A Forgotten, and Eccentric, Christian Zionist Who Reached Out Directly to Jewish Activists

Jan. 23 2020

Raised in a devout British evangelical family, Laurence Oliphant (1829–1888) had a successful career as a diplomat, intelligence agent, and foreign correspondent, despite his peculiar personal life and his involvement in various mystical religious movements. At one point he gave up a seat in parliament to join a cult-like sect in western New York with his family. Oliphant eventually embraced the idea of establishing a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Unlike other early Christian Zionists, he cooperated extensively with the pre-Herzlian Zionist movement known as Ḥibat Tsiyon, traveling to Galicia and Romania to meet with Jewish leaders. Philip Earl Steele writes:

[Oliphant was well aware of] the fears of Great Britain that, following the Congress of Berlin in 1878, Russia—blocked from further expansion into the Balkans because of the emergence of the new states of Romania and Bulgaria—would now attempt to seize areas in the Levant from the Ottomans. Thus, combining his religious and imperial motives, [he] devised his “plan for Gilead,” presenting it as a way to solve Britain’s worries by establishing a Jewish colony under the protection of Great Britain.

[The plan] soon obtained the backing of Prime Minister Disraeli (a longstanding Zionist), and he in turn swiftly won over Foreign Minister Salisbury. In late November 1878 the three men met together to discuss the idea with the prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) at Sandringham, one result of which was that Oliphant received his [diplomatic] credentials. In February 1879 he set sail for the Levant on a mission George Eliot also expressed approval for.

Oliphant soon also met Vienna’s Peretz Smolenskin, the eminent Zionist activist who published the Hebrew-language journal Ha-Shaar (“The Dawn”). Smolenskin had been very favorably impressed with Oliphant’s plan for the Jewish colonization of Palestine, and in fact had presented it in Ha-Shaar the previous autumn. In Vienna, in the early spring of 1882, Smolenskin and the Oliphants became friends—Laurence Oliphant and [his wife] Alice even invited Smolenskin to travel on with them to Palestine in the aim of fostering the Jewish colonies anticipated soon to arise there.

Oliphant would enjoy the endorsement of the Zionist impresario David Gordon and even publish in his journal Ha-Magid (“The Preacher”). In time, Oliphant and his wife would settle in Haifa to pursue his Zionist endeavors and hire as his private secretary Naftali Imber, best known as the author of Israel’s national anthem. As Steele goes on to detail, Oliphant’s efforts paved the way for the founding of the early settlements of Zikhron Yaakov and Rosh Pinah.

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Read more at Fathom

More about: Christian Zionism, Hatikvah, History of Zionism, Peretz Smolenskin

Why the Recent Uptick of Israeli Activity in Syria?

Sept. 23 2022

On September 16 and 17, the IDF carried out airstrikes in the vicinity of Damascus, reportedly aimed at Iranian logistical centers there. These follow on an increase in the frequency of such attacks in recent weeks, which have included strikes on the Aleppo airport on August 31 and September 6. Jonathan Spyer comments:

The specific targeting of the Aleppo airport is almost certainly related to recent indications that Iran is relying increasingly on its “air bridge” to Syria and Lebanon, because of Israel’s successful and systematic targeting of efforts to move weaponry and equipment by land [via Iraq]. But the increased tempo of activity is not solely related to the specific issue of greater use of air transport by Teheran. Rather, it is part of a broader picture of increasing regional tension. There are a number of factors that contribute to this emergent picture.

Firstly, Russia appears to be pulling back in Syria. . . . There are no prospects for a complete Russian withdrawal. The air base at Khmeimim and the naval facilities at Tartus and Latakia are hard strategic assets which will be maintained. The maintenance of Assad’s rule is also a clear objective for Moscow. But beyond this, the Russians are busy now with a flailing, faltering military campaign in Ukraine. Moscow lacks the capacity for two close strategic engagements at once.

Secondly, assuming that some last-minute twist does not occur, it now looks like a return to the [2015 nuclear deal] is not imminent. In the absence of any diplomatic process related to the Iranian nuclear program, and given Israeli determination to roll back Iran’s regional ambitions, confrontation becomes more likely.

Lastly, it is important to note that the uptick in Israeli activity is clearly not related to Syria alone. Rather, it is part of a more general broadening and deepening by Israel in recent months of its assertive posture toward the full gamut of Iranian activity in the region. . . . The increasing scope and boldness of Israeli air activity in Syria reflects this changing of the season.

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Read more at Jonathan Spyer

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Syria, War in Ukraine