Zionism as a colonial project

Part of a series of posts offering a perspective on the conflict in Palestine

Human rights and the future of Palestine | Location location | A time between empires | Zionism as a colonial project | Jewish migration to Palestine | Dividing Palestine | The war of 1948 | Wars and rumors of war | Palestinian resistance | Creating a shared future in Palestine

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As European powers asserted their freedom to act within the notionally Ottoman territories of Egypt and Palestine in the late nineteenth century, there was a growing sense in some circles that a Jewish nation state might be created in Palestine, on a portion of the so-called ‘biblical lands.’ 

One of those circles was an influential set of Evangelical Protestant beliefs known as ‘Restorationism.’ With roots in Puritan millenarian speculations between 1640 and 1660, this view proposed that by restoring the Jews to their ancient homeland the Protestant powers of Europe could defeat a feared (but non-existent) alliance between the Catholics and Turkey, while ensuring the conversion of the Jews to Christianity, and preparing for the return of Christ. That was quite an agenda and variants of it have been seen in recent Evangelical support for Israel. For a while fear of Communism displaced the Ottoman Empire, but fear of Islam persists among many Christian supporters of Israel.

Evangelical missionary groups such as the London Jews Society (LJS) promoted these ideas in leading British circles, including Lord Shaftesbury (1801–85), whose 1839 essay “State and Restauration (sic) of the Jews” in the Quarterly Review argued “the Jews must be encouraged to return in yet greater numbers and become once more the husbandman of Judea and Galilee … though admittedly a stiff-necked, dark hearted people, and sunk in moral degradation, obduracy, and ignorant of the Gospel … [They are] not only worthy of salvation but also vital to Christianityʼs hope of salvation.”

As a Canon emeritus of St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, I should acknowledge that the origins of the Anglican Church in Jerusalem lie in just such attitudes. The establishment of the Anglo-Prussian bishopric in 1841 was a Protestant political initiative to promote Jewish settlement in Palestine and oppose Catholic France’s close relationship with the Ottomans.

William Hechler (1845–1931) was a son of LJS missionaries and served as chaplain to the British Embassy in Vienna. In 1894 he published The Restoration of the Jews to Palestine in which he argued that rather than seeking to convert the Jews, Christians should assist them to return to Palestine. 

Hechler was an advisor to Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), who was the leading activist seeking to secure European support for a Jewish national home.  Herzl convened the World Zionist Congress that assembled for the first time at Basel in 1897, and he is widely recognized as the founder of Jewish Zionism. The anti-Jewish sentiments of Herzl’s Christian Zionist allies are not so widely recognized.

Palestine was not the only potential location for the proposed Jewish homeland, but it was eventually endorsed in preference to other colonial locations such as Argentina and Uganda.

A fund to finance the purchase of properties in Palestine for Jewish colonies was established by the fifth World Zionist Congress in 1901 although the idea had been under consideration since the very first Congress. Over time it has developed into a major instrument for Jewish colonization in Palestine, and it now known as the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet LeYisrael, or KKL). It currently owns at least 13% of all the land in Israel and has become a major—if at times controversial—Jewish institution alongside the State of Israel.

This post draws on lectures I gave as part of the “Apocalypse Then and Now” class for the Brisbane College of Theology Master of Theology program in 2008: Christian Zionism

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton and Rector of the Anglican Parish of Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. The opinions expressed in my publications, including my blog posts, are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Diocese of Grafton nor Christ Church​ Cathedral in Grafton.
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