Whose People?: Wales, Israel, Palestine

Whose People?: Wales, Israel, Palestine

by Jasmine Donahaye

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Wales has a long history of interest in Palestine and Israel, and a close interest in Jews and Zionism. This monograph, the first to explore the subject, asks searching questions about the relationship that Wales has with the Israel-Palestine situation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783164974
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 02/15/2012
Series: Writing Wales in English
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 628 KB

About the Author

Dr Jasmine Donahaye is an associate Professor in English literature and creative writing at Swansea University. She has published works of poetry as well as cultural criticism, fiction and creative non-fiction.

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Whose People? Wales, Israel, Palestine

Writing Wales in English

By Jasmine Donahaye

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2012 Jasmine Donahaye
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7083-2484-4


Tracing the Wales-Israel tradition

'The Welsh-Israelite tradition is, I believe, the most resonant bourdon in Welsh history, both spiritual and political.'

– Dorian Llywelyn, Sacred Place, Chosen People


At the close of the twentieth century, and into the early years of the twenty-first, several publications appeared that laid claim to a continuing, pervasive and ancient tradition of Welsh identification with the Jews. The proliferation of publications between 1999 and 2002 dealing with Welsh attitudes to Jews was not entirely coincidental: in 1997, residents of Wales voted in a second national referendum on a devolved assembly, and in 1999 the first National Assembly for Wales was elected. Although the research for Dorian Llywelyn's book Sacred Place, Chosen People preceded these events, it was a time when publisher support for a re-imagining of Wales was widespread and varied: in the same year the University of Wales Press also published John Harvey's Image of the Invisible: the Visualization of Religion in Welsh Nonconformist Tradition, which, like Llywelyn's book, as discussed below, explored a tradition of Wales-Israel connections and Welsh-Jewish relationships.

The late 1990s was a time of national narrative reinvented on a grand scale for a new national status and identity, including comprehensive surveys of the literature in both languages (such as The New Companion to the Literature of Wales published in 1998), and of visual art (such as Peter Lord's three-volume Visual Culture of Wales series, published between 1998 and 2003). But while that new narrative re-imagined the past, including past religious traditions put to new purpose, it also engaged with a multicultural civic present and future: 1999 saw the publication of titles such as Nation, Identity and Social Theory: Perspectives from Wales, followed not long after by A Tolerant Nation?: Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Wales. Smaller presses also engaged in the newly self-conscious project of imagining an inclusive civic Wales, with Planet publishing Sugar and Slate by Charlotte Williams and Seren producing an anthology of Welsh writings on Jews, Chosen People: Wales and the Jews, edited by poet Grahame Davies. Some of these developments had their earlier partial research expression in magazines and journals – indeed, W. D. Rubinstein's 're-examination' of the Tredegar riots of 1911 had appeared in Welsh History Review in 1997.

The appearance at the close of the twentieth century of accounts dealing with Jews – those by Llywelyn, Harvey, Davies and Rubinstein – had its forerunner a hundred years earlier: at the beginning of the century and in different circumstances, but under the pressure of a parallel need for a reinvented national tradition following the disappointing demise of the Cymru Fydd movement, D. Wynne Evans published a series of essays dealing in direct and indirect ways with Jews in the prominent cultural journal Young Wales.

Produced at the beginning of the century between 1901 and 1905, and at the end between 1997 and 2002, these accounts took a variety of forms, and served apparently widely divergent purposes, but they have in common a strongly politically-motivated argument about Welsh particularity, and about a notional 'true' Welshness. They also have in common a claim that the Welsh are particularly well-disposed towards the Jews, that Jews have experienced a welcome in Wales distinct from their reception elsewhere, and that the Welsh have taken a unique and disproportionate interest in their social welfare and their political status. The evidence used to support these claims ranges from historical material relating to Welsh support for Jewish causes; visual imaging that compares biblical Palestine with Wales; the adaptation of the Hebrew ulpan system to the Welsh wlpan; comparisons made by Welsh writers from the seventeenth century to the present; statements and actions of prominent Welsh individuals, and positive 'philosemitic' or 'loving' and 'admiring' treatment of 'the Jew' in Welsh literature in both languages. All of this constitutes a tradition, which, it is argued, derives from the strongly Old Testament biblical orientation of Welsh nonconformity, in which the Welsh identified themselves closely with biblical Jews. Such an identification purportedly predisposed the Welsh also to identify closely with post-biblical, historical Jews. This preponderance of interest in and 'supportive' attitude towards Jews also derives, it is argued, from earlier 'traditional Welsh historiography', a body of pre-twentieth century writing that posits ancient foundations for the Welsh nation, including biblical ethnic and linguistic descent. This latter tradition is traced back in various forms to the seventeenth century (and, by Dorian Llywelyn, to the sixth).

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the source for this account of a Jewish narrative thread in Welsh cultural life was a nonconformist minister. At the end of the twentieth century the sources were a historian, a poet, an art historian and an academic Catholic priest, all writing in English. The form the more recent accounts take – three substantial books published by Welsh presses, and articles in a literary journal and a history quarterly – is indicative of the significant change that took place in Welsh literary and cultural life in the twentieth century: the emergence of a substantial, Wales-based, English-language book-publishing infrastructure. At the beginning of the century there was nothing like this. Instead, a diversity of small, high-quality and voraciously-read cultural journals came and went at considerable speed. The absence of institutional book publishers meant that any attempt at an overarching narrative was necessarily fragmented and occasional, and relied also on oral transmission – indeed oral tradition heavily coloured popular historiography and other forms of publishing in both languages in Wales in the early years of the twentieth century. In contrast, the development of stable and substantial structures by the end of the century helped to support the emergence and then reinforcement of the kind of grand nation-building narrative to which these more recent books contribute. However, the institutional gravitas provided by substantial publishing structures does not make these accounts any less subject to critical scrutiny as imagined national narrative than their more fragmented predecessors.

There is indeed a considerable body of work, consisting of both poetry and non-fiction prose produced over several centuries, in which 'the Jew' or 'the Jews' are the subject of apparently positive investigation or comment, and Welsh and Jewish cultural and national aspirations are compared. However, the nature of that interest in Jews is considerably more ambiguous and complex than its commentators have so far acknowledged. For example, there appears to be a significant degree of confusion between, on the one hand, notional Jews and, on the other, historical Jews. My distinction here might at first seem itself to be notional. By 'notional Jews' I mean those representative or metaphorical Jews – often referred to collectively as 'the Jews' – who include and derive from biblical textual Jews (one might say 'imagined' Jews in Benedict Anderson's terms, though this is an imagined 'other' rather than the imagined self). By 'historical Jews' I mean post-biblical contemporary Jews of a particular present moment, whether directly encountered or not. I should emphasise, however, that by distinguishing between historical and notional Jews in this way I am not commenting on the historical reality of the deep Jewish past, nor on continuities or discontinuities between biblical and contemporary Jewish identity.

I diverge from Bryan Cheyette here in his distinction between 'the Jew' as signifier, and Jews as living reality, and I do so because of peculiarities of the Welsh context that will, I hope, become apparent. In accounts of Welsh interest in Jews, evidence of interest in notional Jews is frequently and seemingly unconsciously conflated with evidence of interest in historical Jews, and this has led to a quite skewed impression of the imprint that these various forms of interest (and putative support) have left on the culture.

The disparity between claims made about this tradition of Welsh identification and the evidence to support such claims derives not only from the conflation of notional and historical Jews, but also from the sometimes deliberate entanglement of distinct areas of discourse from the preceding several hundred years. Although it is not possible to categorise this discourse tidily, and although the simplification in such categorisation is ultimately somewhat misleading, it is useful to identify several interrelated but distinct narrative threads that will be explored in more detail later.

The first to emerge, chronologically speaking, is the kind of commentary generally identified by historians of religion as 'traditional Welsh historiography', which posits mythical biblical and Brythonic (ancient Celtic) ethnic origins for the Welsh people, and Hebrew roots for the Welsh language. As discussed below, Dorian Llywelyn argues that elements of this commentary may be traced in its earliest form to the sixth-century monk Gildas, author of De Excidio Britanniae (The Ruin of Britain), but it was popularised in the eighteenth century by Theophilus Evans, author of the work Drych y Prif Oesoedd (The Mirror of the First Ages).

A second category concerns the Welsh self-identification as biblical Jews or Israelites, in which notional and historical Jews bear little if any relation to one another (that is, Jews are considered as almost a legendary image rather than as a continued historical reality). This commentary intertwines with 'traditional historiography', but in its most overt form emerges as a product of the late nineteenth-century height of Welsh nonconformity, particularly with the growth of the Sunday School movement. This might be termed the 'Welsh-Israelite' tradition, along the lines of Llywelyn's arguments about a religious or spiritual tradition (although, as I shall indicate in my discussion of Caradoc Evans, the legacy of this 'spiritual tradition' is perhaps more ambiguous than the one Llywelyn describes).

A later development, emerging in the very early twentieth century, constitutes more overt political discourse and consists of commentary that compares the historical experience and social and political status of historical Jews and the Welsh, including the status of the Hebrew and Welsh languages. Although aspects of it appear earlier (and for some, such as Gwynfor Evans, this remained a religiously-informed comparison), this is for the most part a twentieth-century concern of a largely secular, post-nonconformist Welsh-language culture. For the sake of convenience, this might be termed a 'Wales-Israel' tradition, as it deals primarily with questions of national self-determination and national language revival.

Finally there is a very long history of commentary on the abject status of post-biblical Jews, which includes expressions of sympathy for their condition and support for their emancipation. This commentary in the very great majority of cases constitutes conversionist discourse, which is perhaps the least acknowledged or analysed of all commentary about Jews in the Welsh context.

The conflation of putative Welsh attitudes to notional and historical Jews can be traced to the beginning of the twentieth century when, in the context of the Celtic Revival, the growth of cultural nationalism, and of Welsh patriotism within a British Empire framework, D. Wynne Evans twined together motifs of 'traditional historiography', Welsh self-identification as biblical Jews, Hebrew and Welsh language relationships, political comparisons, and millenarian 'admiration'and 'support'for Jews. If Evans was a selective and deliberate compiler, he was nevertheless redacting for his new purposes a widespread cultural tradition drawn from a multiplicity of sources, including traditional historiography. Importantly, this bringing together of notional and historical Jews by Evans, and his accompanying claim of peculiar Welsh tolerance, may be seen as the root source of some late twentieth-century writers' conclusions about a long-lived 'tradition of identification'.

However, even within those areas of discussion relating only to notional Jews, the evidence of continuity and influence over a long period is questionable. It is, for example, debatable whether or to what degree 'traditional historiography', which incorporates foundation myths such as descent from the biblical figure of Gomer, exerted an influence on Welsh nonconformity and particularly on Calvinistic Methodism, a powerful Welsh denomination in the nineteenth century. Consequently, if there was little continuity, the argument that this traditional historiography predisposed the Welsh to any particular attitude towards Jews becomes, effectively, spurious. In addition, while it seems clear that the nineteenth-century chapel tradition of identification as biblical Jews (whatever its sources), itself predisposed Welsh people to take a certain interest in historical Jews, it is not clear that this interest was either positive or even necessarily benign. Nevertheless, in late twentieth-century retellings of the 'tradition' that D. Wynne Evans had articulated in 1901 and 1902, it is widely assumed (but not demonstrated) that these culturally prominent attitudes to notional (biblical) Jews had an influence on the development of decidedly positive attitudes to historical Jews. The evidence, however, seems to point to a different conclusion and suggests that the complex of Welsh attitudes to historical Jews derives as much from a tradition of conversionism (including a relatively recent tradition of applied conversionism) as from any long-standing tradition of 'identification'.


Who, then, are these writers who cite a tradition of identification, and what exactly do they claim about such a tradition? Between 1997 and 2002, such a tradition is articulated (although not critically analysed) by, among others, historian W. D. Rubinstein and poet Grahame Davies. John Harvey's survey, Image of the Invisible (to which Eitan Bar-Yosef refers in his seminal volume The Holy Land in English Culture), explores biblical influences in Welsh visual culture. Quite distinct from these, and considered separately, is Dorian Llywelyn's work, which is also cited by Bar-Yosef. This book, Sacred Place, Chosen People, constitutes a rigorous analysis, in a specifically religious and spiritual framework, of what Llywelyn calls the 'Welsh-Israelite tradition', though it omits consideration of the Jewish element in the Welsh-Israelite equation.

The increase, at the end of the twentieth century, in references to the 'tradition of Welsh identification with the Jews', and the emergence of several publications dealing with it either centrally or in passing, is suggestive. It is perhaps the demise of the prominent religious and political movements that were informed by the belief in such a tradition that makes it ripe for reinvention – and makes the national narrative ripe for reinvention, too.

W. D. Rubinstein, however, does not appear to be concerned with a reinvention of Welshness; on the contrary, he states that the larger purpose of his intervention is to argue that philosemitism rather than antisemitism predominated in Britain generally, a subject on which he has published several times. In his article on the Tredegar riots, published in 1997 in Welsh History Review, in which he reassesses and then dismisses earlier 'antisemitic' interpretations of the 1911 riots, he provides a formulation of Welsh 'philosemitism' that usefully illustrates the way in which an idea of Welsh identification with Jews has developed:

Philosemitism – support and admiration for Jews, both ancient and modern – became a recognizable and distinctive part of Welsh culture and national identity with the rise of nonconformity and the fundamental importance of the Bible and of the saga of the ancient Hebrews. It is no exaggeration to say that it permeated every aspect of Welsh culture until very recent times ... Identification with, and knowledge of, the Old Testament Hebrews was pervasive in nineteenth-century Welsh culture.


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Table of Contents

General Editor's Preface vii

Acknowledgements ix

Introduction: a beginning and an end 1

1 Tracing the Wales-Israel tradition 11

2 The mission to convert the Jews 39

3 Welsh Semitic discourse 66

4 Twentieth-century political comparisons 97

5 The Jewish response 126

Conclusion 157

Notes 164

Index 195

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