Keep Dreaming: Love never fails

In times of isolation, it is heartening to know that there are those on whose friendship we can continue to depend.

By
February 11, 2011 14:28
reverend hechler's grave group

hechler posse 521. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Love never fails. Not an inappropriate headline for a column entitled “Keep dreaming.” However, what interests me is not the veracity of the contention, but its intention – and those who live by it. People who are our friends, and not just when the weather is fair. And people who are fair whether or not anyone else seems to be. People whom I have only now begun to meet, and in meeting, have immediately come to appreciate. Christian people. More specifically, some I met in a cemetery.

Let me tell you the story. Once upon a time, 115 years ago to be exact, a Rev. William Hechler happened upon a copy of The Jewish State only weeks after it was published in 1896. He read it avidly, captivated by its affirmation of his own biblical numerological calculations, which revealed 1897 as a year of momentous events that would result in the restoration of the Jewish people to the Holy Land. He hurriedly arranged for an audience with the tractate’s author.

“A likable, sensitive man with the long gray beard of a prophet,” wrote Theodor Herzl about Hechler after their first encounter. “He is enthusiastic about my solution to the Jewish question. He also considers my movement a ‘prophetic turning-point’ that he foretold two years ago, though my approach is completely rational.”

It was that rationality, along with his liking of the man, which brought Herzl to Hechler’s abode a few days later. For as fortune – or divine providence – would have it, this reverend was not just any reverend. Chaplain to the British Embassy in Vienna when the two met, he was previously the tutor of the children of Frederick I, grand duke of Baden, and was intimately connected with Germany’s royal family.

“He knows the German kaiser and thinks he can get me an audience,” wrote Herzl after their first meeting, and of their second: “Next we came to the heart of the business. I said to him: I must put myself in direct and publicly known relations... with a minister of state or a prince. Then the Jews will believe in me and follow me. The most suitable personage would be the German kaiser. But I must have help if I am to carry out the task.”

Hechler enthusiastically took up the challenge, and it was largely through his efforts that Herzl would eventually meet Kaiser Wilhelm II.

THEIR ENCOUNTER was of great significance. On November 18, 1898, the Daily Mail, Britain’s most popular newspaper, reported that “one of the most important results, if not the most important, of the kaiser’s visit to Palestine is the immense impetus it has given to Zionism... When the kaiser visited Constantinople Dr. Herzl was there; again when the kaiser entered Jerusalem... These were no mere coincidences, but the visible signs of accomplished facts.”

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By his own testimony, Hechler believed it was divine will that brought him to Vienna, placing him “in a position which enabled me to bring to the attention of certain people of importance the messianic vision of the Jewish leader.”

And Erwin Rosenberger, an editor of Die Welt, noted that Hechler “regarded Herzl as the instrument chosen by providence to carry out this messianic design.” If this depiction of Hechler makes him appear somewhat eccentric, that is because he was. No getting around that. But I mean the man no disrespect by classifying him as such. Any friend of Herzl’s is a friend of mine, and he was indeed a friend of Herzl’s. One of his few friends, and perhaps the best among them. Hechler was purportedly the last person to have spent time with Herzl, who may actually have died in his arms.

LAST WEEK in London, that friendship was finally given the tribute it deserved. It turns out that after Herzl’s death, Hechler drifted into obscurity. He returned to England in 1910 and was eventually awarded a modest pension by the World Zionist Organization, but was to die alone in 1931 at 86, impoverished, buried in an unmarked grave and essentially forgotten.

Enter Jerry Klinger, president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation. He came across Hechler’s story a few years ago and doggedly tracked him down to an overgrown and unidentified plot in London’s New Southgate Cemetery. It was there that I gathered together with an impressive number of Christian and Jewish dignitaries who came together, through Klinger’s orchestration, to honor him with the dedication of a tombstone designating him as a “tireless adversary of Anti-Semitism, friend and counsellor of Theodor Herzl.”

The ceremony was conducted with dignity and profound sensitivity for all present by Bishop John Taylor. It was emceed by Rufus Barnes, chairman of Love Never Fails, an association of 20 Christian bodies whose “aim is to help Israel and the Jewish people with practical and spiritual support.”

He said he was “delighted to have the opportunity to give thanks to God for his provision of the Rev. William Hechler as a key figure in the birth of modern Zionism and the rebirth of Israel as a nation,” adding that he hoped the event “will mark the beginning of a new understanding between Christians and Jews.”

One who was present for whom that understanding is particularly important is Pastor Werner Oder, whose words were exceptionally memorable. “As an Austrian son of a Nazi war criminal, it is my privilege to witness this event today. William Hechler’s love for Israel and the Jews changed history. In doing so he made the world a better place... Today we must learn from the past in order to make better decisions... It is my privilege to stand up for the Jewish people in a world of increasing anti-Semitism and be a friend of Israel, come what may.”

Klinger’s response was equally poignant. “We are children of the Holocaust. You rejected anti-Semitism and almost lost your life because of it at the hands of your own father. I am the child of Holocaust survivors and volunteered in the Israeli army to protest Jewish defenselessness... We were brought together in friendship because of our common discovery, of Christianity for you and good Christians of humanity for me.”

This friendship was evident in the event being sponsored jointly by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, the World Zionist Organization, the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland and the Jewish American Society for Historical Preservation. It was reflected as well in the presence of representatives of the many groups affiliated with Love Never Fails, of the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus and of Ambassador to Great Britain Ron Prosor.

This manifestation of friendship also gave expression to an ideal precious to Herzl. In his utopian novel Altneuland, one of the Jewish society’s leaders assures a Christian visitor “that my associates and I make no distinctions between one man and another. We do not ask to what race or religion a man belongs. If he is a man, that is enough for us.”

And another addresses a rally of farmers, cautioning them that “all you have cultivated will be worthless and your fields will again be barren, unless you also cultivate freedom of thought and expression, generosity of spirit and love for humanity. These are the things you must cherish and nurture.”

In these troubling times of increasing isolation, it was heartening to be reminded – as we continue striving to be worthy of this charge radiating the divine spirit – that there are those on whose friendship we can continue to depend, as we’ve been able to from even before Hechler first knocked on Herzl’s door. It was also an inspiration to keep dreaming that love never fails.

The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive.

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