Dear friends who are gathered here,
Why have we Christians gathered here today in Berne for this “solidarity event with our Jewish co-citizens and with the state of Israel”, as written on the invitation? In what way does Israel’s 70th birthday pertain to us here in Switzerland? I see a double reason:
First, there is no Christianity without Judaism, no New Testament without the Tanakh. The history of God with his chosen people is the root and the tree trunk, from which we like branches from the nations can profit. We are part of this Jewish-Christian history. That is one very fundamental reason for this present gathering.
There is also a specific reason: The history of modern Israel is existentially linked with Switzerland. “Today I founded the Jewish state,” Herzl remarked in his diary after the first Zionist congress in Basle in the year 1897. The Basle program which formulated the goal of “creating a public-legally secure homeland in Palestine” served as a guiding paper of the Zionistic movement.
It is noteworthy that during the first Zionist congress, Christians were sitting in the first row in the best seats, as invited guests. For example Paul Kober, who with his publishing house supported Zionistic ideas. He had married a daughter of Samuel Gobat, from French- speaking Switzerland, who was named Anglican bishop in Jerusalem. There are very interesting relationships between Swiss Christians and the Zionists. Around Christian Friedrich Spittler and the Basle Christian Society were Christians who expected the restoration of the Jewish state. Herzl felt morally supported and understood by these Christians. At the end of the first Zionist congress, he also gratefully mentioned Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, who already in the 1860’s supported the settling of Jews in Palestine.
Herzl’s relationship to Christians is interesting in any case, especially his long-standing friendship with the Anglican pastor William Hechler. And just these relationships between Herzl’s movement and Christians also played a role here in Switzerland. Next to Paul Kober, who was already mentioned, sat Bernhard Collin-Bernoulli, the founder of the Basel Consumer Society, now Co-op. You can read all this in Pierre Heumann’s book “Israel was born in Basel”, especially in the chapter “Christians strongly support the land of Israel”. In other words, Swiss Christians were present at the birth hour of the Basle program. Switzerland was in part a cradle of the Jewish state.
It is no coincidence that 70 years ago, on May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion read the declaration of independence of the state of Israel in front of Herzl’s portrait. He thus expressed that he stood on the shoulders of this first generation of Zionists. In the intervening 50 years was the Nazis’ unfathomable, terrible attempt to totally extinguish Judaism, as we know.
This succession of two generations reminds me of the events reported in Ezra and Nehemia. Following the Babylonian exile, the restoration likewise took place during two generations. The first generation under Jeshua and Zerubbabel built up the temple, several decades later Ezra and Nehemia continued the restoration. It is noteworthy that if we follow the dates in the book of Esther, it was exactly between the two returning generations that Haman – the arche-typical anti-Semite – attempted to totally extinguish the Jewish people. And now the 20th-century restoration of Israel has a similar pattern: the Herzl generation, 50 years later Ben Gurion’s time, and between them the persecution.
In May 1948 Ben Gurion reads in front of Herzl’s portrait, thus expressing the two generations of restoration. Now, 70 years after Israel’s independence we celebrate the birthday and think back to the beginnings. For 70 years Jews have been returning from worldwide exile to their home in their state, in the area where David once reigned as king, in the land which was already promised to Abraham. It was an adventure from the beginning. The day after the declaration of independence, the newly-born state was attacked by five armies. What Ben Gurion said on June 25, 1956, before the Suez crisis, is true of the whole 70 years. “We are setting out on quite a dangerous adventure, but what can we do? Our whole existence is such an adventure.” (Michael Bar-Zohar, “David Ben Gurion, p. 328)
Israel’s restoration is and remains an adventure. That’s how it was during the whole 70 years, if we think of all the military conflicts, all the economic and agricultural challenges etc. Now we want to bless the Jewish people and Israel for this adventure. We see in it God’s salvation work with the nations. The way he deals with Israel will in the end serve to bless all nations, as Abraham was already promised (think of Genesis 12). It is God’s salvation work for all: for the Jews, Arabs and all nations.
I have a question regarding this. Where are the Christians in Switzerland today who stand by Israel because they see God’s salvation work? An answer: We are here and today’s gathering serves just this purpose. We intend to stand by Israel just like the earlier Christians. We are here as an expression of this. At the same time we want this attitude toward the Jewish people and toward Israel to increase in our land. There is such a link between our two nations, from the beginning, as I pointed out with the example of the first Zionist congress. We want to reflect on this once again.
“Christians bless Israel on its 70th birthday”, is written on the invitation flyer. How should we bless Israel today? What could be better than words from the Tanakh? Ben Gurion had four verses from the prophet Isaiah on his writing desk in his Sde Boker house. These have to do with Israel’s restoration, with making the desert fruitful. He applied this in a very practical way to the Negev Desert. These Isaiah texts obviously encouraged him. I copied them once when I visited his house and office. Today I want to bless the Jewish people and Israel with these words. In closing, I will read them.
Isaiah 35:1, 6-9: The desert and the parched land will be glad…Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there.
Isaiah 41:19: I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set pines in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together.
Isaiah 43:19-20: See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen.
Isaiah 51: 3: The Lord will surely comfort Zion and he will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.
With these promises we bless Israel and the Jewish people.
Thomas Bänziger, professor of theology, Schleife Winterthur, Switzerland