Loving the Jews
By Aryeh Tepper, Jewish Ideas

Five years before Theodor Herzl published The Jewish State in 1896, an American Methodist lay leader named William Blackstone dreamed of the Jewish people’s returning to their ancestral homeland and rebuilding their ancient country. Blackstone translated his dream into a petition signed by 400 prominent Americans, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and a future president, William McKinley.

Presented to then-President Benjamin Harrison, the petition, known as the Blackstone Memorial, called for a conference of European powers that would pressure the Ottoman empire to surrender control of Palestine and turn it over to the Jews. Although the initiative failed to bear immediate fruit, a quarter-century later Louis Brandeis, then a nominee to the Supreme Court and already a leading figure in the American Zionist establishment, appealed to Blackstone to update the document and present it afresh to President Woodrow Wilson. Blackstone obliged, this time getting organizations and churches to sign on instead of public personalities. One signatory was the Presbyterian Church, of which Wilson happened to be a member.

The plan worked. Wilson was sufficiently moved to inform the British, now regent in Palestine in place of the defeated and decaying Ottomans, that he would support a national home for the Jewish people in the biblical land of their forefathers. The promise of American support gave the British the diplomatic backing they needed to issue what soon became the Balfour Declaration.

William Blackstone was one of many Christian Zionists who, especially in Great Britain and the United States, have contributed significantly to lobbying for the Jewish state both before and after its establishment. His story not only helps put to rest the anti-Semitic canard that a nefarious “Jewish lobby” has been responsible for manipulating American policy in the Middle East. It also points to the role that philo-Semitism, the positive love of Jews, has played in modern—and not only in modern—history.

Some, including some Jews, have tended to brush off this phenomenon as inconsequential, or have suspected it of being but the flip side of anti-Semitism—based, that is, on a similar fascination with imagined Jewish power that similarly prevents its holders from seeing Jews in all their mundane complexity. But there are solid grounds for regarding it as an impulse with “a deep, complex, and significant history” of its own. So, at least, argue the co-editors of Philosemitism in History, a newly published collection of essays.

The book’s contributors find evidence of philo-Semitism in locales and times as diverse as medieval Western Christendom, Renaissance Italy, revolutionary France, Victorian England, Imperial Germany, and 19th- and 20th-century America. One essayist has even uncovered “Philosemitic Television in Germany, 1963-1995.” As for the book’s editors, they assert in their introduction that although most students of the phenomenon trace its roots to aspects of the Christian tradition, “it is actually the Greek and Hellenistic legacies to which the most vital and variegated expressions of modern philo-Semitism owe their allegiance.”

Regrettably, that last statement is unsupported by any essay included in the volume itself. Equally unexplicated is another remark by the editors urging close attention to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. But, to be fair, the book’s aims are minimalist: “to be stimulating and suggestive rather than encyclopedic,” and to refrain from comprehensive claims. The wide array of movements and personalities enlivening its pages are enough to whet the appetite for further exploration on one’s own.

Without a doubt, the most engaging part of the book is the section on America. In one chapter, Jonathan Karp (one of the two co-editors) focuses intriguingly on three representative African Americans: Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), “the preeminent ‘race leader’ of his day”; Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), the freethinker and novelist; and Paul Robeson (1898-1976), the formidable vocal artist and political radical. All three reconciled “the biblical heritage” of the Jews with the “reality of modern Jewishness.” For Robeson in particular, Karp points out, exposure to Yiddish culture and hasidic song helped him to embrace the African American spirituals that became a critical part of his own repertoire. Unfortunately, when one takes into account the recent growth of anti-Semitic trends within the American black community, the examples of Washington, Hurston, and Robeson also serve as an acute reminder of how ephemeral philo-Semitic moments can be.

The book’s longest chapter, “‘It’s All in the Bible’: Evangelical Christians, Biblical Literalism, and Philosemitism in Our Times,” is also the most politically relevant. Its author, Yaakov Ariel, usefully surveys the prominent Christian Zionists in American history, including William Blackstone. To Blackstone, America’s role was that of a modern Cyrus, helping the Jews return to Zion just as the ancient Persian king enabled the Jews to return to their homeland after the Babylonian exile. Ariel concludes by lamenting that, “As a rule, Zionist narratives have overlooked the role of Christians [like Blackstone] in promoting Zionist ideas and causes.”

He is right about the neglect, though notable exceptions include Ambassador Michael B. Oren’s study of America’s role in the Middle East, Power, Faith, and Fantasy (2007). But it is also important to note a distinction. In the standard Zionist narrative, the modern national movement of the Jews originated in an act of self-emancipation, closer to Joshua’s conquest of the land—even if the land in question was, at first, the inner dispositions and conditioned reflexes of the early Zionist dreamers—than to the release of the exiled Jews from Babylon in an act of royal noblesse oblige. Still, it is absolutely true that, in the political realm, the role played by British and American philo-Semites “in promoting Zionist ideas and causes” was and remains essential.

In the political sphere there is no such thing as absolute independence. No state dwells alone, and the pursuit of its interests by a small country like Israel needs to be informed by a clear recognition of the limitations of its power. The good news is that among the many non-Jewish actors with whom the Jewish state treats, some are real lovers of Jews as well as of Israel. The history and character of that love might benefit from further clarification, but this hardly means that it isn’t real—and immeasurably valuable.

April 28, 2011 | 2 Comments »

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  1. It is commonplace, to see the term “Western Civilization” applied strictly to Greek, Roman and Christian history. With both my children having lived, studied and taught in China, I have a different perspective: “Western” Civilization is west of India, “Eastern” is east of that place, and India itself is somewhere in the middle. All the writing systems in the world, with which all our ideas, holy books, etc. have been written down for millenia, derive primarily from only two sources: The Semitic script, from which we have the Roman, Hebrew, Arabic and Sanskrit alphabets; and Chinese characters, which are used in China, Japan and, to a lesser degree, Korea. (The Vietnamese also formerly used Chinese characters; and the Korean syllabary uses the Chinese calligraphic style). Religiously, the world is divided between the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, on the one hand, and Indic religions Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Shinto and Chinese religion also coexist with Indic religions, with many claiming to be adherents of both Far Eastern and Indic religions. Sikhism, practiced primarily in the Punjab, is intermediate between East and West. “East” and “West”, by THIS definition, are sharply divided geographically, by seas, deserts, and the highest plateaus and mountains in the world.

    Western Civilization did not arise in a vacuum, but flowed seamlessly from ISRAEL. The Phoenician characters, identical to the Proto-Hebrew characters used originally to record Torah, passed directly to Etruria and Rome,and thence to the runic scripts of NW Europe. They did not pass Greece, and they did not collect $200. The Christian religion also, passed CONTEMPORANEOUSLY with Judaism into Europe from its origin in Israel, and the founder of Islam learned the rudiments of his teachings from Jewish and Christian cultures in Yemen and Eritrea. Europeans do NOT practice the religion of the Greeks, with their many gods and legends, nor did they derive their alphabet from the Greeks. Upper-class Romans sought out Greeks to teach their children, and Roman sculptors made cheap copies of Greek statues. Jews were affected by Greek ways as much as were Spaniards and Britons; and actual DIFFERENCES between these people are a matter of national pride and dogmatic trifles. The characters in the Bible are believed in by some and thought of as fairy tales by others, among Christians, Moslems and Jews; but virtually NOBODY in these parts seriously worships Zeus and Mercury.

    The origins of Eastern Civilization are on the banks of the Yellow River and the Ganges; but the origins of Western Civilization are in Israel. That is the root of PhiloSemitism. It’s very hard to tell a Jew from a Christian, until they open their mouths. Honestly, people aren’t PhiloSemites not because Jews are so polite, agreeable and lovable, or because some Europeans like bagels. Europeans INVENTED bagels:

    “Contrary to common legend, the bagel was not created in the shape of a stirrup to commemorate the victory of Poland’s King Jan Sobieski over the Ottoman Turks in 1683. It was actually invented much earlier in Kraków, Poland, as a competitor to the bublik, a lean bread of wheat flour designed for Lent (omagosh!) In the 16th and first half of the 17th centuries, the bajgiel became a staple of the Polish national diet.” — Wikipedia

    I won’t embarrass the Jews here, by saying where the rest of their food comes from, or why they have an egg on their Easter Pesach Seder plate. Supporters of Israel are not “Jew Wannabes”, as Shy Guy likes to think. Supporters of Israel love Israel, because Israel is OUR homeland, the land of our spiritual ancestors. The people who hate Israel and the Jewish people — The Atheists, the Moslems, the White Supremacists — do not claim this heritage. They follow different drummers.

    May the God of Israel be exalted, now and forever. And they all said, AMERN!

  2. “As a rule, Zionist narratives have overlooked the role of Christians [like Blackstone] in promoting Zionist ideas and causes.”

    The saga of Blackstone’s project (which, as Tepper notes, antedates Herzl’s work by several years) is an almost entirely ignored one, and deserves as much attention it can be given: because it illustrates — among other things — that US support for the Jewish restoration, and recognition of its legitimacy, has a long & proud history.

    The growing comprehension, among Americans, of the emptiness, availability and enormous potential of the Land of Israel, coupled with a building consciousness within the US, at the time, of the increasingly brutal & oppressive conditions which were descending upon Jews in late-19th century Russia (and other lands subject to Czarist rule), contributed mightily to the restorationist ethos in America -— and culminated in the 19th century’s fullest flowering of that spirit: the “Blackstone Memorial” of 1891.

    As Tepper notes, in its first foray, the petition was submitted by influential Chicago construction & real estate magnate-turned Methodist minister, William Eugene Blackstone [1841-1935], to Pres. Benjamin Harrison (and his Secretary of State, James G. Blaine).

    Although the Czars had never affected a cordial mien toward the Jews in the past & routinely denied them the freedom to settle in Russia, they nonetheless acquired control over a few million of them -— through conquest: by way, that is, of the successive partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian State -— which not only had permitted Jewish settlement in the broad territorial band extending from the Baltic in the North to the Black Sea in the South, but also had seen fit to accord them the courtesy of tolerance & even a measure of collective autonomy.

    The provinces containing that territory, which came to be known as the Pale of Settlement, and which amounted to an extensive Eastern European Jewish reservation created by Catherine the Great in 1791, were intended, by an 1804 statute promulgated by the government of the Czars, to confine the Jews strictly to that region of what was now part of the vast & growing Russian Empire. As the century wore on, the increased harshness of the Czarist administration, especially by contrast to the recalled, lighter hand under the Polish-Lithuanian regime, bit savagely into Jewish hopes for the future.

    With the increasing international awareness of shocking mass assaults on Jewish communities (pogroms — now greatly accelerated in frequency, and viciously intensified in scope, following the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II), inspired individuals like Blackstone caught hold of (or were themselves caught by) a vision.

    The Memorial -— drafted upon Blackstone’s return home from his 1888 visit with his daughter to the largely empty (and uncultivated) Land of Israel -— was accompanied by Blackstone’s personal letter to Harrison & Blaine, urging the U.S. govt to convene a world conference to explore the possibilities of returning Jewish settlement & sovereignty to the Holy Land, and to solicit the participation & assistance of Czar Alexander III, Queen Victoria, the Sultan of Turkey, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, the King of Italy & the Queen Regent of Spain in the conference’s preparations.

    The petition itself noted that, pursuant to the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, the Powers of Europe had given “Bulgaria to the Bulgarians and Serbia to the Serbs.” Indeed,

    “[t]hese provinces, as well as Roumania, Montenegro and Greece, were wrested from the Turks and given to their natural owners. Does not Palestine as rightfully belong to the Jews?… Why not give Palestine back to them again? According to God’s distribution of nations, it is their home, an inalienable possession from which they were expelled by force…” [emphases added]

    and the title to which, Blackstone pointed out, they had never relinquished. Legally speaking, asserted the Memorial, no law of “dereliction” or abandonment was appropriate or applicable — as the Jewish People had been dispossessed, and had not left of their own volition; indeed,

    “…they never abandoned the land. They made no treaty; they did not even surrender. They simply succumbed, after the most desperate conflict, to the overwhelming power of the Romans… the Jewish claim is legal.” [emphasis added]

    Moreover, noted the text, “[u]nder their civilization, it was a remarkably fruitful land sustaining millions…” Thus, read the petition,

    “We believe this an appropriate time for all nations, and especially the Christian nations of Europe, to show kindness to Israel. A million of [her] exiles, by their terrible suffering, are piteously appealing to our sympathy, justice and humanity. Let us now restore to them the land of which they were so cruelly despoiled by our Roman ancestors.”

    [Blackstone Memorial, 1891; cited in David Brog, Standing With Israel (Front Line, Lake Mary, FL, 2006), pp. 100-01; and Ruth King, “Dr William Eugene Blackstone (Oct. 6, 1841-Nov. 7, 1935),” Mideast Outpost, Mar 2008]

    By the time Blackstone presented the petition to Harrison & Blaine on 5 March 1891, the Blackstone Memorial had secured, among its signatories, some 413 of America’s most prominent citizens of the Gilded Age: including several mayors, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court -— Melville Fuller, the Speaker of the House of Representatives -— T.B. Reed, the Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee and numerous other members of Congress -— as well as then-future President [six years hence], William McKinley.

    Outside of government, the petition contained the names of Cyrus McCormick, Charles Scribner, J. Pierpont Morgan, John D. & William Rockefeller, alongside editors & journalists of the country’s leading newspapers [including the Boston Globe, the New York Times, the Philadelphia Enquirer, the Washington Post, etc], and leading clergy, such as Dwight L. Moody & Cardinal Gibbons (Baltimore), together with university & seminary presidents, and many other outstanding figures from the worlds of politics, culture, the arts & sciences, industry and finance.

    Although Pres. Harrison promised to give “careful attention” to the petition, Blaine ran into static with Ottoman foreign service officials, and Harrison backed away from the conference idea. Nevertheless, the seeds had been sown & nurtured in American consciousness of a world Jewish restoration to the Holy Land, and a U.S. role in it.