Britain, the Bible, and Balfour: Jonathan Immanuel’s new book

With meticulous attention to detail, and in highly readable style, Immanuel proceeds to illustrate how the idea of a Jewish return to Zion took root in English political theory

Britain, the Bible and Balfour Jonathan Immanuel Lexington Books, 2019 419 pages; $84/56 pounds  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Britain, the Bible and Balfour Jonathan Immanuel Lexington Books, 2019 419 pages; $84/56 pounds
(photo credit: Courtesy)

The title of Jonathan Immanuel’s new book – Britain, the Bible and Balfour – provides in summary his original, insightful and persuasive thesis. With impressive scholarship, and supported by a wealth of historic and literary sources, Immanuel demonstrates how and why Great Britain reached the point in 1917 of declaring to the world that it favored the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.
As his title suggests, Immanuel traces the influence played by the Bible in shaping Britain’s attitude to Jewish restoration, until its culmination in the Balfour Declaration. The fact not included in his title is that it is the Hebrew Bible he is referring to – the Old Testament.
The seminal event in the long story – the seed that took root – was Henry VIII’s search in 1525, which became increasingly desperate, for a theological justification for divorcing his first wife Catherine and marrying Anne Boleyn. In his struggle to obtain Pope Clement VII’s agreement to annul his marriage, Henry turned to the Old Testament and to Bible scholars, some of them Jewish. He and his advisers argued his case by reference to Mosaic Law.
Of course, in the event he failed. The pope would have none of it. So Henry broke with Roman Catholicism and established the Protestant Church of England, with himself as its supreme head. But one effect of the episode was that Mosaic Law became identified in many minds with the national interest. In short, right from the beginning of the Reformation, English Protestantism was linked to the Old Testament and to Judaism. The subsequent rise of Puritanism in the 17th century, its strong belief in a Jewish return to Zion, and Oliver Cromwell’s philosemitism, was a natural consequence. The Hebrew Bible had become embedded in English thought.
With meticulous attention to detail, and in highly readable style, Immanuel proceeds to illustrate how the idea of a Jewish return to Zion took root in English political theory, flourished over several centuries, and finally merged with the aspirations of Jewish Zionism itself. His argument is both intriguing and convincing.
In escorting us on the journey from Tudor England to the 19th century, Immanuel draws on a wide range of political and literary sources that demonstrate how deeply – despite its various opponents over the years – the theo-political vision of Zionism permeated English national thought.
A cavalcade of eminent personalities throng Immanuel’s pages – from Machiavelli to Napoleon Bonaparte, from Sir Walter Raleigh to Sir Isaac Newton, from Francis Bacon and John Milton to William Wordsworth and his contemporaries Byron, Shelley, Coleridge and Blake.
Each acted as a milestone of varying significance in England’s long journey toward Balfour. Beacons on the route were Benjamin Disraeli, both as novelist and as prime minister, and the philosemitism of the eminent Victorian woman novelist, George Eliot, whose Daniel Deronda seemed to many like a clarion call for the establishment of a Jewish nation state in Palestine.
This is Immanuel’s proposition, argued convincingly, and backed by chapter and verse. It was not by chance, no mere concatenation of political circumstances, not simply a ploy to secure a sea route to India, not a cunning colonial grab for power, that gave birth to the Balfour Declaration. Each of these considerations, and others, may or may not have had a hand in Britain’s action, but Balfour was the logical outcome of discernible influences stretching back centuries into British history.
In Britain, the Bible and Balfour Immanuel takes us by the hand and leads us step by step along the way demonstrating the birth, development and eventual flowering of the conviction within the British establishment that theology demanded support for the re-establishment in the Holy Land of a substantive Jewish presence, that a “return to Zion” by the Jewish people was divinely ordained.
In his introduction, Immanuel maintains that the idea of Jewish restoration as promulgated in the Balfour Declaration ”was only possible in Britain.” A little known side-track in history’s winding road is that Britain’s Balfour Declaration was preceded by a letter from the head of France’s foreign office, Jules Cambon, issued on the authority of French prime minister, Alexandre Ribot.
On June 4, 1917, Nahum Sokolow, secretary-general of the World Zionist Organization, received the following: “You kindly explained to me your project to develop Jewish colonization in Palestine. You believe that... it would be an act of justice and reparation to help in the rebirth, under the protection of the Allied Powers, of Jewish nationality in the land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago. The French government, which entered the current war to defend a people unjustly attacked... can feel nothing but sympathy for your cause, the success of which is linked to that of the Allies. I am happy to give you such an assurance.”
Sokolow deposited the Cambon letter at the British foreign office, telling colleagues: “Our purpose is to receive from the [British] government a general short approval of the same kind as that which I have been successful in getting from the French government.”
This neglected episode is almost an invitation to Immanuel to pursue the account he provides of Napoleon’s involvement with Jewish nationalism and its relationship to French nationhood, and explore why the French initiative in 1917 sank into oblivion.
In Britain, the Bible and Balfour, Jonathan Immanuel breaks new ground with a fascinating thesis, and he does so in most readable fashion. His book is highly recommended.
Britain, the Bible and Balfour
Jonathan Immanuel
Lexington Books, 2019
419 pages; $84/56 pounds