Was biblical prophecy fulfilled when the modern nation state of Israel was founded in 1948? Well, the story in its historical context is rather complex. Efforts to establish a Zionist state in the Holy Land began many years before 1948, and the impact of that history continues to be felt today.
The best place to start this part of the story is with a young Austria-Hungarian Jew in the late 19th century, Theodor Herzl.
Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) had gone to France to embark on a career as a journalist. There he followed the sensational Dreyfus Affair, where a French Jewish army officer was falsely accused and convicted of spying for the Germans. It was evident to many, including Herzl, that antisemitism was behind the entire trial, and that the future for Jews in Europe was rather bleak. As we saw in an earlier blog post, antisemitism was a terrible stain on traditionally “Christian” Europe.
Theodor Herzl’s Quest for a Jewish Homeland
Herzl became a political activist, petitioning the powers of Europe to establish a colonial state for the purpose of Jewish settlement. His early efforts to promote Zionism were not well received. Several candidate areas were proposed, including Argentina and Uganda, but nothing seemed to work.
Eventually, Herzl was able to gain support for his idea from British evangelical Christians influential in the government. What was odd about Herzl was that he was not a particularly believing Jew theologically. In fact, many believe that Herzl declared himself to be an atheist. His connection with Judaism was more of an ethnic identity as opposed to a theological belief, which is evident for many Jews still today. What concerned Herzl the most was for persecuted Jews, ethnic or otherwise, to find their own place to live in safety and security. So, how was Herzl able to finally make progress with the British?
The British politicians that Herzl made successful contact with were influenced by a relatively recent theological movement, dispensationalism. Dispensationalism was popularized by a former Anglican priest turned Plymouth Brethren pastor, John Nelson Darby. Darby had become alarmed by the liberal disbelief creeping into the church, undermining Christian confidence in the Bible as the very Word of God. Darby became convinced that the way to halt the erosion of Biblical faith was to develop a system of Bible interpretation that upholds what he considered to be a “literal” understanding of Bible prophecy, emphasizing the different “dispensations” of how God has revealed and was continuing to reveal His truth in human history. In particular, Darby thought that one of the keys to interpreting Scripture is to keep references to Israel and the church throughout the Bible distinct and separate. The consequences of Darby’s studies led many British leaders in that society to conclude that the Old Testament people of God, the nation of Israel, still had some type of right to return to the Holy Land and reestablish a Jewish nation.
Theodor Herzl’s secular quest for a Jewish state had then found a welcome home among this group of Darby-influenced, British politicians. The problem was in how such a quest could be realized. The crisis of the First World War presented the opportunity.
Balfour, British & French Colonialism
On the eve of the First World War in 1915, the traditional Holy Land in Palestine was under control by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. But the majority of people who lived in Palestine were Arabs, and the Arabs did not necessarily have the most cordial relations with the Turks. As the “Great War” extended over the following years, a movement among some of the Arabs began to call for independence from the Turkish Ottomans. The British, who were controlling the Suez Canal in nearby Egypt, were more than enthusiastic in fanning the flames of this independence movement in their efforts to knock the Ottomans out of the war. The British enlisted the soon to be famous, T.E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia,” to help negotiate an alliance with the Arab nationalists.
But the British were also allies of France, and both countries had shared colonial ambitions to extend their respective European influences across the Middle East. Without consulting the Arab nationalists, Britain and France forged a then secret agreement, the Sykes-Picot agreement, that divided up the Middle East into different spheres of influence to be maintained after the end of the Great War. The French would extend their colonial power into what is now modern day Lebanon and Syria, and the British would gain the territory to the south, including Palestine.
This agreement between the British and the French enabled Lord Balfour, of England, to help to realize the dreams of Theodor Herzl, by promising that the land of Palestine would become a “national home” to Jews, thus open to Jewish resettlement from Europe, otherwise known as the Balfour Declaration. While this news gave birth to the hope of Zionism for European Jews, it also signaled betrayal to the Arab nationalists. The British and French had negotiated a deal, leaving the hopes for a large Arab nation state that would encompass all of the traditional Arab lands, including Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, among other areas, pretty much in ruins.
The Uneasy Realization of Zionism
This sense of betrayal underscored the major problem with Lord Balfour’s plan. The Holy Land that the new Jewish population was occupying was not empty. The indigenous peoples, who had lived in the land for centuries, were quite a mix. Some of these indigenous people were Jewish, but the majority were Arabs, a mix of Christians and Muslims, though predominately Muslim. After the Great War ended, the British tried to “keep the peace” between the local Arab population and the incoming Jewish immigrants. But the tensions proved to be too difficult for the British to resolve, and so the British eventually left Palestine.
World War II came along, and the horror of the Holocaust resulted in a new, larger influx of European Jews coming into Palestine, soon after the end of that war. Eventually, the conflict between the locals and the newcomers developed into a full scale war in 1948, and out of this came the birth of the modern nation state of Israel. Within hours of this declaration, President Truman, on behalf of the United States, was the first world leader to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a self-determined nation.
The dream of a Zionist state had become a reality. But it came at a price that has made Palestine into one the major flash points in our modern world.1
1. There are a number of excellent books that chronicle the early history of the Zionist movement. Three books that I have read recently include:
- Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Although needlessly graphic in a few places, and containing a few startling historical errors, Montefiore tells a fascinating history of Jerusalem over the centuries. In particular, he offers a great section looking at the development of Zionism, coming from an author who is descended from one of the early Zionist activists of the late 19th century. Reviewed more extensively on Veracity.
- The Fall of the Ottomans, By Eugene Rogan. Though mostly a history of the decline of the Ottomans surrounding the events of World War One, Rogan brilliantly shows how the history of the early Zionist movement was intertwined with the larger events of European and Turkish history.
- Zion’s Christian Soldiers?: The Bible, Israel and the Church, by Stephen Sizer. From an evangelical Christian perspective, Sizer writes from a position critical of Christian involvement in the Zionist movement. Sizer has a profound and challenging grasp of the issues, and in particular Sizer’s historical analysis of how British 19th century dispensationalism teamed up with secular Zionism is eye-opening. Nevertheless, at times, Sizer focuses too much on the “radical fringe” of dispensational, evangelical Christianity that supports a secular-based Zionism. A number of Christian Zionists do not fit Sizer’s mold as easily as Sizer describes. As a result, Sizer has a number of critics from within the church, whom I have consulted in this study of Zionism. Stephen Sizer’s blog for the book, with accompanying sermons, can be found here.