8 Things You Need to Know About… Laurence Oliphant

Christian proto-Zionist

1. Laurence Oliphant was born in 1829 in Cape Town, the only son of Scottish landed gentry. His father was Attorney General of the Cape Colony. Though he was indifferently educated, he managed to wedge into his life a variety of occupations and adventures, traveling widely and writing prolifically.

2. Among these: he was first secretary of the British legation to Japan, where he sustained permanent injury to his hand in an attack in Edo; was a war correspondent in Paris during the Franco-Prussian war; served as a Conservative Party member in Parliament; and published travel writings, novels, essays and a biography. In 1868, influenced by a spiritualist prophet, he moved to the small community of Brocton on Lake Erie and worked as a farm laborer within the brotherhood.

Oliphant3. Out of his intense religious convictions – apparently, in the hope of fulfilling Christian prophecy and bringing about the end of days – Oliphant developed a plan for Jewish colonization of Palestine. The plan was well received, both in England and in the Ottoman Empire, where it was accepted by the Turkish ministers, but turned down by the sultan, who feared that it was part of a British intrigue. That was in 1878-9.

4. In 1880, he published Land of Gilead, in which he laid out the details of his scheme for large-scale Jewish settlement in Transjordan at the upper end of the Dead Sea. He emphasized the economic and political advantages of his proposal, outlining development of railroads, residential and agricultural areas, and trade with neighboring countries.

5. In the wake of the 1881-2 pogroms in Russia, he renewed his efforts in Constantinople. There, he negotiated tenancy rights and a concession for settlement – to no avail, for again the sultan rejected his proposal.

6. The following year he settled in Haifa, where he led a contemplative life, nonetheless aiding the first Jewish settlers. His secretary was N.H. Imber, author of the poem “Hatikvah.” He died in 1888.

Oliphant House

Oliphant House

7. A recent Israeli film, “Gei Oni,” has Oliphant and Imber as two of its characters. His house in Haifa is now a memorial to the Druze soldiers who fell fighting for Israel and a museum displaying the history of the relationship between the Druze people and Zionism.

8. Oliphant’s book Haifa; or Life in Modern Palestine was published in 1887; it is available free online at https://archive.org/details/haifaorlifeinmodOOolipuoft.

In Tel Aviv, you’ll find Oliphant Street running east off Yehudah HaLevi between the intersections with Balfour and Sheinkin. In Haifa, look just south of the Haifa Auditorium.