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Awakening in the Christian world in support of a Jewish Restoration 1830-1930

The conception and application of practical modern measures for the Jewish restoration was preceded by a fascinating interlude: Zionist awakening in the Christian world.

The affinity of the Jewish people for Palestine, unique in the historic circumstances, had become an integral part, inextricably entwined in the texture of Western culture. It was a commonplace of all education. The persistence of the Jewish people as an entity, kept alive for century after century of monstrous persecution by a faith in ultimate restoration to its Homeland, was congenial to some Christians, unpalatable to others. The Christian Churches had their share in perpetuating the forced exile of the Jewish people. To Catholics, it was a matter of duty as God's servants to enforce the Jewish dispersion; they therefore could not even countenance Jewish restoration to their land. It was part of his apostasy that in 464 the Emperor Julian announced his intention of rebuilding the Temple. With the splits and schisms in the Church, the coming of the Reformation, and the evolution of the various Protestant sects, voices were heard proclaiming it as a Christian act to help the Jewish people regain its homeland. Palestine, however, was in the hands of the Ottoman Turks, and there was no means of translating Christian feeling into action.

In practical Christian minds, this situation began rapidly to change during the early nineteenth century. The first catalytic agent may have been Napoleon Bonaparte. On launching his campaign for the conquest of Palestine in 1799, he promised to restore the country to the Jews. Though Napoleon was forced to withdraw from Palestine, the prospect he opened may have been instrumental in setting off a chain of developments, primarily in Britain, that grew in intensity and significance as the nineteenth century wore on. A distinguished gallery of writers, clerics, journalists, artists, and statesmen accompanied the awakening of the idea of Jewish restoration in Palestine. Lord Lindsay, Lord Shaftesbury (the social reformer who learned Hebrew), Lord Palmerston, Disraeli, Lord Manchester, George Eliot, Holman Hunt, Sir Charles Warren, Hall Caine -- all appear among the many who spoke, wrote, organised support, or put forward practical projects by which Britain might help the return of the Jewish people to Palestine. There were some who even urged the British government to buy Palestine from the Turks to give it to the Jews to rebuild.

Characteristic of the period were the words of Lord Lindsay:

The Jewish race, so wonderfully preserved, may yet have another stage of national existence opened to them, may once more obtain possession of their native land. . . . 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."1 In 1845, Sir George Gawler urged, as the remedy for the desolation of the country: "Replenish the deserted towns and fields of Palestine with the energetic people whose warmest affections are rooted in the soil."2

There were times when this concern took on the proportions of a propaganda campaign. In 1839, the Church of Scotland sent two missionaries, Andrew Bonar and Robert Murray M'Cheyne, to report on "the conditions of the Jews in their land." Their report was widely publicised in Britain, and it was followed by a Memorandum to the Protestant Monarchs of Europe for the restoration of the Jews to Palestine. This memorandum, printed verbatim by the London Times, was the prelude to many months of newspaper projection of the theme that Britain should take action to secure Palestine for the Jews. The Times, in that age the voice of enlightened thought in Britain, urged the Jews simply to take possession of the land. If a Moses became necessary, wrote the paper, one would be found.

Again and again groups and societies were projected or formed to promote the restoration. The proposals and activities of Moses Montefiore found a wide echo throughout Britain. Many Christians associated themselves practically with his plans; others brought forward plans and projects of their own and even took steps to bring them to fruition. What was probably the first forerunner in modem times of the Jewish agricultural revolution in Palestine was the settlement established in 1848 in the Vale of Rephaim by Warder Cresson, the United States Consul in Jerusalem; he was helped by a Jewish-Christian committee formed in Britain for the Jewish settlement of Galilee.

The ideas of Sir George Gawler, a former governor of South Australia, before and after the Crimean War, when he formed the Palestine Colonisation Fund; of Claude Reignier Conder who, with Lieutenant Kitchener, carried out a survey of Palestine and brought to public notice the fact that Palestine could be restored by the Jews to its ancient prosperity; of Laurence Oliphant, the novelist and politician, who worked out a comprehensive plan of restoration and a detailed project for Jewish settlement of Gilead east of the Jordan; of Edward Cazalet, who proposed equally detailed projects -- all were broached and propagated against a background of widespread Christian support.

By the middle of the century, the concept of Jewish restoration began to be considered in responsible quarters in Britain as a question of practical international politics. In August 1840, the Times reported that the British government was feeling its way in the direction of Jewish restoration. It added that "a nobleman of the Opposition" (believed to be Lord Ashley, later Lord Shaftesbury) was making his own inquiries to determine:

1. What the Jews thought of the proposed restoration.

2. Whether rich Jews would go to Palestine and invest their capital in agriculture.

3. How soon they would be ready to go.

4. Whether they would go at their own expense, requiring nothing more than assurance of safety to life property.

5. Whether they would consent to live under the Turkish government, with their rights protected by the five European powers (Britain, France, Russia, Prussia, Austro-Hungary).

Lord Shaftesbury pursued 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.

The Crimean War and its aftermath pushed the ideas and projects into the background, but they soon came to life again. In 1878, the Eastern Question reached its crises in the Prusso-Turkish War, and the Congress of Berlin gathered to find a peaceful solution. At once reports spread throughout Europe that Britain's representatives, Lord Beaconsfield (Benjamin Disraeli) and Lord Salisbury, were proposing as part of the peace plan to declare a protectorate over Syria and Palestine and that Palestine would be restored to the Jews.

Though these reports were unfounded, the idea again caught the imagination of political thinkers in Britain. It was widely supported in the newspapers, which saw it as both a solution to the Jewish problem and a means of eliminating one of the perennial causes of friction between the powers. So popular was the idea with the British public that the weekly Spectator on May 10, 1879, in criticising Beaconsfield for not having adopted it, wrote: "If he had freed the Holy Land and restored the Jews, as he might have done instead of pottering about Roumelia and Afghanistan, he would have died Dictator."

No less significant is the fact that the idea of Jewish restoration, when it was presented in the form of practical projects, was not rejected by the Moslem authorities. In 1831, Palestine was conquered from the Turks by Mehemet Ali, who ruled it from Egypt for the next nine years, introducing a comparatively pleasant interlude in the life of the country. It was at this time that Sir Moses Montefiore began developing his practical plans. In 1839, he visited Mehemet Ali in Egypt and put forward a large-scale scheme for Jewish settlement that would regenerate Palestine. Mehemet Ali accepted it. Montefiore was in the midst of discussing practical details with him when Mehemet was forced to withdraw from Palestine, which returned to Turkish rule.

Forty years later, the Turks themselves were presented with practical plans for Jewish colonisation and autonomy in a part of Palestine. The most important of these plans was that carefully and conscientiously worked out by Laurence Oliphant, who demonstrated to the Turks that it was in their own interest, as well as in Britain's, to help fulfil a Jewish restoration in Palestine. His detailed plan for the settlement of Gilead was supported and recommended to the Turkish government by the leading personalities in Britain: The Prime Minister Lord Beaconsfield, the Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury, and even the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). The French government, through its Foreign Minister Waddington, also added its encouragement.

The Sultan showed considerable interest in the plan; the Turkish Foreign Office even proposed some amendments for further discussion. But again events intervened. in 1880, a general election drove Beaconsfield -- considered by Turkey as her friend -- from office, to be replaced by William Ewart Gladstone. To the Turks, Gladstone was an enemy. The Oliphant scheme, based on Turko-British co-operation as well as a similar scheme proposed by the British industrialist Edward Cazalet, were shelved and faded into history.

By now the effervescence among the Jewish people began to find its outlets.

Jewish organisations were now launched. The result was a wave of immigration, to be known later as the First Aliyah, which laid the solid foundation of the new Jewish agriculture. The advent of Theodor Herzl was only fifteen years away, and with it the beginning of the modem political frame for the return to Zion: the World Zionist Organisation.

Throughout the ages, and now in the nineteenth century, when the restoration of the Jewish people to Palestine and the restoration of Palestine to the Jewish people was discussed in growing intensity, when scores of books and pamphlets and innumerable articles published in Europe, America, and Britain put forward both ideological motivation and practical projects for the consummation of the idea, never once was it suggested openly or covertly that the Holy Land could not, or should not, be restored to the Jews because it had become the property of others. There were many who disliked the Jews; there were Christians who objected on theological grounds to the very idea of reversing the "edict" of exile. Imagine what would happen to the Catholic dogma of the inadmissibility of Jewish restoration if a Jewish state were suddenly to Arise! They had enough reason to seek grounds and means of resistance to the spread of the idea. Yet nothing led anyone to believe or to suggest that there was any other nation that had a claim, or had established an affinity or connection, or had made such a contribution in sweat or in blood, to have and to hold the country for its own.

No such nation existed, nor any such claim. The claim of historic association, of historic right, of historic ownership by the Arab people or by a "Palestinian entity" is a fiction fabricated in our own day.

After the Jews had been absent as a nation for eighteen centuries, this was a self-evident truth, which is also part of the historic record.

"No nation has been able to establish itself as a nation in Palestine up to this day," wrote Sir John William Dawson in 1888, "no national union and no national spirit has prevailed there. The motley impoverished tribes which have occupied it have held it as mere tenants at will, temporary landowners, evidently waiting for those entitled to the permanent possession of the soil."3

When Jewish independence came to an end in the year 70, the population numbered, at a conservative estimate, some five million people. (By Josephus' figures, there were nearer seven million.)

Even sixty years after the destruction of the Temple, at the outbreak of the revolt led by Bar Kochba in 132, when large numbers had fled or been deported, the Jewish population of the country must have numbered at least three million, according to Dio Cassiusí figures. Seventeen centuries later, when the practical possibility of the return to Zion appeared on the horizon, Palestine was a denuded, derelict, and depopulated country. The writings of travellers who visited Palestine in the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century are filled with descriptions of its emptiness, its desolation. In 1738, Thomas Shaw wrote of the absence of people to fill - Palestine's fertile soil. In 1785, Constantine Francois Volney described the "rained" and "desolate" country. He had not seen the worst. Pilgrims and travellers continued to report in heartrending terms on its condition. Almost sixty years later, Alexander Keith, recalling Volney's description, wrote: "In his day the land had not fully reached its last degree of desolation and depopulation."4

In 1835, Alphonse de Lamartine could write:

Outside the gates of Jerusalem we saw indeed no living object, heard no living sound, we found the same void, the same silence ... as we should have expected before the entombed gates of Pompeii or Herculaneam a complete eternal silence reigns in the town, on the highways, in the country ... the tomb of a whole people.5 Mark Twain, who visited Palestine in 1867, wrote what he saw as he travelled the length of the Desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds -- a silent mournful expanse-- A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action. We reached Tabor safely... We never saw a human being on the whole route. And again: There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country. So overwhelming was his impression of an irreversible desolation that he came to the grim conclusion that Palestine would never come to life again. As he was taking his last view of the country, he wrote: Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies. Palestine is desolate and unlovely-- Palestine is no more of this workday world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition, it is dreamland.6 By Volney's estimates in 1785, there were no more than 200,000 people in the country.7 In the middle of the nineteenth century, the estimated population for the whole of Palestine was between 50,000 and 100,000 people.8

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

2. George Gawler, Tranquillisation of Syria and the East (London, 1845), p. 6.

3. Modem Science In Bible Lands (New York, 1890), pp. 449-450. There was another fact that gave immediate practical impact to the logic and justice of Jewish restoration. Palestine was a virtually empty land.

4. Tomas Shaw, Travels and Observations Relating to Several Parts of Barbary and the Levant (London, 1767), p. 331ff.; Constantine Francois Volney, Travels Through Syria and Egypt in the Years 1783, 1784 and 1785 (London, 1787); Alexander Keith, The Land of Israel (Edinburgh, 1944), P. 465.

5. Recollections of the East, Vol. I (London, 1845), pp. 268, 308. 

6. The Innocents Abroad (New York, 1966), pp. 351, 375, 401,441.

7. Vol. II, p. 219. 

8. De Haas, p. 39n. It was the gaping emptiness of the country, the spectacle of ravages and neglect, the absence of a population that might be dispossessed and the growing sense of the country's having "waited" for the "return of her banished children," that lent force and practical meaning to the awakening Christian realisation that the time had come for Jewish restoration.

This page was produced by Joseph E. Katz
Middle Eastern Political and Religious History Analyst 
Brooklyn, New York 
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Source: "Battleground: Fact & Fantasy in Palestine" by Samuel Katz, 
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Copyright © 1973, 1977, 1978, 1985 by Samuel Katz.
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Portions Copyright © 2001 Joseph Katz