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Laurence Oliphant

(1829 - 1888)

OLIPHANT, LAURENCE° (1829–1888), English writer and traveler, Christian mystic, and active supporter of the return of the Jewish people to Ereẓ Israel. Born of a Scot family in the Cape of Good Hope, Oliphant traveled in many countries and wrote impressive travel books. From 1865 to 1867 he was a member of parliament. During the Russo-Turkish War (1878) he began to take an interest in the Holy Land and Jewish settlement there, in a blending of political, economical, and religious-mystic considerations. He supported Turkey and thought that the best way to revive it was by improving the condition of its Asian regions, first and foremost Palestine. He decided to submit to the sultan a plan for large-scale Jewish settlement in Palestine, supported by resources from abroad. With letters of recommendation from Lord Beaconsfield and Lord Salisbury, who approved his plan and a letter from the French minister of foreign affairs, William Henry Waddington, he went to Palestine in 1879. He investigated the country and arrived at the conclusion that the best place to start Jewish settlement was the Gilead region in Transjordan. Consequently, he negotiated with the authorities in Constantinople concerning tenancy rights and a concession for settlement. The Turkish cabinet approved the proposal, but the sultan Abdul Hamid rejected it for fear that it was a British intrigue. The pogroms of 1881 in Russia moved Oliphant to new undertakings. He established a group of influential Christians in London for the purpose of bringing them closer to his idea. In the same year he provided assistance to Russian Jewish refugeesin Galicia by means of the mayor of London's Mansion House Relief fund. In opposition to the representatives of the Alliance Israélite Universelle who directed the emigration to the United States, he advised the Jews to go to Palestine and tried to persuade Alliance spokesmen to do the same. He also decided to renew his negotiations in Constantinople. The Turkish foreign minister, Said Pasha, regarded his plan as practical and wanted to connect it with the project of constructing a railroad in Palestine. But the negotiation could go no further, especially when the Turkish-British relations deteriorated because of Egypt, and Oliphant's efforts came to nothing. He settled in Haifa and engaged in religious and mystic contemplation. Yet he always remained attached to the Zionist idea and provided advice and assistance to the first Jewish settlers in Ereẓ Israel. His Hebrew secretary in Haifa was the poet, N.H. *Imber . Oliphant was the most important Christian figure of his time supporting the idea of the Jewish Return to Zion. The *Bilu'im and Ḥovevei Zion had great hopes for his negotiations in Constantinople, and his firm position on their behalf was encouraging, even though his political undertakings failed. His writings included the programmatic book Land of Gilead (1880; Heb. trans. by Nahum *Sokolow as Ereẓ Ḥemdah, 1886) and Haifa, or Life in Modern Palestine (1887). Oliphant was one of the most famous of British gentile proto-Zionists.


M.O.W. Oliphant, Memoir on the Life of Laurence Oliphant…, 2 vols. (1891); P. Henderson, The Life of Laurence Oliphant (1956); N. Sokolow, Hibbath Zion (1935), 275–9 and index; idem, History of Zionism, 2 (1919), index; S. Jawnieli, Sefer ha-Ẓiyyonut, 2:1 (1942), 9–11, 90–95; I. Klausner, Be-Hitorer Am (1962), 72–78, 199–202, and index; G. Yardeni, Ha-Ittonut ha-Ivrit be-Ereẓ Yisrael (1969), index. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: ODNB online; A. Taylor, Laurence Oliphant (1982).

[Alexander Bein /

Nathan Michael Gelber]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.