One hundred years after the Balfour Declaration, evangelicals are divided on how the modern state of Israel should be viewed. Roger Harper reports
With the IsraeliPalestinian conflict still dominating headlines in the Middle East, it’s perhaps unsurprising that despite 100 years passing since the British government’s foreign secretary, Lord Arthur Balfour, wrote a letter to the Zionist Federation, his few short sentences are still being argued over. On 2nd November 1917, Balfour penned the following words: “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing nonJewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” After the First World War the British Empire was given the League of Nations Mandate to administer Palestine on the basis of the above words, which have since been dubbed the ‘Balfour Declaration’. This paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 – a moment which some Christians view as a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. The centenary of the Declaration is being marked in a variety of different ways, partly because evangelicals differ on whether the document is something to be celebrated, or rejected. But whatever their view of the current conflict, all Christians are agreed that evangelicals had a strong influence on the birth of the Declaration itself.
The birth of Zionism
The first organisation in the world to include fostering the return of Jewish people to the Holy Land (later called ‘Zionism’) as one of its objectives was a Christian one. The London Society For Promoting Christianity Among the Jews was founded in 1809 by influential Anglican clergyman Charles Simeon. It was later renamed Church’s Mission among Jewish People (CMJ). Leading evangelicals, including William Wilberforce, were supporters. By 1840 Lady Palmerston, wife of the foreign secretary, later prime minister, wrote to a friend: “All the British Evangelicals can talk about is the Jews”.
A successful evangelical campaign led to the building in Jerusalem of a church, ready for when the Jewish people returned to their ancient land and became worshippers of Jesus. Christ Church was opened in 1849 and continues to operate to this day. Lord Shaftesbury, evangelical campaigner against child poverty in Britain, also campaigned for a Jewish home in Palestine. In 1853 he wrote to the prime minister, George Hamilton Gordon, “There is a country without a nation; and God now in his wisdom and mercy, directs us to a nation without a country.”
In 1876 George Eliot (real name Mary Anne Evans) published the novel Daniel Deronda, which included a strong and winsome case for Zionism. Eliot had been a wholehearted member of the evangelical Church in her early years. The first modern settlements of Jews in the Holy Land, in the early 1880s, were organised by the Scottish evangelical Laurence Oliphant, with widespread support from Britain and America. It wasn’t until 1897 that the pioneering Jewish ‘Zionist Organisation’ was founded by Theodore Herzl. Zionism is now owned by Jewish communities across the world, often without acknowledgement that Christian Zionism predates political Zionism. Of the ten members of the British Cabinet at the time the Balfour Declaration was issued, seven had grown up in evangelical homes. But the Cabinet considered political reasons for issuing the Declaration, not religious ones. The only Jewish Cabinet member, Edwin Montagu, was concerned the Declaration would lead to Jews being given preference in Palestine, with other longstanding residents treated as foreigners. He insisted on the wording of the second part of the Declaration.
Christian Zionism predates political Zionism
Christians today are divided over whether the Declaration is a cause for celebration of the hand of God working in history, or an opportunity for repentance. Stephen Briggs, director of Hatikvah Films and AO Vision, maker of Bible documentary films, says that the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration is “in the same category as the anniversaries of the Reformation, of the King James Bible, of Magna Carta. We should remember and celebrate it for how it has changed society dramatically for the better”.
There’s been a complete ignoring of the Palestinians
Jane Moxon, head of development for CMJ, also sees the Declaration as a key part of Christian recovery of support for a Jewish State in their ancient, God-given land, a recovery akin to the recovery of the centrality of the Bible, faith in Jesus as the way to salvation, and the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Balfour 100 group (balfour100.org) believe the Declaration is an opportunity to “encourage and renew our support for the Jewish community and the State of Israel”. They are holding a celebration in the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 7th November.
The Balfour Project (balfourproject. org), on the other hand, see the anniversary as “an opportunity to commit ourselves to support Palestinians and Israelis in building a peaceful future based on equal rights for all”. They’re holding a more repentant event at Westminster Central Hall, London, on 31st October.
Garth Hewitt, founder of the Amos Trust, says the second part of the Declaration has not been implemented. “There’s been a complete ignoring of the Palestinians…It’s a nightmare and it stems from this document.” Stephen Sizer, recently retired Anglican vicar and director of Peacemaker Mediators, says the Declaration was “entirely duplicitous because there was no intention of honouring the rights of the Arabs”. He says that Balfour admitted to this duplicity in a later letter to Lord Curzon. “I don’t see that Great Britain has any right to celebrate the anniversary.”
On a political level, some have campaigned for an apology from the British government. But Theresa May has said Britain is “proud of our role in creating the State of Israel”. Religion and politics have a long and shared history when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If nothing else, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration should remind us we have a historical connection to the region today, not only because we’re British but because we’re evangelicals.
The Christian Zionist perspective
God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants to give them land as an “everlasting possession” (Genesis 17:8). The Jewish people remain chosen by God and Jesus said the Law and Prophets are to be unaltered.
The Jews have not been replaced by Christians, despite Church teaching to this effect, which has fed antisemitism. There are numerous Old Testament prophecies which say the Jewish people will be gathered from the four corners of the earth and return to the land God promised to them (Ezekiel 36:24-28; Isaiah 11:11-12; Jeremiah 29:14 etc). This is happening in our day.
Jesus implied the kingdom would be restored to Israel, but they were not to know “the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). Jewish people must first return to their land, then they will come to know Jesus. And Jesus will not return until all Israel is saved (Matthew 23:39; Romans 11:26).
Unlike the ancient Jewish people, the idea of a Palestinian people is a recent phenomenon.
Israel occupies a small sliver of land compared to that of the surrounding Arab nations. The fierce opposition to Jews having even this tiny piece of land shows that this is a spiritual battle against God’s people.
The Supersessionist perspective
Jesus said the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled in him (Matthew 5:17). He is now the Vine, not the nation of Israel (John 15:5). The distinction between Jews and Gentiles has been abolished by the cross (Galatians 3:28).
Jesus did not command the Jews to remain in the land promised to Abraham. Rather he told them to flee (Matthew 24:16). Old Testament prophecies relating to Israel have been fulfilled in Christ. (Matthew 5:17, 2 Corinthians 1:20) He is the true seed of Abraham. (Galatians 3:16)
We worship a God of love and justice for all. The Bible also suggests the land is to be shared (Leviticus 23:22; Ezekiel 47:23). Jews coming to Jesus will be a great witness to their Gentile neighbours right across the world.
Jews in their own separate country, putting militant nationalism before allegiance to God, are a bad witness to the nations and a hindrance to the gospel. This perspective is sometimes referred to as 'fulfillment theology' – Christ fulfills the promises to Israel. It is also known as 'replacement theology' - the belief that the Church (or Christ) has replaced Israel.