by Graham Keelan
A Hundred Years of Hope, A Hundred Years of War:
I am writing this on the day that Europe commemorates the centenary of the outbreak of WWI – the 4th of August. In remembrance of that day which changed the world we have been encouraged by Downing Street to join a “Lights Out” campaign. This is when we turn off all our lights in our homes, businesses and civic buildings in the hour between 10pm and 11pm and light a solitary candle to leave it burning in the window or on the doorstep. A candle- lit service in Westminster Abbey coincides when at the chime of Big Ben at the end of the hour a single candle at the tomb of the Unknown Warrior will be extinguished. All of this is to remember the words of Sir Edward Grey, the then British Foreign Secretary, who on the eve of hostilities remarked “the lamps are going out all over Europe. We will not see them lit again in our lifetime”.
The gruesome and ghastly tales of that inglorious folly which was the Great War are well- documented. They come to us through the haunting words and pictures of the war-poets and correspondents, through memoirs from the Front; of battles fought on foreign fields in far- away lands, the endless expanse of mud and blood, and the stink of rat-ravaged corpses filling the trenches. It was the first real war of the industrial age, forged with new weapons and new ways of killing, endless days of ceaseless shelling. Four long years of nights filled with the anguished screams of men gone mad. Here, also, for the first time in history men in the battlefield were gassed to death. And it was death and carnage on an industrial scale. It was the war which turned armies of conscript teachers, bus-conductors, farm-boys and students into merciless killers. And yet also a war of men fighting and dying in abject squalor and in their final breaths crying out for their mothers. It was the war where Christian brother bayoneted Christian brother simply for wearing a different uniform. In the words of the author H G Wells, adopted by Woodrow Wilson, the American president, it was the “war to end all wars”. At least it was meant to be! In the end it left the husk of Christian civilization – consumed in a maelstrom of hatred, resentment and ambition – sinking into the blood-soaked battlefields of Europe and the Middle East from where it had arisen. A thick fog of despair and death enshrouded the continent and the world. The old order crumbled as centuries old empires were swept away. It also signaled the end for those entrusted with the guardianship of that civilization; kings, emperors, aristocrats and even the Church. Monarchical government exercised by the great families of Europe bonded through blood and privilege who were supposed to hold it all together was swept away. So too was the system of alliances and treatises which had precipitated this unimaginable catastrophe. Atheism became the new state ideology in Russia, one which would dominate the east of the continent for the next 80 years. Needless to say Christianity in Europe has never recovered. And yet, whilst that dark suffocating cloud of death hung over all the world the next British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, was lighting another flame in the east: Zion.
It was only under the authority of the British Mandate that the promise and possibility of Zionism could be realized: As the author H. G. Wells inquired, “What is to prevent the Jews having Palestine and restoring a real Judaea?” At the end of the war the British and French found themselves in the possession of the old Ottoman dominions, a vast tranche of territory in the east which included Palestine. And so at the stroke of a pen on Nov 2nd 1917 Britain gave birth to the Zionist dream by effectively creating the Zionist state. Of course, Zionism then, as now, divided Jewry and those in the British Establishment could not escape its piercing blade. One notable British Jew amongst them, Edwin Montagu, lamented thus: “I appreciate your motives – your generosity and desire to take up the cudgels for the oppressed. Did I believe as you in a Jewish Nation, could I hold the opinion that you hold that great idealism overcomes all practical difficulties, I might have been less opposed…you are being misled by a foreigner, a dreamer, an idealist [Weizmann]…I believe firmly that if you make a statement about Palestine as the national home for Jews, every anti-Semitic organisation and newspaper will ask what right a Jewish Englishman, with the status at best of a naturalised foreigner, has to take a foremost part in the Government of the British Empire. The country for which I have worked ever since I left the University – England – the country for which my family have fought, tells me that my national home, if I desire to go there…is Palestine. How can I maintain my position?”
But in spite of the doubts and reservations Balfour’s declaration prevailed. And yet that ink in the Foreign Secretary’s pen had been flowing incessantly over the previous one hundred years, in the countless sermons from the pulpits across the country. The British had long seen themselves as guardians of Christian civilization and its Scripture. The stated aim of groups like the London Jewish Society founded at the beginning of the 19th century was to facilitate the return of the Jews to their homeland so as to fulfill the Biblical pre-conditions for the Second Coming of the Lord. It was unabashed eschatological pre-millennialism.
In fact, the Jews in Europe, children of the Enlightenment and assimilated into the various sub-cultures of the Continent were slow to catch onto the idea. It was only because Zionism was deemed to be in the grip of British Evangelicalism for the purpose of proselytisation and conversion that prominent British Jews such as Moses Montefiore and the Rothschild dynasty rallied to the cause. Zionism could not be allowed to fall captive to Christian eschatological theology. And yet in the end it was a Christian who eventually delivered the dream for the Jews. This great adventure of the Empire which took upon itself the responsibility of returning the Jews to their God-given homeland had found resonance in the ready heart of the British war-time Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who had grown up in the gospel charged environs of Welsh revivalist preaching, and who had been raised on ‘stern Old Testament tenets’ and who, as a young solicitor in London, had acted as legal adviser to the early Zionist movement in Britain. Repeatedly he remarked that Biblical place names and battles were better known to him than those of battles and frontiers in the European war. This led him to believe that it was not worth winning the Holy land only to ‘hew it to pieces before the Lord’. Unlike his colleagues, he was aware that there were age-old tendencies in British evangelical and nonconformist thought that favoured the return of the Jews to Zion, and aline of Christian Zionists which stretched back to the Puritans. And so he proudly boasted in 1921 that he had made the Zionist Herbert Samuel the ‘first procurator of Judaea since Pontius Pilate’. Lloyd George was the moving force behind the statement that ‘His Majesty’s Government looks with favour on the establishment of a National Home for the Jewish People in Palestine’. And yet “hewing it to pieces before the Lord” is what Britain ended up doing and history tells us the Zionist dream which Britain couldn’t carry to full term was eventually delivered by the Jews themselves.
And so as this day draws to a close and I finish my thoughts I must say that I find it fascinating and uplifting, especially at this time of anti-Israel sentiment raising its voice around the world – even here, that during the commemoration service in the Abbey, where were gathered the great, the good and not-so-good of the British Establishment the dignitaries made the point of reading from the Jewish prophets concerning the captivity of Judah, the desolation of Jerusalem and the glories of Zion. It was also telling that the only candle left alight in the dark void of the Abbey through which the assembled congregants could see their way was the towering Paschal Candle in the Lady Chapel. The Biblical imagery was overwhelming. And in these troubling times I trust the significance and poignancy is not lost. Because that is for what the candle must now burn, for ‘as soon as Zion travailed she brought forth her children.’ Out of that dreadful conflict a hundred years ago a new flame was ignited and regardless of what we are constantly told that this is a post-Christian nation,and in spite of a hundred years of war since, it still seems apparent that in the silence of the nation’s nighttime solemnities its soul still longs for the comfort of Zion, under whose calm the swords will be beaten into plowshares and where for a thousand years men will learn war no more. As the world labours under the decisions made by men long dead, with the darkness descending once again and the lilting drums of Armageddon rolling in the distance – louder today than yesterday – we must be thankful that the candle of Zion, the lamp of the Lord, the light of the Gentiles, the hope of the nations, the salvation of all the earth still flickers upon us from a far-away land.