Israel Studies 8.2 (2003) 18-44
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Christian Zionism and Victorian Culture
IN ADDRESSING THE MEMBERS OF THE Jewish Historical Society of England in 1925, David Lloyd George spoke candidly about the origins of the Balfour Declaration. "It was undoubtedly inspired by natural sympathy, admiration, and also by the fact that, as you must remember, we had been trained even more in Hebrew history than in the history of our own country." Lloyd George explained: "On five days a week in the day school, and on Sunday in our Sunday schools, we were thoroughly versed in the history of the Hebrews [. . .]. We had all that in our minds, so that the appeal came to sympathetic and educated—and, on that question, intelligent—hearts." 1
This is a well-known passage, often cited by historians who evoke Lloyd George's pious Nonconformist education not only to explain his own role in Britain's embracing of the Zionist cause during the First World War, but also as an illustration for a much broader cultural claim. 2 Indeed, following the insights of Zionist historians from as early as 1917, and particularly Nahum Sokolow's History of Zionism (1919), it has become commonplace to see the Balfour Declaration as the culmination of a rich tradition of Christian Zionism in British culture: 3 a tradition which emerged in the seventeenth century, slumbered in the eighteenth, and re-emerged, with a vengeance, in the nineteenth. Even scholars who have emphasized the immediate political objectives that generated the Declaration—the hope that an appeal to American Jewry would enhance the American involvement in the War, or that a Bolshevik revolution would be averted by reaching the Russian Jewish proletariat—even they have frequently pointed to the wider religious impetus behind the Declaration. 4
The argument, essentially, has been twofold; first, that an impressive gallery of Victorian individuals and institutions promoted, sometimes vigorously, the Jewish colonization of Palestine; and secondly, that these eminent Christian Zionists were men and women of their time, and that [End Page 18] their restorationist views were somehow characteristic of a more prevalent cultural climate. Exactly how prevalent, however, is a question frequently asked but seldom answered. While it is clear, for example, that the millenarian logic of the restoration was associated with the more zealous Evangelical circles, it has proved extremely difficult to assess the actual circulation or influence of these ideas. Nevertheless, the assumption has often been that nineteenth-century ideas about the restoration of the Jews to Palestine somehow paved the way towards Britain's wartime policy. Consequently, accounts of Christian Zionism often read like a dot-to-dot drawing, connecting Lord Shaftesbury, George Eliot and Laurence Oliphant with some of their lesser-known contemporaries, only to reveal, in due course, a neatly-sketched draft of the Balfour Declaration. And if we were to indulge in this metaphor further, we might say that the empty space between the lines has been colored with a vague form of philosemitism, what Lloyd George has called "natural sympathy" and "admiration."
As this essay will demonstrate, what the conventional Zionist interpretation has failed to take into account is the fact that throughout most of the nineteenth century, projects concerning the Jewish restoration to Palestine were continuously associated with charges of religious enthusiasm, eccentricity, sometimes even madness—all of them categories of differentiation which located Christian Zionism beyond the cultural consensus. This is not the consensus as it surfaces in retrospect, but as it was understood and practiced at the time: no one was more aware of the marginality of their beliefs than the Christian Zionists themselves. That some of them were venerable members of society merely added to their sense of predicament: even their respectability did not allow them to propound these views as freely as they would have liked. Contrary to the rosy picture painted by Zionist historians, Christian Zionism was a desire very reluctant to speak its name.
Concentrating on the period up to the early 1880s—before the emergence of an established "Jewish" Zionism—the following discussion will thus qualify the...