By Erin Rodewald // October 3, 2016
(This article originally appeared in The Philos Project)
The stories of great men often fade with the passage of time, even as their legacies remain. Indeed, the contributions of William E. Blackstone – American evangelist and, according to some, the true father of modern-day Zionism – might be lost to the ages but for the efforts of a few dedicated scholars and religious leaders intent on preserving his memory.
On Sept. 28, the Blackstone Commemoration Committee hosted a multi-faith ceremony at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif., celebrating the 175th anniversary of Blackstone’s birth and his historic initiatives in public diplomacy on behalf of the Jewish people, known as the Blackstone Memorial Petitions of 1891 and 1916.
“William Blackstone promoted social justice long before Herzl,” said Sam Grundwerg, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, to an audience of approximately 100 dignitaries, community leaders and family members. He was referring to Blackstone’s efforts to mobilize Christian support for a Jewish national homeland as far back as 1891. Long before the publication of Theodore Herzl’s The Jewish State or the British Balfour Resolution, Blackstone began the dialog that would lead to the modern State of Israel.
“Rev. Blackstone was honored by the Jews for his steadfast support of Zionism,” wrote Jerry Klinger, president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation and cosponsor of the commemoration events. “Yet, he remained an enigma to many Jews – a Christian who walked his personal faith with God, saving Jewish life and doing the right thing.”
The “right thing,” according to Blackstone, was to respond to the humanitarian crisis of his day – the bloody pogroms against the Jews in Czarist Russia. In 1890, he convened a multi-faith conference in the United States where Christian and Jewish leaders joined forces to approve resolutions of sympathy for the oppressed Jews of Russia. This was followed a year later by the first Blackstone Memorial, a petition signed by more than 400 prominent American leaders calling for the restoration of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. An updated petition was presented to President Woodrow Wilson 25 years later, and is credited with securing his support for the Balfour Resolution in 1917.
In his remarks at the commemoration ceremony, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of the Simon Wiesenthal Center praised Blackstone’s ability to bring Christians and Jews together for a common cause. “Blackstone came up with the best recipe yet for multi-faith cooperation: one part humanitarian concern and an equal part commitment to the Bible,” he said. “Love of humanity and devotion to the word of God. It worked in Blackstone’s time, and it is even more needed today, to heal a very troubled world.”
Lending particular poignancy to the commemoration event was the unexpected death of Israel’s former prime minister and president Shimon Peres the night before the ceremony. Comparisons between the two men – the early advocate and the founding father – were noted by several speakers. Consul General Grundwerg observed, “The two men shared much: vision, courage and leadership.” In times of internal strife, external threats and oppression, Grundwerg added, “the easiest thing is to be indifferent.” He concluded that neither Blackstone nor Peres opted for easy, and “it is now our duty to carry on their joint legacy.”
Following the formal remarks, guests were invited to the Blackstone gravesite for a brief multi-faith memorial service of prayers, scripture reading and reflection. A representative of the State of Israel presented Blackstone’s heirs with a memorial wreath.
Cosponsors of the day’s events included Biola University, Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Jewish National Fund and Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation. Leading the efforts of the Blackstone Commemoration Committee is historian Paul Rood, who is also an adjunct professor at Biola University where Blackstone was a founding trustee and the school’s first dean.
According to Rood, “Blackstone advocated a brand of Zionism that would carefully work to foster cooperation between Jews and Arabs to benefit all of the inhabitants of the region. He was aware of the potential for conflict and hoped that with good will and compassion, compromise would lead to blessing for all.” May it be so.
In addition to the commemoration events in Glendale, the committee plans historical exhibits in Los Angeles and Israel and completion of the fundraising and planning for a Blackstone Forest in the Jezreel Valley/Nazareth region of Israel in the fall of 2017.
For more information about ongoing Blackstone memorial activities, contact paul.rood@.biola.edu.