Israel’s 73rd Independence Day

Today we celebrate 73 years since the official establishment of the State, though a Hebrew-speaking Jewish presence had existed in the country since the early 1900s. In 1936, most of Israel’s government functions already existed, and the Peel Commission of the British Mandate commented that the Jews act as a “state within a state.” They had large cities like Tel-Aviv, factories, education systems, their own language, kibbutzim and moshavim, political parties and elections, and a self-defence organization, the haganah. Israel practically already existed, it just wasn’t officially declared yet.

If we go 100 years back in time from today, to 1921, it seemed unlikely, though not impossible, that a Jewish state of Israel in some sort or form would eventually arise. If we back 200 years to 1821, the idea was a ludicrous utopian dream, uttered only by the most deranged Christians. People who were prophecy-enthusiasts and reading the Bible far too literally. If we back 300 years, the idea was unheard of, except in the Bible and the hopes expressed in the Siddur, the Jewish prayer book.

The idea that the Jews will at the end of time eventually rebuild Jerusalem has always been around in Judaism. It’s right there, in the Bible and in the Siddur. But the idea to actually get up and try to do something about it without waiting for the Messiah was unheard of before 1799.

I say 1799, because that’s when the first practical idea of a modern Jewish homeland in Israel first came up by a secular person – Napoleon Bonaparte. Had he been successful in the siege of Acre, that’s what he planned to do. Though not successful, Napoleon’s idea got traction with several Christian enthusiasts, who wanted the Jews to come to faith in Jesus and move to Israel to fulfill the prophecies. In 1809 a group of British Evangelical Anglicans established “The London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews.” In short London Jews Society, or LJS.

Looking back, we can easily see that they got a few things wrong, but they had the basics nailed down, and they worked towards the endeavor of fulfilling the biblical prophecies. They established a Hebrew Christian church in London in 1813, and in 1821 they sent their first missionaries to Jerusalem. This eventually led to the first Protestant presence in the Middle East from 1833, and the appointment of an Anglican Jewish bishop to Jerusalem in 1842 – Michael Solomon Alexander.

Their endeavor was Zionist to its core. They wanted a Jewish church in Jerusalem which would bring the gospel to the Jews and encourage Jews to come back to their homeland. The legal agreement of the establishment of this see even included that the archbishop of Canterbury was the metropolitan of the new see “until the restoration of a Christian Jewish church.” The LJS leadership simultaneously tried to convince key people in the British government to pressure the Ottoman sultan to grant free access to Jews to arrive to Israel. They clothed it in political terms, that a Jewish buffer between Syria and Egypt would serve the British interests in the region, but their motives were clearly biblical. It was Zionism 50 years before Herzl.

The endeavor didn’t go as well as they had hoped. Some local Jews in Jerusalem came to faith, but it wasn’t the mass conversion they had hoped for. The Hebrew speaking Messianic congregation in Jerusalem only had around 30 people. Still, they didn’t give up hope. Hundreds and even thousands of Jews in Europe had recently embraced Christianity. In 1843, the LJS tried to convince them to move to Israel:

“The living Church in the Holy City appears small, and the other cities of Judea are still desolate, but Safet Tiberias and Hebron will soon possess the elements of Christian congregations. The means of making them numerous … exists abundantly in Europe … there is a great multitude of Jewish believers, who, if collected into churches, especially if reunited in their own holy land, would astonish the world by their numbers and convince the Rabbinists that they are not the only Jews in the world. … Believing Jews, scattered through England, Germany, etc, must remember their nation, their country, their promises, and their duty to God and the world, and love them better than worldly ease and comfort.”

Anyone who thought that the Christian missionary attempts towards Jews in the 1800s was all about turning them into gentiles and remove them from their Jewish roots, can see here that this is a false accusation. On the contrary, this text from the LJS turns to Jewish Christians who have assimilated into European Western culture. It tells them to raise up, acknowledge their Jewish heritage, and move to Israel.

Their plea fell on deaf ears. Most Christian Jews in Europe had embraced Christianity out of comfort, to enjoy the benefits of being a part of the majority in Western Europe. Within a few years bishop Alexander unexpectedly died, and the whole endeavor fell apart a bit. At this point, one of the leaders in the LJS, Lord Shaftesbury, wrote: “Have we run counter to the will of God? Have we conceived a merely human project, and then imagined it to be a decree of the Almighty, when we erected a bishopric in Jerusalem, and appointed a Hebrew to exercise the functions? Have we vainly and presumptuously attempted to define ‘the times and seasons which the Father hath put in His own power?’ God, who knows our hearts, alone can tell. … And yet, … all this may be merely a means to a speedier and ampler glory.”

After this point, other forces seem to have taken over the LJS. Their first church, Christ Church in Jerusalem, was established in 1849 as the first Protestant Church in the Middle East, but their missionary endeavor became more general and less focused on Jews. Jews who did come to faith were often assimilated whether they wanted or not, as they were ostracized by their Jewish peers. There was still a small Jewish Hebrew-speaking church, but we know very little about it. When Jews came to faith, they would often feel compelled to move to Europe or the US, as they couldn’t make a living in Israel, so Messianic Jews rarely reached a second generation in Israel.

Fifty years later, with Herzl and Zionism, the LJS initially supported it, but also eventually noted that the secular Zionist endeavor viewed them with suspicion, as they were afraid that faith in Jesus would erode their Jewish identity. In the 1880s they tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a Christian Jewish agricultural settlement in Har-Tov.

In 1897 they wrote about the first Zionist congress: “this idea, however, has grown and received considerable impulse at the Basle Congress last August, and is now known as ‘Zionism.’ It is of a political nature rather than a religious character. Whatever we may think of Dr. Herzl’s scheme, whether we consider it Utopian or practical, a likely contingency or a mere dream, it is, at any rate, great and imposing, and we cannot help admiring the creative genius of the man.”

In 1901 they wrote: “Zionism is a new power in the world and has come to stay. Its object is the arrangement of the national future of the Jews. Consciously, or unconsciously, Zionists are working out God’s purposes for His ancient people, namely, their return to the land of their forefathers. The proceedings of the Fifth Zionist Congress … may be regarded as another step in the onward march of events.”

In 1918 they wrote: “There is no need for us to hide the fact: the Jew, from the national standpoint, does not love the missionary. For he ignorantly imagines that one of the results of missionary propaganda is the denationalizing of individual Jews. We are most anxious, therefore, to be in such a position in Jerusalem and Palestine to prove to the Jews that the converted Jew need not necessarily be denationalized. To do this effectively, the LJS ought to have well-equipped mission stations dotted about Palestine, surrounded by whole-hearted Jewish converts who at the same time could prove themselves to be Jewish patriots.”

The LJS has known its ups and downs when it comes to Zionism and the Jewish people, and they are deliberately still vague on it, as they also wish to maintain good relations with Palestinians. Today they are called CMJ, and are still present in Israel, in charge of amongst others the Anglican school and Christ Church, and involved in various charities, though they are no longer on the same scale as they once were.

The LJS were the earliest, but besides them, many other Christian individuals and organizations have been involved with Zionism and been vital in the establishment of Israel throughout the ages. Besides the obvious examples, like Lord Balfour and Orde Wingate, there are also people like Hechler, who encouraged Herzl in his early years and facilitated Herzl’s connections to the German Kaiser. Sir Laurence Oliphant who moved to Haifa in the 1880s and supported the first aliyah pioneers with money. (Oliphant’s personal secretary, Naftali Herz Imber, was the poet who wrote haTikvah, the Israeli national anthem).

The Hebrew Christian Alliance and Prayer Union in London prepared a letter that was presented to Theodor Herzl at the fourth Zionist congress, which was held in London in 1900. It was written by their president, Maxwell Ben-Oliel. They presented themselves as Messianic Zionists and compared Herzl to a modern-time Nehemiah. Herzl was offered the full and unwavering cooperation of the Hebrew Christians in his “earnest efforts for the restoration of a Jewish State.” Herzl was assured their prayers and offered practical help with connection to influential Christians who might help.

Among Messianic Jews who were in Israel at the time of the mandate and who were vital in their support of a Jewish homeland we can mention Shabtai Rohold, Menachem Ben-Meir, and of course, the Haimoff family – today known as Bar-David.

It’s amazing to see how God moved both Christians, religious Jews, and secular nationalists together to create Zionism and establish this country. He made sure it would all move together to fulfill the prophecies he had given thousands of years ago. Israel is so much bigger than any individual human. It’s the story of millions of little pieces of stories, individual decisions, hopes, yearns and dreams, all moving together to just “accidentally” fulfill ancient prophecies. If that’s not an obvious indication of God moving behind the scenes, then I don’t know what is.

Who has ever heard of such things?
Who has ever seen things like this?
Can a country be born in a day
or a nation be brought forth in a moment?
Yet no sooner is Zion in labor
than she gives birth to her children.
Isaiah 66:8, NIV

See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the Lord swore he would give to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them. – Deutronomy 1:8