British Christian Zionism - British Support for Jewish Restoration

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British Christian Zionism - British Support for Jewish Restoration

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British Christian Zionism - British Support for Jewish Restoration

The Balfour Declaration, offering Palestine to the Jews, was not issued in a vacuum based only on perceived momentary war needs. It reflected a deep-seated philosophical and religious movement for restoration of the Jews that had become rooted in British culture in the 19th century.  The Christian world had long been inimical to Jewish settlement in the Holy Land. St. Eusebius had decreed that God would therefore not let the Jews rebuild Jerusalem, a proscription that entered European Christian culture as the Curse of Eusebius. The pagan Roman Emperor Julian began the project of restoring the Jews to Jerusalem and rebuilding the temple. He fell in battle before the project could be completed, and subsequent Christian emperors abandoned the project. Christian mythology related that fires, manifesting divine displeasure, greeted those who attempted to carry out Julian's plan. The Crusaders had expelled the Jews from Palestine, and the idea of Jewish control of the Christian holy places was certainly anathema to most Christians.

However, the rise of Protestantism and the enlightenment brought a new spirit to Europe.

On the one hand, Protestants in Britain and later those in the USA began to identify themselves as the inheritors of the Israelites or the lost ten tribes. On the other hand, support grew for restoration of the Jews as the rightful owners of "the Holy Land." This movement was nourished by many sources, not all favorable to the Jews. The theology of some branches of Protestantism posits that the second coming of Christ would only come only after the Jews were reestablished in their land. Antisemites believed that establishment of a Jewish homeland would be a convenient way to rid Europe of Jews. Imperialists hoped that a Jewish Palestine would be an excuse for a British protectorate there, and might serve as a solution for the "Eastern Question."

The idea of Jewish restoration was not alien to British culture. In 1621, the British MP Sir Henry Finch wrote a book entitled "The World's Great Restoration." He encouraged  Jews to reassert their claim to the Holy Land, writing, "Out of all the places of thy dispersion, East, West, North and South, His purpose is to bring thee home again and to marry thee to Himself by faith for evermore." However, the idea remained dormant until the enlightenment and the rise of nationalism in the 19th century coincided with the full bloom of British Imperialism.

In 1799, Napoleon issued a proclamation promising to restore  Palestine to the Jews, as he was camped outside Acre.  Though Napoleon was forced to withdraw from Palestine, the idea had been planted and took root in British soil. For religious, or humanitarian or philosophical or imperialist motives, prominent Britons learned Hebrew, wrote novels about restoration of the Jewish commonwealth, began settlement and exploration societies and advocated restoration of the Jews in public and in private. Among the advocates we may include Lord Lindsay, Lord Shaftesbury  Lord Palmerston, Disraeli, Lord Manchester, George Eliot, Holman Hunt, Sir Charles Warren, Hall Caine and others. Shaftesebury was probably responsible for the phrase "A country without a nation for a nation without a country," later to become the Zionist slogan "A land without a people for a people without a land." He asserted,  " There is unbroken identity of Jewish race and Jewish mind down to our times; but the great revival can take place only in the Holy Land."

Lord Lindsay wrote:

The soil of "Palestine still enjoys her sabbaths, and only waits for the return of her banished children, and the application of industry, commensurate with her agricultural capabilities, to burst once more into universal luxuriance, and be all that she ever was in the days of Solomon. ( Crawford, A.W.C. (Lord Lindsay), Letters on Egypt, Edom and the Holy Land, London, H. Colburn 1847, V II, p 71).

Charles Henry Churchill, a British resident of Damascus, also became a zealous propagator of the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine. In 1841 he wrote a letter to the Jewish philanthropist Moses Montefiore in which he stated: "...I consider the object to be perfectly obtainable. But, two things are indispensably necessary. Firstly, that the Jews will themselves take up the matter unanimously. Secondly, that the European powers will aid them in their views..."

In 1839 the Church of Scotland sent Andrew Bonar  Robert Murray M'Cheyne, to report on "the Condition of  the Jews in their land." Their report was widely publicized in Great Britain and it was followed by a "Memorandum to Protestant Monarchs of Europe for the restoration of  the Jews to Palestine." This memorandum was printed verbatim in  the London Times, including an advertisement by Lord Shaftesbury igniting an enthusiastic campaign by the Times for restoration of the Jews.

In August 1840 the Times reported that the British government was considering Jewish restoration. It added that "a nobleman of the Opposition" (apparently Lord Shaftesbury) was making inquiries to determine:

1. Jewish opinion of the proposed restoration.

 2. Jewish readiness to live in Palestine and invest their capital in agriculture.

3. How soon they would be ready to go.

 4. Whether they would pay for their own passage, given assurance of safety to life and property.

5. Whether they would be willing to live under the Turkish rule, protected by Britain, France, Russia, Prussia, Austro- Hungary.

Lord Shaftesbury was the most active restoration lobbyist. 'The inherent vitality,' he wrote, 'of the Hebrew race reasserts itself with amazing persistence. Its genius, to tell the truth, adapts itself more or less to all the currents of civilization all over the world, nevertheless always emerging with distinctive features and a gallant recovery of vigor.

Lord Shaftesbury lobbied for the idea with Prime Minister Palmerston and his successors in the government and was incidentally instrumental in the considerable assistance and protection against oppression that Britain hence­forth extended to the Jews already living in Palestine.

Sir George Gawler, a hero of Waterloo, urged the restoration of the Jews as the remedy for the desolation of Palestine. In 1848 he wrote, "I should be truly rejoiced  to see in Palestine a strong guard of Jews established in flourishing agricultural settlements and ready to hold their own upon the mountains of Israel against all aggressors. I can wish for nothing more glorious in this life than to have my share in helping them do so." Gawler formed a Palestine colonisation fund to help the work of settlement.

In her novel, Daniel Deronda (1876), George Eliot advocated, "the restoration of a Jewish state planted in the old ground as a center of a national feeling, a source of dignifying protection, a special channel for special energies and an added voice in the councils of the world."

The restoration movement fed off the nascent Jewish nationalist  movement Colonel Churchill in Damascus was influenced by Montefiore, who had been trying to secure a Jewish homeland in Palestine from the Mehmet Ali, the Khedive of Egypt. Ali was not opposed, but he was deposed shortly thereafter. George Eliot's Daniel Deronda reflected her thorough grounding in the work of the Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz, who believed in national restoration of the Jews in their own land.  

F. Laurence Oliphant (1829-1888), MP and Evangelical Christian, was a follower of Lord Shaftesbury. In 1880 Oliphant published a book entitled The Land of Gilead,  urging the British Parliament to assist the restoration of Jews to Palestine from Russia and Eastern Europe, and advocating that Palestinian Arabs be removed to reservations like those of the North American Indians.  

The interest of Britain in Palestine expressed itself in the "capitulations" won from the Turks, allowing them to place missions there and to found charitable works such as hospitals, settlement colonies and exploratory surveys like those of Conder. In fact, there were over a  1,000 British travelogues and surveys of the Middle East in the 19th century. Such exploratory travels, as in the case of famous explorers such as Burton and Livingston, usually preceded British imperial involvement in a region.  Toward the end of the nineteenth century, British interest in the Middle East increased, because it was considered essential to guard the route to India and to guarantee the stability of the Turkish empire against Russian and other imperialist threats.  Settlement of Jews in Palestine was offered first as a way to bolster the faltering Turks and help guarantee the security of the Suez canal. The idea which had seemed utopian became a more or less respectable and acceptable project.

Lord Balfour, the author of the Balfour declaration, summed up the attitude of British Christians to Zionism in the introduction to a book by Nahum Sokolow, portraying restoration of the Jews as a natural and desirable goal that arose from both national and moral interests (see Arthur Balfour: Introduction on Zionism ) .


Crawford, A.W.C. (Lord Lindsay), Letters on Egypt, Edom and the Holy Land, London, H. Colburn 1847, V II, p 71)

Gawler, George, Tranquillization of Syria and the East, London, T&W Boone, 1845.

Keith, Alexander, The Land of Israel, Edinburgh: W. Whyte, 1844.

Tuchman, Barbara, Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour, Ballantine Books, 1988.

Ami Isseroff

Adapted from British Zionism at MidEastWeb Middle East News and Reference.   Copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence


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