Next year in Jerusalem. For centuries this was the plaintive plea at Passover of Jews in dispersion. Although cut off from their homeland and often persecuted in the lands of the diaspora, devout Jews retained a steadfast confidence that their Messiah would come and redeem them. All their hopes—the Hope of Israel­ and aspirations were bound up in the promises to the fathers, and they knew that these were linked inextricably to the land of Israel, then commonly called Palestine.

There were always a few Jews in the land, but it was a desolate backwater after the Romans expelled the bulk of them. The Edict of Hadrian in AD135 had banned Jews from settling in Palestine. It is true that from time to time Jews fleeing persecution in other lands were permitted to settle in Palestine in spite of the edict, but the Turkish authorities in particular were very capricious. At times they were lenient towards Jews; at other times they persecuted them severely.

When Sir Moses Montefiore, a wealthy British Jew, visited the land in 1827 he could locate no more than 500 Jews in residence—most of them in abject poverty. He tried to help them, and in 1852 was able to build a few small alms-houses for poor Jews. He also lobbied the Sultan on behalf of the Jews. Sir Moses’ lobbying, and that of many others, finally bore fruit in 1856 when the Edict of Hadrian was over-ridden by the Turkish authorities. At last the way was open for Jews to settle in the land as farmers and husbandmen. That was all very well, but could Jews really be expected to take advantage of this development? For several centuries in many of the lands in which they dwelt they had been by law prevented from being farmers. They were merchants and tradesmen, not graziers and orchardists. How could they take advantage of this change of heart on the part of the Sultan?

In 1850 Brother Thomas had published in Elpis Israel that the prophets demanded that the Jews would return to the land as “agriculturists and traders” (14th edition, page 441). His prediction was based primarily on the terms of Ezekiel 38:13. When penned, there were substantial legal and logistical impediments to the fulfillment of that prediction. In 1856 the legal impediments were swept away, but in spite of the suffering of Jews in so many places there was no flood of emigrants to Palestine.

A Day of Small Things

In 1860 the first Jewish colony in Palestine, named Mea Shearim, was established near Jerusalem. In 1861 the first Jewish Colonisation Society was founded. In 1869 three further settlements were established around Jerusalem, with others following in 1872, 1876, 1879 and almost every year thereafter. But these were small urban settlements, not agricultural ventures.

In 1870, however, the first Jewish agricultural school was founded. It was called Mikveh Israel, meaning “The Hope of Israel”. An agricultural school was vital if Jews who knew nothing about tilling the land were to become “agriculturists and traders”, as Ezekiel 38 required. Imagine the excitement of the brethren of those days when they saw this remarkable prognostication in Elpis Israel, based on Ezekiel 38, beginning to be fulfilled. They rightly recognised in these developments confirmation that the days of the Gentiles were drawing to a close and that the “redemption [of the brotherhood] draweth nigh” (Luke 21:28).

By 1880 there were still only about 24 000 Jews in what is now Israel, but our early brethren did not despise this “day of small things”. Appearing in each month’s issue of The Christadelphian from 1874 onwards was a section headed “The Jews and Their Affairs”. A perusal of the magazines in the 1870’s and 1880’s (reprints of the early volumes of The Christadelphian are available from the Christadelphian Scripture Study Service) shows how every jot of evidence that Jews were returning to the land was seized upon by our brethren with enthusiasm. Our brethren then (as now) were not political Zionists: rather they shared the consciousness of devout Jews that the promises to the fathers—the Hope of Israel—were bound up in these developments.

In 1877 Christadelphians for the first time provided funds for the founding of a Jewish colony. One hundred and fifty acres were purchased at Yanna, five miles from Safed, and twenty four Romanian and four Russian Jewish families settled there. The colony still exists alongside the well-known Rosh Pina kibbutz. The Christadelphian in 1883 mentions another Jewish settlement for which the brethren provided funds at Sammarin (now Zichron Ya’acov), south of Haifa. In 1885 financial assistance was provided to settlements at Yesod Hamolo and Bukeia, north of Galilee. No more than a few hundred persecuted Jews were helped by these ventures, but it should be appreciated that the Christadelphian community was still very small and few members were wealthy.

Jewish migration to the land really took off from 1882, triggered in large part by vicious anti-semitic pogroms in eastern Europe. In 1882 Russia enacted extremely virulent anti-Jewish laws that remained in force for 30 years. In the 1880’s Christadelphians also started to visit ‘the land’ to see for themselves the evidence of fulfilling Bible prophecy. Reports of their visits and the surging Jewish migration attracted considerable interest among the brethren. They thrilled at every development and had an insatiable thirst for news of these things.

A Way of Escape

The removal of obstacles to Jewish migration coincided with the rise of a new form of anti­semitism. The Catholic and Protestant Churches had long promoted anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe, but always from a religious base. In the 1870’s a group of German writers and philosophers in particular began to promote the idea that Jews were members of an inferior race. As well as inspiring anti-Jewish violence over the next century these views provided the basis for the horrific racial policies of the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945. Surely we may conclude that the angels acted to annul the Edict of Hadrian after over 1700 years and manipulated forces to initiate Jewish migration in the 1860’s and 1870’s to provide a means of escape in the years after 1882 for many thousands of Jews.

The uprise of this new anti-semitism also coincided with the stirring of Jewish national self-determination or nationalism. Thoughtful Jews began to realise that there could be no lasting security for Jews unless they lived in a Jewish homeland. In 1896 Theodor Herzl wrote his famous work Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) and the following year he organised the first Zionist Congress in Basle. Again the brotherhood recognised this as a significant step in the fulfilment of prophecy.

The official Zionist movement that developed from the Zionist Congress gave an impetus to Jewish migration to Palestine in the early years of the twentieth century. The Jews were offered territory for a homeland in various places such as Kenya, but they were determined to reclaim their ancient home. Brother CC Walker wrote in The Christadelphian: “the Jewish tide is settling toward the Land of Promise. It is the great sign that God remembers the covenants with the fathers of Israel” (1909, page 211).

Renewed pogroms in Russia from 1905 to 1909, in which it is estimated that over 50 000 Jews perished, provided an impetus to migration. It would seem that again the angels worked to help at least some Jews to escape. In 1909 Tel Aviv was founded, as was the Hashomer, the first Jewish defence force. By 1914 there were some 85 000 Jews in Palestine.

Christadelphians such as Brother CC Walker and Brother FG Jannaway visited the land during these years and provided reports of their experiences that were eagerly read by the brethren. Christadelphians were keen observers of the Zionist movement. In 1907 Brother CA Ladson commenced editing a section in The Christadelphian entitled “The Jews and Zionism”. Immediately prior to and after World War One Brother Jannaway wrote a series of books under the titles Palestine and the Jews, Palestine and the Powers and Palestine and the World. These books found readers and publishers both within and without the brotherhood. They reveal the excitement that the brethren felt as they witnessed the return of the Jews to the land.

All keen Bible readers recognise the return of the Jews to the land as the pre-eminent sign of the times. Many have embraced the Hope of Israel as Christadelphians because of the testimony provided by books, pamphlets and lectures with titles such as those listed by Brother Jannaway. We must not neglect this aspect in our preaching program even today. Salvation is of the Jews!

A British Protectorate

World War One interrupted the flow of Jewish refugees to Palestine. In fact, anti-Jewish activities on the part of the Turkish authorities encouraged many Jews to leave the land for Egypt and other more benign places. By 1917 the Jewish population had dropped to just 55 000.

The progress of Jewish migration could be slowed by the hostilities, but the progress of God’s prophetic plan could not be frustrated. On the basis of his understanding of prophecy, Brother Thomas had forecast that Britain would provide protection for Jewish migration to ‘the land’ (Elpis Israel, 14th Edition, pages 442 to 445). Nearly 70 years after he wrote that, British forces led by General Allenby invaded ‘the land’ from Egypt and succeeded in evicting the Turk from the Holy Land. This completed the drying up of the great river Euphrates (Rev 16:12), exactly as Brother Thomas and many other students of prophecy had predicted.

The conquest of Palestine was proceeding when the British Government issued its Balfour Declaration in November 1917, confirming its support for an independent Jewish homeland in Palestine. Jerusalem fell to the British in December 1917.

After the war, the British were granted a mandate to administer Palestine and appointed a Jew, Sir Herbert Samuel, as the first commissioner. At first, Jewish migration to Palestine was relatively easy. Under the British administration municipal facilities such as schools, roads and hospitals were improved significantly. Coupled with substantial Jewish investment in the land this led to an economic boom and a rapid rise in the standard of living.

In the years between the World Wars The Christadelphian regularly carried reports of agricultural production in Palestine and of the success of Jewish kibbutzim and moshavim. Our brethren in the United Kingdom were made keenly aware of the success of these ventures by the marketing in Britain of produce such as Jaffa oranges. Christadelphians also supported tree-planting programs in the land. “Magic lantern” lectures and eventually films showing the “blossoming” of the land under the hand of Zionist settlers became a feature of ecclesial life. By the 1930’s the generally more peaceful and modern conditions under British rule allowed groups of Christadelphians to start organising tours of the land to enhance their appreciation of both the Bible in general and the fulfilment of prophecy in particular. Arab-Jewish Tension

The Jewish population of the land rose to about 400 000 in 1936. In addition to attracting thousands of Jews suffering persecution in Europe, the prosperous conditions in Palestine also attracted many Arabs from neighbouring lands that were not so well off. These new Arab residents and the existing Arab population began to feel threatened by growing Jewish power and wealth and a series of riots and massacres marred the period from 1929 to 1939.

The British authorities responded to the violence by clamping down on Jewish migration. Sadly the clampdown on migration coincided with rising anti-semitism in Europe in general, but in particular in Germany. Unquestionably British obstruction of Jewish immigration in these years closed the only door available to many Jews to escape the Holocaust. On this occasion the angels did not see fit to make a way of escape, perhaps because the wider scale of God’s prophetic plan required the horror of the Holocaust as a trigger to secure the establishment of an independent Jewish state after World War Two.

Premature Expectations?

Christadelphians in 1917 were astounded by the news of the Balfour Declaration. That it coincided with the imminent fall of Palestine to British troops only served to heighten their expectation that the return of Christ was near. Many concluded that the fall of Jerusalem fulfilled the terms of the Olivet prophecy and constituted the end of the times of the Gentiles (Luke 21:24). They thought these events and the subsequent developments were the budding of the fig tree (Matt 24:32,33; Luke 21:29–31). That the budding of the fig tree is “the sign of the Son of man” (Matt 24:30) has always been a widely held view in the brotherhood. It is not surprising, therefore, that our brethren of that generation concluded that Christ’s return must be near. They thought it could not be delayed by more than forty years, or at the very least beyond their lifetime, on the basis that the Lord had said “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” (Matt 24:34).

Our brethren in 1917 were faithful and keen students of prophecy. They were fervent adherents to the Hope of Israel and yearned for the fulfillment of the promises to the Fathers. They have now died: their expectation that Christ must return in the years immediately after 1917 was not fulfilled. We need to appreciate, however, that their premature expectations were not wrong. They were right to be so motivated, even though there were unseen and unknowable factors that they were unable to factor into their conclusions. The prematurity of the hope did not invalidate that hope.

Many of these same brethren, older and wiser, were still alive in 1948 when Israel became an independent state. The first truly free Jewish state since the days of Daniel! Again the brotherhood was gripped by excitement. Who could doubt this was the budding of the fig tree? Surely Christ must return soon. Amazingly, because Israel controlled parts of Jerusalem (although not the Old City) some brethren in 1948 again concluded that the times of the Gentiles had come to an end, as Jerusalem was no longer trodden down of the Gentiles. Israel’s subsequent capture of the Old City in 1967 led to a reassessment of that view and 1967 commonly became regarded as the termination of the times of the Gentiles.

1967 of course had an electrifying effect on the brotherhood. Jews reclaiming the Temple mount was exciting enough, but Jewish conquest of the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Sinai, all areas of great Biblical significance, accompanied it. In addition, there was widespread fear that the Soviet Union might intervene on behalf of Israel’s enemies. Christadelphian students of prophecy could hardly believe their ears and eyes! No wonder the brotherhood reacted with such excitement. In many ecclesias there was a renewed zeal for preaching and study. The set time to favour Zion was near! The Hope of Israel would soon be fulfilled! There was no time to lose!

The view that a generation was a period of about forty years was widespread in the brotherhood in the decades after 1948. Many readers will recall lectures drawing attention to this time period, especially in the years leading up to 1988. A degree of eager anticipation was clearly evident in the brotherhood in the 1980’s, but again these expectations proved to be premature: premature but not wrong.

Where is the Promise of His Coming?

Time has moved on and Israel is now over 50 years old. The vast majority of brethren today have never known a time when Israel did not exist. The last time the existence of the state was seriously threatened was the Yom Kippur War in 1973—nearly thirty years ago. Many brethren are too young even to remember that war.

Israel is mentioned in news reports on a daily basis. In recent decades thousands of brethren have visited the land as tourists or on business. We are so familiar with Israel that the ‘Israel slide nights’, once a popular and uplifting feature of ecclesial life, have become passé. Sadly many now deride such evenings as boring. Israel is such a pervasive feature of the modern world that we are in danger of forgetting just how much her existence is a miracle.

Are we losing our sense of eager anticipation that the Master is near? Are vain hopes rooted in the things of this world threatening to overwhelm our grasp on the Hope of Israel? Do we feel embarrassed about what some scoffers regard as the naivety of our brethren of earlier generations? Are we tempted to think, “all things continue as they were from the beginning”? (2 Peter 3:4). If so, we are fools!

Just as the Jewish “heaven and earth” of Peter’s day was facing imminent destruction (2 Peter 3:12), so the heavens and earth of this era will soon melt away to be replaced by “new heavens and a new earth” (verse 14). The age that very soon will dawn on the world will be the fulfilment of the promises to the Fathers—the Hope of Israel. That is the hope that has sustained the brethren in all ages. It was the hope that sustained the apostles (Acts 1:6; 28:20). It is a lively hope, for it is a hope centred on the things of Yahweh and we know that he is a God of the living, not of the dead.

Purely natural forces cannot explain the remarkable preservation of the Jews as a people, the miracle of their return to their ancient homeland after such a lengthy dispersion and the success of this return against such overwhelming odds. It is indeed the great sign not only that God is working in the nations to fulfil His purpose, but that this work is now reaching a climax. “And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh” (Luke 21:28).