In the December 1915 issue of National Geographic, John Whiting detailed a severe, seemingly supernatural attack of locusts in the Land of Israel. Over the course of 30 pages, Armin Rosen writes, “Whiting often writes as if he’s seeing the Bible come to life in front of him,” citing heavily from the book of Joel.
Subsequent events now make the once-a-generation locust plague that occurred in 1915 seem like a minor horror in the 20th-century history of the land that became the state of Israel. The next several decades of world wars, regular wars, riots, invasions, massacres, and terror attacks might even make the insect swarm of that distant year seem comfortingly separate from the grim agency of human beings, an event belonging only to nature, with nothing much to say about us.
Jews should know better. In the Passover story, locusts are the eighth plague visited upon Pharoah, the antepenultimate rung on the God of Israel’s escalation ladder. The Muslims of Ottoman Palestine in 1915 certainly knew better. “All this is no use; go home and rest, you can do nothing,” an elderly peasant told Whiting, as his team from the American Colony in Jerusalem hunted for locust eggs on Mount Scopus. “They are Allah’s army, and once they fly they will destroy everything.” Whiting admits that events vindicated this stranger’s outlook.
I’ve never encountered any physical evidence or historical memory of this event over decades of visiting and reading and thinking about the Holy Land. But the horrors that a Wilson administration-era National Geographic reader encountered across 30-odd pages, right after eye-catching ads for Beech-Nut Tomato Catsup (“only two hours to make, bottle, and sterilize”) and the Alvin Silver Company’s brand-new Lafayette and George Washington spoon models, are not the kind that would just seem to drop easily out of the collective unconscious.