Herzl’s friend gets his due

Rev. William Hechler – a humble man of God who did for Herzl and the Zionist movement what no Jew could do.

Herzl (photo credit: Cortesy)
(photo credit: Cortesy)
For me, it has been an incredible journey in recent years to discover Rev. William Hechler and other Christian figures at the center of the story of Israel’s rebirth. In Theodor Herzl’s meticulous diaries, the name William Hechler appears more than anyone else’s
When Herzl wrote his short opus, Der Judenstaadt, after being traumatized at the infamous Dreyfus trial in France, he had a hard time publishing it, until a Christian publisher agreed to take it for a limited run. The book sold modestly and even created a minor stir of enraged response among the mostly Westernized Jewish intelligentsia who had been recently emancipated in their respective lands. It also enraged the rabbinic community, which saw it as sacrilege to return to Palestine before the Messiah comes
But Rev. Hechler read the tiny volume and saw it as affirmation of unfolding biblical prophecy. To Hechler, this Jewish visionary might be the one who would lead the Jews back to Palestine
Herzl – tall, impressive and confident, if not naïve and grossly inexperienced in international politics and relations – already looked and behaved like the mesmerizing leader he would evolve into. But he had no following, no legitimacy in the eyes of Jews or Gentiles
When Herzl opened the door to his home on March 16, 1896, before him stood an Old Testament-looking prophet, with a long, dark silver-flecked beard, shining eyes, and flowing dark cape. Inviting him in, Herzl sensed something was different about this man. He could open up to him. He could confide in him. In time, Rev
Hechler became Herzl’s intimate friend and counselor. He was the first Christian friend that Herzl ever had
Herzl “came to the heart of the business” with Hechler. “I must put myself into 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. Hitherto I have had nothing but obstacles to combat, and they are eating my strength.” To Herzl’s astonishment, Hechler said in essence: “I can do that.” Until age weakened his voice, Hechler continued speaking out against anti- Semitism and for the Zionist dream. In his later years, he prophetically warned of a major catastrophe that was imminent for the Jewish people. The need for a Jewish state was immediate, he urged. The world and many Jews no longer listened to the words of the old Christian reverend. He died in obscurity in 1931. His daughter, an Anglican nun, buried him in an unmarked grave
Reading over Herzl’s diary last year, I determined to at least visit Hechler’s grave, but no one remembered where it was. Thus I set out on a journey that took me from the United States to England to Jerusalem and back to England. Slowly, I obtained a copy of his death certificate in London and found the grave site with the help of Rev. David Pileggi, a passionate scholar of Hechler and the rector of Christ Church in Jerusalem’s Old City
I went to his gravesite to pay my respects. It did not even have the smallest marker. It was almost obscured by overgrowth and debris. What I saw was wrong
Verifying the gravesite of Rev. Hechler from cemetery burial records and with advice from Rev. Pileggi, I decided it was a Zionist duty and a human obligation to at least give him a well-deserved tombstone. Through the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, I opened contacts with numerous Christian organizations that welcomed my initiative, including the British umbrella group Love Never Fails. The Jewish community also responded positively, and with the endorsement of Israeli Ambassador to the UK Ron Prossor, we all came together recently, Christians and Jews, to dedicate a memorial stone for Rev. William Hechler – a humble man of God who did for Herzl and the Zionist movement what no Jew could do.

 The writer is president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation.