“The idea which I develop in this book is an age-old one: the establishment of a Jewish State. The world resounds with outcries against the Jews, and this is what awakens the dormant idea.” So wrote Theodor Herzl in the opening lines of his book entitled Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). The ideas contained in its 70 pages would revolutionize Jewish people and set them on the road to sovereignty. But the way to statehood was long and difficult and one that may not have been accomplished at all except for an unusual Anglican clergyman by the name of William Henry Hechler. Their friendship and cooperation on behalf of Zionism remains an untold chapter in the history of Israel and the Church.
Before Herzl set about to remedy the condition of the Jewish people, he was a journalist working for the prestigious Neue Freie Press in Vienna. Born in Budapest into an assimilated Jewish family in 1860, he moved to Vienna as a young man where he studied law and aspired to be a playwright. But Herzl would never find fame for his handful of plays or sparkling essays. Rather, he is remembered as the father of modern Israel. Herzl’s conversion to Zionism was curious in light of the fact he knew little about the Jewish faith or tradition. In fact, when he proposed the establishment of a homeland for the Jews he had no idea that others (Leon Pinsker, Rabbi Samuel Mohilever) had advocated similar ideas not long before him.
However, Herzl was familiar with antisemitism; he had experienced it personally and covered a violent outbreak of the disease as a journalist in Paris. He came to believe that Jews would never be fully accepted in ‘Christian countries’ (largely for economic reasons) and the only solution was to leave Europe and establish their own. Once that happened, he reasoned, the longstanding Jewish problem would come to an end, the Jews would truly be free, and the world would experience great blessings by shedding its antisemitism. If his warning wasn’t heeded, Herzl proclaimed, it would end in disaster for the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe as the Austrian-Hungarian empire was falling apart. Although naive in some points, it was bold and filled with a sense of urgency. Perhaps what is often overlooked today is that Herzl’s call to leave Europe was practical. He would go on to create the institutions that would make this dream a reality–the World Zionist Organization, a congress, bank, newspapers–alongside fund-raising and the reclamation of the land of Israel.
In some respects, The Jewish State mirrored the vision of the ancient Hebrew prophets, the return to Zion from exile, but couched in secular language written by a secular Jew claiming no divine revelation. But despite Herzl’s insistence that he was not being guided by the Scriptures, many traditional Jews and Christians as well, saw Zionism as a messianic movement.
Herzl’s book would turn out to be one of the most influential and controversial Jewish books of the last two hundred years. Despite the ultimate vindication of some of its ideas, it caused an earthquake when the first run of 3,000 copies came off the press. Throughout Western Europe most Jewish intellectuals and lay leaders joined the religious establishment in condemning Herzl’s project. Orthodox and Reform rabbis were in rare agreement when they rejected the scheme on theological grounds. And both the Jewish and non-Jewish press were equally hostile. Many cast aspersions on Herzl’s character, and some asked deridingly if he wanted to crown himself ‘King of the Jews.’ One Munich newspaper went as far as to ask if Herzl had lost his mind. Most insulting for Herzl was the position taken by his own newspaper which refused to mention either his book or Zionism. For the most part, in Western Europe only Jewish university students received the idea favorably. Yet in Central-Eastern Europe, the relief from the daily sting of antisemitism promised by Jewish statehood was enough for most Jews to put aside any doubts they had about Herzl’s grandiose plan. Ironically, because the censor in Russia refused to allow the book to be published, the vast majority of Jews in Eastern Europe only knew of its contents through second hand sources.
Months before The Jewish State appeared in the bookshops of Vienna in February, 1896, Herzl struggled to find a way to make his dream a reality. At first, he naively believed that wealthy Jewish entrepreneurs such as the Rothschilds and Baron Hirsch would rally behind him and support his plan. But when that failed to materialize, Herzl had no choice but to rely on his own limited resources and those of his impoverished supporters.
Also, he hoped that the German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II could be persuaded to back his scheme. Herzl was convinced that if he could meet the Kaiser and explain his plan, German support would follow. He thought that Jewish statehood would appeal to the Kaiser’s fear of Jewish influence in Germany, and the offer to remove them from most of Europe, and Germany in particular, would relieve the internal pressures of antisemitism. In turn, the Kaiser would pressure Germany’s ally, the Turkish Ottoman Empire, to cede part of Palestine to the Jews. Herzl would assure the Turks that as compensation, world Jewry would pay off Istanbul’s crippling international debt.
Herzl’s dilemma was one of access. How could a Viennese journalist get a private audience with the most powerful man in Europe? It was a question that perplexed Herzl for some time until a friend mentioned the Rev. William Henry Hechler, chaplain to the British Embassy at Christ Church Vienna, a clergyman who already knew about Herzl, having purchased a copy of The Jewish State soon after it appeared in the shops.
Born to an English mother and a German father Hechler was the perfect choice for the diplomatic post in Vienna. In the 1870s Hechler had tutored the son of the Grand Duke of Baden, a committed Christian who was favorably disposed toward his Jewish subjects, opposed antisemitism and opened the highest positions of government service to Jews. Like Hechler, he was interested in Bible prophecy. It was during his service to the Grand Duke that Hechler came to know many of the princely families of Europe, in particular the future Kaiser Wilhelm II.
After leaving the Grand Duke’s service, Hechler spent time as a missionary in Nigeria and was ordained as an Anglican priest while living in Ireland. When the pogroms against the Jews broke out in Russia in 1881, he was working for a church organization in London, but he threw himself into helping Russian Jews immigrate to Palestine. He raised money for Jewish refugees, organized meetings among British Christians, and visited Russia to encourage emigrating Jews to choose Palestine as their destination over the United States. In the process he was involved in establishing two Jewish colonies, one near Bet Shemesh and another in northern Syria.
Afterwards, he was appointed to the post at Christ Church Vienna in 1885. His small congregation allowed him the possibility to travel widely to lecture European royalty on the latest Holy Land archaeological finds. His study in Vienna was a museum overflowing with archaeological treasures, models of the Temple and over a thousand rare Bibles. But the people of the Bible held even more attraction for Hechler than biblical artifacts. His father had been a missionary among the Jews in Baden and Alsace and the young Hechler was raised with an intimate knowledge of the Bible as well as Jewish tradition, which were nightly discussions around the dinner table.
The passion for Bible prophecy was a response by Victorian Evangelicals to the growing rationalist critique of the Bible. It was assumed that if it could be proved that the Bible foretold contemporary events, it would demonstrate that Scriptures were divinely inspired. For over a century Bible commentators had been preparing the faithful for what they believed would be the soon demise of the Ottoman Empire and the return of the Jews to the Holy Land. In the year 1894, Hechler came to the conclusion that he knew the date for the Jewish return to their ancient homeland. For him it was obvious. The 42 prophetic months (Rev. 11) or 1260 years after the 637-8 Moslem conquest of Jerusalem, the “abomination of desolation” (Dan. 12), meant that the Jews would return to Palestine in 1897-98. Then would come the time of “Jacob’s Trouble,” and finally the return of the Messiah who would rule from Jerusalem for 1,000 years. In 1897 Hechler gave a lecture in London, Fulfilled Prophecy as Proving the Truth of God’s Word, and Dr. Herzl’s Colonization of Palestine by the Jews.
In the period preceding 1897, Hechler was in a constant state of alert watching for the slightest yearning among Jews for the Land of Israel. For Hechler, the return to the Promised Land was to be a supernatural and sacred event, not one led by a “freethinker” as Herzl described himself. But if Hechler ever had his doubts about the new Zionist program they did not last long. Soon after the first encounter between Hechler and Herzl took place in March, 1896, Hechler threw himself fully into Zionist diplomacy with one reservation. He would not do anything to purposely try to fulfill prophecy. He would cooperate with what God was doing but would not attempt to manipulate events in order to “force the end.”
What was Herzl to make of Hechler?
His experience with Christians was not positive; they were often antisemites. But he had little exposure to Evangelicals and was unaware of the philo-Semitic thinking that existed in Britain since the Reformation. In his diary, after their first meeting, Herzl described Rev. Hechler as “a likable sensitive man with the long grey beard of a prophet.” He thought that although charming, Hechler might prove to be just a naive visionary who would earn the scorn of German royalty. But, as he told Hechler, he was desperate to come into contact with a prince or a statesman so “the Jews will believe me and follow me.”
And indeed, Hechler was able to put Herzl in contact with princes, first with the Grand Duke of Baden and eventually with the Kaiser in 1898. The meetings with the Kaiser and the negotiations with German officials that followed bestowed superpower legitimacy on a movement that had been officially established by Herzl just one year before at the First Zionist Congress in Basel. This was a considerable diplomatic achievement for the young Zionist movement. By 1900 it became clear that Germany was not interested in helping Herzl secure a refuge for the Jews as it would damage their relationship with the Ottomans. However, one result of the Zionist-German contact was to awaken Britain to the aspirations of the Jewish people. The road to Jerusalem ultimately led through London, not Berlin.
Even after the German option was closed, Hechler continued to serve as Herzl’s translator, envoy and close advisor until the Jewish leader died. Herzl wrote in his diary about Hechler, “he gives me excellent advice, full of unmistakably good will. He is at once clever and mystical and naive. His counsel and precepts have been excellent to date…” Further, Hechler became Herzl’s trusted friend and confidant. He always had access to Herzl and his family and was a frequent guest in their home.
In 1904 as Herzl was dying, his final words to the last non-family member to see him were to Hechler. “Greet Palestine for me. I gave my life’s blood for my people.” Like Jews throughout the world, Hechler was shocked at the death of Theodor Herzl at the age of 44. In searching for an explanation for his death at such a young age when so much remained to be done, Hechler concluded in later life with a note of bitterness, “God took Herzl because the Jews were not worthy of him.”
Hechler’s role within the Zionist movement diminished upon Herzl’s death. He was no longer the ‘Foreign Minister’ of the Jewish people. In 1910, when he retired from Vienna at the age of 65, Hechler spent his last 21 years in London. As a measure of gratitude that Herzl requested, the Zionist Organization in London paid Hechler a monthly pension. In his final years Hechler remained active in what had become his mission, trying to warn anyone who would listen, about what was soon to come upon the Jewish people in Europe.
In 1913 when visiting the German-Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, Hechler predicted that in the following year a world war would break out in Europe. Buber recalls shuddering when he heard “world war,” a term he had never heard before. That same year Max Bodenheimer, a friend of both Herzl and Hechler, remembered Hechler telling him when the Kaiser was at the peak of his power, “a war would soon engulf Europe, Germany would lose, and the Kaiser would go into exile.”
After the Balfour Declaration in 1917…
Hechler tried to sober the overconfident Zionist leaders who believed they were on their way to fulfilling Herzl’s vision. He warned of “Jacob’s trouble,” a time of testing and suffering that lay ahead. “I have seen from the Bible that in the near future great danger will threaten Jews in Palestine. I believe it is from the Arabs.” Shortly after, the deadly Arab riots of 1921 broke out in Palestine.
But Hechler’s deepest foreboding lay with the future of Europe. He was distressed that the Jews were not answering Herzl’s call to return to Zion. It was reported (after the Holocaust) by those who had heard him in the 1920’s that he had said Europe would soon be engulfed in “rivers of blood.” He warned that only a few Jews would escape, and “it would make the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition look like child’s play.” For many it must have sounded as if the eccentric clergyman had finally taken leave of his senses. Although a handful of Jewish leaders, such as Ze’ev Jabotinsky, warned of an impending danger, no one it seems came as close as Hechler in foreseeing the mass murder that was to be unleashed during the Second World War.
The close friendship between Herzl and Hechler and the invaluable help that Herzl received from this Anglican clergyman were barely remembered by Jews or Christians. Even his burial place was forgotten and unmarked until 2011 when a memorial stone was finally put on his grave in north London.
In recent years the explosion of interest in Christian Zionism has brought Hechler’s life and activities to the attention of a wider Jewish and Christian public. Yet his life story has not yet been fully written or understood. While he has always been somewhat appreciated by Zionist historians as one of the first non-Jews to help Zionism in a practical way, Hechler remains a person of suspicion for many and he is frequently assumed to be an Arab-hating imperialist, an antisemite, a closet missionary, or one who merely worked for Jewish statehood in order to bring about the second coming of Jesus. But it can be shown from historical sources that these accusations are simply not true. Hechler was open about his Christian commitment and did not hide his understanding that the return of the Jews and the return of Jesus were connected. Herzl was well aware of Hechler’s theology and was not in the least disturbed by it, unlike many Israelis today who are endlessly suspicious of Christian support for Israel.
In the 27 years that Hechler lived after Herzl’s death, perhaps no event brought him greater satisfaction than when on 22 July 1922, he was in Parliament to witness the ratification of the Palestine Mandate.
David Pileggi currently serves as the Rector of Christ Church Jerusalem, the oldest Protestant Church in the Middle East. He earned an MA at Hebrew University in Jerusalem focusing on modern messianism. In 1987 Pileggi discovered Hechler’s unmarked burial site and assisted in the initiative of Jerry Klinger (Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation) to place a memorial stone on his grave in 2011.
Israel Today Membership
Save 18% Per Month.
Six Months Membership
Save 9% Per Month.