This year, the Menachem Begin Heritage Center is marking the 100th Anniversary since the birth of this remarkable Jewish leader. Part of these observances included an event this week honoring Menachem Begin as the first Israeli prime minister to openly embrace the support of Christians worldwide. Co-hosted by the Begin Center and the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, the evening featured an address by Dr. Daniel Gordis of the Shalem College, who has just published an absorbing biography entitled Menachem Begin: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul.
Indeed, of all the successive prime ministers of Israel following the nation’s re-birth in 1948, Begin stands out as the first premier to publicly welcome Christian Zionist support and to seek to harness it in defense of the Jewish state. Others before him may have had connections to individual Christian figures, but the story of the Israel-Evangelical partnership as we know it today starts with Begin.
From the birth of the modern Zionist movement, there are many examples of individual friendships and even partnerships forged between Jewish and Christian figures with the mutual goal of resettling Jews back in the historic Land of Israel.
When the Jewish philanthropist Moses Montefiore toured Palestine in 1849 to assess the prospects of establishing Jewish colonies there, he was accompanied by a prominent Christian Zionist named George Gawler. He was a British army officer and governor of South Australia who wrote a book in 1845 advocating the Jewish return to the land. After their joint tour, Gawler was active until his death in raising funds from Christians to help plant Jewish colonies in Eretz Israel.
When Theodor Herzl published his book Der Judenstaat in 1895, he was quickly befriended by Rev. William Hechler, chaplain to the British Embassy in Vienna. Hechler soon became a sort of “foreign minister” for the Zionist movement, opening doors for Herzl to the German Kaiser and other European leaders. In his diary, the secular Herzl also noted that Hechler’s encouragement and biblical inspiration contributed to his own growing sense that he was a modern-day Moses leading his people back to the Land of Promise.
At the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, Herzl also coined the term “Christian Zionist” when thanking his friend John Henry Dunant and other Christians present at the gathering for their strong backing of his efforts.
Zionist leader Chaim Weizman in turn was befriended by Arthur James Balfour a decade before he became foreign secretary for the Lloyd George war cabinet and signed the Balfour Declaration. Weizman also was close to the Christian Zionist figure Jan Smuts, a British general and governor of South Africa who conceived of the League of Nations mandate system.
Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion also had encounters with Christian Zionists, as noted Southern Baptist leader Dr. W. A. Criswell, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, claimed to have had a relationship with Ben-Gurion. Later, Dr. Pat Robertson and others made attempts to reach out to Yitzhak Rabin.
So there were even instances of personal friendships and engagement between Israeli leaders and individual Christian Zionist figures following Israel’s rebirth in 1948.
But Menachem Begin holds the unique distinction of being the first Israeli prime minister to warmly embrace Christian Zionist support in an open manner. He, too, had developed personal friendships with individual Christian leaders like author Dr. David A. Lewis. But Begin went further than his predecessors by actively seeking Christian support and acknowledging its value in public. There are several reasons why.
First, Begin came to realize that he shared a certain biblical worldview with evangelical Christians. Although Begin saw much of the world through the prism of the Holocaust and thus was fully aware of the long, tragic history of Christian anti-Semitism, he also had a strong biblical worldwide and knew this gave him much in common with Bible-believing Christians today. In particular, he looked on the Bible as Israel’s title deed to the land and saw the Jewish return to the land as fulfillment of the vision of the Hebrew prophets, just as many Christians did.
Second, Begin was surrounded by several close advisors who shared his friendly disposition towards pro-Israel Christians. This included the late Harry Hurwitz, the founder and long-serving president of the Begin Heritage Center.
Hurwitz had served as head of the South African Zionist Federation in Cape Town before making aliyah in the early seventies. While still in South Africa, he had been exposed to genuine Christian supporters of Israel and was particularly close to a gentleman named Basil Jacobs, founder of Christian Action for Israel. Basil Jacobs attended the first Feast of Tabernacles celebration in September of 1980 when the International Christian Embassy was founded. His good friend Harry Hurwitz was thus the key official within Begin’s inner circle who convinced Begin to endorse the founding of a Christian Embassy in Jerusalem in 1980.
Finally, Begin’s last years in office were marked by several steep challenges to the nation, including the American AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia, the US “reassessment” after the Osirak bombing operation, and finally the fallout from the First Lebanon War. In all these cases, Begin actively sought Christian support, especially from among prominent American Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell, Ed McAteer. For example, media accounts from those days tell of Begin approaching a wealthy American Jewish friend to lend his private jet to bring over Christian solidarity missions at critical times during the Lebanon crisis.
Yet Begin’s first public embrace of pro-Israel Christians came at the ICEJ’s Feast of Tabernacles in 1981, when he stood before a gathering of several thousand cheering Christians from dozens of nations and warmly told the crowd: “Tonight, I know that we are not alone.”
Later, when Begin resigned from office, the Christian Embassy sent him a letter of gratitude for his friendship. In response, Begin wrote back:
Your decision to establish your Embassy in Jerusalem at a time when we are being abandoned because of our faith was an act of courage and a symbol of the closeness between us. Your acts and gestures gave us the feeling that we were not alone.
The partnership between Israel and her Christian friends has grown ever since into what Foreign Ministry officials have now acknowledged as a “strategic asset” for this nation. Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows this history as well as anyone and continues to both solicit and express appreciation for Christian support. But this official open embrace truly starts with our beloved friend Menachem Begin.