Friends of Zion

Arthur Hertzberg’s anthology of key Zionist writings, The Zionist Idea, has for many decades been the most widely used collection of its kind. But as Shalom Goldman points out in his recently published Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews and the Idea of the Promised Land, it “makes no mention of Christian precursors of the Zionist idea.” Historians of Zionism, in general he observes, have for a long time failed to give the movement’s many gentile advocates and activists the attention that they deserve. Israeli historians, in particular, have tended to ignore the role of gentile Zionists. They have found it necessary, for a variety of reasons, to stress that the establishment of the State of Israel was solely an accomplishment of the Jews. As Goldman writes:

[I]n the prevailing ideology of the first decades of Israeli culture, Gentiles were actors in the history of Zionism only insofar as they had persecuted Jews and thereby generated the need for a Jewish state. If some Gentiles had helped pave the way, they were marginalized as rare exceptions. Their contributions were seldom mentioned and less often praised.

Lately, these unfortunate trends have been, to a significant extent, reversed. As Goldman observed not long ago in a review essay, in recent years “there has been an outpouring of books and papers on Christians and Zionism.” His own new book makes a valuable contribution to this field. More a compilation of essays united around some common themes than a sequential historical narrative, Zeal for Zion offers important if sometimes unsettling readings of history that could point to a reshaping of the traditional Zionist story.

What Goldman has done seems simple: he has pulled together various accounts of gentile sympathizers with the Zionist project in the late 19th– and 20th-centuries. But the range of his references and scholarship is impressive. From Laurence Oliphant, a somewhat eccentric 19th-century British diplomat and explorer who, with his wife Alice, provided crucial assistance and friendship to the poet Naphtali Herz Imber (remembered in Israel as the author of the lyrics to Hatikvah), through figures like Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, and Jacques Maritain, Goldman takes his readers on a rewarding tour through the intellectual and cultural life of the last 125 years. 

Some of the connections he shows are truly fascinating. The poet and novelist Robert Graves (best known today for the autobiographical Goodbye To All That and the historical novel I, Claudius, memorably serialized on BBC’s Masterpiece Theater) was not the only member of his distinguished family who was friendly to both Judaism and Zionism.  One of his half brothers, Richard, served as the last British administrator in Mandatory Palestine and another was the journalist Phillip Graves, who is widely credited with proving The Protocols of the Elders of Zion a forgery.

Some readers will delight in Goldman’s strolls down various byways of intellectual and cultural history; others will wonder where he is headed. The most useful way to read the book may be to divide it into two projects. One aims to document the way in which important 20th-century thinkers and cultural currents were influenced both by the Zionist project and their sympathy for it. Along the way, Goldman’s mastery of many different fields provides striking insights into everything from Russian émigré politics to the development of American Catholicism and its relationship to the neo-Thomist revival.

The other aspect of the book, which has more interest for those whose thoughts tend toward policy and politics, is an account of some strategic interactions between gentiles and Jews that did more to shape the course of the Zionist movement than is often understood. It is here that Goldman seems to suggest that our understanding of the Zionist project must incorporate a significantly greater place for gentiles in the development and success of the Jewish national project.

While Goldman does not attempt a sequential narrative of this critical gentile role, he provides a very useful and comprehensive review of the Protestant role in the establishment of Israel, from the opening of the British consulate in Jerusalem through the alliance that currently exists between American evangelical Christians and the Israeli nationalist and religious right. In Goldman’s view, this support was of much more than tangential importance; from Herzl forward, prominent Zionists understood that Protestant support was, in Goldman’s words, “essential to the success of Zionist political aspirations.”

This rings true; the establishment of the state of Israel was not just a Jewish project. Jews did the heavy lifting: the settlement of Palestine, defense of the Jewish community, and the development of national institutions were Jewish achievements. But the contribution of the Anglo-Protestant world to the rise of the Jewish state was not limited to occasional interventions by heavily lobbied political leaders. British and American Protestant support was more than an ace in the hole that Zionists were able to deploy at key moments like the Balfour Declaration or Truman’s recognition of Israeli independence. It was a critical factor in the ability of Zionists to win the political competition among Jews.

The case of the Reverend William Hechler makes the point. Hechler, chaplain to the British Embassy in Vienna, had published a pamphlet on the return of the Jews to Israel in 1883. On March 14, 1896 (weeks after the publication of Herzl’s Der Judenstaat), Hechler appeared at Herzl’s apartment in Vienna. As Herzl realized, Hechler was not just attached to the British Embassy but was also the former tutor of the sons of Friedrich I (Grand Duke of Baden and uncle of Wilhelm II), and therefore connected with the highest circles in Germany. Hechler arranged a meeting between Herzl and the Grand Duke; that meeting led to Herzl’s audience with the Kaiser at the palace of the Ottoman sultan and subsequently in Jerusalem. Hechler remained one of Herzl’s closest associates and was one of the few people at Herzl’s deathbed.

To assess Hechler’s impact on the fortunes of Herzlian Zionism, one must consider the effect on Jewish opinion of Herzl’s extraordinary access to gentile princes, emperors, and sultans. A pamphleteering journalist calling for the establishment of a Jewish state is interesting; it is remarkable, however, that a Jew was meeting with emperors and sultans in Constantinople and Jerusalem to discuss the establishment of a Jewish state, all of which transformed Herzl into the uncrowned king of a reviving Jewish nation.

One can go further in establishing the importance of gentile decisions for the Zionist project. As Goldman demonstrates, the idea that Britain should sponsor a Jewish national home in Palestine did not originate with Chaim Weizmann, and his lobbying appears not to have been the decisive factor in the British decision to issue what became known as the Balfour Declaration. The belief that a revived Jewish presence in the Holy Land would bolster growing British interests in the Near East helped drive the original establishment of the British consulate and Anglican mission in Jerusalem before the Crimean War. That proposal received new currency when the opening of the Suez Canal transformed the Near East from a strategic backwater into the main line of communication between Britain and its Indian Empire. Had this idea not been kicking around the British foreign and colonial offices for decades, it is extremely unlikely that Chaim Weizmann’s advocacy could have prevailed.

All of this needs to be remembered. Neglect of the crucial and strategic contribution of gentiles to the success of the Zionist movement can lead to an impoverished and unrealistic understanding of Israel’s history. It contributes to the view today that support for Israel by the United States reflects the occult power of Jews in American society. When a historical idea is false, and when it contributes to anti-Semitic ideas around the world, it is time for a new look at an old story. Shalom Goldman is to be congratulated for his contribution to this necessary piece of historical housecleaning.


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