All for the love of Jews

As concern grows over antisemitism, two new studies of Christian philosemitism offer a corrective view

By David Conway, December 16, 2011
'Behold, He that keepeth Israel': some of the 3,000 Evangelical Christian Zionists at a festival in Jerusalem in 2009

'Behold, He that keepeth Israel': some of the 3,000 Evangelical Christian Zionists at a festival in Jerusalem in 2009

The People of the Book

By Gertrude Himmelfarb
Encounter Books, £15.99

The Road to Apocalypse

By Stanley and Munro Price
Notting Hill Editions £12

Earlier this year, a memorial stone was placed on the grave of an Anglican minister whose remains had lain unmarked in a north London cemetery for 80 years. The inscription reveals this minister to have perfectly exemplified the trait whose manifestation by the English forms the subject of Gertrude Himmelfarb's poignant book. Curiously, his name goes unmentioned in Himmelfarb's history of "philosemitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill", as she subtitles her book.

The minister who so graphically exemplified the love of Jews was William Hechler. Heading the inscription on his stone is a line from Psalm 102: "When The Lord Shall Build Up Zion, He Shall Appear in His Glory". Below it, Hechler is characterised as "a Lover of God, His Word and His Ancient People; a Tireless Adversary of Anti-Semitism; and a Friend and Counsellor of Theodor Herzl".

You certainly do not have to be a Christian to be a philosemite, but it undoubtedly helps, especially if of that evangelical variety Hechler and so many other British and American Protestants have been.

Inspired by a speech by Lord Ashley, a prominent Victorian philosemite who does feature in Himmelfarb's book, protesting at the pogroms following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, Hechler travelled to the Ukraine where he spent a year helping homeless Jews, before relocating to Vienna as chaplain to the British embassy.

It was there, after reading Herzl's tract The Jewish State, that Hechler met and forged a close, life-long friendship with the founding father of Zionism.

Hechler was instrumental in arranging a widely publicised meeting between Herzl and Kaiser Wilhelm II in Palestine in 1898. That meeting began the long process of endowing Zionism with the political legitimacy it needed to bring world opinion around to the idea of re-establishing a Jewish state there.

Hechler was also partially responsible for a still greater, more abiding contribution to the Zionist cause. Father and son Stanley and Munro Price explain what it was in their fascinating study of a second English philosemite unmentioned by Himmelfarb, Lewis Way.

Hechler helped transform philosemitism from an essentially missionary endeavour intent upon converting Jews, as well as restoring them to their ancestral land, as a prelude to the Second Coming, into a movement content to leave the Jews' conversion to God.

After being left a fortune by another prominent evangelical philosemite, Way became principal financier and one-time vice-president of the London Society for the Conversion of the Jews.

His unrelenting conversionism eventually led to Way leaving the London Society to go on to create another, short-lived, evangelical society. At some of the five conferences it held before expiring in 1830 was the pious widow of an Irish peer who carried on their tradition by hosting further annual conferences at her castle in Ireland.

At some of these conferences was a young, evangelical Protestant minister-turned-missionary named John Nelson Darby, through whom, so the Prices argue, Way's brand of Christian Zionism became transplanted to America. There, it blossomed into that stalwart support for Israel it has always displayed in the US. As the Prices observe, the support arises less from the power of the Jewish lobby than the simple fact that a very large proportion of the 40 or so per cent of Americans who describe themselves as Evangelical are Christian Zionists.

The omission of Hechler and Way from Himmelfarb's book should not be thought to detract from its merits. Histories are always highly selective, and a 150-page book has room for only so many philosemites. As it is, Himmelfarb does an excellent job in showing how deep this strand of the English psyche runs, as well as how largely benign an influence it has had upon the fate of Jews not only in Britain but elsewhere.

For anyone interested to learn how much Jews both here and abroad owe to English philosemitism, both books are indispensable.

David Conway is a visiting fellow at the School of Philosophy and Art History at the University of Essex

Last updated: 11:12am, December 16 2011