The 19th-century British Christian Zionist who nearly founded Israel

Laurence Oliphant wished "for the fulfillment of the words of the prophets that Israel will be restored to its land."

Portrait of Laurence Oliphant (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait of Laurence Oliphant
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In 1882, at the zenith of his cultic standing among the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, the British Christian Zionist Laurence Oliphant (1829-1888) was hailed as a ‘savior’ and ‘another Cyrus’. Moses (Moshe Leib) Lilienblum, Leon Pinsker’s closest associate in Odessa, harbored the hope that Oliphant would prove to be ‘the Messiah for Israel.’ In Vienna, the famed Perets Smolenskin, in turn, wrote of Oliphant, ‘if not a Messiah, then a Samson.’
Upon meeting Oliphant in Lwów/Lviv that year, the great Rabbi Samuel Mohilever publicly endorsed him thus: ‘He and his wife wish only for the fulfillment of the words of the prophets that Israel will be restored to its land, and that they should do this in a way that enables [Jews] to keep every detail of the Jewish religion.’ Moreover, ‘In cities and small towns in Russia, Romania, and Galicia’, writes the historian of Zionism Nathan Gelber, ‘you could find in the houses of poor Jews a picture of Oliphant. It would be hung right next to the pictures of the great philanthropists Moses Montefiore and Baron Hirsch.’
Laurence Oliphant was raised in the home of fervent Evangelical Christians who believed in ‘Restorationism,’ as Protestants and Jews typically referred to Zionism before the term was coined in 1890. This Christian Zionism first appeared in the wake of the Reformation, and is most closely associated with Evangelical Christianity, whose practitioners replaced Catholic saints with the prophets and heroes of the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, the Evangelical belief that the covenant between God and the Jews remains valid conditioned Evangelical Christians to see European Jews as Israelites.
Evangelical Christians also lay great store in the prophecy that the Jews would one day be restored to the cradle of their religion and culture. This belief became a political project in the 19th century, once Great Britain had become a global empire capable of contributing to the restoration ‘in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.’ The career of Laurence Oliphant is one of that century’s most illuminating examples of such British efforts.
Between 1878 and 1885, Oliphant’s wide-ranging efforts were focused on this goal. He began with the exploration of today’s Israel under the aegis of the British government. Thereafter followed nearly a year’s Kafkaesque wait in Istanbul to meet with the Sultan, only for his proposal to be rejected. Once back in England, Laurence published his full plan for the Jewish resettlement of Palestine as The Land of Gilead in December, 1880.
Throughout his Zionist efforts, Oliphant repeatedly stressed the advantages that Evangelical beliefs offered his plan – as when he noted that the Jews’ restoration to the Holy Land was ‘a favorite religious theory’ that would ‘carry with it the sympathy and support of those who are not usually particularly well versed in foreign policies.’
The pogroms that broke out in 1881 across western Russia led Oliphant to taking a prominent role in the ensuing refugee crisis. Many of the Jews fleeing the ravages crossed into Austrian Galicia, where they gathered above all in Brody and Lwów/Lviv. There Oliphant and his wife Alice traveled in April 1882, at the head of a special British mission. Laurence’s objective was to direct as many Jews as possible to Palestine. However, in May the Sultan closed Palestine to Jewish settlement – and the Tsar forbid them to leave Russian lands. In late October 1882, after months of efforts in Istanbul to intercede with the Sultan had failed, Laurence and Alice set sail to Palestine, where they settled in Haifa and then strove to support the newly arising Jewish settlements.
In 1896, the outstanding Zionist Karpel Lippe of Romania recalled Laurence in his review of Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat as the first of the great Zionist figures of ‘the old trinity’ – comprised of Oliphant, the leading publicist David Gordon and… himself.
Oliphant’s place in ‘the old trinity’ was secured by the many reasons outlined above – as well as by the fact that Oliphant had been central both to the establishment and survival of the new settlements of Rosh Pina and Zichron Ya’acov, founded under the aegis of Lippe, Moses Gaster, and the other Romanian Zionist leaders. Oliphant’s most significant contribution was in providing these moshavot (settlements) with the money they needed direly to survive until Baron Rothschild’s munificence became paramount in Jewish Palestine.
Another reason is that Oliphant – posthumously – helped shape Herzl’s own Zionism. Specifically, Herzl rejected the piecemeal settlement strategy pursued by the Hovevei Zion movement in favor of a formal charter – this being the very idea Oliphant had relentlessly pursued; nor was this a coincidence. In 1895, Oliphant’s friend from Romania, Moses Gaster – who had become the chief Sephardi rabbi in Britain – described Oliphant’s efforts to Herzl and won him over to the charter strategy for achieving a Jewish state.
Although Oliphant’s Zionist efforts were an important spark igniting the movement that was to bring about the birth of modern Israel, he did not achieve the political framework for the Jewish polity in Palestine of which he had dreamed. He failed in his bids with the Sultan to win a charter – just as Herzl and the early Zionist Congresses were also to fail. Ultimately, the matter was not to be resolved until General Allenby entered Palestine in the autumn of 1917 and created the physical basis for the Mandate.
Full-length essay published by BICOM’s research journal