The execution of William Tyndale, who translated most of the Old Testament into English, in 1536. ‘It was the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, a project at the heart of the Reformation, that opened up the stories of the Hebrew scriptures to ordinary people,’ writes Giles Fraser. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Israel that David Lloyd George was won over to through Sunday school was a merger of Christian theological fantasy and British national self-aggrandizement.
Martin Luther became a horrendous antisemite in later life. But the foundation of a Jewish homeland for the Jewish people is hard to imagine without the reform of the church that he kickstarted 500 years ago. It was Protestants under Oliver Cromwell that led the drive to open this country up to Jews after centuries of banishment. And it was the Protestant Sunday-school background of men like David Lloyd George that made them so well disposed to the Zionist message.
Speaking to the English Zionist Federation at the Savoy hotel in 1931, Lloyd George said: “You will not be offended if I tell you that the names of these valleys and hills in Canaan are as sacred to the Gentile as they are even to the Jew. I heard of Jezreel and Esdraelon, of Carmel and of Zion before I knew of the existence in my own land of the Valley of Glamorgan or of Plinlimmon.”
When CP Scott, then editor of the Guardian, arranged for the Zionist statesman Chaim Weizmann to meet Lloyd George in 1915, Weizmann was pushing at an open door. The Balfour declaration that followed under Lloyd George’s leadership was rooted as much in the Sunday-school maps at the back of the Bible as it was in the geopolitical realities of the first world war.
It was the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, a project at the heart of the Reformation, that opened up the stories of the Hebrew scriptures to ordinary people. Before he was hunted down and executed on a charge of heresy, William Tyndale had translated most of the Old Testament. A Hebraist of some talent, Tyndale’s influence on the English language has been immense. “His influence decided that our Bible should be popular and not literary, speaking in a simple dialect, and that so by its simplicity it should be endowed with permanence,” wrote Brooke Foss Westcott (later bishop of Durham) in 1868. “He felt by a happy instinct the potential affinity between Hebrew and English idioms, and enriched our language and thought for ever with the characteristics of the Semitic mind.”
Following the translation of the Bible into English, the 17th century witnessed an explosion of popular interest in the Hebrew scriptures. It became common for ordinary people, especially Puritans, to give their children Hebrew names – Josiah, Saul, Hezekiah, Beulah. And it was these texts that people would look to as guidance and justification for their political priorities: James I was the new Solomon, the revolution against the king was mandated by the book of Daniel, etc.
Already in the New Testament, St Paul had taken a term that had referred to an actual community of people living over time, and changed its meaning to that of a theological idea. This was the decisive move. The true Israelites, argued Paul, a former Pharisee, are “not the children of the flesh … but the children of the promise”. The term “Israel” is thus detached from its rootedness in Jewish people and Jewish history and turned into a form of self-understanding.
With this separation established, the church could describe itself as the “new Israel” and people on the rugby terraces could sing, without puzzlement, about building Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. From the 17th century, English nationalism borrowed from the language of being the chosen people. This is why, even today, the service of coronation draws so much more from the Old Testament than from the New.
Would it be right to describe any of this as philosemitism? I used to think (maybe hope) something roughly like this: that, because of our history, and despite frequent relapses into prejudice, Britain was especially well disposed towards the Jewish people. Hence the Balfour declaration. But having married an Israeli, I now feel more keenly than before the remarkable disconnect between the language we have historically used about Israel and the actual place and its people.
Most of those who wrote so enthusiastically about Jews in the 17th century had never actually met any. Jews weren’t so much a people as an idea. Likewise, the Israel that David Lloyd George was won over to through Sunday school was a merger of Christian theological fantasy and British national self-aggrandisement. And those of us who remain Zionists, and continue to support the existence of a state for Jews in the land of Israel, must also contend with a clear-eyed recognition that theological fantasy and national self-aggrandisement are not safest of foundations on which to build a future.