rigor of the Old Testament code, the very violence of Old Testament conduct and prophecy and castigation and self-castigation, conduced toward the identification. A blind eye was turned toward the luxury of a part of the Old Testament: that was Israel in error; the real voice of Israel was the voice of rebuke and cruel condemnation of that error. Much of the “Biblical” impetus behind the Anglo-Saxon interest in Israel bears that Cromwellian character. But not all. There are two other considerations richer by far. One is the warmth and vigor of Jewish life, deriving from its matriarchal concentration. The appeal of this is recognized more overtly by the French; it is delineated better in French literature and mythology; I hope that someone will study, as Mrs. Tuchman has studied Anglo-Israel ideology, the implications, delicate though they are to handle, of the French worship of la muse juive. Even in England, though concealed, the same desire for an animating fire, and a hope that it can be lent from Israel, has been at work.
The second factor that I have in mind, and I am sure that it has been more potent than any, is this: through the Hebrew Testament, through the emergence in Israel of the founder of Christianity, through the living of the Jewish faith with its inextinguishable Messianism in many cities of the world, the Jewish people afford the most striking and persistent reminder of a tradition to which the Anglo-Saxon mind is resolutely attached. It is true that the British people is pragmatic, that it likes to occupy itself with material concerns, that it resists the spiritual in many forms. But at Hebrew Messianism it kindles. Many paragraphs in Bible and Sword manifest that. When Lewis Way was riding from Exmouth to Exeter he “admired a magnificent stand of oaks . . . and was told by a companion that a former owner of the property, one Jane Parminter, had given orders in her will that it was never to be cut down till the Jews should be restored to Palestine.” Jane Parminter was a typical British Messianist à l’outrance. And as soon as Lewis Way heard her story, he became, so the legend goes, another, and went home and re-read his Bible and devoted his remaining years and his wealth to the cause that had inspired her.
Bible and Sword is a book with a twofold excellence: it is rich in significant detail, and it directs attention to fundamental questions. It is the product of considerable reading ranging over two thousand years of history and involving the habits and experience of many communities, and it is written with an impressive, steady force. It prompts the reconsideration of a variety of topics from the place of the Grail legend in the Celtic mythos to the mind of Cromwell or Shaftesbury or Disraeli. Mrs. Tuchman has made a courageous survey of the stranger-than-Cretan labyrinth of the British-Israeli psycho-political complex. Much of the pleasure and savor of her book lies in the detailed materials she has assembled, but it also has the great merit of undertaking a synthesis of a most difficult and fascinating subject.