Thinking about Balfour
Nick Gray of Balfour 100 examines how Christians shaped the modern Middle East a hundred years ago
There are many centenaries to be marked at the moment, as we progress through 100 years since the “war to end all wars” took place. So many of these remind us of the horrific and tragic loss of life incurred on all sides of the conflict in battles big and small between 1914 and 1918. November 2017, however, sees the centenary of a political expression of intent made in the midst of wartime strategy that went on to become one of the most influential yet controversial documents in 20th century history.
The Balfour Declaration, named after the Foreign Secretary of the day who signed it, was an expression of approval for the concept of establishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the area that was biblical Israel but was then known as “Palestine” . It was an attempt to combine British strategic needs and the historical justice of returning a dispersed Jewish people to their biblical and historical homeland.
Today, a century on, the impact of this little piece of paper for good or ill is disputed passionately. Five years after it was written however, the League of Nations, the world powers of the day, wrote it into international law as part of the post-war peace talks and mandated Britain to implement the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Britain struggled and ultimately failed to do so and in 1948 handed responsibility for the mandate to the newly-formed United Nations. Since this body inherited all previous legal arrangements from the League of Nations, the words and intention of the Balfour Declaration are still in force today.
An aspect of the story of the Balfour Declaration that is seldom acknowledged however, is the extent to which evangelical Christianity influenced the decisions of the war cabinet as they deliberated its wording. To comprehend why, we need to understand that evangelicalism in 1917 was not what it is today.
The reformation and the translating of the Bible into languages other than Latin led to a surge of interest in biblical prophecies concerning the Jews and ancient Israel. The Puritans in particular studied these areas diligently. The Pilgrim Fathers took parallel studies to the “New World” with them, which may help to explain why support for Israel and the Jews is so much a part of American Christian culture today.
Heroes of the faith
Many British heroes of the faith were advocates of biblical “restorationism” , the belief that God would return the Jews to ancient Israel before the second coming of Jesus could take place.
Consider, for example, the words of Bishop J.C.Ryle: “Out of the sixteen prophets of the Old Testament, there are at least ten in which the gathering and restoration of the Jews in the latter days are expressly mentioned. … They all predict the final gathering of the Jewish nation from the four quarters of the globe and their restoration to their own land. … I ask you, then, to settle it firmly in your mind that when God says a thing shall be done — we ought to believe it.”
Or John Wesley: “So many prophecies refer to this grand event [of the restoration of Israel], that it is surprising any Christian can doubt of it. And these are greatly confirmed by the wonderful preservation of the Jews as a distinct people to this day. When it is accomplished, it will be so strong a demonstration, both of the Old and New Testament revelation, as will doubtless convince many thousand Deists, in countries nominally Christian.”
Or Charles Spurgeon: “We do not think enough of it [the restoration of the Jews]. But certainly, if there is anything promised in the Bible, it is this. I imagine that you cannot read the Bible without seeing clearly that there is to be an actual restoration of the children of Israel. ‘Thither they shall go up; they shall come with weeping unto Zion, and with supplications unto Jerusalem.’ May that happy day come soon! For when the Jews are restored, then the fullness of the Gentiles shall be gathered in; and as soon as they return, then Jesus will come upon Mount Zion to reign with his ancients gloriously.”
The people listened and the restorationist view was almost the default position for Bible-believing Christians in the 18th and 19th centuries. What we know as “evangelical” Christianity was so prevalent in the British church (and more so in society generally than today) that seven of the ten members of the war cabinet in 1917 were Bible-believing Christians, holding such views concerning Israel and the Jews
The rise of Zionism
This, however, was only one of three major strands that came together in the Balfour Declaration. The rise of political Zionism was another. “Zionism” was the movement launched by Austrian Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl, anguished at the anti-semitism he saw around him in Europe and convinced that the re-establishment of an independent Jewish state (Israel) was the only long-term hope for the survival of the Jewish people.
Even here, evangelical Christianity played a part. Rev William Hechler was the Chaplain to the British embassy in Vienna and had powerful contacts in the ruling dynasties of pre World War One Europe. He supported and mentored Herzl through the infancy of Zionism to the extent that historians have noted that the movement might never have taken off at all had Herzl not had Hechler alongside him.
Zionism came to Britain as Jews fled pogroms and persecution in Europe and Russia and by the time war broke out in 1914 a generation of Jewish activists had adopted Herzl’s movement with passion. One of their leaders was Chaim Weizmann, an industrial chemist who became personal friends with his local Manchester MP , Arthur Balfour. Offering Britain a muchneeded chemical substitute for acetone in the production of gunpowder, his influence grew. Through him Zionism found sympathy with the Bible-believing Balfour and his (also evangelical) Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.
Clearly one cannot claim that the Balfour Declaration was just a Christian desire to see biblical prophecies fulfilled. The third strand leading to the writing of the Declaration was political. Britain needed a friendly political entity in the Middle East and the intent to promote a Jewish homeland fitted neatly in between strategic needs for oil, a land bridge to India and the drawing in of Arab leaders in the fight against the Ottoman Empire and Germany. Additionally, it was considered important for Britain to be seen helping the Jews, who made up such a large percentage of the population of parts of the Russian empire.
There can be no doubt, though, that the prevailing Christian attitude towards Israel and the Jews from a biblical perspective played a huge part in the thinking of the war cabinet members as they deliberated in 10 Downing Street on 31st October 1917.
One last piece of the jigsaw falls into place to give the Balfour Declaration its lasting significance. On the same day that the war cabinet was agreeing the wording of its declaration to the Jewish community, General Allenby was carrying out a key assault on the desert town of Beersheba in what is now Southern Israel. Britain needed to advance Northwards from Egypt towards Ottoman Turkey. She needed to take Jerusalem and Damascus and break the German-Turkish alliance in order to win the war in the Middle East. The key battle to enable this was the battle
of Beersheba on 31st October 1917, which Allenby won that day!
Across the UK today there are thousands of evangelical Christians who love and support the Jewish people and the revived state of Israel. There is increasing excitement among this section of the Church at the approaching centenary of the Balfour Declaration on November 2nd 2017 and many groups and areas are working on large-scale public events across the country; many of which will be joint JewishChristian ventures.
You can find out more about the centenary, what it means for Christians and what will be happening to celebrate it by visiting www.balfour100.org. You can sign up for email updates and get a copy of the free leaflet “Christians and the Balfour Declaration.
The quote from J.C.Ryle is found in "Scattered and Gathered! A Tract about the Jews" published in 1859
The quote from John Wesley is found in "Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament" published in 1757
The quote from Charles Spurgeon, is found in "Sermons of the Rev C.H.Spurgeon of London" published in 1858
THE BALFOUR DECLARATION
Foreign Office November 2nd, 1917
Dear Lord Rothschild,
I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.
His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Arthur James Balfour