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The message below was given by Christopher N. White, Yale '87, at The Jerusalem Symposium on Sunday April 19, 1998. A professor from Yale University's Department of Jewish Studies gave a Jewish perspective on Jerusalem and its history, a professor of Islamic Studies from Trinity College gave a Muslim perspective on the city, and Mr. White gave a Christian perspective on Jerusalem's history and future.

I would like to concentrate this afternoon on some of the less familiar history of the last few centuries of both Jewish and Christian hopes regarding a Jewish restoration in Jerusalem. Without an understanding of this background, it is harder to comprehend what Jerusalem is today in the eyes of both believing Jews and Christians. I should explain that I am speaking chiefly of the perspectives of religious Christians and Jews, people whose worldview is greatly influenced by the Bible. These include evangelical Christians and orthodox Jews, among others.

I have been asked to speak about Christian perspectives on Jerusalem, but it is nearly impossible to separate those views from Jewish beliefs. The entire Bible, Old and New Testament, was written by Jews, though some have argued that Paul’s friend and physician, Luke, may have been a Gentile. The idea of a Messiah, or Anointed One, who would die for the sins of His people, and then reign from Jerusalem over the entire earth, bringing peace to all nations, began as a Jewish hope, not a Gentile one. When I was at Hebrew University researching my senior essay on Jewish life in Jerusalem in the early 19th century, a friend there pointed out a passage from the Talmud in Sukkah 52a. It speaks of the Messiah as both “Messiah the son of Joseph” who would lay down His life for the Jewish people, and as “Messiah the son of David” who will one day reign over the nations. Regarding the former, “They found a Scriptural verse and expounded, ‘And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart.’ …What is the cause of the mourning…? R. Dosa and the Rabbis differ on the point. One explained, The cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph… It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the Scriptural verse, ‘And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son.”

Later, this same passage states, “Our Rabbis taught, The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to the Messiah, the son of David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days!), ‘Ask of me anything, and I will give it to thee’, as it is said, I will tell of the decree etc. this day have I begotten thee, ask of me and I will give the nations for thy inheritance. But when he will see that the Messiah the son of Joseph is slain, he will say to Him, ‘Lord of the Universe, I ask of Thee only the gift of life’. ‘As to life’, He would answer him, ‘Your father David has already prophesied this concerning you’, as it is said, He asked life of thee, thou gavest it him [even length of days for ever and ever].”

Lithograph of Jerusalem (Public Domain)
Lithograph of Jerusalem (Public Domain)

My wife worked for several years at the United Nations. On a sculpture in the front lawn is the inscription from Isaiah chapter 2, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” This is a famous quote, but one with a very specific context. Long before it was a Christian hope, it was a Jewish prophecy intimately connected with Jerusalem. Isaiah prophesied regarding Jerusalem’s restoration in the last days, when her long period of exile to the ends of the earth would end, “This is what Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem: In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream into it. Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares…etc.”

No wonder Jerusalem plays such a central role in the hearts and minds of believing Jews and Christians! For them, the realization of the dream of peace on earth is expected to come about chiefly because of what has and will happen in this city. In the meantime, however, Jerusalem has been anything but a peaceful place. The Psalmist’s plea, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” is as appropriate today as it was 3,000 years ago. Despite its problems and conflicts, however, the attitude toward Jerusalem of many a religious Jew over the centuries is well expressed in Psalm 137: “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.”

In the 1100’s, Maimonides wrote, “It is, my coreligionists, one of the fundamental articles of the faith of Israel, that the future redeemer of our people will gather our nation, assemble our exiles, redeem us from our degradation.” Ever since the Romans put down the last Jewish rebellion, removed the surviving Jews, and changed the name of Israel to Palestine (using out of spite the name of one of Israel’s greatest enemies, the Philistines), small numbers of Jews have remained on the land or made their way back.

When the Ottomans conquered the Levant under Suleiman the Great in 1516, he issued an invitation for Jews to return to their ancestral homeland and contribute to its development. Rabbi Joseph Schwartz of Jerusalem described this rather beneficent Muslim ruler as “a very great friend of the Jews.” Thousands took advantage of the invitation. By the latter part of the 1500’s, there were more Jews in Safed alone, about 30,000, than there would be again in all of Palestine until well into the mid-1800’s. Persecution, extortion, disease, and even earthquake devastated the Jewish community throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Safed, which had been the preeminent center of Jewish spiritual life in the world in the latter 1500’s, fell victim to an Arab massacre in 1660 from which only one Jew escaped.

Nevertheless, Jews continued to return to Palestine and to Jerusalem throughout the 1600 and 1700’s, many coming from Russia, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. A Jesuit father, Michael Naud, wrote in 1674 of the Jews in Palestine that they were “paying heavily to the Turk for their right to stay here…They prefer being prisoners in Jerusalem to enjoying the freedom they could acquire elsewhere…The love of the Jews for the Holy Land… is unbelievable. Many of them come from Europe to find a little comfort, though the yoke is heavy.” Abraham Kalisker gave the following advice to prospective Jewish immigrants into eighteenth century Palestine:

Many, many changes and events, experiences and fates befall every single man who comes to this land, until he adjusts to it, has joy in its stones, and loves its dust, until the ruins of the Land of Israel are dearer to him than a Palace abroad, and dry bread in that place dearer than all delicacies elsewhere. But this does not happen in one day nor in two, not in a month and not in a year. Many a year passes before his initiation is over, his initiation into the true life.

To the Christian, Jerusalem encompasses so much of the imagery of the Biblical story of God’s dealings with man. For them, regardless of denomination, the ultimate culmination of God’s plan of redemption for a fallen world occurred at Jerusalem. Jesus died there on a cross as the final great sacrifice for the forgiveness of the sins of people of all nations. If Messiah was to be a “light to lighten the Gentiles,” Jesus was certainly that to my Viking forbears who were formerly involved chiefly in the pursuit of plunder and pillage. Nothing short of their conversion to Christianity caused them to consider the desirability of peace on earth or of love for their formerly terrified neighbors.

Several years ago, I was talking with an orthodox Jewish friend about what is probably the greatest enigma in the life of the great reformer, Martin Luther. Luther became for many years a lover of the Jews after his discovery of salvation by faith when reading the book of Romans. Yet, for some unknown reason, he became blatantly anti-Semitic in his later years. What my Jewish friend explained to me was that, though he was saddened by Luther’s change of attitude, he was nevertheless grateful for Luther’s greatest gift to Gentile Christians, the restoration of the Bible to the vernacular. What my friend meant by this was that, by making the Bible accessible to the average Christian, Luther paved the way for them to once again understand their massive debt to the Jews. By so doing, he helped many of them to come to have a genuine affection for the Jewish people.

Not only that, but Luther helped paved the way for what can only be called “Christian Zionism,” that movement over the last several centuries of strong support by many Christians for a Jewish restoration in Jerusalem and Palestine. Nahum Sokolow writes in History of Zionism, “As early as the seventeenth century interest in the restoration of Israel had become deep and general, England providing the earliest stimulation to Zionism.” In 1621, a Puritan was arrested by James I for writing that the Jews would not only be restored as a nation but that they would one day rule the world.

On October 31, 1819, Dr. Worcester of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions wrote in his “Instructions” to the first two American missionaries to Palestine: “Yours is a field of no ordinary description. It comprises within itself or by intimate association all that is most affecting to Christian feeling, or most interesting to Christian hope. There patriarchs, and prophets, and apostles, and martyrs, —and He who is their Lord and ours, —lived, and labored, and died…’But the Lord will arise and have mercy upon Zion; for the time to favor her, yea, the set time, is come. For his servants take pleasure in her stones, and favor the dust thereof.’ Her old waste places are to be builded, and the foundations of many generations to be raised up.”

Photograph of Jerusalem ( by Daniel H. Voll)
Photograph of Jerusalem ( by Daniel H. Voll)

In the early part of that same century, several British Christian Zionists were influential in high government circles regarding British policy in the Near East. In the 1830’s, Lord Ashley (later to become the Earl of Shaftesbury, one of the greatest reformers of 19th century England) became friends with Alexander McCaul. McCaul, an Irish Christian, introduced Ashley to biblical prophecies regarding the restoration of the Jews to their ancient homeland. Thereafter, Lord Ashley became one of the most influential Christian Zionists of his day. He and McCaul moved Foreign Secretary Palmerston to send a British Consul to Jerusalem in 1838. Palmerston was not at all religious, but he was concerned about British influence in the Middle East. The London Quarterly Review of January 1839 stated of the appointment of the British consul to Jerusalem, “The affairs of the East are lowering on Great Britain—but it is singular and providential that we should, at this moment, have executed a measure, which will almost assure us the cooperation of the Eastern Jews.” The British expected Palestine's Jews to view their consul as “a mediator between their people and the Pacha,” with whose help the Jews would “probably return in yet greater numbers, and become once more the husbandmen of Judea and Galilee,” and the loyal friends of Great Britain.

In April 1839, Lord Ashley published an anonymous article in The London Quarterly Review calling for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Turkish-ruled Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital and Britain its protector. Then in the same year, with the support of Lord Palmerston, the London Globe ran a series of articles supporting the development of an independent state in Syria and Palestine in which Jews could settle freely. England, like Cyrus of old, was to be the sponsor of the Jewish return. Years later, the Earl of Shaftesbury wrote,

To England, then naturally belongs the role of favouring the settlement of the Jews in Palestine. The nationality of the Jews exists: the spirit is there and has been there for 3000 years, but the external form, the crowning bond of union is still wanting. A nation must have a country. The old land, the old people. This is not an artificial experiment: it is nature, it is history.

The first British consul to Jerusalem, W. T. Young, was told by the Private Secretary to the British Secretary of State, “I am directed by Viscount Palmerston, to state to you that it will be part of your duty as British Vice Consul in Jerusalem to afford Protection to the Jews generally.” The British consuls did in fact become intercessors for the Jewish community, even before the seat of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul. Jacob de Haas wrote, “In Palestine consuls were more aggressive than ambassadors would have dared to be, for they were fostering the modernization of the country in the interest of foreigners,” including many European Jewish settlers.

James Finn, probably the greatest Gentile friend Jerusalem's Jewish community had at the time, became the British consul in 1847. His wife Elizabeth Anne, was the daughter of that Irish Christian I spoke of earlier, Alexander McCaul. Albert M. Hyamson described James Finn as

an enthusiastic pro-Jew, who had studied and written on Jewish history and was able to understand and speak Hebrew. He remained in Palestine for seventeen years, in his zeal often exceeding his instructions, considering himself the official protector and to some extent the ruler of the Jewish population, to whose welfare he and his wife... consistently devoted themselves.

Like other Christian Zionists of the day, the Finns were motivated by the conviction that, in Mrs. Finn's words, “the Holy Land will again be peopled by its lawful owners, the Hebrew nation, and will again ‘blossom as the rose.’” The Finns engaged in a number of projects to try to provide work for Jewish men and women and even made an unsuccessful attempt at land reclamation. Their most important contribution, however, was their tireless fight for Jewish rights. When a Jew named J. S. Lander was stabbed by two Turkish soldiers, Finn brought the matter before the Pasha, who then ordered that the men be reprimanded and ordered to apologize. Finn wrote in his diary, “the private even embraced Lander! Most wonderful! A Turkish soldier kissing a Jew while begging his pardon.” Later, Mrs. Finn wrote in her diary what she said to Rabbi Abraham in 1846, “‘Is it not beginning?’ I said... ‘Is it not true, as it never was true since the ashes grew cold on the temple and the altar, that the servants of God take pleasure in the stones of Zion? Therefore, the time to favor Zion is come...’ We walked quietly home... The Jewish fast of Tisha b'av was over.”

I could tell many other stories about Christians concerned about the welfare of Jerusalem and her Jewish inhabitants, but I will end by quoting an orthodox Jewish friend of mine. He said to me one night after the Shabbat meal, “When Messiah comes, you and I will sit at one of the gates of Jerusalem, watching people come from nations all over the earth to worship the God of Israel. And what will we say to them? Sorry, you should have believed in Him sooner? No, we will say to them, ‘Welcome!’ Come and worship the Lord with us!”

Copyright ©1998 Christopher N. White
(Message given at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University on Sunday, April 19, 1998)