In a former life I was mixed up with British Israelism (the belief that the Anglo-Saxon races are the “lost ten tribes of Israel”) so recently I was interested to find a new research paper by J. M. Berger using British Israelism as a case study in how an innocuous if eccentric belief system was able to evolve into today’s antisemitic white supremacist Christian Identity movement. (I have posted details of Berger’s paper at the end of this post.)
The church I once belonged to embraced British Israelism as one of its core doctrines. When I wanted to learn more about the details of this belief-system I tracked down an old book-lined room of old wooden desks and chairs and tended by an old man representing what appeared to be the last gasping remnant of the “British Israel Association” in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. I purchased some very old literature with quaint titles that I still have with me:
Most of those publications hold a special place for Jews: the Anglo-Saxon nations (British and American) may have been declared the descendants of the tribe of Joseph but the British royal family was esteemed as a branch of the Davidic dynasty. The tribe of Judah, the Jews, were welcomed as inheritors of the promise of “the sceptre” that would continue unbroken until the coming of the Messiah.
So how could such a belief system evolve into a racist, even a violent, outfit?
It is impossible to cover the details of Berger’s discussion here but I can hit a few highlights. (This post does not do justice to Berger’s theoretical argument.)
It will be helpful to understand some basic principles of British Israelism.
Of primary importance is the distinction between the terms Israel and Jew. Israel is said to refer primarily to the ten tribes who made up the Bible’s kingdom of the north, based at Samaria, while the term Judah, from which we have Jews, was the name of the southern kingdom with its royal city of Jerusalem. Thus Israel refers to the northern ten tribes, the kingdom conquered by Assyria in the 720s, while the Jews belonged to the southern kingdom up to the time of the Babylonian captivity.
The promises made to Abraham were primarily racial or national. Yes, grace was promised (through Christ) but so was race. Multitudes of progeny, many nations and kings, dominance of the political landscape and super-abundant possession of wealth were promised Abraham’s descendants. Those promises became more specific when the dying Jacob passed on blessings to his sons, assigning each one, a future tribe, a particular destiny. The eldest son of Joseph was Ephraim and his descendants were to become a “multitude of nations” while his brother, Manasseh, was to become “a great nation”.
According to the argument these promises were never literally fulfilled in Bible times.
But around the mid-nineteenth century a few people did see two brother peoples, one a multitude of nations and the other a great nation, who did possess all the wealth and military dominance that they believed had been promised to Abraham’s descendants, specifically to the two sons of Joseph: the promises to Ephraim were seen fulfilled in the British Commonwealth of Nations and those to Manasseh in the United States of America.
After ancient Israel (the northern ten tribes) were taken into captivity they eventually migrated (as prophesied) to the north and the west, reaching the British Isles, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, northern France.
But none of this was antisemitic. Quite the contrary, as Berger rightly notes, it was philo-Semitic. British Israelism had a place for all the tribes of Israel: the Jews had been promised not national wealth but a perpetual royal dynasty. Luckily the prophet Jeremiah was able to rescue some of the royal daughters (descended from David) at the time the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar was ravaging his way through Jerusalem and eventually relocate them in Ireland where they united with another branch of Judah’s royal family line.
In the last days the British royal family would belatedly acknowledge their true identity and hand their throne over to Jesus at his return. The British and American nations would recognize at last that they were Israelites and Jews would convert to Christianity and everyone would live happily ever after.
So that was British Israelism as it was known for around 100 or so years — up to the time of the Second World War. Bizarre, yes, but surely harmless.
There was a tiny seed, however, that some generations after its publication (see insert on John Wilson) was coopted for lunatic and violent ends. That seed was the passing claim that all of today’s races descended from the three sons of Noah, with those from Ham being the children of the curse. (Ham, recall, was cursed by Noah for apparently taking advantage of his drunken stupor.)
Yet the fact that the Jews were designated a place apart from certain other tribes of Israel would eventually prove to be a wedge that could too easily be exploited in an increasingly anti-Semitic environment. Notice the following lonely paragraph penned by John Wilson in his Lectures on our Israelitish origin (1876 edition):
We have adverted to the case of the other house of Israel, which as being left in the land, and having generally borne the name of “Jews,” are supposed to have remained distinct from all other people. We have seen that the best portion of them must have become mingled among the Gentiles; and the worst of the Gentiles—the Canaanites and Edomites, children emphatically of the curse—having become one with them, they have become guilty of the sins of both, the curse of which they have been enduring ; that they have nothing in the flesh whereof to boast, and cannot obtain possession of the land by the old covenant ; that they can only obtain a peaceable settlement as being viewed in the One Seed Christ, and as being joined to the multitudinous seed to come, especially of Ephraim. (p. 368)
Ominous. But a reflection of the times. The descendants of Shem, Noah’s eldest son, wrote Wilson, had “the greatest natural capacity for [religious] knowledge” (p. 28) and it is from them that the tribes of Israel and the “other white races” descended. Wilson even uses the “Semitic” to refer to all of these descendants of Shem, not only the Jews.
Rising tide of anti-Semitism
Most of us know at least the outline of anti-Semitism in the decades up to the Second World War. One person who did much damage by fanning this bigotry with his writing was Houston Steward Chamberlain. Of special notoriety was his 1899 Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. Even though Chamberlain was not part of the British Israel movement he did acknowledge its contribution to a positive understand of important questions of the day:
[T]he northern kingdom of Israel was laid waste by the Assyrians, and its population — it is said to a man, at all events to a large extent — deported into different and distant parts of the Empire, where it soon fused with the rest of the inhabitants and in consequence completely disappeared. * . . . . .
. . . . .
* So completely disappeared that many theologians, who had leisure, puzzled their brains even in the nineteenth century to discover what had become of the Israelites, as they could not believe that five-sixths of the people to whom Jehovah had promised the whole world should have simply vanished off the face of the earth. An ingenious brain actually arrived at the conclusion that the ten tribes believed to be lost were the English of to-day! He was not at a loss for the moral of this discovery either: in this way the British possess by right five-sixths of the whole earth; the remaining sixth the Jews. Cf. H. L.: Lost Israel, where are they to be found? (Edinburgh, 6th ed., 1877). In this pamphlet another work is named, Wilson, Our Israelitish Origin. There are, according to these authorities, honest Anglo-Saxons who have traced their genealogy back to Moses!
(Foundations, p. 204)
Without arguing for British Israelism Chamberlain at the same time stressed the distinction between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, emphatically portraying the northern tribes as being the most culturally and advanced and led by Josephite tribes who belonged to Aryan race; the southern tribe of Judah, or Jews, he declared, indiscriminantly interbred with “inferior races”. (Along similar lines he argued that Jesus was of Aryan stock and not a Jew: Galilee had maintained a certain racial separateness from the “mongrel” Jewish race to the south.)
Such was the environment in which British Israelism operated.
49 M. Barkun, Religion and the racist right: The origins of the Christian Identity movement (1997), p. 122.
50 J. D. Sarna and J. Golden, “The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation,” National Humanities Center, October 2000, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/jewishexp.htm
British Israelism, Barkun writes, was often “philo-Semitic”, but it “operated in an environment rife with anti-Semitism” and “racial theorizing”.49 The movement also had implicit elements of anti-Semitism in its elevation of the Anglo-Saxon line over the Judaic line, as well as reflecting general white racial attitudes of the day, which were not especially enlightened and at times tended toward the conspiratorial.50 (Berger, pp. 18f)
Henry Ford & William J. Cameron
Now shift to the United States of America and our infamous Nazi sympathizer Henry Ford. Ford owned the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper that loved to do all it could to “expose” anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, especially those that supported the wild and rabidly antisemitic declamations in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Dearborn Independent became a megaphone for British Israelist writer William J. Cameron who was
notorious for his role in publishing virulent racist and anti-Semitic material . . . .
In part thanks to Cameron’s influence, British Israelism would shift from a patronising but inclusive stance toward the Jews to the enemy out-group politics of extremism.
While it contained some British Israelist content, the Independent was heavily focused on exposing so-called Jewish conspiracies emerging from the infamous anti-Semitic tract The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. First published in English in 1919, the book was popularised in the United States by Ford, Cameron and the Independent, and its contents soon began to infect British Israelist thought. (Berger, p. 19)
To step aside from Berger’s article for a moment and for the benefit of anyone only vaguely aware of them, the Protocols were
the supreme expression and vehicle of the myth of the Jewish world-conspiracy. . . . the Protocols were used to justify massacres of Jews during the Russian civil war; . . . they swept the world after the First World War; . . . they took possession of Hitler’s mind and became the ideology of his most fanatical followers at home and abroad — and so helped to prepare the way for the near-extermination of European Jews. (Norman Cohn, 1967. Warrant for Genocide, p. 13)
Cameron picked up and ran with the passage I quoted above by Wilson lamenting the way Jews intermingled with “lesser races”. The Jews had committed the horrible sin of “mongrelization”. The Bible was a book about race, Cameron insisted. The Bible clearly singled out one “race” as “the Chosen” for special responsibility and prestige. It was a lie, a false teaching, that said the Jews were the Chosen race. The Anglo-Saxon nations were in fact the Chosen. And the Bible stressed over and over the necessity that Chosen people — referencing in particular the “lost ten tribes” or the Anglo Saxon nations — to keep themselves racially separate and “pure”.
Berger observes that British Israelism’s lurch into anti-Semitism
tracked with its rising popularity in America.
(I wonder if part of the reason for this American shift was that the traditional British Israelism’s boast that the British Royal Family was a perpetual reminder of God’s covenant promise to Judah and David was more easily set aside in the Republic.)
At the same time Cameron maintained his “Christian dignity” and denied anything unchristian about his views. Being “chosen” bestowed a greater responsibility, he said. And the peoples of the British Commonwealth and the United States had fallen into moral depravity and needed to repent and “take up the white man’s burden” of setting an example for and serving the “lesser breeds” of the world.
Cameron may personally have insisted that he embraced a good Christian attitude towards the Jews (whom God rejected) and to the privilege of being part of the Chosen race, but his message established something new in British Israelism: an identity (being the Chosen by God) that presumed a dangerous framing of the out-group.
Cameron further introduced the belief that the Declaration of Independence was a sacred document, a holy document establishing the United States as “a nation under God”.
The number of colonies had increased to thirteen by that time, as there were thirteen tribes in Israel. Again there came a mighty division in Israel, for the colonies revolted against the rule of England. Determining to do this, they produced another great covenant document — the Declaration of Independence — and therein once more their allegiance to Almighty God is declared. . . .
The Mayflower Compact made us a civil body politic. The Articles of Federation made us a people. The Declaration of Independence made us a nation. All of them are based on the people’s allegiance to God. Not one of them ever has been or ever can be amended. (Cameron, The Covenant People, pp. 66f)
Another issue high on the agenda of modern right-wing extremists is government taxation power. According to Cameron the founding of the American nation came about through the revolt against Britain over taxation which was significantly repeating the rebellion of the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel against the Davidic king of Judah over the issue of Solomon’s “tax” levies.
British Israelism thus appears to have been exploited in a way to plant seeds of white supremacist and extremist ideas in modern America.
Apocalyptic fears enter British Israelism
Thus far British Israelism looked back to history and history’s consequences for the present day. British Israelism advanced a further step towards what was to become the Christian Identity movement through the work of Howard B. Rand. Rand’s contribution was to set the British Israelist movement’s sights on the future and imminent threats. (He was a significant figure in the founding of the Anglo-Saxon Federation of America.)
Under Rand, British Israelism also began to take on apocalyptic and millenarian overtones, reflecting the mood of the late 1930s and the outbreak of World War II.
British Israelism thus enters the world of economic depression, fears of communist Russia and a new world war.
Rand went beyond focusing on the supposed fulfillment of the biblical promises of Israel becoming a multitude of nations and a single great nation and dwelt heavily upon the threat of a great crisis looming in world history, beyond which the British and American peoples would rule the entire world.
Before that day, though, the Anglo-Saxons were to suffer a time of testing from revived “Babylonian” or Gentile powers. Gog and Magog, identified with Communist Russia, would eventually be defeated by “Israel”, and “Israel” would then wake up to itself and realize their true identity.
Racial awakening comes only after the situation becomes unimaginably desperate, with the racial nations of the world aligned against the Anglo-Saxons. Rand incorporates a scriptural view of race throughout the pages of Destiny, following biblical genealogies in the style of Wilson in Lectures on Our Israelitish Origins, but significantly different in the details. Arabs are said to be descended from Jokshan, a son of Abraham. The Chinese are said to be descendants of Moab, and the Japanese descendants of Ammon, and Rand hypothesises both countries will be set against Israel in the final battle, with other enemies…. (p. 26)
Ah, so that explains why I could muster no interest at all in two of those books I bought all those years ago in that British Israel Association meeting room. Study in Jeremiah and Study in Hosea offered me very little in explorations of the the past history and prophetic pointers to the fulfillment of the promises to Joseph from around 1800 on. They were primarily trying to sell me a fever for imminent apocalyptic threats that meant nothing to me and they were both authored by Howard B. Rand.
I am sure I would have been even more disillusioned had I picked up Rand’s publications in which he spoke of a pre-Adamic race who had been wiped out by nuclear war.
Of particular significance is that Howard Rand for a time was a close associate of William Cameron. Such a combination of incipient anti-Semitism and apocalyptic fears was not a healthy legacy.
The threat of Zionist Israel, 1948
C. F. Parker
How was the British Israel movement going to respond to the efforts of Zionist Jews to dislodge Britain, supposedly the true heir to the Abrahamic promises, from Palestine and establish their own State of Israel?
No student of modern affairs can appreciate the significance of events in the history of the Jews today without a knowledge of who the Jewish people are and what they stand for.
It will come as a surprise to many to learn that the people correctly called Jews, are, and have been since before the time of Christ, a heterogeneous mixture racially, unable to boast of any spiritual unity.
The short-lived Jewish nation which terminated in 70 A.D. with the siege of Titus, fell while under the sway, not of Judahites, but of the Idumeans, of whom the Herodians were chief, who sought to destroy the true Hebrew religion, its Messiah, and its followers, the children of Israel. That struggle has continued without ceasing to the present time, and forms the subject of this book.
If you are still not sure of its message the title of chapter 2 might help:
II THE DESECRATION OF THE JEWISH NATION BY THE SEED OF ESAU . . . 17
(Not all followers of British Israelism followed this route. Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God, for example, continued largely with the earlier precepts of British Israelism and accepted the genuine Jewishness of the modern State of Israel. The Church continued to teach that Jews and Anglo-Saxons would once again be united after Jesus Christ’s return. Some — not all — of the tracts I picked up in the British Israel Association in Brisbane decades ago were, however, anti-Semitic, pushing the same line that modern Jews were really Edomites.)
“H. Ben Judah”
H. Ben Judah was the pseudonymous author of the novel When? A Prophetical Novel of the Very Near Future, published in 1944 by the British Israel Association of Greater Vancouver. The primary aim of the novel was to discredit the Zionist movement that was working towards establishing a modern nation of Israel in Palestine. I have not read the novel but understand that its pages are loaded with characters reading from British Israel publications. Christ will return and rule the Anglo-Saxon nations directly as the true descendants of the tribes of Joseph, the primary inheritors of the physical promises to Abraham, and these nations (after Christ has removed “impure races” from their midst) will spread out once more to rule the entire world.
The novel is apparently an instructional (“teach and delight”) work, explicating such messages as:
- The Ashkenazi Jews are effectively Satan’s seed, descendants of Edomites who are in turn descendants of Cain who is the progeny of Satan;
- themes from the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion;
- the restoration of “Natural Law”, reforms to our taxation and banking laws — ideas now central to today’s Christian Identity movement.
But lest you think it’s all bad, part of the message is that Jews will be able to repent at the end.
Thinking Fast, Thinking Lunacy . . . Thinking the Unthinkable
Whereas the earlier British-Israel publications were careful expositions, taking readers through diligently sourced and step by step arguments, more recent offshoots of the movement have embraced emotive appeals to prejudices and superficial appearances of “scholarship”. The difference, Berger observes, is that between the two types of thinking addressed by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. (See Once more on System 1 and System 2 thinking for an earlier Vridar discussion of this book.)
Wesley Swift was (another) fiery radio preacher from California. His style, I understand, enabled him to get away with making flat assertions rather than detailed arguments and mentions of citations. He would construct a case and supposedly rebut objections by referring vaguely and repeatedly to what “someone said”.
Of particular significance was Swift’s expansion of the Chosen race. No longer confined to Anglo-Saxons; all whites were now deserving of special privileges. Not only the Ashkenazi Jews were the outsider group, but all non-whites.
“Negroes” had been brought to planet earth in UFOs by Satan following a great war between Lucifer and God prior to the Genesis story. Whites were descended from Adam through Seth. Other races from Satan through Cain.
The Holocaust was justified: after all, the Jews had attempted to stop Hitler’s purification program. Nuclear war against non-whites was a conceivable necessity. And so forth.
William Potter Gale
In the same year the Beatles first hit the charts William Potter Gale published Faith of Our Fathers. Faith blends British Israelism with UFOs, a pre-Genesis war in space, Freemasons, Satan, the Articles of Confederation, Natural Law, financial and political issues . . . . and has been linked with Sovereign Citizens, the Oklahoma Bombing, the Ku Klux Klan
Its Preface prepares readers for that link with violence:
This is not merely a “book”, it is a story with a Biblical background which can shake the world. The simple story told in “The Faith of Our Fathers” is one that should be read by every family in America and in Western Europe. Clergymen, Attorneys at Law, Public Officials as well as young students, will obtain a better understanding of their government and the Constitution of the United States of America.
In these days of tribulation, with enemies of God all about, one is reminded of the words of Napoleon Bonaparte when he said, “Ninety five percent of winning a war is to know your enemy”. The story of this book advances Napoleon’s advice by saying, “How can you know your enemy unless you know who YOU are?”
A clergyman once said, “love your enemies”. In a discussion with other clergymen that followed, he was asked where he derived his philosophy and he replied, “The Bible, of course”. The clergyman asking him questions then said, “I will agree with the Bible, now please tell me where the Bible says to love God’s enemies?” With this question, the first clergyman was stumped. He had no answer! In another instance, a clergyman was broadcasting a radio sermon. He was preaching that Christians should love everything (even Satan).
Upon reaching the “race” question he said, “All of the different races of people on earth are the same”. Later that day another clergyman telephoned the radio preacher and expressed interest in the sermon. He had a question. He asked about the statement that “all of the different races are the same”.
His question was “If the races are the ‘same’, then why did you say that they are ‘different’?”
With this, the clergyman who gave the sermon promptly placed his telephone receiver on the hook. He had no answer!
Those who read “The Faith of Our Fathers” will no doubt be stimulated to further research and study. It is hoped and we pray that their findings will assist in the accomplishments that God’s Word has prophesied. They will have “ANSWERS”! Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.
The concluding paragraph is chilling:
Many of Adam’s blind children would repeat the cry for “peace, peace”, not knowing that it is the cry of Satan to deceive Adam’s children and their nation. Satan and his children only desire the kind of “peace” that would lead to the destruction of Yahweh and His family on Earth. It is only for Adam’s children to revive the word of their Father and realize that they will not have peace until they have destroyed Satan’s children as they have been ordained and instructed to do. They would suddenly realize that they have been waiting for the Heavenly Father to do the things that He had sent them into the Earth to do in His Name. They have a legal “power of attorney” a written authority to act in His Name. They were told to be His “battle‐axe” and to fight Satan on Earth. They are to occupy the Earth and rule in righteousness with Him at the head of their government. Until this is done, no peace with Satan can be obtained. It has been fore ordained that victory is to be theirs but they must be brave enough to “fight” and shed their blood in sacrifice if necessary. When they do that, Victory is theirs!
(Bolding is my own)
J. M. Berger’s paper is a theoretical study seeking to identify and explain the processes that led a philo-Semitic and otherwise basically harmless idea to evolve into an extremist and potentially violent movement.
The paper behind this post:
Berger, J.M. “Extremist Construction of Identity: How Escalating Demands for Legitimacy Shape and Define In-Group and Out-Group Dynamics”, The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague 8, no. 7 (2017).
Some other posts addressing work by J.M. Berger:
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