The Root of Return

Christians were pulling for the Jews' return to the Holy Land centuries before the dawn of modern Zionism, says historian Shalom Goldman. For some, it was an integral part of their vision of the End of Days.

Steven Silber
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Steven Silber

Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land, by Shalom GoldmanUniversity of North Carolina Press, 384 pages, $35

Shalom Goldman, author of "Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land," could almost be called a New Historian, but he forgoes the iconoclasm of writers like Tom Segev and Benny Morris. His main focus is on Christian Zionism -- the belief among Christians that the Jews have a religious claim to the Holy Land. In short, Goldman, a professor of Hebrew and Middle Eastern studies at Emory University, says that "Jewish Zionism would not have succeeded without the help of Christian Zionism." Zionism, he writes, was the "Jewish implementation of an idea that had been developing in Christian circles for more than 300 years."

Lest this come as a surprise, Goldman points out that as early as the 12th century, Italian Christian mystic and monastic Joachim of Fiore began reading the Book of Revelation literally, breaking with the tradition of interpreting it as a metaphor. The Jews, he was convinced, would convert after the Christian churches reunited; in the meantime, the Jews would return to Zion, setting the conditions for Jesus' millennial reign. Four centuries later, during the Reformation, the early Protestants stressed the primacy of Scripture, including the Hebrew Bible. Some gave it a more literal reading than even rabbinic Judaism did, essentially agreeing with Joachim's interpretation. This disputed the traditional Roman Catholic view that the Jews were no longer God's heirs, and thus were condemned to eternal exile.

This literal interpretation of Revelation gained pace with the birth of Evangelicalism in the 18th century and fundamentalist Christianity in the 20th; these movements envisioned the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. As Goldman puts it: "Between the early seventeenth and late nineteenth centuries a number of English and American Protestant thinkers advocated the return of the Jews to Zion. With few exceptions, this advocacy was linked to millennialist expectations that Jewish return was a necessary step in the unfolding of the Second Coming."

Herzl and Hechler

Goldman illustrates his thesis with what he calls "six narratives" -- relationships between representatives of Christian and Jewish Zionism. One of these is the friendship between Theodor Herzl and Reverend William Hechler, the chaplain at the British Embassy in Vienna who gained the founder of modern Zionism a meeting with Kaiser Wilhelm in 1898. Another is the alliance between British adventurer Laurence Oliphant and Jewish poet Naphtali Herz Imber, who wrote the text for "Hatikva."

"The Oliphant-Imber relationship is a small example of a larger trend," Goldman writes. "In many ways this unlikely encounter would serve as a model for later Christian-Jewish partnerships in support of Zionism." Indeed, Oliphant's 1880 book "The Land of Gilead" offered a detailed plan for a Jewish colony east of the Jordan; Nahum Sokolow quickly translated it into Hebrew. The Sokolow version contained Oliphant's Hebrew-language map, replete with biblical sites that "presaged British Mandate-period Jewish identification of places of the Bible." Such "settlement plans, advanced most often by Christians, were drafts of blueprints for the Jewish state-in-the-making" that inspired Herzl, Goldman writes. To this end, nearly two decades before Herzl, Oliphant made contacts with the Ottoman Empire, but the Turks, spooked by British expansion in the region, turned down his request to have Jews settle in Palestine.

Oliphant is one of a clutch of largely unsung heroes Goldman says might serve as a model, but it's not entirely clear he shows the mechanism whereby "Jewish Zionism would not have succeeded without the help of Christian Zionism." As he admits, Herzl's talks with the kaiser did not yield any direct political benefit. Also, Goldman doesn't give enough space to certain Christians who were particularly helpful, like British foreign minister Arthur Balfour. Goldman makes a more limited and palatable argument when he contends that "Christian advocacy helped pave the way for the birth of Jewish political Zionism."

This can be seen in the case of Hechler, the Anglican chaplain who had been present at Herzl's deathbed and at most Zionist congresses until 1931. On March 14, 1896, Hechler showed up unannounced at Herzl's apartment in Vienna, whose Jewish community was cool, if not hostile, to Zionism. Herzl was suspicious of this man who wanted the Jews to return to Zion and convert to Christianity, until the reverend mentioned he had once tutored the grand duke of Baden, the head of the southwest German state. Hechler tapped his connections and a month later the two men were in Karlsruhe for a conversation with the duke. Two years after that, Herzl received a one-hour audience with the kaiser, though Wilhelm was unable to convince the Turks to allow a German-sponsored Jewish colony in Palestine.

Most interestingly, Goldman makes clear that flirting with evangelical Christians to help the Jews was not a practice limited to our time, when American evangelicals can be counted on to help fund aliyah, visit Israel during hard times and support U.S. policies they consider pro-Israel.

"Here, too," he writes, "the Herzl- Hechler dialogue presages the subsequent century of Jewish Zionist-Christian Zionist relations. Christians focused on the Jewish role in the End Time; Jews focused on establishing and maintaining the Jewish state." Goldman doesn't say whether this strategy is a good one, though it would be hard to criticize Herzl for exploiting a contact that won him an audience with the kaiser. It also might be hard to criticize anyone pursuing such a strategy today. Goldman quotes a 2005 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in which 35 percent of Americans "say that Israel is part of the fulfillment of biblical prophecy about the second coming of Jesus." In any case, if Israeli cooperation with the religious right increases, political scientists might look back on the likes of Oliphant and Hechler the way Sovietologists looked back at the 19th-century populist and socialist parties that, in hindsight, came to be seen as precursors to the Bolsheviks.

Overlooked friends of Zion

Goldman, however, sometimes deals too harshly with the Zionist historiographical canon. He complains that most of the literature assigns Christian Zionism a secondary role, but some of these works do at least set the stage for arguments like those Goldman puts forth. Many books on Israel or Zionism include British prime minister David Lloyd George's famous remark that the biblical names in Palestine were more familiar to him than those on the Western front during World War I. Howard Sachar's "A History of Israel" notes that Balfour, too, "had been nurtured on the Old Testament." In the foreign minister's case, "a genuine vein of Zionist mysticism unquestionably strengthened commitment to the Jewish national home," writes Sachar. "Others in the cabinet may have been animated by even more complex motives -- for example, Protestant millennialism."

These British leaders really were staunch believers in Christianity, as was C.P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian -- who, as noted by Walter Laqueur in "The History of Zionism," was won over to the cause by Chaim Weizmann. Scott, who once had wanted to become a Unitarian minister, "was attracted by the passionate religion of Zionism, its deep sense of continuity." It was Scott who, during World War I, suggested that Weizmann meet with Lloyd George.

The Weizmann-Scott link would have made for another useful narrative, especially since Weizmann's diplomatic role in the Zionist movement after Herzl's death was unparalleled. On the other hand, though Goldman's accounts of overlooked friends of Zion such as Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges and Robert Graves -- the three make up one chapter -- may prove fascinating reading for fans of these writers, they are peripheral to the central issue of the mechanism of Zionism. All told, the value of "Zeal for Zion" lies in bringing together the overlooked Christian Zionists into a single volume.

Goldman makes further valuable contributions in the chapters that describe the Jews' improving relations with the Catholic Church and their closer ties with the American evangelical movement. The main unsung Catholic hero is French philosopher Jacques Maritain, who by 1939 had stopped criticizing Jews for spurning Jesus to claim that to "be hated by the world is their glory, as it is also the glory of Christians who live by faith." In 1948, Maritain wrote that "Israel is the Jesus among nations, and the Jewish diaspora within Europe is one long Via Dolorosa." These sentiments found expression in the 1965 Vatican II reforms, which absolved the Jews of blame for Jesus' death. As Goldman tells us, referring to the popes who presided over the Second Vatican Council, "John XXIII directly acknowledged Maritain's influence, as did John XXIII's successor, Paul VI, who was Maritain's friend and student."

Goldman, meanwhile, takes us through the first visit by a pope to Israel, in 1964, when, to Jerusalem's chagrin, intra- Christian reconciliation was the focus. He moves on to John Paul II's visit to Rome's Great Synagogue in 1986, when the pope called the Jews the church's "beloved elder brothers." This led to diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican in 1993 and the pope's visit here in 2000, when, as Ashkenazi chief rabbi Israel Meir Lau put it, John Paul gave his "stamp of approval to the Israeli authority over its eternal capital."

But as relations improved with the Catholic world, ties with evangelical Protestants became too close for many Jews, Christians and others. In the Protestant world, dispensationalism gathered pace -- the belief that a third "dispensation," or period, will follow the eras of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, in which Jews return to the Holy Land and embrace Jesus as part of the fight between good and evil at the Battle of Armageddon. As Goldman notes, dispensationalist churches have donated large sums of money to Israeli organizations seeking to gain full Israeli control over the Temple Mount. In the book "The Late Great Planet Earth," published a few years after the 1967 Six- Day War, dispensationalist Hal Lindsey predicted that "the Jews had unwittingly further set up the stage for their final hour of trial and conversion." He wrote that "the dispute to trigger the war of Armageddon will arise between Arabs and Israelis over the Temple Mount and Old Jerusalem."

The dispensationalist movement gained ground in the United States in the 20th century, and after the Likud party came to power in 1977, it was not unusual to see televangelists like Jerry Falwell hobnobbing with Israel's leaders. Falwell cheered on the efforts of groups like Gush Emunim to settle in the West Bank. Pastor John Hagee, the man who had glibly written that the "shot that killed Yitzhak Rabin launched Bible prophecy onto the fast track," gave a keynote address at the 2007 annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Again, readers will have to go elsewhere if they want a detailed analysis on the wisdom of keeping such company, although Goldman lays the groundwork when he says that Gush Emunim's version of religious Zionism marks the "rejection of Jewish humanism and universalism and thus expresses a bitter antagonism to the universalist strain in earlier forms of Zionist discourse."

Steven Silber is an editor at Haaretz English Edition.

Haaretz Books, February 2010,



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