Evangelicals, the Balfour Declaration and Zionism

By Roger Spooner

When talking about the Balfour Declaration with a pastor from Bethlehem, he commented,’ the problems for the Palestinians didn’t start in 1917, they started in 1840′.

Lord Shaftesbury

Literal reading of the Bible which had developed in the 17th Century took off in the 19th  and restorationism gained political power through Lord Shaftesbury. His political influence came through Lord Palmerston. (Palmerston was Foreign Secretary 1830-50 and later Prime Minister.) Shaftesbury’s wife was probably Palmerston’s daughter, he was certainly her stepfather.  Shaftesbury placed an advert in the Times in 1840 proposing a return of the Jews to Palestine, sent a memorandum round to the Protestant monarchs of Europe and moved to get a British Consul and Bishop (a former rabbi, Michael Alexander) installed in Jerusalem. But Shaftesbury was not alone, he was just the politically best connected. [1]

Rev Alexander Keith

It was a Scottish clergyman, Rev Alexander Keith, who was probably the first in 1843 to coin the phrase ‘A land without a people, for a people without a land.’ This was after he visited Palestine in 1839, so he should have known better.

Shaftesbury was also one of the founders of the Palestine Exploration Fund which in some people’s minds was to find the archaeological support for the stories in the Bible. (At their first meeting in 1865 the Chairman, the Archbishop of York included in his speech. ‘This country of Palestine belongs to you and to me, it is essentially ours. It was given to the Father of Israel in the words: ‘ Walk through the land in the length of it, and in the breadth of it,  for I will give it unto thee.’ We mean to walk through Palestine in the length and in the breadth of it, because that land has been given unto us….’ This gives a flavour of thinking at that time.

But evangelicals also appear to have played a significant role in the development of Jewish thinking.

Even the idea of the Jews returning to their ancient homeland …seems to have originated among a specific group of evangelical English Protestants

Anita Shapira

Anita Shapira the respected Zionist historian writes: ‘… until the nineteenth century the Bible was considered secondary to Jewish oral law… It was the Protestants who discovered the Bible …Even the idea of the Jews returning to their ancient homeland as the first step to world redemption seems to have originated among a specific group of evangelical English Protestants that flourished in England in the 1840s; they passed this notion onto Jewish circles.

It might seem that the idea of returning to the Land of Israel had been part of the Jewish people’s spiritual beliefs from time immemorial…. But there was an essential difference between this yearning and Zionism. … Instead of passively awaiting the coming of the Messiah, the Jewish people would take their fate into their own hands and transform their situation through their own action”. [2]

Rev Willliam Hechler with his children

William Hechler the restorationist chaplain of the English embassy in Vienna visited Leon Pinsker in 1882 shortly after his publication of Autoimancipation, and tried to convince him that the place for his Jewish homeland should be Palestine.

Theodor  Herzl, who could be looked on as a founder of political Zionism, grew up in the environment of anti-Jewish pogroms post 1881 following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. As a journalist he covered the Dreyfus affair in Paris where Dreyfus a Jewish captain in the French army was wrongly convicted of spying for Germany. Herzl returned to Vienna and wrote  Der Judenstaat. [The Jewish State].  

Theodor Herzl

Hechler saw Herzl’s book in a bookshop and introduced himself to the author  and offered to help him. Hechler had been the tutor to Prince Ludwig, the son and heir of Frederick I, the Grand Duke of Baden and had developed very close links with the family. He had written a book on the restoration of the Jews to Palestine[3] in 1882. He offered to introduce Herzl to the German political leadership such as the Grand Duke of Baden and the Kaiser who he had unsuccessfully attempted to meet before. But he also introduced him to the European leadership as well.

Lewis writes: ‘In a remarkably short time, Herzl moved from being an obscure Jewish writer to the international stage[4]

Rev Naim Ateek

Naim Ateek the founder of Sabeel in a sermon in Bethlehem said ‘In fact western Christian Zionists must share the responsibility for the creation of Zionism and in the establishment of the state of Israel. One of the closest friends of Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, was an Anglican priest by the name of William Hechler. Rev. Hechler was instrumental in inspiring and educating Herzl on those passages of the Bible that, he believed, call for the return of Jews to Palestine in fulfillment of prophecy’.

This was critical to Herzl’s campaign to attract observant Jews. Hechler was critical to the development of Zionism.

Might these contacts facilitated by Hechler, have enabled Herzl to get Lloyd George’s law firm to act for him in 1903 on the Uganda scheme, where Britain raised the possibility of a Jewish homeland in Uganda. Lloyd George at that point was an unpaid backbencher, so needed work but this meant he met the Zionists.  At that point Herzl was not at first committed to locating the Jewish state in Palestine. He was quite happy to colonise places European powers were colonising at the same time. Also one wonders how Weizmann could obtain introductions to the British political leadership such as Churchill in 1905 and Balfour in 1906, when he only arrived in the country in 1904. Churchill was friendly with the Rothschild family. He and Balfour represented Manchester constituencies when Weizmann was appointed as a chemistry lecturer in Manchester University.

Shapira comments that Zionism at this time represented  ‘a negligible percentage of World Jewry[5].’

It is commonly claimed that the Balfour Declaration was issued because of war time needs, such as getting America into the war, although America joined the war 6 months before the Declaration. Keeping Russia in the war against Germany was another. ( this aim evaporated almost immediately when Lenin took over in Russia 5 days after the declaration was signed and made a peace treaty with Germany.). Once the war had been won some of the claimed reasons were of little relevance. However, there was another component of the reasons for the declaration which did not get included in official documents. These were the beliefs of the people making the decisions.

Geoffrey Alderman wrote in the Jewish Chronicle: “The Balfour Declaration was born out of religious sentiment. Arthur Balfour was a Christian mystic who believed that the Almighty had chosen him to be an instrument of the Divine Will… perhaps as a precursor to the Second Coming of the Messiah”.[6]

Tom Segev wrote: ‘The Declaration was the product of neither military nor diplomatic interests but of prejudice, faith and sleight of hand. The men who sired it were Christian and Zionist and, in many cases, anti-Semitic.’  [7]

Rabbi Danny Rich  ‘I am not arguing for Zionism as a Christian idea, but it is a very interesting point to make. Many of the non Jews who supported Zionism did so out of their Christian understanding of what was happening. ‘

But is this a correct assessment of the thinking of Balfour, Lloyd George and the political elite at the time?

Arthur Balfour

Balfour was brought up in an evangelical environment. Balfour’s mother, Lady Blanche was from one of the wealthiest families in Britain, being the sister of Lord Salisbury who served three times as Prime Minister.  She was an earnest evangelical, giving her son daily Bible study but also distributing Gospel tracts at the East Linton railway station near the Balfour Estate just outside Edinburgh[8].

Lloyd George

Lloyd George, though from a totally different social class from Balfour, was brought up in a Welsh Baptist evangelical environment.

Speaking to the Jewish Historical Society in 1925 he said: I was brought up in a school where I was taught far more history of the Jews than about my own land. I could tell you all the kings of Israel. But I doubt if I could have named half a dozen of the Kings of England, and not more of the Kings of Wales….We were thoroughly imbued with the history of your race in the days of its greatest glory.

Active negotiations with the Zionists started once Lloyd George became Prime Minister. He already knew the Zionists as his law firm had acted for the them in 1903 when working on the Uganda option. The Zionists drafted what became the Balfour Declaration and there were several drafts submitted to the cabinet. It was not until the Autumn of 1917 that the second and third clauses protecting the rights of the existing population and Jews in other countries were added. It was finally agreed on the 31st October 1917 and signed on Nov 2nd. Curzon and Montagu, the only two English in the cabinet and Montagu the only Jew, were both against it.  The majority of the cabinet were from the Celtic fringe and had been raised in evangelical homes. There were three Scottish members of whom Balfour was one. Calvinist forms of evangelical Protestantism dominated the family backgrounds of the majority of the cabinet members.[9]

It is very difficult to quantify the relative importance of Christian evangelical beliefs in the attitudes to the Zionist pressures. But it is certainly true that the majority of the political elite believed the Bible literally. As I mentioned earlier Lloyd George’s law firm acted for Herzl in 1903. Weizmann then arrived in Britain in 1904. He was, as well as a chemist, a highly effective propagandist  and he made it his business to make contacts with the British leadership. Thus when Lloyd George took over as Prime Minister and was favourable to a Jewish home in Palestine Weizman already knew the main players and was able to use the pressures of the war to press the Zionist case, even though Zionists were, negligibly minority  of World Jewry at the time. Edwin Montague, the only Jew in the cabinet, the Chief Rabbi at the time and many of the assimilated Jews in Britain were very much against the Zionist ideas. See Robert Cohen

Britain continued its support for the Zionist project after the Declaration.

In 1915 we had promised Sharif Hussein support for an Arab state including Palestine if he helped us against the Ottomans. He kept his side of the bargain, we reneged on ours. The promise was effectively swept under the carpet.

The Anglo French Declaration in 1918 promised the countries released from Turkish rule would be able to choose their own governments. All but Palestine were allowed to do so.

In 1919 at the request of President Wilson the King Crane Commission was set up to find out what the inhabitants of the Middle East wanted. It was clear they did not want the Zionist project. Publication of this report was delayed until after the Mandate had been agreed and like McMahon’s promise to Hussein, swept under the carpet

In 1919 Balfour commented that ‘Palestine presented a unique situation. We are dealing not with the wishes of an existing community but are consciously seeking to re-constitute a new community and definitely building for a numerical majority in the future’

In 1921, at the time of the Arab delegation to London, Hubert Young prepared a memorandum on British policy in Palestine. One of his  recommendations was: ‘the removal of all anti-Zionist civil officials, however highly placed’.[10] This was put into effect. In 1923 JMN Jeffries wrote a series of articles in the Daily Mail. He finished the article of January 16th with: ‘Whether Jew or Christian a British official can only succeed in Palestine under the Mandate if he is a sincere and convinced friend of Zionist aspirations. Also in 1923 Ernest Richmond who was a senior member of the Palestine Mandate staff wrote ‘the people begin to regard the Government as Jewish camouflaged as English. They will not accept Jewish rule. We denied them all the representative institutions which they enjoyed under the Turks. We allowed them no authoritative voice in their own affairs. Hence we turned friendliness into distrust. It was only after three years working there that he found that the Chief Secretary, his immediate superior, Wyndam Deedes, was a committed believer in Zionism as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. As was Captain Ord Wingate who trained Jewish men in guerrilla techniques against the Arabs, in the Special Night Squads

Christian Zionism was not just important at the time of the writing of the Balfour Declaration. They are a major political component in the US support of Israel today, See the Haaretz analysis  by Alison Kaplan Sommer Armageddon? Bring It On: The Evangelical Force Behind Trump’s Jerusalem Speech. If he was hoping it would help elect Roy Moore in Alabama it did not work.  Or Offri Ilany  describing Zionism as a  global ideology espoused and funded by Christians.

[1]           Alexander Keith. The Land of Israel According to the Covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. 1843       p 43
[2]           Anita Shapira, Israel a History, p15
[3]           William Hechler The Restoration of the Jews to Palestine (1882)
[4]           Donald Lewis The Origins of Christian Zionism, p332
[5]           Anita Shapira,  Ibid, p470
[6]           Geoffrey Alderman Jewish Chronicle November 8th 2012
[7]            Tom Segev, One Palestine Complete, p33
[8]            Donald Lewis ibid, p4
[9]            Donald Lewis Ibid, p329

[10]           Doreen Ingram, Palestine Papers, p141

This paper is based on a talk given at the Sabeel conference in Bethlehem, March 2017

Further reading:

Britain in Palestine, 1838-1882: The Roots of the Balfour Policy
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