Why Balfour’s biblical background matters

England was the first and only empire to control the Holy Land while acknowledging the Jewish people's legitimate claim to their historic homeland.

British vehicles in Jerusalem near Mount Zion on the eve of Israel’s independence.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
British vehicles in Jerusalem near Mount Zion on the eve of Israel’s independence.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Exactly one century ago a Christian army was about to conquer Jerusalem from a Muslim empire. The Christian government prepared for the historic occasion by issuing a major statement that would effectively turn control of the newly-won territory over to the Jewish people.
These Christians were from the very same country that had previously expelled all its Jewish inhabitants, only accepting them back to convert them to Christianity more effectively.
This is the background to the Balfour Declaration, issued on November 2, 1917, just weeks before the British army captured Jerusalem in World War I.
How do we understand such a strange fact pattern? Only by appreciating England’s long and complex relationship with the Bible and the Jewish people.
Of all the kingdoms and empires that controlled the Holy Land over the millennia, England was the first and only one to acknowledge the Jewish people’s legitimate claim to their historic homeland.
“His Majesty’s government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object,” wrote foreign minister James Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild in what became known as the “Magna Carta” of the Jewish state.
The Balfour Declaration represented a 180-degree turn by the same government that had issued the Edict of Expulsion a few hundred years earlier, in 1290. Subject to severe Christian antisemitism, harsh discrimination and blood libels, the Jews were expelled from England by King Richard I.
Following the Protestant Reformation, England renounced papal authority in the 1530s. As Protestants who began to study Scripture, they needed a consistent English translation, and so, in 1604, King James VI commissioned a team of scholars to develop an authorized version.
The King James Bible had a major impact on all aspects of English culture and led to a deeper appreciation for Hebraic scholarship, although at the time Jews were still banished from the kingdom.
Only decades later did Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam petition Oliver Cromwell for the Jews to be readmitted to England. The Dutch rabbi and diplomat based his appeal upon biblical considerations, arguing that in order for the Messiah to arrive, the Jews needed to be scattered throughout the world, including in England.
British advocates took the rabbi’s argument a step further, and argued, ultimately persuasively, that allowing the Jews back to England would finally lead to the stubborn people’s acceptance of Christianity.
With Jews officially readmitted in 1655, British Christians tried persistently to proselytize the Jews. Lord Ashley (later the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury), arguably the most prominent Evangelical in the early 19th century, served as president of the influential “London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews,” with the principal aim of “encouraging the physical restoration of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel.” Around the same time, as the British Empire sought to extend its trade routes and moral influence in the 19th century, it looked to the Near East. Officers of the British army began to visit the Holy Land and formed the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1865 to survey the topography and the hearts of Palestine’s Jews.
When the opportunity arose in 1875, England purchased the Suez Canal, financed by a loan from Jewish financier Lionel Rothschild, whose grandson Lord Walter was the recipient of Balfour’s 1917 letter. Protecting the canal was one of England’s primary objectives when WWI broke out, and so England found itself once again sending an army to the region. This was the first time Britain’s Christian soldiers marched upon the Holy Land since Richard the Lionheart’s Crusaders retreated more than 700 years earlier and lost Jerusalem to Muslim conquerors.
In October 1917, Gen. Allenby captured Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire and saw himself within striking distance of Jerusalem, hoping to deliver the city as a Christmas present for the British people. Not taking the religious significance of his role lightly, when Allenby entered Jaffa Gate on December 11, he dismounted as a sign of respect for the holy city, since only the Messiah would enter Jerusalem riding on an animal.
It was in those short weeks – 40 days to be precise – between the Battle of Beersheba and the capture of Jerusalem, that the Balfour Declaration was issued.
The letter was sent to the Jews.
It was shown to the Americans.
It considered the local inhabitants of Palestine. But most of all, it was addressed to the Christians of England, who had developed a deep relationship with the Holy Bible for hundreds of years.
“England more than anything needed a moral case in advance of Allenby’s taking Jerusalem, not for the Jewish conscience but for the Christian one,” wrote Barbara Tuchman in her classic book, Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour.
That case came from the Bible.
The centennial anniversary of the Balfour Declaration is the right time to reflect on our appreciation for the Bible, the positive developments within Christian Zionism, and how faith-based diplomacy can help secure the Jewish state for the next century.
Much has changed over the past 100 years both in terms of Israel’s own strength and in the relationship between Jews and Christians. For one, many Christians have moved away from their long history of working to convert Jews and instead support Israel with no strings attached. Nonetheless, one thing is clear: the Bible remains a powerful tool for effecting change in this region.
We should embrace the parts of our faith that Jews and Christians share and focus more on the religious connection between the people and the Land of Israel. By recognizing the biblical background of the Balfour Declaration, the Jewish state can hope to nurture a new Balfour – or many new Balfours – among the growing numbers of Christian Zionists around the world.
The author, a rabbi, is the founder of Israel365, which connects Christian Zionists with Israel and strives to be a light unto the nations. Israel365 is hosting the “From Balfour to Nikki Haley: 100 Years of Christian Zionist Diplomacy” conference on November 2 in conjunction with Bridges for Peace. For more details: info@israel365.com.