He is the most unusual person I have met in this movement so far…the room which I entered was lined with books on every side, floor to ceiling. Nothing but Bibles. A window of the very bright room was open, letting in the cool spring air, and Mr. Hechler showed me his Biblical treasures. Then he spread out before me his chart of comparative history, and finally a map of Palestine. It is a large military staff map in four sheets which, when laid out, covered the entire floor. “We have prepared the ground for you!”
– Theodore Herzl, upon meeting Hechler.
It has long been recognized that without Hechler’s intercession and support, Herzl may have simply remained an obscure, eccentric Viennese journalist. The course of Zionism, and possibly the very founding of the modern State of Israel, may not have been successful.
– Jerry Klinger, Founder of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation
It surprises me how often Jews and Christians see our partnership as recent, coming in the 1980s from men like Hal Lindsay or Pat Robertson when, in fact, the roots of this partnership extend back into the nineteenth century. I’d like to take a few moments and tell you about one of these figures, one absolutely critical to Zionism, Reverend William Hechler. By reading this, I hope you will come to understand the depth and importance of the Christian-Jewish relationship.
William Hechler’s father, Dietrich, once wrote of his childhood, “One of the wishes I had was that I might be a real descendant of Abraham. I disapproved of their being mocked or otherwise ill-treated by my schoolfellows.” The nineteenth century was not kind to the Jews, from Russia to liberal France and England, antisemitism was a norm, socially acceptable and often the opinions of “good men and women.” From childhood though, Dietrich influenced young William to oppose the Jew-hatred of the surrounding adult world. This need to speak up for the Jewish people would follow Hechler through his life, shape his outlooks, and have a positive impact on the Jews and Christians he encountered.
We can see this same dynamic today as across America and Europe millions of sons and daughters from Christian homes take a stand against antisemitism among their classmates and, later, anti-Israel groups like BDS across college and university campuses.
While serving in the Crimean War, William encountered the bleakness of the pogroms, seeing refugees from the Russian Empire and Eastern Europe and hearing word of villages razed to the ground and lives destroyed. But he also saw a glimmer of light – the spiritual and national reawakening of the Jewish people. His mind began to fixate on the words of the Zionist poets, the politics of men like Herzl and, as he did so, the words of scripture were made real to him.
Hechler was a serious scholar of Christian eschatology, the study of prophecy and the End Times. His eschatology was centered on the Jews, stating that Christ would not return to complete the Christian timeline until the Jews had finally found refuge and peace in Zion. Now often these ideas arouse suspicion, being relegated to a simple gear in someone else’s doomsday clock can be offensive no matter how it is dressed up. But there is no reason to be cynical of Hechler’s beliefs. It is noteworthy that he comes from a place of warmth and sympathy toward the Jewish people and that, unlike others, he did not demand a conversion of Jews to Christianity.
Hechler had the proper belief – that Judaism, and flesh-and-blood Jews – are the root into which Christians have been grafted (a New Testament concept). It is a belief that fosters respect, love, cooperation, and fights antisemitism at every turn. “It is the duty of every Christian to love the Jews” he wrote in his pamphlet The Restoration of the Jews to Palestine in 1884.
He performed this duty admirably. Being a Christian opened doors for Hechler that were closed to Herzl and the other Jewish Zionists. William’s scholastic ability allowed him to serve as tutor to Frederick I, Grand Duke of Baden, and, through this, he came to have the ear of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was intrigued by his eschatology and love of the Jews. It was a love fueled not just by a liberal tolerance but by his religious heart and love of God and, as such, it accomplished far more: he was able to facilitate the first steps of Zionism among the most powerful figures in Europe, opening doors, providing introductions, boosting the legitimacy of Zionism, and showing Christians that a true heart for God is also one filled with a sincere love for the Jewish people.
As Christians we are the heirs of this tradition. We can make a difference in the world and take a stand for Israel by following in the footsteps of men like Hechler.