1860: A Momentous Year in Human, Jewish, and Prophetic History

This post first appeared on Kineti and is authored by Judah Gabriel Himango, one of Tabernacle of David’s teachers.

Dear Kineti readers,

Below you’ll find a fascinating guest post by Aaron Hecht, writing about God’s work in recent history: from the humble beginnings of Jewish settlers outside Jerusalem in 1860 to the nations as bit players on the world stage during the early 20th century, all leading up to the reestablishment of the state of Israel. I found this post to be riveting — much of the history presented here was new to me! — I hope it gives you all a richer understanding of God’s work in our modern times and his faithfulness to bring his promises to fruition.

1948 colorized photo of Mishkenot Sha’ananim משכנות שאננים, the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1860.

My academic studies were in History, Political Science, Geostrategic Affairs, and the Bible. The confluence of all that became apparent to me as I began my professional career working as a journalist in Jerusalem and every year it becomes more and more apparent. There are many things that happen in the life of a follower of Christ which don’t seem very significant at the time, but in retrospect, it is easy to understand that God was moving in the life of that individual.

The same is true of a nation, especially Israel.

The history of this country is full of small events that radically altered the trajectory of the whole world but that only a small handful of people saw or heard about at the time. In this blog, I want to tell you about one of those tiny events, and a few other rather big ones, all of which happened at almost the same time late in the year 1859 and into the year 1860.

Most of the time, when the trajectory of human history changes, it happens because something changes somewhere, and then a few years or even decades later, something else changes somewhere else, and the two changes begin to intersect over many years and that leads to other changes and those changes begin to intersect and affect other things which cause greater and greater ripples in society, culture, economics, politics, etc. and so over the course of MANY years, the trajectory of history bends and eventually a new equilibrium is reached and things continue on that same trajectory for a long time until this process is repeated.

However, in the year 1860, many changes happened all at once in several different places all over the world and began to intersect and affect each other very quickly. Thus, in 1860 the trajectory of human history started perceptibly bending almost immediately and it only took a few more years for the trajectory of human history to change radically. Things never really got back into a predictable equilibrium and up to this very day, the pace of change in many areas of life has continued to accelerate to the point where it’s almost too much for anyone to even try and keep up with.

For this reason (and I know this is going to be a VERY controversial point for many people, but I ask you to hear me out) I believe that we can say the “Last Days” prophesied about in the Book of Revelation actually began in the year 1860.

Here’s why I think so.

As I sit here in Jerusalem writing this blog, Israelis are preparing to observe a peculiar tradition, marking Remembrance Day for Israelis killed during wars and terrorist attacks on the day before we celebrate Independence Day. Almost everyone knows that the modern State of Israel was founded on May 14th, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion read out the Declaration of Independence at a hall in Tel Aviv just a few minutes after the end of the British Mandate for Palestine. (The building has been preserved and is now a museum and you should visit it the next time you’re in Israel.) A few minutes later, the US ambassador to the UN announced that his government recognized the new State of Israel, then a few minutes later the Soviet ambassador did the same, followed by the ambassadors of all the other major world powers.

Israel commemorates historical events according to a lunar calendar, not the Gregorian calendar, and that’s why Biblical festivals including Passover and Sukkot, but also secular holidays like Independence Day, take place on different dates according to the Gregorian calendar every year.

All of this is probably familiar material to readers of this blog.

But there’s a detail about Memorial Day for the fallen of Israel that occurs the day before Independence Day that even many Israelis are unaware of.

On Memorial Day, Israelis honor the memories of fallen soldiers who were killed in wars (including those who might have died decades later of wounds they suffered in combat), victims of terrorism, and the first casualties commemorated fell all the way back in 1860, 88 years before the founding of the State and even 37 years before the First Zionist Congress took place in Switzerland.

Who were these first casualties of what would become known to historians as “the Arab-Israeli conflict” who were killed way back in 1860? What was going on back then in Jerusalem which resulted in the violence that they were victims of?

To answer the first question, the first Jewish people commemorated on Memorial Day in Israel were workers on their way to help build Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem outside the walls of the Old City. This work crew was attacked by a group of armed Arab men shortly after exiting the Old City through the Jaffa Gate and at least one of the Jewish workers was killed. Many of the details of this street fight are a bit hazy, and there are different sources that say not one but two Jewish men were killed. There’s also a story that one of the Arab attackers later died of an injury he sustained in the melee.

But in any case, that was the first recorded round in what would later become known as the “Arab-Israeli conflict” and countless more rounds would follow, up to this very day.

There were many other events that occurred in the year 1860 which would, in a relatively short period of time, radically change the lives of every single human being living on this planet. A large book could easily be written on this subject, and maybe someday I will write such a book.
But for now, I’ll just mention two of these momentous events, both of which occurred in the United States.

The first event was the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States.
The second event actually happened in the fall of 1859, but it didn’t begin to be noticed much until the summer of 1860. I am referring to the first commercial production of petroleum oil, which began in an obscure corner of western Pennsylvania and quickly grew into a multi-million dollar industry.

(Authors note: I know what some of you are thinking. There were no automobiles in 1860, so what did anyone need petroleum oil for? The answers to that question, and many other questions you’ve probably wondered about your whole life regarding the modern world, can be found in Daniel Yergin’s book “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Money, Oil and Power” which you can and should read, along with all his other books.)

But getting back to the main topic, these two events would both have an enormous impact on the US Civil War, which was the first modern armed conflict and which greatly affected every major armed conflict that came after it and by extension many of the other events which led up to the founding of the State of Israel.

Here’s how it all happened.

Most historians agree that Abraham Lincoln’s leadership was critical to the Union’s victory in the Civil War, and it was also critical to the sequence of events (which had already begun) that led up to the Civil War happening in the first place. In a very real way, the US Civil War gave birth to the modern world, for better and for worse, and Abraham Lincoln was the midwife in that process, once again for better and for worse.

But if Lincoln was the midwife to the modern world, the oil industry is the beating heart of that world. It had just gotten started in Pennsylvania in the last few months of 1859 and quickly grew into a major source of revenue for the US government as it fought the Civil War. Needless to say, that was just the beginning of all the changes petroleum oil production would bring to the world, obviously including the Middle East which Israel is a part of.

At the same time, the cotton industry, which had been one of the most important sources of revenue for the southern states prior to the US Civil War, almost completely came to a halt during the war because of the blockade the Union Navy put on all the ports in the south. This forced the textile mills in England, which were a key part of the emerging Industrial Revolution which was bringing enormous benefits to that country, to search for another source of cotton.

There was one country in particular that was producing large quantities of cotton at that time, nearly enough to meet the needs of textile mills in England, and that was Egypt. So British corporations, businessmen, and other monied interests flocked to the country to buy up every ounce of cotton they could, at prices far above what had ever been paid for Egyptian cotton before.

What happened next was a tragic foretaste of what would happen again and again all over the world in the decades to come, as this large injection of money into a country that had been fairly poor for the previous several hundred years led to corruption, waste, exploitation and vastly increased misery for the majority of the country’s inhabitants.

The wealthy elites in that country, including the King, got a lot wealthier very quickly and the same British businessmen who came to buy their cotton also came to show them what they could use their newfound wealth to buy. This included large statues of themselves, expensive clothes and jewelry, and lots of other nonsense they had never needed before and still didn’t need. But these wealthy elites quickly acquired a taste for these expensive trappings of wealth and prestige that their British “friends” showed them, and that taste became a permanent feature of life in Egypt. Very little of the newfound wealth was invested in things like education, healthcare, or anything else that would have improved the quality of life for ordinary people in Egypt while building the foundations for a modern economy.

In 1865 the US Civil War ended, and by 1870, production and export of cotton had made a strong recovery. This led to a decrease in both the demand and the price of Egyptian cotton. However, the elites who had made so much money so fast had also spent a lot of their new money very quickly and when the income from selling cotton at inflated prices fell, they still had their expensive tastes. So like so many others, they began to buy the neat stuff they’d grown to like so much on credit. Once again, it was their “friends” in the British banking system which extended them this credit, using their lands (in the case of the King of Egypt, this basically meant the whole country) as collateral.

The bankers who so generously extended these lines of credit to their Egyptian clients were very aware of the fact that they’d never get their money back, but they didn’t mind because they knew that they’d get the collateral instead, which is what they really wanted.
The British government knew they’d have to step in to enforce the claims that these banks would have on the collateral, but that was okay because they wanted to do that anyway. The British government, especially the Royal Navy, had their eyes on a different prize, and that was the Suez Canal which the French had built connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. Construction of the Canal (which would play a major role in every war Israel fought from 1948 to 1973) had begun in late 1859, around the same time petroleum oil had begun to be commercially produced in Pennsylvania.

The British government and the Royal Navy probably weren’t thinking about oil at the time, they just wanted control of the Suez Canal so they could stop paying the French for the privilege of sending ships through it on their way from England to their massive colonies in south Asia (what would someday become the independent countries of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.)

So the pieces were all now in place, and in due course of time, the British did indeed take control of Egypt in the closing years of the 19th century.

That brings us back to that crew of Jewish workers who were attacked by a group of armed Arab men as they left the Jaffa Gate one morning in 1860 on their way to build the new neighborhood of Mishkenot Sha’ananim. I doubt very much if those Jewish guys fully realized it, but they weren’t just building houses and streets. They were taking the very first, small step in building what would become the modern State of Israel. They were building the foundations for Jewish sovereignty in this country, the restoration of which had been prophesied in the Bible thousands of years previously.

Mishkenot Sha’ananim under construction beneath Moshe Montifiore’s windmill.

At the same time, the Arab guys who attacked them almost certainly didn’t realize it, but they weren’t just attacking a crew of Jewish carpenters and stone masons, they were attacking the credibility of the God of the Bible. They were attempting to stop the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.

Had those Jewish workers been intimidated into abandoning their goal of building a new neighborhood for Jews to live in outside the Old City walls, God would have had to find some other way to move the project forward. But they weren’t intimidated. They were back at work the very next day, and despite many more attacks, the work continued and still continues to this very day.

That having been said, those Jewish workers weren’t the only ones God was using to move forward with His prophetic plans and purposes.

By the turn of the 20th century, the British generals stationed on the western bank of the Suez Canal had already started looking north and contemplating what they’d need to do to move forward and take possession of all the oil and other resources they knew would soon be up for grabs as the crumbling Ottoman Empire, which had already for many decades been known as “the sick man of Europe” finally expired.

In 1914, they got their chance.

The story of how the Ottoman Empire came to be on the side of Germany during the First World War, and the opportunity that gave the British to grab all that stuff (the French also got a few things in the process) is a story that deserves a blog of its own.

When World War I was over, it was indeed the British who took possession of the lands which would someday be known as Israel and Jordan, along with less direct control over much else in this part of the world.

It was thus Great Britain, the only major European power with a strong Protestant Christian culture, including widespread support for what would come to be known as Christian Zionism, which took possession of the Holy Land. Already back then (in 1918) there was already a sizeable and growing Jewish population in this country which included institutions that would someday evolve into a functioning government, military, educational system, and all the other elements needed for a strong modern state and economy.

The British come in for a lot of criticism by Israeli historians for not fulfilling the promise of the Balfour Declaration and for many other missteps.

But I would submit that the British Mandate for Palestine was a womb, as deeply imperfect as it might have been, which allowed the embryonic Jewish institutions in the Holy Land to grow and develop into what they would need to be in order for Israel to become an independent country in 1948. The British also built a great deal of physical infrastructure in this country in the 30 years they were here, much of which is still being used today. The IDF in particular owes a lot to the Jewish units the British formed in both World Wars. Nearly all of the great Generals who led the IDF in the first decades of the State’s existence were veterans of these units. Moshe Dayan plainly stated that he’d learned everything he knew about how to be a soldier from Orde Wingate, the British commando and Christian Zionist who formed and led the “Special Night Squads” of Jewish volunteers to battle the Arab Revolt in this country from 1936 to 1939.

As a side note, the Americans might have also been a good option to play the role Britain played, but they were too far away at the time and also preoccupied with internal issues for most of the inter-war period. Although there were plenty of influential Christian Zionists in America, they did not have the level of influence over government policy that the Christian Zionist movement in Britain did. It would not be until the decisive victory of Western weapons and tactics over Soviet weapons and tactics that Israel delivered in the 1967 Six-Day War that Washington would realize the strategic value of Israel and become the great ally of this country that it is today.

So, brothers and sisters, I hope by reading this blog has whet your appetite to know more about this amazing God we serve, who moves in history and the affairs of human beings. There are many other stories that, when read in isolation, don’t seem to mean much but when you take all of it together, it is very obvious that God had His hand in these events and moved some things, held other things back, and in general made sure everything turned out the way He wanted it to.

This is not to say that human beings caught up in these moves of God always enjoyed it.

You can read many accounts of people who lived through the American Civil War and thought that it was the beginning of the end of the world. You can read many more accounts of people who lived through the First World War, the subsequent Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and then the Second World War who thought that things just kept getting worse and worse and that surely if Jesus didn’t come back soon there might not be much left for Him to come back to.

Maybe you look around the world today at all the crises and increasing darkness and feel the same. Maybe you’re not enjoying living through this season of history very much.

But just remember, God IS on the Throne, He IS in control, and He absolutely DOES have a plan. Sometimes, that plan is being advanced by really big things that are highly visible, like a big war. But sometimes they’re being advanced by small things that only a handful of people know about, such as a small crew of Jewish men venturing out to build a few new houses outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City.

In other words brothers and sisters, it’s not time to despair. It’s time to look up, keep praying, love your families, support your local congregations, and in general hold each other up, for our Redemption is drawing very close.

Mishkenot Sha’ananim today.

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