What a year of anniversaries for the Jewish community! One hundred and twenty years since the first Zionist Congress; 70 years since UN Resolution 181; 50 years since the reunification of Jerusalem and, of course, the centenary of that little piece of paper so controversial yet so dynamic in history: the Balfour Declaration.
As a Christian, I lament that most of my co-religionists have never heard of the Declaration, the foundation stone of today’s Jewish state and all its achievements.
Yet in this centenary year, thousands of Christians across the UK are getting as excited about the Balfour Declaration as our Jewish friends. Major events in UK cities involve both Jewish and Christian organisers and participants working together.
This could prove to be the biggest year yet for Jewish-Christian cooperation in Britain.
So why are Christians so enthusiastic about a particularly Jewish anniversary, besides recognising the chain of events that led to the creation of our favourite pilgrimage destination?
Backtracking from 1917, we should realise that back then, British Christians generally took the Bible much more literally than today, especially the prophecies in the Tanach, of God’s intention to restore Israel to her land.
In fact, this literal acceptance of the prophetic writings concerning Israel was almost the default position among Bible-believing Christians. Would that it were so today.
This worldview meant British Christians were generally supportive of Jews. Bishops and ministers taught, preached and wrote about the return from exile to the land of Israel.
Charles Wesley even wrote hymns about the restoration of the Jews. One of Theodor Herzl’s closest friends and mentors was an Anglican clergyman, Rev William Hechler. Lord Shaftesbury, known as a philanthropic Christian, also advocated for the return to Zion. He even wrote an address to the leaders of Europe challenging them to produce a “second Cyrus” to deliver the Jews from exile.
One impact of these beliefs was that, amazingly, seven out of 10 of the wartime Cabinet that issued the Balfour Declaration were Christians with this biblical worldview. Clearly, strategic and political factors also drove the government of the day to issue such a declaration of support to the Jewish community, but we cannot dismiss the underlying faith and devoutly-held beliefs of these powerful men as they deliberated.
Lord Balfour himself, who did not hide his Christian credentials, began his address to the Zionist Federation in 1920 with the words: “For long I have been a convinced Zionist…” He reflected British Christian beliefs of his time. In the same speech, at the Royal Albert Hall, he referred to Britain and the Jews as “partners in this great enterprise” of recreating the Jewish homeland in Israel.
Balfour’s speech is one reason Christians have organised Partners In This Great Enterprise, a unique event at the Royal Albert Hall on 7 November to mark the Balfour Declarations’s centenary.
It is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Jews and Christians to celebrate together the partnerships that led to the Balfour Declaration and its eventual outcome in the modern state of Israel.
With both Jewish and Christian performers, and through music, dance and drama, we have created an unmissable evening in an iconic venue worthy of this historic centenary for both our communities.