Henry Dunant: Christian Activist, Humanitarian Visionary, and Zionist

Philip Earl Steele. Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. Volume 12, Issue 1. March 2018.

The memory of Henry Dunant (1828-1910) waxes and wanes in the extreme, and that wild oscillation actually began in his own lifetime. Having become a household name across Europe for his leading role in founding the Red Cross in 1863 and for establishing the first Geneva Convention less than a year later, Dunant went on to spend over two wrenching decades in impoverished exile and in oblivion—only to be rediscovered in 1895 in Heiden, in eastern Switzerland. He had been living there all but anonymously since the summer of 1887, and under the care of the Bezirkskrankenhaus (the local facility for the infirm) from 1892. Adulated by the European press from 1895, the Swiss Calvinist was also praised by Pope Leo XIII, granted a handsome pension by the Empress Dowager of Russia, Maria Feodorovna, and awarded sizable monetary donations by admiring Germans, the Swiss Federal Council, and a group of over 1,000 Russian physicians. Dunant was also thanked for his work as a “Christian Zionist” by Theodor Herzl himself at the closing of the First Zionist Congress in 1897. Four years later, in 1901, Dunant received the very first Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian efforts that had led to the founding of the Red Cross and the adoption of the Geneva Convention. It seemed all but assured that his star would now continue to shine brightly.

Several English-language books on the Genevan’s life have been published since his passing in 1910; one of the first was written by Martin Gumpert in 1938. Subsequent accounts include that of Ellen Hart (1953), Violet Kelway Libby (1964), Pierre Boissier (1974), Angela Bennett (2005), and Roger Durand (2010). Dunant, of course, figures prominently in works dealing with the early Red Cross and the first Geneva Convention, and he is often mentioned in studies on the history of Christian Zionism. Nevertheless, today it is Florence Nightingale and, for Americans, Clara Barton, who are best remembered for their humanitarian efforts in the second half of the nineteenth century, and Lord Shaftesbury, Laurence Oliphant, George Eliot, William Blackstone, and William Hechler are the most celebrated members of the pantheon of nineteenth-century Christian Zionists.

Dunant’s star may, therefore, be dimming. One telling sign of this is the recent address (September 7, 2017) delivered by Dr. Peter Maurer at the Israel Council on Foreign Relations (ICFR) in Jerusalem. In his lecture, entitled “The ICRC and Its Mission: Past and Future,” the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) made not the barest mention of Henry Dunant when describing the origins of the Red Cross. Even though speaking in Israel, Maurer puzzlingly neglected to note Dunant’s efforts beginning in the 1860s to aid in the “restoration” of the Jews to the Land of Israel. The importance of Dunant’s contribution to Zionism was recognized by Herzl, who expressed his gratitude to Dunant in Basel. Nevertheless, as of this writing, this aspect of Dunant’s life does not even rate a mention in Wikipedia, to which most people turn for basic information.

To some, Dunant’s Christian Zionism may come as a great surprise—above all because nineteenth-century Christian Zionism is so closely associated with Great Britain and the United States, and especially with Evangelicalism, that particular brand of Protestantism most widely practiced in those two countries. Over the past twenty years, the role of evangelical Christians in the history of Zionism has been told more fully—and that role is increasingly incorporated into general works on Zionism written by Jews and Israelis. For instance, Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok included an entire chapter entitled “Christian Zionism” in his recent Introduction to Zionism and Israel: From Ideology to History. Professor Anita Shapira, often regarded as the doyen of scholars of Zionism and modern Israel, writes in her magisterial synthesis Israel: A History: “[T]he idea of the Jews returning to their ancient homeland as the first step to world redemption seems to have originated among a specific group of evangelical English Protestants … ; they passed this notion on to Jewish circles.”

Those British evangelicals also passed the Zionist idea on to Protestant circles in Geneva and elsewhere in Switzerland. This began in 1816-17 with the ministry in Geneva of the Scottish missionary Robert Haldane (1764-1842), whose teaching focused on Biblical prophecy. Indeed, just months before arriving in the city of Calvin, Haldane had published his book The Evidences and Authority of Divine Revelation, in which he argued that “the restoration of the Jews” to the Holy Land was assured by prophecies found in both Ezekiel and Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Once in Geneva, Haldane quickly attracted local theology students. Soon he was teaching a group of twenty to thirty such young men three evenings per week at the home he rented in the city center. Their study was based on Romans, Chapters 9-11, which famously argue the continuing validity of the covenant between God and the Jews, i.e., that the Jews remain the chosen people. Haldane’s teaching exerted a profound and lasting impact on these men, many of whom went on to become influential Swiss evangelists. Here Merle D’Aubigne, M. Monod, César Malan, Louis Gaussen, and Émile Guers come to mind. These men—initially acting through the dissident congregation established in 1818 at Bourg-de-Four in Geneva’s Old Town, and ultimately through the Société Evangélique de Genève they created in 1831—launched what is known as the Réveil [the Swiss Awakening]. The strong contacts they maintained with evangelical Protestants in Britain imbued the Réveil with added vigor and placed it within the current of increasingly bold British theological speculations concerning the expected return of the Jews to their ancient homeland.

Even a cursory overview of this “religious Zionism”—which well warrants comparison to that of Rabbis Tsevi Hirsch Kalischer, Samuel Mohilever, and Kook, father Abraham Isaac and son Zvi Yehuda—must include the “discourse” delivered in Geneva in 1843 by Louis Gaussen (by then a professor of divinity), and published a year later in English as Geneva and Jerusalem: The Gospel at length preached to the Jews and their restoration at hand. Although this work primarily reflects Gaussen’s commitments to converting the Jews (something he pursued in cooperation with the leaders of the London Jews Society), his focus is also drawn to the intrinsically connected “approaching restoration of Israel.”

To that end Gaussen writes: “There is still another reason for evangelizing them [the Jews]: it is the prophecies contained in the Scripture; which give us the assurance of their … re-establishment in Jerusalem.” He then turns to prophecies found in Chapters 36 and 37 of Ezekiel about the dry bones in the valley coming back to life, concluding that the restoration of the Jews in Palestine “will be for the world life from death,” adding:

What surprise, what emotion throughout the whole world … when the daily papers will inform us, for instance, that the Russian Jews, more in number than all the Swiss, are crossing the Caucasus to meet at Jerusalem! … Who amongst us would not stretch out their hand to help them? … . [F]or, if in Geneva some years ago so great an interest was felt for the restoration of the Greeks, who will not feel an interest in the restoration of Israel? It is written that all the nations that fear God will help them, and that the maritime powers will bring them back.

Marching country by country across Europe, Gaussen then cites “historic” and “prophetic signs” indicating that the day of Israel’s restoration is approaching. Featuring among those signs is “the love now shown to the Jews by the protestant evangelical churches” and “the approaching fall of the Turkish Empire.”

In this vein, the Swiss Protestant clergyman Samuel Gobat (1799-1879) bears mentioning with regard to two matters. The first is that in 1827-28, Gobat was in Egypt, having been sent on a mission by the London-based Church Missionary Society. During that time, he studied Biblical prophecies together with Boghos Bey, the Armenian Christian who long served Muhammad Ali as his first minister. In 1833 Bey wrote to his friend, explaining that what had convinced Ali to seize the Levant from the Ottomans in 1831-32 was Gobat’s reading of prophecy that the Turks were soon to collapse: “Do you remember that evening when we conversed upon prophecy? A few days afterwards I communicated our views to Mohammed Ali, and read those prophecies with him. The consequence was that he immediately resolved upon attacking the Sublime Port; and this is the origin of our conquest of Syria.”

The second matter is that it was none other than Gobat he who replaced the prematurely deceased Michael Solomon Alexander as the bishop of the joint Anglican-German bishopric established in Jerusalem in 1841. This happened in 1846, and powerfully fueled restorationist hopes in the minds of Swiss pietists, including the eighteen-year-old Henry Dunant.

Haldane’s Swiss pupil Émile Guers (1794-1882), in turn, was ordained in London in 1821 for evangelizing work back in Geneva. For our purposes, the most important aspect of Guers’ role there concerns the fact that he became a disciple of John Nelson Darby, the leading nineteenth-century dispensationalist theologian. In fact, Darby spent the fall of 1837 in Geneva with Guers’ church (the Bourg-de-Four brethren). The dispensationalism theory Darby and his followers elaborated offers an interpretive structure to the unfolding of divine history that extends into the future, i.e., to yet-to-be fulfilled Biblical prophecies. For dispensationalists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this prominently included the restoration of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Guers most fully elaborated this belief in his 1856 book La Future D’Israël.

Thus, the teaching and climate of the Réveil deeply spread Zionist ideas among Swiss Protestants, including the ardent young Christian Henry Dunant of Geneva. This was the milieu in which Dunant was raised and first began heeding the call to religious and moral vocations. Ellen Hart, in her rich biography of Dunant, ascribes Gaussen with having made the most formative and lifelong impact on Dunant’s religious beliefs regarding the unfolding of history. She recounts the “long series of lessons” Gaussen taught the children of Geneva in 1839, including the eleven-year-old Dunant, on the prophecies found in the Book of Daniel, and how they explain the succession of kingdoms from Babylon to Persia, and from Rome all the way to contemporary France. “This reading of the Scriptures and Pastor Gaussen’s own prophesying,” Hart writes, “were absorbed by the attentive Dunant and became part of the permanent furniture of his mind.” As noted above, Gaussen’s “own prophesying” included the restoration of Israel: “Pastor Gaussen […] at all times taught the duty to love the Jews in fulfillment of the prophecies and in the spirit of the Epistle to the Romans.” Thus, “[T]he return to Zion, the fulfillment of the Holy Word—Dunant gathered all and kept it in the front of his mind and deep in his heart.”

Dunant’s parents, Jean Jacques and Anne Antoinette, belonged to the upper class of Genevan society, and they instilled in their son Henry formative models of both religious and humanitarian activity. Jean Jacques, like his father-in-law, was one of the leading members of the Chambre des tutelles et Curatelles [Office of Guardianships and Trusteeships], the voluntary officers of which looked after the welfare of minors and prisoners.” An account preserved in Henry’s diary from about age twelve describes a visit he made with his father to Genevan prisoners serving out their sentences in the French city of Toulon on the Mediterranean. The passage includes the portentous declaration: “When I am big I shall write a book to save them.”

The deeply religious Anne Antoinette, who—as Dunant’s biographers stress, had a far greater role in her son’s life—”permitted Geneva’s orphan girls the use of her estate so that they might from time to time, under the supervision of their head-mistress, spend a few happy hours among its flowers and shrubs. Such touching examples of … benevolence were constantly before young Henri’s eyes. Soon he himself was a member of a benevolent society, was seeking out invalid and dying old ladies to offer them comfort.”

Ellen Hart’s remarks on this young man’s commitments need to be quoted at length:

He, child of the Réveil, accepted the duty of “works.” At eighteen he became a worker for the Lord: he entered himself in the band of brothers for active service. He became a member of the League of Alms. To the sick poor and the afflicted, he and his comrades took comfort, material and spiritual. Even in Geneva, there were black spots where poverty bred disease and law-breaking. The ardent apostles of “good” reached these poor brethren and sought to bring them back to the light and to comfort and to regard for the law.

These direct ministrations did not use enough of Dunant’s spiritual energy. He craved for a larger field. He turned his hand to organizing the work of his comrades, and then began to dream of extending the aims of the League of Alms and of making a compact association of similar existing bodies. He shepherded his comrades. Together they went for long expeditions on the Salève, in the Jura, and joyfully harangued one another on the mysteries in the Old Testament and the New, the divine meaning in poverty and affliction, purification by suffering, the beatitude of sacrifice and humility, the discipline of temptation and salvation by repentance. But always, back in Geneva, there was the duty of “works.” On Sunday afternoons, punctually at two o’clock, Dunant arrived at the prison of Saint-Antoine—then in the Evêché in the precincts of Saint-Pierre. He rang the bell at the formidable door. The chaplain came to let him in. The prisoners were assembled. Dunant, redeeming his childish promise at Toulon, came as a brother to the prisoners and captives and brought them ardent words, those he had from the living Bible. He exhorted them to believe and to be saved. And then he read to them books that opened the window on to the wide world without, where travelers pushed on through new and strange worlds and seekers were making discoveries into the unknown of science. The vitality of his efforts and his glowing earnestness passed the test with these his early “prisoners.”

This was the set of religious convictions and high moral principles the twenty-one-year-old Dunant brought in 1849 to a society of earnest Christian young men, one they called the Réunion du Jeudi [the Thursday meeting] held at the Dunants’ family home in Geneva. Two years later, the Réunion du Jeudi reemerged as the Union Chrétienne [Christian Union] and, together with a similar body in Paris, the two groupings formed ties with the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) in London, which had been established there in 1844. Dunant had quickly become the spiritus movens of the Genevan group, and the same became true of its efforts to forge bonds across Europe. Dunant acted as a kind of missionary in those endeavors, traveling far and wide and exhorting in moving missives his foreign fellows to join together. Indeed, it was none other than Henry Dunant who in 1853 brought forward the proposal for an international YMCA to be created, contrary to the intention of his friends to form a Francophone Union embracing Switzerland, France, and Belgium. Dunant did not relent; in Paris in 1855 it was his idea that triumphed at the first world congress of the YMCA—and thus he is counted among the cofounders of that international association. Hart records Dunant’s endeavor as “his earliest attempt at fostering internationalism.” It was also an example of Dunant’s openness to diverse religious faiths; he struggled to keep membership open to all Protestant affiliations. Significantly, it seems Dunant may well have been the first person to use the word “ecumenical” in its modern sense.

The story of the founding of the Red Cross in 1863, along with its direct, immediate fruit in the first Geneva Convention (“for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field”), is well told elsewhere. Suffice it here to present just a sketch of that humanitarian turning point in history.

In 1853, Dunant had begun working as a developer in the French colonies of North Africa, and soon became the general manager of the Colonies Suisses de Sétif [Swiss Colonies of Sétif] in Algeria. There he determined that a dam needed to be built to secure water resources. However, he was unable to obtain permission via bureaucratic channels. Undaunted, he sought an audience with Emperor Napoleon III. This is what brought him to Solferino, Lombardy, in late June 1859, during the huge, bloody battle then being waged by the French against the Austrians and Italians (Piedmontese).

Dunant recorded his experiences there in the booklet entitled A Memory of Solferino, which he published at his own expense in November 1862. Suddenly, the book was being read all over Europe. A second printing was released in December, followed by a much larger third one in March. Translations appeared in English, German, Italian, and Swedish. The slim volume’s gripping prose and urgent, reasoned appeal led directly to the founding of the Red Cross in October 1863 and the ratification of the first Geneva Convention in August 1864.

An eyewitness to the Battle of Solferino, Dunant was aghast at the “piles of bleeding corpses” and the untold number of wounded and dying soldiers “strewn pell-mell on the ground … How unfortunate men were left behind, lying helpless on the naked ground in their own blood!” he exclaimed, his description of the carnage and suffering becoming ever more graphic. Dunant was further afflicted when he saw that the “canteen women moved about the field under enemy fire like the soldiers. They were often wounded themselves as they went among the wounded men, lifting their heads and giving them drink as they cried piteously for water.” He was appalled to discover that “ambulance men are no more spared than are the wagons loaded with bread, wine, and meat to make soup for the wounded.”

Dunant then portrays the ensuing chaos in the surrounding towns and villages as they began to overflow with the wounded, far too many to treat with more than pitiable medical attention. “Oh, the agony and suffering during those days, the twenty-fifth, twenty-sixth, and twenty-seventh of June! Wounds were infected by the heat and dust, by shortage of water and lack of proper care, and grew more and more painful. Foul exhalations contaminated the air.” He then describes the curses and pleas of dying, fly-covered soldiers, their “festering wounds causing worms to appear.”

Dunant determined that “somehow or other a volunteer service had to be organized; but this was very difficult amid such disorder; what was worse, a kind of panic seized the [townspeople], adding disastrously to the confusion and aggravating the miserable condition of the wounded.” He began trying to rally all the locals he could in order to provide whatever minimal medical care was possible, and he soon succeeded

in getting together a certain number of women who helped as best they could with the efforts made to aid the wounded. It was not a matter of amputations or operations of any kind. But food, and above all drink, had to be taken around to men dying of hunger and thirst; then their wounds could be dressed and their bleeding, muddy, vermin-covered bodies washed; all this in a scorching, filthy atmosphere in the midst of vile, nauseating odors, with lamentations and cries of anguish all around!

Making “no distinction between nationalities,” Dunant organized relief efforts in accordance with the (ecumenical) principle Tutti fratelli [all are brothers]. Moreover, the women helping him followed his lead, “showing the same kindness to all these men whose origins were so different, and all of whom were foreigners to them. ‘Tutti fratelli,’ they repeated feelingly.”

A Memory of Solferino concludes with Dunant’s famous appeal, which stirred people throughout Europe and led in just a year’s time to the creation in Geneva of the Red Cross, and then its tandem milestone in international law, the first Geneva Convention: “Would it not be possible, in time of peace and quiet, to form relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted, and thoroughly qualified volunteers?” This, of course, is what soon transpired. Over the past 155 years, the Red Cross has been driven by Henry Dunant’s ideals. However, it must be added that the organization betrayed those ideals during World War II. As its president, Peter Maurer, stated just several years ago at an event jointly organized by the ICRC and the World Jewish Congress to mark seventy years since the end of the Shoah:

In institutional terms, the ICRC … had failed to protect civilians and most notably the Jews perse-cuted and murdered by the Nazi regime; it had failed to understand the uniqueness and inhumanity by responding to the outrageous with standard procedures; it had looked on helplessly and silently, not really trying—certainly not hard enough—to live up to the principle of humanity. … It failed as a humanitarian organization because it had lost its moral compass.

The same year the Red Cross was created—1863—also saw Dunant’s first Zionist efforts. Not only was he then enjoying the height of his influence in Europe’s salons, but the period overlapping the Second French Empire of Napoleon III, 1852-70, was experiencing a mildly restorationist climate. Indeed, in 1860 the Emperor’s private secretary, Ernest Laharanne, published La Nouvelle Question d’Orient, Empire d’Egypte et d’Arabie. Reconstruction de la Nationalite Juive. Throughout the period, the Swiss Protestant theologian Abram-François Pétavel (1791-1870), professor at Neuchâtel, was publishing works and lecturing on the restoration of the Jews in Israel. He penned the poem “La fille de Sion, ou, Le rétablissement d’Israël.” In 1873, Alexandre Dumas, fils published a play with a strong Zionist theme, namely, La Femme de Claude, a performance of which is said to have aroused Edmond de Rothschild’s interest in Zionism.

Directly after the founding of the Red Cross in October 1863, Dunant left Geneva for Paris, where he was lionized by diverse elites for several months. It was then that he was invited to the general assembly of the Alliance Israélite Universelle. Dunant was seated beside the Alliance’s president, Adolphe Crémieux, and took the opportunity to try to persuade him and the other Jewish leaders of the need for European Jewry to resettle their ancient homeland. His bid failed, however, as the Alliance saw its overriding purpose as guaranteeing and protecting the rights of Jews across Europe and the Middle East, thereby furthering their integration into the societies in which they lived. The attitude of the Alliance was of course frustrating for both Christian and Jewish Zionists. Among the latter was Moses Hess.

Dunant therefore devised a new bid. In March 1866, he published a pamphlet entitled Projet de Société international universelle pour ta rénovation de l’Orient. About this chapter of Dunant’s life, Ellen Hart writes:

His mind, or rather his spiritual consciousness, had been fast-dyed in the colors of Pastor Gaussen’s preaching in Geneva. At this moment when he was jumping from one boulder to another … the Pastor’s eloquence on the subject of the return of the Jews to Palestine floated up from a deep layer of his mind … [T]he title [of the pamphlet] was a blend of his Gaussenism and his persisting internationalism … . In the project itself there was also the Bonaparte preoccupation. Napoleon III, heir of the Roman Empire and of Charlemagne, was to have benevolent sway over the east Mediterranean … . The whole area of the Near East was covered by the scheme, but Palestine, with the additional Zionist importance, had first place. The Holy Land, ploughed and watered by the works of concessionaires and settlers, would wave with corn, give pasture to great herds; commerce would flourish. The Wanderers of the Dispersal gathered together and settled in Zion would fulfil the word of the Lord. The Prophecies wiped out any possibility of obstruction or of misfortune: concessions could be counted on as the promise of the Scriptures was about to be fulfilled.

Dunant “goes on to propose the construction of a port at Jaffa and a good road and a railway from it to Jerusalem. The territory through which the railway runs, having been ‘conceded’ to the Company, could be sold … for colonization to Israelite families from Morocco, Poland, Moldavia, Wallachia, and from the East and Africa.”

Although his project failed to gain traction, Dunant persisted over the next decade in his efforts to capture the imagination of Jewish and Christian Zionists on behalf of the Jewish resettlement of Palestine. In the summer of 1867, he was in Paris excitedly writing to his mother about a promising new acquaintance, the Dutch Baptist Oswald Papengouth. Papengouth, who had become wealthy serving in the Tsarist navy, had brainstormed plans with Dunant to purchase parts of the Holy Land in order to found Jewish colonies. The two men even created a committee toward that end. However, Papengouth wound up directing his wealth and energies to evangelical missions in Italy. Other such ventures soon augured better, particularly when Dunant was invited for an audience with French Empress Eugénie on July 7, 1867. Her purpose was to enlist Dunant’s assistance in extending the provisions of the Geneva Convention to naval warfare. Having duly agreed to raise the matter with the relevant committees, Dunant then brought up his ideas for Palestine, believing the empress would be able to secure the necessary firman from the Ottoman ruler. Hart wrote that when addressing both the empress and the French ambassador to the Porte, M. Bourée, Dunant explained that “he wanted ten thousand hectares of land for colonization in Palestine, a concession to repair the Aqueduct of Solomon at Jerusalem and for the building of a hospital under the protection of the empress in the Holy City.” Dunant left the meeting assured by both the empress and Bourée that he had won their support for his plans. Later that summer, when the sultan was visiting Paris, Dunant sought an opportunity to speak with him directly about Palestine, but to no avail. Undeterred, he pressed on with his plans, now aimed at forming “a worldwide company with a capital of 500 million francs” that would promote the Jewish resettlement of Palestine: “[H]e would sound his prophetic trumpet and the Jews would gather from the ghettos of Europe and maybe from the great houses too, and the vast migration would start for Palestine.”

Late in 1867, Dunant formed his Société international de la Palestine. The Société even cooperated with the German pietist Christians known as the Templers, whose homes still proudly stand today in Haifa, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Jerusalem, and several smaller localities. The Templers were millennialists, and intended to personally greet Jesus in the Holy Land upon his Second Coming. Practical-minded as well, they had contacted Dunant’s Société believing he could help them obtain a firman, and Dunant agreed to make the attempt. It was concerning this matter that Rabbi Kalischer, always studiously monitoring Zionist activities across both Jewish and Christian Europe, took note of Dunant—as the “eminent Parisian official with his large organization involved in charitable work”—and then expressed his objection to the idea of Christian settlement in Palestine: “[H]ow will they institute a settlement based on Torah principles?” was his pointedly rhetorical question.

Into the 1870s, Dunant’s Société sought ways to mobilize European activities on behalf of its goal, yet with ever feebler effect. Although Dunant was now almost destitute, he nonetheless “solicited help in England for diplomatic representations to the Porte. He went further, and from his insecure foothold in England in 1875, he created the International Palestine and Syria Committee.” The committee did establish contacts with interested parties there, including Keeper of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London Colonel John Cox Gawler, son of George Gawler, the Christian Zionist who had worked closely with Moses Montefiore and had devised his own plans for the restoration of the Jews in Palestine. Unfortunately, this bid came to naught.

The last example of Dunant’s active Zionist plans dates to the aftermath of the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, when he believed the time was finally ripe for the winning of a firman on behalf of Jewish settlement in Palestine. Though in failing health, he boldly set out to arrange a personal audience with the sultan, but got no further than Corfu before his remaining physical strength dissipated.

At the very close of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, just preceding his rousing final words, Herzl said: “We must, moreover, thank the Christian Zionists. In this connection I must name Mr. Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, the Rev. John Mitchell, the Rev. Hechler of Vienna, Baron Manteuffel, Col. Count Bentinck, who also took part in our discussions, and many others.”

On this basis, numerous scholars, reference works, and the recently opened Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem place Henry Dunant among the participants of the First Zionist Congress. This raises the question of how Herzl came to know of Dunant and what connections the two men developed.

It may, therefore, come as a surprise that not even once does Dunant appear in Theodor Herzl’s extensive diaries. Herzl was by no means reluctant to mention his Christian associates. He referred to Reverend William Hechler by name a whopping seventy-nine times, and to Philippe Michael Newlinski fifty-seven times. In the famous poster showing over 160 of the 200 or so delegates to the First Congress, Dunant does not appear. A search by this writer for Dunant’s connection to Herzl in a range of biographies of the Father of Zionism did not yield a single mention of Henry Dunant—though they, too, contain copious descriptions of Hechler and Newlinski’s committed assistance to Herzl. Help came from Lawrence J. Epstein, who recently wrote that Dunant was not in fact in attendance at the First Zionist Congress; rather, Herzl thanked him in absentia. Epstein does not substantiate this claim; however, scholars from the Henry Dunant Museum in Heiden and the Société Henry Dunant in Grand-Lancy confirmed that Dunant was not present in Basel, as throughout that entire period of his “anchorite” life he was confined to the home for the infirm in Heiden.

None of this diminishes the importance of Henry Dunant’s Zionism. On the contrary: Inasmuch as Theodor Herzl himself saw fit to honor Dunant’s Zionist endeavors of the 1860s and ’70s—and at such an august gathering—so, too, should Israelis and the Friends of Zion today.

Indeed, Herzl’s broader remarks at the closing of the Zionist Congress still carry weight. He primarily sought to buttress unity and strengthen ties between all—both past and present—who supported and labored on behalf of the Zionist idea. He began by stating, “I can assure you that Zionism envisages nothing which might wound the religious susceptibilities of any group in Jewry.” Thereafter, he carefully acknowledged the Swiss hosts: “We must first of all express our thanks to this hospitable city which has received us with such goodwill; to the government which has shown us many signs of its sympathy by facilitating the preparations for the Congress, and by the presence during our deliberations of the President, Prof. Dr. Paul Speiser.” Then came his words of gratitude to the Christian Zionists, and understandably Dunant was given pride of place in Herzl’s string of diplomatic courtesies: Dunant was Swiss after all. Next—with such figures in mind as Rabbi Samuel Mohilever (whose grandson Joseph was present in Basel), Leon Pinsker, Peretz Smolenskin, Rabbi Tsevi Kalischer, and Moses Hess—Herzl ended his thanks by saying: “We shall, of course, also remember the Jewish Zionists who have preceded us in this work. Their names are all present in our minds, and I include all of them together in our thanks.”

That very day—August 31, 1897—Max Nordau, who was also in Basel, wrote a touching note to Dunant, and sent it to him in Heiden. Concerned that Dunant’s commitment to Zionism might be forgotten, Nordau penned a grateful tribute:

The day when Zionism is so secure that it can take a look back to its rise and ponder on its origins and its history, your efforts for it will have the recognition they deserve for their astonishing foresight and for their true Christian generosity. You have so many claims to the everlasting gratitude of your fellow-men. Your place in the history of civilization is so exalted and so touched with glory that your service, prophetic as it is, to the cause of Zionism, may indeed be lost sight of in the scale of those other achievements of your noble life …