Theodore Herzl’s Christian Mentor

Theodore Herzl was a man with a plan. But what many people don’t know is that he had an advocate and a mentor who was a committed Christian. Herzl may be the face of modern Zionism, but William Hechler is an unsung hero who also played an important role in helping to recreate the Jewish homeland.

A matter of time…

Spurred into action by the Dreyfus crisis1 and the merciless pogroms in Russia, Herzl worked hard towards the goal of changing the reality for the Jewish people, for purely pragmatic reasons. He was an atheist who nonetheless understood that persecution of the Jewish people was not going to stop, and that a homeland in which to find refuge was critical.

In August 1897 he gathered key people in the city of Basel for a congress on the establishment of a Jewish state. In the wake of their congress he declared,

“In Basel I founded the Jewish State…. If I said this aloud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will agree.” ~ Theodore Herzl, 1897

His statement proved accurate – after 50 years he was well and truly vindicated.

In 1947 Israel was on the very brink of reestablishment following the UN partition plan in November, and the tragedy of the Exodus ship in July that year was a brutal confirmation of the need for a Jewish safe haven. The SS Exodus brought 4,515 Jewish refugees, desperately trying to escape the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe, to the shores of the Holy Land. At that time, the British had control of the land, and were severely restricting Jewish immigration. Thousands upon thousands were refused entry when they most needed it, and the ship was turned back to Europe. 

Whether we look back 50, 70, 100 or 120 years, 2017 was a particularly significant year for anniversaries in Israel. 50 years of Jerusalem being back in the hands of the Jewish people. 70 years since the Dead Sea Scrolls were found to prove the Bible’s record of Jewish history in the land was no work of fiction – and since the UN partition agreement which the Jews soon turned into the modern state of Israel. It is 100 years since Israel was liberated from centuries of Muslim control and since the Balfour declaration promised to establish a homeland for the Jewish people. And this month it is 120 years since the Basel Declaration, where the call to reestablish Israel was formally sent out at the end of August 1897.

Theodore Herzl’s Christian mentor

Born in Germany but growing up for the most part in the UK, William Hechler was trained in the Anglican church and sent to be the chaplain to the British Embassy in Vienna. Like a great many of his fellow clergymen and contemporaries,2 he saw great import in the year 1897. It was a well-known date among students of prophecy based on the rich numerical symbolism found in the books of Daniel and Revelation. While there, he came across Herzl’s book “The Jewish State”, and determined to seek out the author. Here is Herzl’s impression of their first meeting:

“A likeable, sensitive man with the long grey beard of a prophet. He waxed enthusiastic over my solution. He, too, regards my movement as a ‘prophetic crisis’ – one he foretold two years ago. For he had calculated in accordance with a prophecy dating from Omar’s reign (637-638) that after 42 prophetical months, that is, 1,260 years, Palestine would be restored to the Jews. This would make it 1897-1898… Hechler declares my movement to be a ‘Biblical’ one, even though I proceed rationally in all points. He wants to place my tract in the hands of some German princes. He used to be a tutor in the household of the Grand Duke of Baden, he knows the German Kaiser and thinks he can get me an audience.”3

Because of his connections, Hechler was able to arrange for Herzl an audience with the German Kaiser, who became very supportive, and who had significant influence with Turkey, then rulers of Palestine. However, the Turkish Sultan would not hear of an independent Jewish state in the Holy Land. Nonetheless, the friendship and partnership between Herzl and Hechler continued to grow. 

“He gives me excellent advice”, wrote Herzl of Hechler, “full of unmistakably good will. He is at once clever and mystical and naive. His counsel and precepts have been excellent to date.”

Hechler was even with Herzl to the end, where the Jewish leader bid Hechler to “Greet Palestine for me. I gave my life’s blood for my people”.

A badly needed safe haven

Herzl called Hechler a “Christian Zionist”, due to his great love for Jewish people, and determination to see Israel restored once again. Hechler was not only concerned with the prophetic and political ramifications relating to Israel, but was eager to align with God’s heart and plans for the people themselves, that they would be protected from danger and evil, and restored to the land as God ordained in his word.

However, even after their dreams were becoming reality with the Balfour Declaration of 1917 promising to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine under the British Mandate, Hechler was frustrated that many Jewish people were not eager to move there. He was concerned about the prophecies of “Jacob’s troubles” in Jeremiah 37, and was certain that Europe would soon be awash with “rivers of blood” that only a few would escape. He warned that the calamity to come “would make the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition look like child’s play”. He died in 1931, just before Hitler’s rise to power, and before he could see the tragedy he was warning about come to pass.

The summer of 2017 marks 120 years since Herzl’s Basel Declaration, and 70 years since the disastrous turning away of the SS Exodus which highlighted the need for the Jewish homeland.

Grave mistakes were made during those years, the tragedy of the Exodus being just one of them. British Christians have since held ceremonies on the shores of Israel to repent for those grievous decisions made during the time of the British mandate, and to ask for forgiveness. Recently, there was a dedication ceremony for the monument to the Exodus at Haifa Port attended by Yonatan Halleli of the Yad Ezer L’Chaver Home for Holocaust Survivors, along with Dr. Jürgen Bühler, executive director of International Christian Embassy, Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Gallant (whose mother Fruma was on the Exodus) and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.

Kulanu Member of Knesset, Yoav Gallant, whose mother was on the ship said, “The Exodus has become a symbol of the transition from Holocaust to resurrection. When we choose to remember the heroes who founded the country, I feel that there is something to fight for.” Dr Bühler of ICJ added, “The Exodus is a symbol not only for Jews but for the millions of evangelical Christians all over the world who stand by Israel and recognize the need for a Jewish state.”4

Secular Zionism is not racism, but as Herzl rightly saw, it is necessary because of racism. Christian Zionism is not primarily about politics, but about great love for God, for his people, and a willingness to align with his prophetic plans made long ago, as William Hechler demonstrated.

Your people will be my people,
    and your God my God.

(Ruth 1:16)

[1] Captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly accused of treason and banished to an island to be behind bars for the rest of his life to cries of  “Death to Judas, death to the Jew!” It was later discovered that the one letter that had incriminated him was not written by him at all. He was exonerated only after 12 years of false accusation and imprisonment.
[2] Those who were anticipating the physical restoration of Israel included Lord Shaftesbury, Wesley, Newton, Cowper, Wilberforce, Simeon, Pusey, Danby, Spurgeon, along with politicians such as Palmerston, Disraeli, Lloyd George, Balfour, Churchill, Wilberforce (though some for practical reasons protecting British interests and the route to India rather than spiritual reasons) and British writers such as Byron, Walter Scot, Wordsworth, Robert Browning, George Eliot.
[3] Display in the Christchurch museum, Jerusalem
[4] Ma’ariv Mekomonim, August 11, 2017

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