Unto the nations: Herzl's Christian guests at the First Zionist Congress

Christian Zionists have always stood in support of Israel - even before its existence.

Thedodor Herzl, lors du 1er congrès sioniste mondial en 1897 (photo credit: DR)
Thedodor Herzl, lors du 1er congrès sioniste mondial en 1897
(photo credit: DR)
This week commemorates the 120th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, which set into motion the establishment of the Jewish state. Over 200 delegates – Jewish leaders from throughout Europe and as far away as Palestine and the United States – attended the Congress that began on August 29, 1897. While the legacy of many of the prominent Jewish delegates is celebrated to this day, little attention has been given to the handful of non-Jewish guests invited by Theodor Herzl to the Basel Congress.
The purpose of the Congress was to serve as a symbolic parliament for the nascent Zionist movement.
There were more than 20 speeches over the three-day gathering during which delegates voted to form the Zionist Organization with Herzl as president, formulated what became known as the Basel Program that established the goals of the Zionist movement, and adopted “Hatikva” as its anthem.
Although they were not given voting rights (nor were women), 10 Christians were invited as guests to the First Zionist Congress.
Most of the individual accomplishments of this quorum of non-Jews have been all but lost to history, though we do know their names from the official records: Lt.-Col. C. Bentick from England; I. W.
Bouthon-Willy of Vienna; daughter of the Protestant bishop of Jerusalem, Maria Kober Gobat, who contributed the gavel used to open the Congress; German Protestant missionary Pastor Dr. Johann Lepsius of Berlin; Baron Maxim von Mantueffel of St. Michele, France who maintained a training farm for young Jewish agriculturists; the Reverend John Mitchell; member of parliament and president of the Swiss National Council Prof. Paul Speiser; and the author Prof. F. Heman of Basel.
Two additional guests were the most prominent members of the Christian delegation: William Hechler and Henry Dunant.
Henry Dunant was a Swiss banker who was so traumatized by a bloody battleground he visited in Tunis in the 1850s that he began to advocate passionately for an international body to care for wounded soldiers. Dunant was a Christian missionary whose biblical beliefs added faith to his fervor and he traveled throughout Europe promoting his humanitarian ideas, which led to the formation of the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention. He was rewarded with the first Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in 1901.
As early as 1866, Dunant also began advocating for the restoration of the Jews to Palestine and founded the International Society for the Renewal of the Orient. His call for the establishment of a Jewish colony in Palestine led Theodor Herzl his way. Herzl referred to Dunant as a Christian Zionist, which was the first time that term was ever used. Herzl invited the humanitarian activist to the First Zionist Congress.
Reverend William Hechler was a minister with the British Embassy in Vienna and an early reader of Herzl’s Jewish State. The reading proved to be transformative and Hechler immediately became the Zionist leader’s chief advocate and loyal disciple.
Herzl recorded his first meeting with the reverend in his diary: “Hechler declares my movement to be a biblical one, although I proceed rationally in all points.”
Hechler proceeded to introduce Herzl to leading statesmen, including the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, during a visit on which Hechler accompanied Herzl. These connections provided great legitimacy for the assimilated journalist with no previous credibility or standing in the Jewish community.
For his passionate efforts, Reverend Hechler not only received an invitation to the Congress, he received a pension from the World Zionist Organization until his death in 1931.
To be sure, Herzl’s outreach to, and relationships with, Christian Zionists made some Jews at the time uneasy.
Jerusalem physician and Hebrew pioneer Dr.
Aaron Masie attacked Herzl for being a tool in the hands of the missionaries trying to convert Jews to Protestantism. Despite this accusation, which Herzl mentions in his diaries, the Zionist leader saw his relationships with Christians as strategic rather than spiritual. His Christian counterparts, on the other hand, had the opposite perspective based on a literal reading of the Bible.
The Hebrew prophet Isaiah wrote, “Thus said the Lord, I will raise My hand to nations and lift up My banner to the peoples; and they shall bring your sons in their bosoms, and carry your daughters on their back” (49:22). The Torah has many such examples of the gentile nations assisting the return of Jews to Israel and Christian Zionists have long pointed to passages such as this for their inspiration.
“Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word – which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly – it would be this,” wrote Herzl in his diary on September 3, 1897. “At Basel, I founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in 50 years, everyone will perceive it.”
Indeed, in just over 50 years from the First Zionist Congress, the Jewish state was established as Theodore Herzl predicted with the accuracy of a biblical prophet. By inviting 10 non-Jews to the Basel Congress, Herzl demonstrated his belief that Christian Zionists could provide invaluable assistance in the historic return of the People of Israel to the Land of Israel.
The author is the founder of Israel365, which connects Christians to the Land of Israel and serves as a light unto the nations. (www.israel365.com)