How Hebrew were the Hebrew Christians?

Anne Perez. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies. Volume 18, Issue 1. February 2019.

This article demonstrates how Hebrew Christians—or Jews who converted to Christianity but retained Jewish identity—resonated with the claims of the Zionist movement in its first decades, particularly with regard to its notion of Hebrew identity. In their espousal of Zionist ideals and their attempts to join Zionist efforts, Hebrew Christian notions of Hebrewness reflected the multivalence of Hebrew identity in the Zionist movement itself, and particularly the understanding of Hebrewness as racial, ethnic, and cultural. The influence of the Zionist movement upon Hebrew Christians was especially evident in Hebrew Christian attempts to form their own institutions. These organizations promoted Jewish national culture dissociated from Judaism, expressed assertive and even aggressive motivations (what I term “Muscle Hebrew Christianity”), and recognized the ineluctability of anti-Semitism regardless of Jewish religious beliefs. Examining the somewhat obscure movement of Hebrew Christianity can ultimately help us to better understand the ways Zionism was interpreted in its formative stages, especially in light of its own divisions and various emphases.

In 1918, the Hebrew Christian Alliance boasted—quite hyperbolically—that, “we Hebrew Christians are by the grace of God the advance guard in the [Zionist] movement” (Ruben 1918, 136). Hebrew Christians were Jews who converted to Christianity but wanted to maintain a Jewish identity, and with the onset of the Zionist movement, they often subscribed to Jewish nationalism as well. As I will demonstrate, there were aspects of the bourgeoning Zionist movement that enabled Hebrew Christians to use Zionist claims to envision themselves as part of the Jewish nation despite their conversion to Christianity. While they were both numerically and proportionally a marginal phenomenon, as historian Ronen Shamir posits, “It is often by searching for the marginalized, the odd, and the silenced, that one can come to understand the taken-for-granted” (Shamir 2000, 28). I argue that Hebrew Christian claims about, and contact with, Zionism highlight the tensions taken for granted within the Zionist movement at the time, particularly with regard to its construction and interpretation of Jewish nationhood and “Hebrew” ethnicity. Hebrew Christian Zionist involvement, and the development of Hebrew Christian organizations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, demonstrate the influence and implications of Zionist claims for “Hebrew” national aspirations.

The notion of a distinct “Hebrew Christian” identity first emerged in the early nineteenth century and subsequently gained organizational traction (see Schonfield 1936; Fruchtenbaum 1974; Sobel 1974; Rausch 1983; Nerel 1997, 2000; Darby 2010). Self-proclaimed Hebrew Christians were almost always affiliated with Protestant denominations, though there was also a less active “Hebrew Catholic” movement that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century. In the nineteenth century Britain had largely been the epicenter of Hebrew Christian activity; the establishment in 1809 of the prolific London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews branded Jewish conversion as a “completion” of Jewish identity rather than a departure from it, and often hired Jewish missionaries to bolster this claim (Gidney 1908; Perry 2003; Ariel 2003). In 1841 the Anglican church collaborated with Lutheran Prussia to establish a Protestant bishopric in Jerusalem, and determined that a converted Jew, Michael Solomon Alexander, should become the first Protestant bishop in Jerusalem (Geldbach 1991; Farah 2002). By 1866 the first Hebrew Christian Alliance formed in England, followed by several similar organizations.

Yet Hebrew Christianity was by no means an exclusively British phenomenon, Hebrew Christian leadership and organization shifted to the United States and Palestine and was found in other areas of Europe as well. Some Hebrew Christians were closely involved with developments in American Christianity at this time, such as the rise of the Fundamentalist movement and the emergence of Christian Zionism (Rausch 1979; Ariel 1991). Many Christians worldwide viewed the conversion of these Jews, who wanted to underscore their Jewish origins, as a boon to their evangelistic efforts as well as their eschatological beliefs, especially with the concomitant emergence of dispensationalist theology that highlighted the special role of the Jews in God’s plan (Ariel 1991; Cohn-Sherbok 2006). The controversial subject of the establishment of an independent Hebrew Christian denomination resembled other contemporary discussions of “native” or autonomous churches worldwide at the turn of the twentieth century. Of course, the majority of Jewish converts to Christianity were not affiliated with Hebrew Christian associations. Most nineteenth and early twentieth century conversions occurred not to maintain Jewish identity but rather to escape its social liabilities or to marry outside the Jewish community (Endelman 1987, 2015; Hertz 2007).

Hebrew Christians and Zionism

One way that many Hebrew Christians espoused their Jewish identity was by attempting to take part in Zionist activities and discussions, both in Europe as well as in Palestine itself. In some cases, Hebrew Christians regarded Zionism as a foregone eschatological step toward the second coming of Christ and the conversion of their “brethren.” But more commonly, converts viewed the movement as the ultimate way to preserve their national distinctiveness despite their detachment from Judaism. One concrete way Hebrew Christians attempted to participate in the Zionist movement was by attending, or at least following, the Zionist Congresses, despite the fact they could not join the Zionist Organization as members. German pastor and Hebrew Christian missionary Arnold Frank attended the first Zionist congress in 1897, and Reverend Samuel Schor, originally born in Palestine but a later resident in England, attended the second Zionist congress (Frank 1946; Schor 1898b. For more on Schor see Migron 2002). Schor wrote a detailed report offering his general impressions of the gathering and summarizing the goals of the conference and the topics of speeches by prominent Zionists. “I always believed in the genius of my race,” Schor reflected, “but when I moved among these men, talked and discussed various questions with them, listened to their discussions and reports … I felt proud of my Jewish origin” (Schor 1898b, 174). Schor was evidently accepted by other participants as he stated, “I was received with so much kindness and courtesy, although aware that I belonged to their race though not to their faith” (181). Another group of Hebrew Christians attended a meeting for the Federation of American Zionists in 1918 (Winer 1990, 78). Individual Hebrew Christians continued to attend for decades, since in 1925 one Hebrew Christian complained that, “when [Hebrew Christians] as individuals tried to go to a great conference, like the Zionist Conference in Vienna [in 1925], they were asked ‘Who are you?'” (“The International Hebrew Christian Alliance Report on the First International Hebrew Christian Conference” 1925, 49-50).

Hebrew Christians also attempted to contact Zionist founder Theodor Herzl directly. The Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem hold letters from some Hebrew Christians who wrote to Herzl as individuals (Schor 1898a; Herzl 1899). In 1901 a group of Hebrew Christians formed the Hebrew Christian Alliance and Prayer Union (HCAPU), the constitution of which stated as its first aim: “To glorify our blessed Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by United Testimony for Him before our Jewish Brethren, in any way that may appear opportune from time to time, especially in connection with the aspirations of ‘Zionism‘” (emphasis mine). The “methods” the HCAPU hoped to employ included forming a branch in the Holy Land, promoting Hebrew Christian colonization there, and “[communicating] with the Zionists.” The HCAPU thus circulated a letter and petition to Herzl and other Zionist leaders. They expressed support for the Zionist movement and its national aspirations, assuring that “we love our race” and would advocate to Christian churches in Britain regarding the movement. They added that, “we earnestly pray that the day is not far distant when Christian Jews will be treated by the Synagogue with the liberty conceded to all schools of thought among our Nation” (“HCAPU” 1901). This letter and petition indicate that these converts thus considered themselves as much of a Zionist constituency as other streams of Jewish life.

Hebrew Christian publications indicated a strong interest in, as well as support for, the Zionist movement. Some writings were primarily informative; Hebrew Christian periodicals reported frequently on the ideological underpinnings of Zionism and on recent strides and setbacks of the movement (Ben Oliel 1891; “Palestine” 1891; “Zionism” 1906). Hebrew Christians also frequently quoted Zionists, indicating their regular engagement with Zionist discourse (“The Zionist Movement” 1905; Levison 1916, 119). Henry Einspruch discussed Arthur Ruppin, Israel Zangwill, Shai Ish Hurwitz, and Max Nordau (Einspruch 1918, 7-8; 1925, 5). Other Hebrew Christians explicitly rebutted Moses Gaster’s 1917 essay on religion and nationalism (Levison 1917, 39-40; Adeney 1918, 4). Zionism was also a regular lecture topic at Hebrew Christian gatherings.

Many Hebrew Christian publications explicitly promoted Zionism. In 1902 Samuel Schor published a pamphlet entitled Palestine for the Jew; or, the Awakening of the Jewish Nation. The pamphlet discussed the history of Palestine and included a chapter on “the Palestine of to-day,” underscoring the political importance of its location, its potentially fertile land, the increasing Jewish population and the expansion of Jerusalem (Schor 1902). Chaim Jedidah Pollak (known as “Lucky”) also eagerly supported Zionism with one commentator noting in 1909 that he was “intensely alive to the Zionist movement and expects it soon will assume large proportions” (Lillevik 2014, 258-261). South African Hebrew Christian author Philip Cohen urged support for Zionism, exhorting Hebrew Christians to consider Palestine a “loved parent.” He explained that, “Zionists admit that by a process of social revulsion and cruel undeceiving they were awakened out of their national slumber in the very cradle of assimilation, and do we Hebrew Christians consider ourselves exceptions to this case?” (Cohen 1909, 23). Leon Levison’s books also openly advocated Zionism; in The Jew in History (1916) he claimed Zionism was indicative of the enduring nature of the Jewish national spirit, and in Zionism: Racial or Sectarian? (1917) he chronicled Jewish persecution in history and the subsequent need for an independent state (Levison 1916, 1917). In 1931 Polish convert and Zionist Leo Belmont wrote a fictionalized biography of Theodor Herzl entitled “Modern Moses.” Amos Dushaw wrote novels such as The Rivals and Proselytes of the Ghetto (undoubtedly an allusion to Israel Zangwill’s 1898 work Dreamers of the Ghetto) that, inter alia, promoted Zionism and castigated anti-Semitism (Dushaw 1909, 1913). Hebrew Christians Abram Poljak, Haim Jacobs, and Mark John Levy, to name a few, wrote essays and books with titles like The Cross in the Star of DavidReligion and Nationality, and “Hebrew Christianity and Jewish Nationalism” (Jacobs 1927; Levy 1931; Poljak 1938). Hebrew Christians even published a Christian version of the Zionist anthem “Hatikva” (Ariel 2003, 50-51). The volumes written on the subject by Hebrew Christians underscore their abiding interest in, and support for, Zionism and specifically the validity of their own involvement in its development.

Contested Meaning of a “Hebrew” Nation

While Hebrew Christians were not of central concern to the Zionist movement, their espousal of Hebrew identity mirrored one of the movement’s utmost values and challenges. While the pursuit and establishment of a Jewish state prompted the infamous question of “Who is a Jew”, it also posited a new category of Jewishness altogether—that of “Hebrew.” Early Zionist author Micha Yosef Berdyczewsky famously issued the ultimatum that Zionists could be the last Jews or the first Hebrews—but what did this mean? As Etan Bloom asserts,

The dichotomy of Jew and Hebrew was at the core of identity formation in the Zionist community in Palestine, and, to a large extent, shaped pre-Israel cultural identity … that evolved … as a result of the tension between the perception of Judaism as a religion and the “new Hebrews'” secular-modern perception of the Jews as a nation or a race. (2011, 12)

Discourse about Hebrew identity thus took on both racial and cultural valences. The popular expression during the so-called “language wars” in Palestine (between Hebrew and European languages like Yiddish), “Ivri, daber Ivrit!” (or “Hebrew, speak Hebrew!”) perhaps best demonstrates the fluidity of the word, as Hebrew describes both a language and a person. “Hebrew”, then, could itself have a range of meanings, and as scholars have shown, the term continued to transform over the first decades of the Zionist movement and into the early state of Israel. Moshe Berent posits that, “It is important to stress that as much as the choice of the Hebrew had been a cultural choice, it still had left the contents of the Hebrew culture open” (2015, 30). Itamar Even-Zohar also notes that more research is needed on the factors that made up the development of Hebrew culture in Palestine (Even-Zohar 1981). Conversion from Judaism, especially by those like the Hebrew Christians who wanted to claim legitimate membership of the Jewish people, posed a certain challenge to Hebrew identity—was it independent of religion, and if so, why would religious conversion affect it?

Hebrewness could have a cultural as well as racial connotation. Perhaps the most salient aspect of Hebrew cultural identity was the Hebrew language. In her study on language in Mandate Palestine, Liora Halperin identifies a “Hebrew orthodoxy” that rests on the prominence of Hebrew language and Hebrew labour. Avodah, instead of serving as a word for temple worship, became a secular-sacred term for the hegemony of Hebrew (Halperin 2014, 29). This position reached a controversial peak, for instance, in the 1911 “Brenner Affair”, during which Yosef Haim Brenner claimed that someone who believed in the New Testament could still be a Jew so long as they spoke Hebrew and contributed to Hebrew colonization (See Govrin 1985; Hoffman 2007; Shapira 2014).

But Hebrew culture did not just entail the use and cultivation of Modern Hebrew, it also suggested a historical posture. Vladimir Jabotinksy issued a biting dichotomy of “Yid” (possibly translatable with the term “Jew,” though with varying and pejorative connotations) and Hebrew:

Our starting point is to take the typical Yid of today and to imagine his diametrical opposite … Because the Yid is ugly, sickly, and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty. The Yid is trodden upon … the Hebrew ought to be proud and independent … The Yid wants to conceal his identity from strangers and, therefore, the Hebrew should look the world straight in the eye and declare: “I am a Hebrew” (as quoted in Baker 2017).

Hebrew culture could thus mean affiliation with what was perceived as a more assertive, militant and autonomous past and future, what some Zionists came to famously term “negation of the exile” (shelilat hagalut). Israel Zangwill similarly differentiated between Hebrew and Jewish identity, parsing the role of religion, ideals, and birth. “If I may make a distinction I have long pondered,” Zangwill stated,

between our triple names, Hebrew, Jew, and Israelite, the Hebrew is the idealist, the Jew the adherent of an historical system, the Israelite the Jew by birth who may become the patriot and the nationalist …

The secret to all our discrepancies, Zangwill continued, “is, some of us are one and some two, and some all three of these things. The last, the Israelite, we cannot avoid being: it is our lowest common factor” (Zangwill 1976, 37).

The notion of racial or ethnic belonging to the Jewish nation was also prominent in Hebrew Christian discussions of Zionism. The “Hebrew” modifying “Christian” predated Zionism by several decades, and referred primarily to the ethnic origins of the convert. B.Z. Sobel argues that Hebrew Christians appropriated the Zionist notion of a Hebrew identity as a “[tool] of legitimation” for conversionist aims. Zionism lent itself to this appropriation by its “lack of definitiveness and allowing for diverse and variegated interpretations of its nature and purposes.” Sobel continues,

In so far as Zionism based its appeal on the entire spectrum of Jewish life from the orthodox to the rabid anti- religionists, an avowal of the movement’s ends afforded an opportunity to separate Judaism the religion from Jews the people in a perfectly consistent fashion. (Sobel 1968, 246)

Sobel’s argument about a conversionist ploy is an exaggeration, as many sources suggest sincerity in their “Hebrew” identification, but he rightfully identifies ways in which Hebrew Christians adapted existing Zionist thought. What Gideon Shimoni wrote about the Hebraism of the Canaanites might also be applicable to the “Hebraism” of Hebrew Christians: “It was undeniably an emanation—one might say a reduction ad absurdum—of Zionist-mediated secular Jewish identity. It reflected contradictions, tensions, and tendencies that inhered in the secularization of Jewish identity within a nationalist framework” (Shimoni 1995, 320). If there was a spectrum between two poles of “normative” and “laissez-faire” secular Jewish identity, as Shimoni proposes, the “laissez-faire” pole allowed Hebrew Christians to position themselves as valid members of the Jewish nation based on existing arguments and assumptions within Zionism.

Much like in mainstream Zionist discourse, Hebrew Christians did not always deploy the term “Hebrew” with a specific valence or with ideological consistency; the term could mean race, descent, or ethno-national identity. A “racial” usage was common. One Hebrew Christian organization explained its raison d’être by asking, “what could be more natural than for people belonging to the same race … and in other respects possessing many characteristics in common, to have a tendency to be drawn to one another?” (“Hebrew Christian Association Record” 1909). Its publication also used “race” and “nationality” in the same context, announcing “that all descendants of the Hebrew race who have accepted Christ as their Messiah should … unite together on the broad basis of common nationality” (“Our New Departure” 1910, 1). A. Bernstein wrote of a “racial bond” and “racial unity” amongst Hebrew Christians even from different countries and languages (Bernstein 1910, 25). Leon Levison also underscored racial identity, writing that “unity of race” or “unaltering” “racial constitution” was one of “three fundamental facts” upon which nationalism was based (Levison 1916, 121).

Tied to the notion of a Hebrew “race,” Hebrew Christians sometimes articulated Hebrew identity as a matter of blood and descent. Philip Cohen appealed to Hebrew Christians to share in Jewish patriotism since, “Are we not flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone? Shall not that thrilling cry ‘blood runs thicker than water’ apply to us?” (Cohen 1909, 23). Cohen claimed that membership in the nation was the “birthright” of Hebrew Christians, and their connection to the Jewish people “would maintain in us that national enthusiasm we drank in at our mother’s breasts” (76-79). One letter to the editor of the Hebrew Christian Record noted that Hebrew Christians should not be considered apostates but rather “genuine patriots of our nation, and true sons and daughters of Israel” (“Correspondence” 1910, 28). This sentiment parallels that of Zangwill, discussed above, who asserted “the Israelite [is] the Jew by birth who may become the patriot and the nationalist” and is an unavoidable and ascribed status.

One expression of Hebrew identity as blood ties was the importance of maintaining a Hebrew lineage. Conversely, stopping that lineage was tantamount to national extinction. One Hebrew Christian writer wondered why in Palestine there were only new Hebrew Christians, instead of second and third generations (Nerel 2001b, 14). He worried that Hebrew Christians were not raising new generations themselves. Another writer observed that children of Jewish converts married gentiles and became fully assimilated (“The Ideal of a Hebrew Christian Church” 1904, 32). Convert Elias Newman recalled that,

If we wanted to get married we were told we must marry a Gentile; there were a few Hebrew Christian girls and they had to marry Gentiles and if we were impudent or imprudent to cast an eye upon one of these maidens, flesh of our flesh, we were considered in danger of apostasy [return to Judaism]. (as quoted in Rausch 1983, 73)

Philip Cohen mourned that the children of Hebrew Christians did not maintain any Hebrew identification. He devoted an entire chapter to the subject of intermarriage under the title “A Plea for Hebrew National Continuity.” “We have ceased to be national,” Cohen lamented; “our children are entirely lost to our people, and practically with every Hebrew convert there comes a break in the continuity of our nationality.” If Hebrew Christians had to marry Gentiles, Cohen argued, “It therefore only remains for the Hebrew Christian himself to possess a strong national feeling, and the natural sequence will be that his partner in life will become absorbed.” Children from marriages like these should continue to marry Hebrew Christians, and thus “our next generation will intermarry among themselves and thus secure to a later generation a pure stock of Hebrew Christian nationality.” A key expression of being “true to their nation” meant “that our continuity should be handed down to our children” (Cohen 1909, 37, 85-86, 110). This concern for the effects of intermarriage were salient in mainstream Zionist circles as well, most notably in the writings of sociologist and immigration administrator Arthur Ruppin whom Etan Bloom dubbed a “culture planner for Hebrew identity” (Ruppin 1913; Bloom 2011, 8).

More generally, if Hebrew Christians did not explicitly articulate their “Hebrew” identity as one of race or descent, they oftentimes expressed it as ethnic or national. According to Philip Cohen, since a nation was generally known by its language, the adjective “Hebrew” should mark the nationality and the term “Jew” or “Christian” the religion (Cohen 1909, 14). George Margoliouth argued for a Hebrew identity along these lines as well, “As there are English Christians, Italian Christians, German Christians, etc., so there are also Jewish Christians. Christianity is not a nationality, but a religion, and is compatible with any nationality.” Margoliouth claimed that, “As a Christian Jew I feel that like St. Paul, I am a Jew still to the backbone, and I cannot cease to be so” (“Correspondence between Simon and Margoliouth” 1887, 8-9, 4). These claims about Jewish nationality were the inverse of prominent Zionist Moses Gaster’s conclusion about Jewish nationality. “The moment a Jew has forsworn his faith he has lost everything that is Jewish,” Gaster determined.

A Christian can change his faith, and yet remain a member of the nation. A Protestant Englishman can become a Roman Catholic, and still remain an Englishman; and so with every other nation. Not so with the Jews … there can be Irish and English Catholics, but there cannot be Christian and Jewish Jews. They are either one or the other.

Gaster’s argument reflects the existing ambiguity surrounding Zionist national identity that Hebrew Christians were tapping, what Gaster called “the havoc that has been wrought by confused thinking and wrong definitions, by attempts at squaring the circle, and making the modern conception of nationality fit Judaism” (Gaster 1917, 92-95).

Because of these existing definitions of a Hebrew nationality based on race, descent, or nationality, Hebrew Christians were sensitive to contradictions in the Zionist platform regarding the role of religion in determining membership. J.H. Adeney’s 1918 pamphlet on Zionism complained that,

Zionism, in its endeavour to unite the whole nation, has felt constrained to adopt a non-religious platform … even in this Zionism has proved not entirely true to its principles. It admits within its ranks any Jew who still subscribes to its national aims regardless of his religious attitude … yet it refuses to acknowledge the Jew who has accepted Christianity.

Adeney conceded that Hebrew Christians, with their many connections to Gentiles, might “[weaken] the cohesion of the race” in the diaspora. “But whatever amount of truth there may be in this excuse,” Adeney continued, “there can be none for excluding him from a share in the Jewish state when once it is re-established in Palestine” (Adeney 1918, 4-5). In Adeney’s view, the existence of a state would override religious distinctions. Amos Dushaw’s fictional character similarly contends that the Jewish national identity was not degraded when separated from religion.

That may have been true of former times, but … citizenship to-day is not identified with a particular church … Cannot a Jewish State do what America is doing? … In a Jewish State any man will be free to go to any church he pleases, or stay away from all churches. (Dushaw 1913, 22-23)

Leon Levison made similar claims. He identified “the constitution of the new Jewish State and the conditions of citizenship” as one of the biggest challenges facing Zionism, and warned that, “history shows conclusively that a nation cannot permanently be based upon unity of religious belief. The problem of Church and State confronts Zionists, and upon its solution depends the future of the movement,” Levison predicted. “If the Jew who changes his faith, ceases to be a Jew, he has no business to be in the new State at all, and thus Zionism of this type … is committed to a policy of persecution and expulsion” (Levison 1917, 39, 44-45).

Haim (Hyman) Jacobs, from Palestine, also insisted that religion and nationality should be separate if the nation the Jews were building were to be viable. Therefore, Hebrew Christians could contribute to the nation’s construction, and eligibility “to take a share in this National government” should only require blood descent: “one drop of Jewish blood running in the veins,” or “of the natural seed of Abraham our father even if this part should be a thousandth of one percent.” Jacobs asserted,

Let us look reason in the face. If you call a Jew (no matter how good and honest he may be) who believes in the New Testament, a ‘traitor to his nation’ … by this you declare and say with your own mouth (not knowing the danger) that the Jews are only a Religious body—or sect—and not a nation.

Jacobs’s parenthetical warning suggests that he believed that Zionists were unaware of a contradiction in the movement itself that posed a latent threat to the integrity of a Jewish nation-state. “He that would insist that the Jewish Nation and the Jewish Religion is the selfsame thing,” Jacobs added boldly, “he destroys the National Home with his own hands.” He therefore “demand[s] (not beg as a favor)” that Hebrew Christians would be considered a Jewish sect the way they were before the “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity (Jacobs 1927, 6, 16-17). Zionism, Hebrew Christians believed, needed to clarify and strengthen its identity without reference to religion. They thus considered their ostracism as both proof and a warning of the weakness of the movement’s Hebrew ideals.

Hebrew Christian Church/Denomination as Nationalist Expression

One of the most significant areas in which we find influence from the Zionist movement and its notions of Hebrew identity is in discussions surrounding the possible establishment of a Hebrew Christian church or denomination. Scholars have linked the rise of a Hebrew Christian church with different core motivations. Gershon Nerel has argued for primarily theological motivations, and has demonstrated that Hebrew Christians wanted to restore the original Hebrew branch of the Christian church and purify the church of Gentile accretions (Nerel 1998). Yaakov Ariel argues that the survival of such an autonomous organization among Protestant circles was possible primarily because of dispensationalist beliefs, which elevated the role of Jews in God’s plan (Ariel 1991, 1, 50). David A. Rausch similarly credited the rise of the Hebrew Christian movement with fundamentalist (and often dispensationalist) emphasis on biblical prophecy (Rausch 1983, 70). B.Z. Sobel argues that Hebrew Christian institutions were essentially gimmicks to promote Jewish conversion. To an extent, each of these trends played a role. However, Sobel himself also observes that it was in the same period as the rise of political Zionism that Hebrew Christianity finally “began to achieve some stability and organizational sophistication” (Sobel 1968, 245). Raymond Lillevik ventures to suggest that the crystallization of Jewish Christianity “could be regarded as a fruit of Jewish nationalism” and argues that attempts to create a Jewish-Christian congregation could be viewed as a result of this as well (Lillevik 2014, 330). I aver that these scholars are correct and that Hebrew Christian interest in a national church was affected by the Zionist movement and reflected some of its core claims and goals.

The idea of forming a Hebrew Christian congregation started as early as the mid-nineteenth century. The congregation formed by maskil-turned-pastor Joseph Rabinowitz in Kishineff served as a critical precedent (for more on Rabinowitz see Zipperstein 1987; Kjaer-Hansen 1995; Zhuk 2011; Schainker 2016). Some Christians outside Hebrew Christian circles supported the prospect, one of the most significant supporters being Sir Andrew Wingate (incidentally the uncle of Orde Wingate, who later acted as a military commander in British Mandate Palestine) (Kelk 1902; “The Revival of the Church of the Hebrews” 1902; Wingate 1910; A Hebrew Christian Church: Five Essays1911). Other Christian leaders and mission organizations were apprehensive if not entirely antagonistic towards the establishment of a separate Hebrew Christian denomination or church body, often levelling the perennial accusation of “Judaizing,” particularly if people advocated the retention of circumcision, Sabbath observance, and other Jewish holidays or customs (“By the Way” 1902, 65).

Hebrew Christians generally showed more support for a separate church than their non-Jewish counterparts. Some did oppose the idea; for instance David Baron argued that Jewish national customs, unlike those of other nations, retained a religious charge that was not compatible with Christian faith (Darby 2010, 128, 234). Another writer expressed almost the opposite: the church would not be spiritually suspect, but rather it would “be based principally with a view to racial preservation” and thus not in keeping with the universal mission of Christianity. Someone from Lemberg wrote that “many of my Hebrew Christian brethren have adopted an attitude of indifference and even of hostility” about a Hebrew Christian denomination. But it was for this reason that he was so enthused to see Wingate’s support. He hoped to go further than Wingate’s proposal and to observe Sabbath and other Jewish feasts, as well as Passover, “because they are national” and because they can be imbued with Christian meaning (“Correspondence” 1910, 33-34, 26-27).

As early as 1882, Hebrew Christian Mark John Levy proposed an independent Hebrew Christian organization, the Christian Jews’ Patriotic Alliance, and continued to advocate for a Hebrew Christian church for decades. Levy called for a “restoration” of the church to its “primitive Hebrew branch” and he also spoke of the restoration of the Jews to Palestine. Levy argued that “When [Paul] said ‘In Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female,’ he was referring to the spiritual tie, and no more intended to un-Jew the Jew than to unsex the Gentile” (as quoted in Cohen 1909, 100). His Patriotic Alliance never fully mobilized, but his appeal for a Hebrew Christian church met with positive responses and he became one of the foremost Hebrew Christian leaders in the early twentieth century (Ariel 2003, 49).

Philip Cohen also argued for the establishment of a Hebrew Christianity and leaned heavily on Levy. Cohen’s audience was primarily other Hebrew Christians, though he also acknowledged Gentile Christians. This audience is significant because his appeal for a Hebrew Christianity was not about posturing for proselytization, or for “legitimation,” in the parlance of Sobel. Cohen’s thesis was that “assimilation is not desirable, useful or necessary,” and a Hebrew Christian church was a potent way to prevent it (Cohen 1909, 41).

Many Hebrew Christians believed that a Hebrew Christian Church was directly relevant to the existence of a Jewish political entity. In 1887 Hebrew Christian George Margoliouth linked the idea of Jewish independence in Palestine with the formation of a Jewish Christian congregation. He lamented that,

It is certainly a pity that Hebrew Christians have, in the present day, no choice but to be absorbed in some Gentile branch of the Christian Church; but if a [Jewish] national Christian community were called into existence, I would not hesitate for a moment in becoming a member of it.

He called for Jews to “Rise up and form … a Jewish Christ believing Synagogue; retain circumcision, retain the Sabbath, revive the hope of National Independence in Palestine” (Emphasis mine. “Correspondence between Simon and Margoliouth” 1887, 4, 14). Canon A.H. Kelk, based in Palestine, suggested that a national church was only desirable in the event that Hebrew Christians had a country in which they were the majority (Kelk 1902, 143). However, writer M.G. Dampier refuted the contention that “there can be no national church without a country for it to occupy,” and she cited the Armenian church as a precedent of a national church without a nation-state (Dampier 1913, 117).

This association between the church and political reality gained new meaning after the First World War and the Balfour Declaration. J.H. Adeney wrote to the London Jews’ Society (a later name of the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity amongst the Jews) committee that,

In view of the possible passing of Palestine into the hands of the Jews may I urge the consideration of the question of a Hebrew Christian Church … I recognize … that such a church is impossible till there is a separate Jewish state in one form or another with a definite Jewish citizenship all over the world … In view however of the possibility of the establishment of such a state would it not be advisable to consider the question and have a plan prepared.

He conceded that even if a state were not established, Jerusalem was still going to become a more and more Jewish city. Adeney then drew a direct parallel with the Zionist movement, stating that “Just as the Jewish colonies are a preparation for eventual settlement so there should be some preparation for a Hebrew Christian Church.” He suggested that “for the present it could be under Gentile supervision if thought desirable and necessary,” perhaps echoing the logic of British sponsorship of a Jewish National Home (Adeney 1917). A year after the Balfour Declaration the main Hebrew Christian organization in the United States issued a declaration, “Religious Liberty for Hebrew Christians in the New Jewish State,” acknowledging the forthcoming Jewish state, their desire to be included among its builders, and their insistence on retaining their religious beliefs in this context (Winer 1990, 77).

The establishment of the Hebrew Christian Alliances (HCA) was the most tangible effort towards the goal of a Hebrew Christian denomination or church body, and those involved in the HCA repeatedly linked the association to the Zionist movement. Several of these organizations formed at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth: the HCAPU discussed above, which became the Hebrew Christian Alliance in Britain in 1909, and the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America in 1915. Hebrew Christians in Jaffa organized their own chapel, Bath Zion. However, they faced censure from the executive committee of the London Society, which Gershon Nerel claims preferred for converted Jews to assimilate into Anglicanism rather than congregate according to nationality (“General Committee Minutes volume C” 1895; Nerel 2002a, 12). The Hebrew Christian Association was formed in Jerusalem in 1898 with the intention of expressing Jewish national identity in the face of what they perceived as their double marginalization: anti-Semitism in the church and anti-Christianity amongst Jews (“Constitution and By-Laws of the Jerusalem Hebrew Christian Association” 1901). It was open to any Jew who declared his or her conversion both to their family and publicly (though it was not specifically required that they had to do this by baptism). The organization had an action committee as well as several officers, and met weekly in homes for Friday evening Shabbat services. One of their new year’s picnics had as many as fifty in attendance (Nerel 2001a, 14). The organization updated its bylaws in 1901, but by 1904 it was no longer functioning.

The International Hebrew Christian Alliance was formed in 1925, expressing explicit commitment to Zionism and making Zionist activity part of its raison d’etre. The invitation to the inaugural conference stated, “We believe … that as Hebrew Christians, though a remnant weak and small, we have a share in the building up of the ‘Tabernacle of David that is fallen down'” (“Silver Jubilee” 1950, 5). One of the stated aims in the organization’s constitution was “to make it possible for Hebrew Christians who may desire to do so to share in the activity of Zionism, and to claim for them equal rights in terms of the ‘Balfour Declaration'” (Levison 1928, 12). In 1930 Hebrew Christians in Palestine formed an HCA affiliated with the IHCA, with the hope of offering material and moral support for Hebrew Christians found in a liminal social space. The organization held conferences annually, and by 1938 there were almost 70 in attendance at the monthly meetings in Haifa and 30 to 40 in Jaffa-Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (Peltz 1938, 48).

There are several significant parallels between the discourse and features of the movement for a Hebrew Christian body and of the Zionist movement at the time. Some functions of Hebrew Christian associations were similar to those of Zionist groups, such as cultivating national culture. The HCA in England formed a Hebrew conversation class, noting that, “this class, besides its educational aspect, will serve to convince the Jews that we have not turned our back to their national sentiment, but rather identify ourselves with those who wish to see Hebrew again become a living language” (“Association Notes” 1910, 19). One writer’s description of a Jewish church in Jerusalem was reminiscent of the cultural centre posited by Zionist ideologue Ahad Ha’am: “Such a Church, having its prescriptive seat of authority in Jerusalem, would be the focus and centre towards which Christian Jews and Jewish inquirers from all quarters of the world would naturally and inevitably gravitate” (Ball 1901, 47).

The campaign for a Hebrew Christian church also demonstrated what could be termed “Muscle Hebrew Christianity.” Max Nordau’s “Muscle Judaism” or concept of “New Jews”/”Muscle Jews” became a famous feature of the Zionist ethos, a tenet promoting physical strength, manual labour, self-reliance, and a repudiation of obsequiousness (Biale 1997, 178-179; Stanislawski 2001, 91-92). Discourse about establishing a Hebrew Christian church seemed to mimic this posture. For instance, the Jerusalem Hebrew Christian Association constitution asserted,

Whereas the scattered and isolated condition of our Hebrew Christian brethren and their non-aggressive and non-resisting attitude has made them the objects of attack both of the Jew-hating anti-Semites and the Christ-hating Jews, we therefore deem this a proper time and Jerusalem the most appropriate place for all Hebrew Christians … to rise and take their place in the ranks of the Christian hosts. (“Constitution and By-Laws of the Jerusalem Hebrew Christian Association” 1901, 2)

This statement rejected what they deemed as a passive and pacifist posture of converted Jews, and the reference to the “proper time” (1898, the year after the first Zionist Congress) as well as Jerusalem as the proper place, suggests influence from the Zionist movement. The original bylaws called on Hebrew Christians to “cast off their swaddling clothes and assert their manhood.” (Nerel surmises that these sections were deleted from the later 1901 bylaws as a result of pressure from Gentile Christians) (Nerel 2002b, 443-444, 449). Philip Cohen, like the Jerusalem HCA, did not want to wait for official church sanction to move forward with a Hebrew Christian church: “Whether the leaders of the various Missions will or will not give us that consideration for which we plead does not matter; after all the whole thing is in our own hands” (Cohen 1909, 84).

Some rhetoric about Hebrew Christian independence drew on the gendered notion implicit in “Muscle Judaism.” Much like the HCA’s exhortation for Hebrew Christians to “assert their manhood,” Philip Cohen claimed that, “the Christian Israelite will not be worthy of his manhood if he reconciles himself to such a state of things.” And Cohen deplored that Hebrew Christians so often relied on mission charity and thus destroyed “his true manly dignity.” Cohen therefore concluded that “The only solution which appeals to us as likely to be satisfactory is the creation of a prosperous and self-sustaining Hebrew Christian community” (Cohen 1909, 39, 71, 4). Max Reich, as well, after attending the Jewish Congress in Philadelphia in 1918, asserted that Hebrew Christians “owe a duty to generations yet unborn to vindicate manfully and persistently their inalienable right to be considered a part of their people” (as quoted in Winer 1990, 79). Hebrew Christianity was thus an avenue for restoring converts’ manhood.

Another major parallel between the campaign to establish a Hebrew Christian church and the Zionist movement was the recognition of the threat of anti-Semitism against Jews of all backgrounds. Prominent Hebrew Christian and author Hugh Schoenfield averred that

the same spirit which led Theodore [sic] Herzl to seek the solution of the Jewish problem in a revived Jewish State had led Joseph Rabinowitz to seek a solution in a Jewish divinely controlled Kingdom, with Jesus as the sovereign. In both cases it was the manifestation of anti-semitism that was the influential cause. (Schonfield 1936, 227)

J.H. Adeney observed this in Jerusalem, where “one could not help feeling that things were wrong. In the front seats were the tourists and the English colony and missionaries and then somewhere in the back mostly came the Hebrew Christians and I know they felt it” (Adeney 1917). Dushaw’s novels often depicted discrimination against Jews in churches. A character in The Rivals notes that there is prejudice in the church against Jews, and that churches would always hire a gentile as a minister instead of a Jew. “Once a Jew always a Jew,” this character observes. “Of course there are people in the church who are not so bigoted, but they are decidedly in the minority.” This was not because of social or economic difference, but according to Dushaw’s character Juda, “it was racial” (Dushaw 1913, 39). In his aforementioned novel Proselytes of the Ghetto, one character discourages her cousin from romantic interest in the main character because he is a Jew (even though they were all Christians). And the character Marx laments that “The Jew calls [the Hebrew Christian] ‘Unclean!’ The Christian, too calls him ‘Unclean,’ until he actually believes himself to be unclean” (Dushaw 1909, 51).

Philip Cohen also identified anti-Semitism as a major reason for his appeal for a Hebrew Christianity. Cohen wrote that,

the writer as a father of children cannot but feel the pressing necessity for a Hebrew Christian Community, with our distinctive National, Social, and Religious life, if we are to prevent the terrible evil to which we and our children have been so long exposed.

He warned against long term threats to the Jews as well, claiming that if the status quo in missions to the Jews did not change, Jews would not only be converted but also de-nationalized. If this succeeded, “we should soon have no Hebrew race” (Cohen 1909, 84, 27). These writers and leaders thus shared the belief that anti-Semitism would continue to impact them regardless of their assimilation to non-Jewish contexts—a key premise of the Zionist movement from its earliest years (such as the programme proposed in 1882 by Leo Pinsker, Autoemancipation). Institutions like the HCA or even a separate church denomination could serve as a safeguard—and perhaps the only safeguard, as they claimed—against an endemic prejudice.


The Hebrew Christian movement of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century took up the cause of Zionism for themselves as national Jews. Hebrew Christians envisioned themselves as part of the Jewish nation that the Zionist movement was mobilizing. They sympathized with Zionism, wrote prolifically on its practical and ideological questions, and tried to forge cooperative bonds with Zionist institutions. The basis of their perceived belonging was the salience of a Hebrew identity dissociated from the observance of Judaism, and the claims of the Zionist movement itself fuelled this perspective. In Hebrew Christian discourse we find the same questions and tensions that existed in Zionist discourse on Hebrewness, particularly those pertaining to race, blood, and culture. Furthermore, the attempts to form a Hebrew Christian denomination or independent organizations illustrated Zionist influence, particularly in its focus on culture, “muscle Judaism” (as I called it, “muscle Hebrew Christianity”), and the perils of anti-Semitism. While scholarship may be inclined to relegate the Hebrew Christians to Christian history, their Hebrew identity is worth a closer look, especially since through it we can better understand how Zionism was perceived in its formative decades.