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A British Precursor to Theodor Herzl in the 1850s. A Zionist Diplomat or a Missionary?

 
Filed under: Jerusalem in Historical Context

A British Precursor to Theodor Herzl in the 1850s. A Zionist Diplomat or a Missionary?
The Jewish workers at Kerem Avraham, Abraham’s Vineyard, 1855. (Central Zionist Archives)

Forty years before Theodor Herzl wrote his seminal work, The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat), a “Zionist” British diplomat in Palestine established a training farm – an agricultural settlement – for the poor Jews of Jerusalem and hired Jewish laborers to build a house on the grounds. The diplomat was James Finn, the British Consul in Jerusalem between 1846 and 1863. He and his wife, Elizabeth Anne Finn, found the terrible living conditions of the Jewish community in Jerusalem to be beyond the imaginable. While poor Christians and Muslims in the city could secure assistance from their co-religionists, aid was not forthcoming from Jewish sources since Jewish charity from the West, called “Haluka,” was cut off during the Crimean War. “The state of poverty among the Jews exceeded anything we had [seen] before,” Finn wrote. “Parents were said to be selling their children to Muslims as the only way of preserving their lives. Some were found dead in their rooms.”

British Consul to Jerusalem James Finn
British Consul to Jerusalem James Finn

Finn and his wife had been members of the “London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews,” a group first formed in England in the early 19th century to work among poor Jewish immigrants in London’s East End. In 1836, they dispatched missionaries to Jerusalem. In 1914, the group boasted, “The society has baptized about 5,000 Jews since its foundation.”1

But James Finn claimed he was not interested in converting Jews to Christianity. Some Jewish authorities and some of his English contemporaries differed in their description of his work. Nevertheless, Finn worked hard to convince Jews of his judeophilia. In his diplomatic duties, he protected Jews from Ottoman harassment.2

When Finn and his wife Elizabeth Anne Finn arrived in Jerusalem in 1845 as diplomats to the Ottoman Empire, they already knew Hebrew and Yiddish and would pick up the Arabic language during their posting, which lasted until 1863. They were deeply distressed by the poor condition of the Jews in Jerusalem, who were starving and parched. “People were longing for rain,” Mrs. Finn wrote in her memoirs. “The Jews were fasting and praying for it in their synagogues, for most cisterns were long since exhausted.”3

Elizabeth Anne Finn
Elizabeth Anne Finn (Palestine Exploration Fund).4 She described at length the missionary work done in Palestine in the 19th century in Stirring Times, or Records from Jerusalem Consular Chronicles of 1852 to 1856.5 Also, see her detailed descriptions of the poverty in Jerusalem and the sad story of “The Baptism of Rabbi Abraham and his Daughter Rachel” in Home in the Holy Land: A Tale Illustrating Customs and Incidents in Modern Jerusalem, 1866.6

They wrote:

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“All this,” Finn wrote, “led my wife and myself to make increased exertions for carrying out our long-projected design of relieving the Jewish condition of chronic poverty by means of the employment of an agricultural character.”

Finn believed that the Jews, crammed into the Old City, should “earn their bread” outside the confines of the Old City. To that end, he bought property in 1852 and established the “Industrial Plantation for employment of Jews of Jerusalem” on the outskirts of Jerusalem. He named the enterprise and the barren 8-12 “English acres” “Abraham’s Vineyard, Kerem Avraham.” Jewish laborers built Finn’s house on the property, a building engulfed today in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood. At the same time, Mrs. Finn encouraged a friend, Miss Cooper, to open a school to teach Jewish women sewing and embroidery.

James Finn at the entrance to Abraham’s Vineyard, 1852
James Finn at the entrance to Abraham’s Vineyard, 1852 (Wikipedia)

The Finns knew their task would be difficult, if not impossible:

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The British diplomat banned missionaries from his Jewish farm, proudly permitted his workers to conduct afternoon Mincha services, and even corresponded with the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shmuel Salant, the addressee of the letter below.

A flowery Hebrew missive written by a scribe for Finn to Rabbi Salant
A flowery Hebrew missive written by a scribe for Finn to Rabbi Salant requesting that he join Rabbi Berlin to adjudicate an inheritance dispute between a widow and inheritors.7

Eventually, more than 200 men and boys worked at the “Plantation,” providing weekly bread to 450 family members. The farm also produced a quality soap that was sold to tourists. However, by the time the Finns left Jerusalem, the foreign contributions to Abraham’s Vineyard were drying up. The funds were “at once absorbed among the needy multitude like water among the sand, and left no trace behind.”

The Finns dreamt of rehabilitating the Jews of the Holy Land. In one case, Mrs. Finn brought the new photography technology to Jerusalem, importing the necessary cameras and supplies. A religious Jew, watchmaker Mendel Diness, originally from Odessa, was a willing and talented student. One set of his pictures showing the building of a new neighborhood, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, outside of the Old City matched James Finn’s goal of taking Jews outside the walled city’s confines. The new neighborhood and its windmill were a project of a British philanthropist, Moshe Montefiore, who knew James Finn. Indeed, Finn accompanied Montefiore on a visit to the Temple Mount.

Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem under construction, beneath Moshe Montefiore’s windmill, circa 1860
Mendel Diness’ picture of Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem under construction, beneath Moshe Montefiore’s windmill, circa 1860. (Special Collection, Fine Arts Library, Harvard University)
An enlargement of Mendel Diness’ picture showing the scaffolding on Mishkenot Sha’ananim during construction
An enlargement of Mendel Diness’ picture showing the scaffolding on Mishkenot Sha’ananim during construction.

How successful was Elizabeth Finn’s photography project? Mendel Diness would get no business in Jerusalem from Jews who strongly objected to his conversion to Christianity. So, in 1861, he moved to the United States with his new wife, the daughter of a Jewish doctor who had converted to Christianity. “Diness was unsuccessful as a photographer in Cincinnati, Ohio, and became a peripatetic preacher, renamed as Mendenhall John Dennis.”8 Most of his photographs were believed lost until they were found in boxes at a garage sale in Minnesota in 1988.

Conclusion

The Finns sold the farm to their workers. However, the British diplomat and his wife recognized that their efforts would nonetheless make a permanent change.

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Notes

  1. Philip Schaff, New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, https://web.archive.org/web/20041009165430/http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/encyc/home.html↩︎

  2. https://www.ybz.org.il/_Uploads/dbsAttachedFiles/Article_5.4.pdf↩︎

  3. Elizabeth Anne Finn, https://archive.org/details/homeinholylanda00finngoog/page/369/mode/1up?view=theater&q=jews↩︎

  4. https://www.pef.org.uk/about/history/elizabeth-anne-finn/↩︎

  5. Stirring Times, by James Finn. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044005030721&view=1up&seq=217↩︎

  6. Home in the Holy Land. https://books.google.co.il/books?id=h8kBAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA178&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false↩︎

  7. Kedem auctions. https://www.kedem-auctions.com/en/content/letter-signed-james-finn-british-consul-jerusalem-19th-century↩︎

  8. https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/who-was-the-19th-century-american-preacher-mendenhall-john-dennis-actually-he-was-a-jerusalem-watchmaker-named-mendel-deniss-jerusalems-first-photographer/↩︎