While working on a chapter on Jerusalem during the British Mandate (1917-1948) I ran into one of the private micro-dramas I assume most writers run into and that I learned long ago nobody else is really interested in. But as I thought about it more, there seemed to be a lesson for me that I should be more attentive to. And the lesson had a lot to do with what I am discovering is an important thread in my current project: how much of our understanding of the world is mythic, and where those myths come from.
The lesson began as I was trying to tell a story myself, the outlines of which are these: the British set the wheels in motion for what ultimately became the State of Israel as the first World War wound down, when the British government—at the time in military control of the region—declared and then very openly pushed for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which led by a very ragged sequence of events to the ultimate creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The natural question is why the British government sought to do that, since it was far from an obvious idea at the time. The reasons are multiple and interesting, but one important factor in the British support for the Zionist scheme for Palestine was a deep and long-lived fascination among the British, especially the “low-church” or evangelical Christians, for the Biblical stories of the ancient Israelites. This contributed to a persistent meme in 19th century England that English Christians should restore the Jews to Palestine (and also in the process convert the Jews to Christianity) and that these two events together would usher in the return of Christ. I don’t think most Americans today think of the British as having a strong evangelical fervor, much less that stuffy British ministers would find time to dabble in millennialist cosmology in the very midst of the Great War, and so I think this is interesting. But what I had in draft seemed a little flat.
It was at this point, in trying to fatten up my own narrative about British evangelical politics, that I ran into a respectable-seeming history of an important figure in British Christian Zionism, a fellow named Lewis Way, who was the early motive force behind a very important private group called The London Society for the Conversion of the Jews to Christianity, which people generally abbreviated as the London Jews’ Society*. How, I wondered, did this guy get such a bee in his bonnet for returning the Jews to the Holy Land and why on earth did he think they were ripe for conversion to Christianity? I was happy to discover that there was a Really Good Story about that, one I discovered in a slightly dated but otherwise perfectly respectable academic paper on the man.
The London Jews’ Society
The account takes place early in Way’s career, when he had just recently inherited a huge fortune and was casting about for a grand Christian purpose for his life. At this delicate juncture, the young man went for a ride in the country with a friend, where they encountered a beautiful stand of mature oak trees. Way’s friend told him that the oaks had belonged to a pious spinster who had recently died, and the woman had made clear in a codicil to her will that the oaks were to remain untouched “until the day that the Jews are restored to the Holy Land in Palestine.” Struck by the old woman’s faith, Way adopted her dying sentiment as his life’s calling, and thus dove into leading the London Jews’ Society with single-mindedness and passion. The story of his conversion to the task was the pride of the Society and was recalled in detail by Way’s elderly daughter many years later. A really good story had fallen into my lap.
Except… it seems it didn’t happen. Researchers found the spinster’s will and its codicils: no mention at all of the oak trees or any effort to return the Jews to the Holy Land. Suspiciously, no mention of the event can be found during Way’s lifetime, only many years later when an old woman and fervent fan of the Jews Society wrote up the story for the first time. Sure, it may have happened—I can’t prove that it didn’t—but the most economical explanation is that the tale arose as a kind of fan-fiction from a sweet old lady who was really into the mission of the London Jews’ Society. Certainly it is not a story I’m going to repeat as if it were true.
After my private embarrassment at being duped (and let’s face it, lazy), I remembered when something like this had happened before in my previous book The Industrialization of Intelligence. I had a whole chapter written about a man named Joseph Marie Jacquard who invented a punch-card device for automating fine weaving looms. In that chapter, for a time at least, I had a Really Good Story about the economic and social disruption his invention caused that ultimately led to riots and workers smashing Jacquard’s labor-saving looms that had put them out of work. This narrative had long been held as conventional history and I had multiple secondary and near-contemporary accounts confirming it, but uncomfortably late I discovered this too was largely a myth promoted by early industrialists about how unseemly and stupid their workers were. These two examples make me think how often I run into these myths-posing-as-history, and how often the motivations of the myth-makers are fairly transparent in the little details of the myths themselves. Once you start looking, you see them everywhere.
The truth is we live in a thick web of stories that shape our understanding of our place is in the world, most often in ways we are not aware of. Even when the stories don’t overtly claim to be history, they carry significant moral freight about what is right and wrong, who can be trusted and who can’t, when it is justified to be cruel and when one should show compassion. It seems we most want to understand complicated and ambiguous issues, especially moral issues, through story-telling.
Why is that?
*The possessive apostrophe in “Jew’s Society” is interesting. It certainly didn’t belong to the Jews, it was run by Christians. And the idea that it was for the Jews’ benefit is a very strained rationalization. Needless to say, the number of Jews the society succeeded in converting to Christianity was minuscule.