Tomas Sandell

125 years after the First Zionist Congress

125 years after the First Zionist Congress – Time for the Christian world to fully embrace the Jewish state

When Theodor Herzl presented his Zionist vision 125 years ago this weekend in Basel, Switzerland the Christian world was divided. In most Christian circles Jews were still considered “wandering Jews, cursed by God for not having accepted their Messiah”, whereas for others they were the “true Israelites of the Bible, loved by God because of the Patriarchs.” In one camp, Jews experienced disgust and animosity, in the other, an almost over-enthusiastic embrace. As history shows, it was partly thanks to the support of this latter group, mainly Evangelical Protestants, that the Zionist project took off. Still, those Christians who are highly critical of the Jewish state have not disappeared. They remain as vocal as ever.

No city illustrates this divide better than Karlsruhe, Germany where the World Council of Churches (WCC) will meet next week for their 11th Assembly. It was in this city that Theodor Herzl entered the international stage in 1896 as he was received by the Grand Duke of Baden, Frederick I, who listened enthusiastically to the Jewish prophet as he shared his vision about a revived Jewish state in the Holy Land. Herzl had been introduced to the Grand Duke by his Christian friend, Reverend William Hechler, who knew the first family of Baden well after having worked as a private tutor for their children. The Grand Duke would soon after introduce Herzl to his nephew, no other than the Emperor of Prussia himself, Wilhelm II. Now Herzl had reached the pinnacle of worldly power as his vision was heard and considered by world leaders. The Kaiser was one of only a few world leaders at the time who was capable of helping Herzl achieve his goals.

Only one year after the First Zionist Congress, Herzl would meet the German Emperor both in Istanbul and in the Holy Land where he on November 2, 1898, had extensive talks with the Kaiser who promised to present his case for a Chartered Company in Palestine under German protection to the Sultan in Istanbul. However, his request was rejected by the Sultan and the case was dropped. (It would in fact take another nineteen years before the vision, also on November 2, was adopted in the Balfour Declaration by the arch-rival of Germany, namely Britain.) Contrary to his son-in-law, the Kaiser was anything but a Biblical Zionist. He simply considered his help an expression of extraordinary Christian grace as he was willing to forgive his enemies, even those who, in his view, had killed Christ.

125 years on Christian attitudes towards the modern state of Israel remain divided. There are still those who consider modern Israelis brutal killers, not of Jesus anymore, but of innocent Palestinian children, whereas Christian Zionists, the descendants of the late William Hechler, still wholeheartedly support the Jewish state.

This divide will again be illustrated in Karlsruhe next week as the World Council of Churches meets, with the newly appointed General Secretary, Dr Jerry Pillay. The South African Reverend recently made headlines for promoting the BDS movement and calling Israel an apartheid state already in 2016.

The World Council of Churches, which brings together mainline Protestant and Orthodox churches from some 120 nations, representing up to 580 million Christians, was established in 1948, the same years as the Jewish state. It has a long history of antagonism with the modern State of Israel. While the global church community as a whole, including the WCC, considers traditional antisemitism unacceptable, many are still at unease with the mere existence of a Jewish state. In a clarification on his position towards Israel on the WCC website, Secretary-General elect Pillay “affirms his desire to uphold cordial relationships with the Jewish communities” but does not even mention the State of Israel, nor does he retract his earlier accusations of Israel as an apartheid state or his support for the BDS movement.

At the infamous UN World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001, WCC and its affiliates played a major role in what has been described as the launching pad of new antisemitism, a coordinated international campaign to discredit the Jewish state. In Biblical terms it meant refocusing hostility from the cursed individual Jew to the corporate Jew, the State of Israel. In 2002 the WCC launched its own initiative, the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The initiative has over the last twenty years mobilized close to 2000 observers, mostly young Christians, who have come to the disputed territories to monitor what they consider IDF violence and violations of Palestinian human rights and then spread this narrative in their own church communities. It remains to this day a flagship project of the WCC, proudly displayed on their website ahead of the 11th Assembly.

Ahead of the Assembly some member churches have again called for an official resolution to brand Israel an apartheid state. Given the location of the congress, a German city, less than 80 years after the end of the Holocaust, this is now less likely to happen as it could result in a reprimand from the Federal Government in Berlin which keeps a zero-tolerance policy for this new form of antisemitism.

Whereas official Germany has made a complete turnaround in the last 78 years, from being the main perpetrator of the Holocaust to taking the lead in the international fight against antisemitism, the WCC has still a long way to go before it reaches respectability. The organisation has firmly rejected the IHRA working definition of antisemitism as it would automatically include many of the activities and policies of the member churches who actively campaign against the Jewish state and promote the BDS movement.

This should be a wake-up call as the WCC meets in Karlsruhe next week, just a few days after the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel. It is a world turned upside down when a secular German government is more committed to the Jewish cause than most of the mainline churches. But things can change. The first step in this process should be one of soul searching and repentance combined with an open conversation about the role of Christian antisemitism in the church today. It should hopefully lead to a full endorsement of the IHRA working definition on antisemitism.

No place would be more fitting for such a transformation than Karlsruhe in Germany and no time would be better than 125 years after the First Zionist Congress. No nation state is perfect, but neither is the church. It is now time for the whole Christian community to embrace the Jewish state.

About the Author
Tomas Sandell is a Finnish journalist who has been accredited by the European Union. He is today the Founding Director of European Coalition for Israel.
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