One of the weirdest historical claims is the idea that the Anglo-Saxon peoples of England and the US are descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes. The British-Israelite movement was a catch-name for the diverse individuals and groups that believed in the idea. The movement thrived during the last decades of the 19th century, when the powerful British Empire seemed a good candidate for membership in the Chosen Nation. At the beginning of the 20th century, the movement may have enjoyed a membership of some two million in England and the United States. But nowadays, with Britain a shadow of its former glory and the United States a nation of many nations, the British-Israelite movement has dwindled to perhaps twenty or thirty thousand adherents worldwide. No one has bothered to count.
Rooted in Madness
Strangely enough, one of the first advocates of the idea of the British-Israelite concept was a Frenchman. In 1590, French magistrate M. Lelayer published a long volume titled The Lost Ten Tribes Found, which theorized that the lost tribes had coalesced into the English speaking peoples. Almost sixty years later, an Englishman, John Sadler, repeated the idea in his book, Rights of the Kingdom. But it took a madman to popularize the concept. Believing that he was destined to lead the English people to the Promised Land, Richard Brothers (1757-1824) “proved” this theory in his 1794 work, A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times. This book purported to be “the fi rst sign of Warning for the benefit of All Nations; containing with other great and remarkable things not revealed to any other Person on Earth, the Restoration of the Hebrews to Jerusalem by the year of 1798 under their revealed Prince and Prophet, Richard Brothers.”
The crown regarded Brother’s claim as treasonous and he was thrown into prison on the grounds of criminal insanity. Brothers scrawled a number of pamphlets in jail, which gained him many followers, until he made the fatal mistake of claiming he would be revealed as Prince of the Hebrews on a precise date — November 19, 1795. When the promised date came and went without incident, his disappointed constituency evaporated into thin air.
Ashamed to trace their origins to a madman, present day English-Israelites deny Brothers was founder of their doctrine. “This is not British-Israel belief,” they protest. “We teach that it is the royal family of Great Britain who are descended from King David, not Richard Brothers.” Instead, they claim as granddaddy the imaginative J. Wilson, whose work, Our Israelitish Origin (1845), neatly split the Hebrews of the world into two groups: the Ten Tribes (Anglo Saxons) supposedly on the road to world dominion, and the tribe of Yehuda (the Jews) who were still suffering persecution for their past sins.
English-Israelites’ proofs for their beliefs are generally absurd. They prove that the Ten Tribes would end up in the cold climate of England from the verse, “They shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun smite them (Yeshayahu 49:10). They even recruit alcoholism for the cause, citing Yeshayahu 28:2, which refers to the Lost Ten Tribes as the Drunkards of Ephraim. “This means they must be found in alcohol consuming countries,” the argument goes. “The USA, Australia, Britain, and related nations fi t the bill along with other attributes unique to themselves… The British, Americans, and Australians are amongst the foremost consumers of alcohol in the world both in absolute numbers and per capita consumption.”
British Israelites placed great weight on verses that mention islands, obviously referring to the British Isles. A popular example is the verse from Yeshayahu (11:11): “On that day Hashem will extend His hand yet a second time to recover the remnant left of His people from Assyria, from Egypt… and from the islands of the sea.”
British-Israelites also sought avidly for lingual similarities between Hebrew and English. The word “British” seemed similar to Brit Ish (Man of the Covenant), and “Saxon” was contorted into the phrase “Saac’s (Isaac’s) son. They pointed out that berry is similar to pri, kid to gedi, scale to shakal, kitten to katan, and jig to chag. The termination “ish” in English was related to ish (man). Accordingly, Spanish means “man of Spain” and English means “man of England.” One critic found such claims a trifle childish.
As for the historical connection between the British and the Ten Tribes, it went something like this: When the Ten Tribes were moved to Babylon, simultaneously, according to Herodotus, the Scythians (an Iranian people), including the tribe of the Saccæ, appeared in the same district. These progenitors of the Saxons afterward passed over into Denmark— the ‘mark’ or country of the tribe of Dan—and thence to England. Tephi, a descendant of the royal house of David, arrived in Ireland, according to the native annals. From her was descended Feargus More, king of Argyll, an ancestor of Queen Victoria, who thus fulfilled the prophecy that ‘the line of David shall rule forever and ever’ (II Divrei Hayomim 13:5; Jewish Encyclopedia).
“Altogether,” the Jewish Encyclopedia concludes, “by the application of wild guesswork about historical origins and philological analogies, and by a slavishly literal interpretation of selected phrases of prophecy, a case was made out for the identification of the British race with the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel sufficient to satisfy uncritical persons desirous of finding their pride of race confirmed by Holy Scripture.”
The United States
The person responsible for introducing the British-Israelite idea to the United States was Edward Hine, author of the wildly popular Identification of the British Nation with Lost Israel (1871) that sold a quarter of a million copies. In 1884, Hine left for the United States to promote the idea that Americans were descendants of the lost tribe of Menashe and that England was home to the lost tribe of Ephraim. Some Americans were attracted to the idea, despite the objection of some British Israelites that Americans could not possibly be British-Israelites, for they had rebelled against the British monarch in 1776. During the 1930s, British-Israelitism took an ugly turn when a US leader, Howard B. Rand, integrated it with anti-Semitism. His spiritual heir, Dr. Joseph Jeffers, constantly urged the lost Ten Tribes (aka white supremacists) to wage war against the Zionist occupational government of America.
Although the idea that Europeans were descended from ancient Israelites was publicized in S. Backhaus’ German book, Di Germanen ein Semitischer Volksstamm (1878), few Germans were delighted at the idea of having kinship with Jews, and during World War II, the Nazis persecuted adherents of the idea on the grounds that they were promoting a Jewish agenda. Many ended up in concentration camps.
Back to the Land
In tandem with the belief that they belonged to the Ten Tribes, most early British-Israelites believed that the Jews must also return to the Holy Land. They had a strong Zionist streak. George Gawler, a prominent British-Israelite, argued that a loyal Jewish population in Palestine would enhance communications and trade in the Middle East; he accompanied Montefiore to Palestine in 1849, and he helped form the Association for Promoting Jewish Settlement in Palestine. His son, John Cox Gawler, published a blueprint for settlement in 1874 and in 1878, which Jewish settlers used, with funds from Edmund Rothschild, to establish a successful colony in Palestine. In 1859, British Israelite Major J.S. Phillips proposed resettlement of Jews in the Promised Land with biblical boundaries. His plans even included building a railway from Antioch to the Persian Gulf in accordance with a verse he interpreted as referring to railways: The chariots flash with the fire of steel in the day of his preparation and the fir trees are shaken terribly. The chariots rage in the streets, they jostle one against another in the broad ways… their appearance is like torches…they run like lightning (Nachum 2:3-4). British Israelites were exultant when English Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (of Jewish parenthood) bought the Suez Canal in the 1870s with the help of a £4 million loan from Lionel de Rothschild. At last, Jews and England were working in tandem to gain control of the Middle East. One British Israelite wrote at the time, “We identify Benjamin Disraeli, Esq., as one called in a most distinguished manner to lead the Nation to glory, and by the Identity, we see clearly how Judah and Israel became united, how Palestine comes into the possession of the British Nation.” On the other hand, they viewed the Balfour Declaration with mixed feelings since it only promised Palestine to the Jews. British Israelites were left out in the cold.
In 1993, a Torah observant Australian Jew, now residing in Israel, established Brit-Am, the first Jewish organization to identify the Ten Tribes with British related peoples. Although his organization is unique in using rabbinical sources to back up the idea, the arguments of Brit-Am seem much the same as those used for the past hundred years.
In 1880 a critic of the British-Israelite concept wrote: “It remains absolutely unintelligible to outsiders, who regard with a wonder mixed with disdain its arguments and its conclusions alike yet it seems to exercise over a continually widening circle of adherents a considerable attraction.” Except for the fact that the circle of adherents is no longer continually widening, this critique seems as germane now as at the time it was written.
(Sources: Richard Simpson, “The Political Influence of the British-Israel Movement in the Nineteenth Century,” Victorian Studies 30th September, 2002; Wikipedia.)