Jews were once loved in Wales
Many myths have shaped the relationship between the Welsh and the Jews. Present in Wales since medieval times, Jews have been episodically welcomed, expelled, admired and more recently been regarded with hostility on account of modern-day Welsh identification with the fate of the Palestinians.
Israel is a country often compared in its geographical size to Wales. This may seem an odd comparison (particularly as the former is long and thin compared to latter being short and fat), but the relationship between Wales, Palestine, Israel and the Jews has a long history.
Little has been written about the experience of Jews in Wales compared to the extensive coverage of the Jewish experience in England, as well as those of Jews in Scotland and Ireland (both Northern and the Republic).
However, the recent appearance of the book Whose People? Wales, Israel, Palestine by Jasmine Donahaye – which explores the representations of Welsh and Jewish culture and identity in various literatures, in particular the deep roots of Welsh interest in the Jews – and the launch of a new exhibition and catalogue in Wales’ capital city, Cardiff, called Hineni – featuring fifty-nine edited life stories and photographic portraits from the Cardiff Reform Jewish community, and which hopes to travel onwards in the future – gives us a chance to reflect on this relationship.
Jews first visited and came to live in Wales in medieval times. They came with the Anglo-Norman invaders, chiefly as financiers of Edward I’s ambitious castle-building program. Those few Welsh Jews were expelled by the Anglo-Normans prior to the general expulsion from England in 1290, as means of sopping up popular anti-Jewish prejudice and to expropriate their property in order to pay for Edward I’s military campaigns. Yet Jews continued to visit until Oliver Cromwell formally readmitted Jews to Britain in the seventeenth century.
From the eighteenth century onwards, Jewish communities and synagogues were established by Jews who had arrived from central and eastern Europe, first in Swansea, and then spreading out into the valleys and other towns and cities of the south of Wales. Meanwhile, via diverse routes, Jews settled along the north Wales coast (I became one of them when I took up my post at Bangor University in 2006, having originally come from London) and scattered individuals and families still dot the landscape in between.
Whether present in Wales or not, Jews have been subjected to various Welsh narratives and imaginings – religious, nationalist, linguistic, political, pro- and anti-Jewish. Wales and the Jews have been caught up for centuries. The tradition of Welsh identification with the Jews may have been a twentieth-century invention, but Welsh interest in the Jews has roots much deeper than this.
Yet, although the fate of British Jews has historically been intertwined for many centuries with that of the Welsh, perhaps surprisingly this seems to have passed largely unnoticed in the official histories of and public awareness in Wales. For example, as historian Cecil Roth has noted, the 13th-century King Edward I borrowed heavily from local Jews to fund his Welsh campaigns, in particular his ‘iron ring’ castle-building programme that encircled the mountains of Snowdonia – the stronghold of the North Welsh princes. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the places in North Wales where Jews are documented as having lived are those very sites where castles were constructed. The subsequent expulsion of the Jews from his entire kingdom conveniently enabled Edward to seize their property in order to pay off his large debts. Yet, this is still unacknowledged at any of the historical castle remains I have visited, many of which are designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Many myths have shaped the relationship between the Welsh and the Jews. These include the idea that Wales has been an unusually tolerant and liberal place. The Welsh people are sometimes characterized by their love of Jews and at other times, conversely, by their hatred of Jews and/or Zionism. Wales, though, is in essence neither anti- nor philo-Semitic, but exhibits complex attitudes towards Jews and Israel. On the one hand, there is a tradition in which the Welsh believe that they are descended from the Israelites, arguing that the Welsh language is clearly derived from Hebrew. Although there seem to be similarities in a certain range of words between the two languages there is no conclusive linguistic evidence of a connection – although, in this respect, it is noteworthy that Wlpan is the name of an intensive Welsh course for beginners modelled on the Hebrew Ulpan. On the other hand, there is a Welsh impulse which, by characterizing themselves as the original ‘Jews’ or Israelites, the actual Jews of Britain are effectively replaced and erased.
Palestine was described in 1858 by the Welsh missionary, Reverend John Mills, as a land, asleep through a long Sabbath, to be awakened by honest Welsh labour – a clear identification of the Welsh people’s religious mission to the world and that of the redemption of the people and land of Zion. Later, the Free Wales Army – a paramilitary Welsh nationalist organisation, formed in 1963 with the objective of establishing an independent Welsh republic – modelled itself on the Irgun and the Stern Gang.
Wales enthusiastically contributed to the British imperial project in Palestine during the British Mandate. In so doing, it acted as an imperial agent and colonial forerunner, particularly owing to its missionary activities among the Jews. Welsh culture was bolstered by colonialist rhetoric, challenging the tidy view held by many in Wales today that as Wales itself was colonized by the English it was always innately anti-imperialist. The Welsh enthusiasm for the Mandate is also a rebuff to the suggestion that the Welsh have always felt a natural sympathy for the situation of the Palestinian people.
After 1967, however, everything changed; Welsh nationalism increasingly rejected any identification with Israel as Welsh identification with the Palestinians and the PLO increased. Nowadays it is a commonplace that many of the Welsh identify with Palestine while they perceive the English colonizers as resembling the Israeli colonizers, a view reflected in local media, trade unions, academia and Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist political party. An unfortunate result is that the complexity of the Welsh perceptions of Palestine and the Jewish people through the centuries (Biblical, historical, colonial, and contemporary) has been reduced to the current political situation, and has lost the nuances of the cultural and historical relationship that has existed between Wales, Israel, Palestine, and the Jews.
Nathan Abrams is a senior lecturer in Film Studies at Bangor University in North Wales where he has lived for the past six years.