“Folk Life in Palestine.” Otto Eberhard and the Christian Friends of Zionism

Fabian Weber

Source Description

In November 1908 the executive committee of the “Zionistischen Ortsgruppe Hamburg-Altona” [Zionist chapter Hamburg-Altona] hosted a lecture: Pastor Otto Eberhard, who was presented as “one of the leading experts on the modern cultural state of Palestine,” was to speak on the ninth of the month on the subject of “Folk Life in Palestine.” In addition, the newsletter announced an Oriental costume ball, with which the end of Hanukkah was to be celebrated on December 26. Reports on both events were published in the “Jüdische Rundschau” [Jewish Review] in the section “Vereins-Rundschau,” [review of club activities] to which the secretaries of the respective Zionist local chapters could submit their own reports on local events. The author is not explicitly named, as was customary for the column. The same reports were also included in the main Zionist medium, “Die Welt” [The World]. See Jüdische Rundschau 48 (1908), November 27, 1908, p. 212; Die Welt 47 (1908), November 27, 1908, pp. 16-17; Jüdische Rundschau 2 (1909), January 8, 1909, p. 21; Die Welt 2 (1909), January 8, 1909, p. 34.
  • Fabian Weber

Zionism as “Desertion”

The reports of the Zionist periodicals shed light on the course of these two events. The well-attended lecture evening with Otto Eberhard took place in the club house of the Henry-Jones Lodge Hamburg. The medical doctor Dr. Ernst Kalmus, chairman of the Zionist chapter Hamburg-Altona and also one of the first active members of the Zionistischen Vereinigung für Deutschland” [Zionist Association for Germany] (ZVfD), opened the evening. He pointed out the motivation for the event: The Zionists explicitly protested against the Verein zur Abwehr des Antisemitismus” [Association for the Defense against Antisemitism]. The reason for this were interventions by the Association against hostility towards Jews, “if assimilation is demanded of us as the price for it [...].”  Jüdische Rundschau 48 (1908), November 27, 1908, p. 212.

At the general assembly of the Association for the Defense against Antisemitism], Siegmund Günther (1848–1923), natural scientist and historian, member of the Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften” [Bavarian Academy of Sciences] and retired liberal member of the Reichstag, had lectured on the history of the persecution of Jews from antiquity to the Middle Ages and on the “new antisemitic movement” since 1880. Siegmund Günther, Vaterlandsliebe und Bodenständigkeit bei unseren jüdischen Mitbürgern, in: Mitteilungen aus dem Verein zur Abwehr des Antisemitismus 18 (1908) 43, pp. 331–333. Günther had rejected the absurdity of antisemitic racial theories from the standpoint of Jewish emancipation and tolerance. He energetically denied the anti-Jewish accusation that Jews lacked “patriotism.” Günther attributed the accusation that Jews were not “rooted to the soil,” i.e. underrepresented in agricultural labor, to historical reasons. He demanded that the Jews be given “the opportunity to live under exactly the same conditions as members of other faiths.” The aim of the fight against Antisemitism must therefore be “to overcome the artificial distinction between Germans and Jews” and “to assimilate our fellow Jewish citizens completely.” He described Zionism as “desertion” which endangered the identification of German citizens of the Jewish faith with their homeland. Günter, Vaterlandsliebe, p. 333.

Although the Zionist Kalmus did not deny the “protection granted for noble motives” by the Defense Association, he protested against the “unjust attacks, which are now for the first time being directed against Zionism from the Christian side out of misunderstanding.” In fact, non-Jews who fought for the cause of the Defense Association had polemicized not only against Antisemitism, but also against Zionism since the 1890s. For examples, see Vom Zionistenkongreß in Basel, in: Mitteilungen aus dem Verein zur Abwehr des Antisemitismus 7 (1897) 37, p. 293; Gegen den Zionismus, in: Mitteilungen aus dem Verein zur Abwehr des Antisemitismus 7 (1897) 48, pp. 377–378; Absonderung und Abstoßung, in: Mitteilungen aus dem Verein zur Abwehr des Antisemitismus 13 (1903) 37, pp. 289–292. What was new, however, was the Zionists’ strategy of contrasting this position with Eberhard’s views, “the judgment of an objectively thinking Christian man” – through Eberhard’s account of “folk life in Palestine” – which was intended to strengthen the position of the Zionists, as “conscious Jews.” Jüdische Rundschau, 27.11.1908, p. 212. Eberhard’s report was meant to emphasize that, contrary to Günther’s account, there was indeed the possibility of a Jewish existence “rooted to the soil” in Palestine now, and that there was thus an alternative to Jewish “assimilation.”

Otto Eberhard – a “Christian friend of Zionism

The invited speaker, the pastor and pedagogue Otto Eberhard, had undertaken a research trip to Palestine in 1905 on behalf of the “Deutschen Evangelischen Instituts für Altertumswissenschaft des Heiligen Landes” [German Protestant Institute for Ancient History of the Holy Land]. Entirely in the spirit of contemporary, Christian-influenced Palestine studies, “knowledge of the peculiarities of the land of the Bible” was to lead to a better understanding of Holy Scripture, as Eberhard wrote in the foreword to book on Palestine, published in 1910 and entitled “Palästina. Erlebtes und Erlerntes im Heiligen Land” [“Palestine. Experiences and Lessons from the Holy Land”]. In addition to the land and landscape, the Jewish colonies in particular had left a lasting impression on Eberhard. In both the Christian and Zionist context, Eberhard was perceived as a “Christian friend of Zionism” and a “philozionist” These terms were used in Jüdische Rundschau, see. Otto Eberhard, Der Zionismus, in: Jüdische Rundschau Heft 3 (1907), 18.1.1907, pp. 26–29, p. 26. as a result of his trip to Palestine, and he praised the practical achievements of Zionism. Since Eberhard knew “Palestine and Zionism from professional experience,” as Kalmus emphasized, his objectivity seemed proven and his advocacy immune to the suspicion of spreading obvious political propaganda.

The “restoration” of the Jews – Zionism as a prophetic movement

Eberhard began his lecture with the observation that the travel literature that had hitherto arisen out of the longing for Palestine was mostly superficial and only gradually acquired a scientific character. But in any case, “literary knowledge” was only a weak substitute for a real journey to the Holy Land, which he recommended to anyone who had a “heart for Palestine.” Eberhard was by no means concerned only with traveling and exploring the Holy Land, but with nothing less than the “rebuilding of Zion.” He was referring to a Christian topos known as “Restorationism,” which was prevalent above all in circles of English Pietism and the Jewish Mission. This idea was based on the assumption that the “gathering” and return of the Jews to Palestine was imminent, and which included the anticipation of the return of Jesus Christ. This Christian movement became significant for Zionism above all through the person of William Hechler. An English reverend, he considered Zionism to be the beginning of a prophetic movement and provided Theodor Herzl with important political contacts extending up to the German Kaiser. Eberhard, too, was open to such ideas, as is evident by a lecture he gave ten years later at the annual celebration of the “Leipziger Judenmissionsverein” [Leipzig Jewish Missionary Association], in which he also spoke enthusiastically about Zionism. See Otto Eberhard, Zwanzig Jahre Zionismus, in: Saat auf Hoffnung. Zeitschrift für die Mission der Kirche an Israel 56 (1919), pp. 12-34.

Even though Eberhard did not elaborate on his Christian expectations in his Hamburg lecture, his view of Zionism and Judaism was clearly shaped by his Christian faith. Eberhard described Palestine’s advancementas a result of increasing Jewish-Zionist colonization. He described this as an important cultural factor, which appeared especially bright when he compares the lifestyle of the Chalukah Jews of Jerusalem to that of the Zionists: “The corrupting institution of the Chalukah has brought up a pitiful race: systematically driven into the arms of idleness and inertia, it remains stuck in the greatest social and spiritual misery.” Jüdische Rundschau, 27.11.1908, p. 212. In Eberhard’s eyes, however, Zionism revolutionized everything that otherwise afflicted the Jews: agricultural aspirations formed the will to honest work and suppressed the inclination to alms while modern educational and welfare institutions overcame the lack of education and the spiritual stagnation characterized by an antiquated religiousness. Eberhard described the settlements in Palestine as the harbinger of a new era, a new Jewry. These remarks were followed by “enthusiastic, sustained applause” from the audience, who filled the large hall of the club house to the last seat. The author does not mention whether the audience was predominantly Jewish or mixed.

Zionism as a process of renewal for Judaism

Eberhard authored several major writings on the subject, which were also based on his trip to Palestine: “Palästina. Erlebtes und Erlerntes im Heiligen Land” (1910) [“Palestine. Experiences and Lessons from the Holy Land”], “Palästina. Erlebtes und Erlauschtes vom heiligen Lande” (1913) [“Palestine. Things I Experienced and Heard in the Holy Land”], and the brochure “Der Zionsgedanke als Weltidee und als praktische Gegenwartsfrage” [“The Zionist Idea as a Universal Idea and Practical Question of Our Current Time”] (1918) , written for the “Pro Palästina Komitee” [Pro-Palestine Committee]. This committee brought together non-Jewish politicians, publicists and economic experts to win support for the Zionist movement from the German government. Eberhard’s publications provided a more detailed illustration of the change that he believed was taking place within Judaism as a result of Zionism. According to him, Jews were beginning to settle rather than remain without a homeland, merchants and peddlers turned into Jewish farmers, money worship was replaced by a sense of community, and from scatteredness and internationalism grew unity and a people. Eberhard described Zionism as a beneficial process of renewal for Judaism through the return to the soil, to an organically folk-like life, and agricultural productivity. He claimed that this process of transforming Judaism had led to an enormous economic upswing in the Palestinian region and would play an important role in the future of the country. Implicit in his euphoric descriptions of the Zionist renaissance was the negative and stereotyped assessment of non-Zionist Jewry. Eberhard reproduced common images of Jewish life that originated in Christian tradition. Even though he avoided direct theological condemnations, non-Zionist Judaism appeared as an outdated, decaying concept, idle and unproductive, spiritually rigid and without inner development. According to Eberhard, productivity equaled intellectual development.

Templars and Zionists – a community of interest?

He went on to point out that in addition to improving the situation for the Jews themselves, Zionism also bore economic significance for non-Jews. In both his lecture and his publications, Eberhard described the relationship between Christian and Zionist colonists in Palestine as a “community of interest”. The German Templars, Württemberg Pietists of the so-called “Tempelgesellschaft” [Temple Society], had set out for Palestine in the mid-19th century in order to build a symbolic temple through the agricultural cultivation of the soil in the Holy Land, thus heralding the return of Jesus Christ. The Templars brought agricultural innovation and modern infrastructure to the country. In German colonial discourses, their efforts were acknowledged as an expression of great German patriotism. The Zionist colonization benefited from the practical experience of the Templars, although the latter developed sentiments of competition and aversion. This attitude, according to which Zionist colonization was perceived as a competing endeavor, is attested to by an account written by Fritz Lorch, an author who came from the Templar context of Palestine. According to Lorch, “Germanness” in Palestine was to spread through the Templars alone, not the Jews. Lorch also spread rumors about Zionism as a practical ally of England See Fritz Lorch, England und der Zionismus in Palästina, Berlin 1913.. In a review, Otto Eberhard expressed criticism of the conclusions Lorch had drawn about the alleged political ties between Zionism and England. Otto Eberhard, [Review] Fritz Lorch, England und der Zionismus in Palästina, in: Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 37 (1914) 3, p. 292. Incidentally, antisemitic hostility was widespread among the Templars.

With his emphasis on a “community of interests,” Eberhard took up an important topos of the German Oriental discourse. Even before the turn of the century, Herzl and his close collaborator Max I. Bodenheimer had tried to win the goodwill of the German government with the argument of the overlapping of German and Jewish interests in the Orient. During the First World War, there was a debate in government circles as well as among parts of the public interested in colonial policy whether Zionism could be integrated into the goals of both the German and the Ottoman Empire in the sense of a community of interests.

The second event announced in the circular seems to have proved a success for the Zionist chapter Hamburg-Altona as well: on December 26, 1908, a costume ball themed “A Folk Festival in Palestine” took place in the facilities of the club house, attracting several hundred guests. The event was not related to the lecture on “Folk Life in Palestine,” whose speaker, Eberhard, at least had some scholarly expertise. Rather, the staged “folk festival in Palestine” reproduced clichés of the Orient that had little connection to the everyday life of the Jewish colonies. In keeping with the evening’s theme, 16 women performed an “Oriental veil dance,” and the report also mentions that a “harem” and a “well-stocked Orient Bar” were set up as well as stalls and raffles, the main prizes of which were precious Bezalel rugs. Hamburg’s chief cantor Josef Rosenblatt, who would later become world-famous in America as Jossele Rosenblatt, performed “songs in Yiddish dialect” that evening. The artist Hermann Struck had drawn a postcard for this occasion. The local chapter donated the evening’s proceeds to various Palestine institutions. See Jüdische Rundschau 2 (1909), 8.1.1909, p. 21.

The costume ball provides an insight into the activities of German Zionist associations supporting the Keren Hajessod. The lecture by Otto Eberhard also shows that the conflict between Zionist and non-Zionist Jews in the German Reich was not a purely inner-Jewish question of identity, but took place with the participation of the non-Jewish environment.

Select Bibliography

Avraham Barkai, “Wehr dich!“ Der Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens (C. V.) 1893–1938, Munich 2002.
Alex Carmel, Die Siedlungen der württembergischen Templer in Palästina 1868–1918. Ihre lokalpolitischen und internationalen Probleme, Stuttgart 1973.
Alex Carmel, Christen als Pioniere im Heiligen Land, Basel 1981.
Markus Kirchhoff, Text zu Land. Palästina im wissenschaftlichen Diskurs 1865–1920, Göttingen 2005.
Wolfram Weiße, Religionspädagogik in der Weimarer Republik, in: Rainer Bolle, Thorsten Knauth, Wolfram Weiße (eds.), Hauptströmungen evangelischer Religionspädagogik im 20. Jahrhundert. Ein Quellen- und Arbeitsbuch, Münster 2002, pp. 55–59.
Auguste Zeiß-Horbach, Der Verein zur Abwehr des Antisemitismus. Zum Verhältnis von Protestantismus und Judentum im Kaiserreich und in der Weimarer Republik, Leipzig 2008.

Selected English Titles

Paul C. Merkeley, The Politics of Christian Zionism 1891–1948, London 1998.

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About the Author

Dr. des. Fabian Weber completed a PhD thesis on “Projections on Zionism. Non-Jewish Perceptions of Zionism in the German Reich, 1897-1933” at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich, which will soon be published by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. Weber is currently a research assistant at the central institute “studium plus” at Bundeswehr University Munich. In addition to the history of Zionism and German-Jewish history, his research interests include research on antisemitism, colonial and oriental discourses, and religious cultures of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Fabian Weber, “Folk Life in Palestine.” Otto Eberhard and the Christian Friends of Zionism (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, February 24, 2020. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-234.en.v1> [September 22, 2023].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.