Henry Dunant (1828-1910) was a man of vision whose strong humanitarian ideals directly led to the founding of the International Red Cross in 1863 and inspired the framing of the First Geneva Convention on the rules of war less than a year later. And these are just two among numerous other worthy causes that Dunant, a Calvinist Protestant from Geneva, either initiated or supported during his lifetime. So crucial was his role in promoting a better world for all humankind that he was chosen as co-laureate of the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.
Less well-known than his other endeavors, this remarkable 19th-century Swiss businessman was also a key figure in the fermentation of Christian Zionism, which sought to restore the Jewish people to their homeland in then Ottoman-occupied Palestine. His advocacy of “Restorationism” was inspired by his staunch belief in the Bible.
It is said that Dunant was the very first person to be labeled a “Christian Zionist,” and by no less than the “Father of Zionism” Theodor Herzl himself during the First Zionist Congress, held in late August 1897 in Basel, Switzerland. Dunant had first spoken out publicly on behalf of restoring a Jewish homeland in 1863 in Paris. Three years later Dunant drew up a widely-read pamphlet in which he appealed for the founding of an International Society for the Renewal of the Orient that would foster the creation of a flourishing Jewish Palestine under French dominion.
Though the time was not yet ripe for such a solution and Dunant’s bid came to naught, he did not give up. So great was his determination to further the cause of a Jewish homeland in Palestine that he founded the International Society for Palestine in 1867 and made avail of the royal channels at his disposal to press the Sultan for a firman – that is, permission for the Jewish resettlement of Palestine. Although Dunant’s ongoing endeavors did not succeed, his zeal to see the Jews restored to their home to Palestine never wavered.
Wishing to honor and recognize Dunant’s Zionist efforts, in 1897 Theodor Herzl invited him to the First Zionist Congress. Sadly, Dunant’s health prevented him from attending, though Herzl did thank him publicly and by name in his final speech at the Congress: ““We must, moreover, thank the Christian Zionists. In this connection I must name Mr. Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, the Rev. John Mitchell, the Rev. Hechler of Vienna, Baron Manteuffel, Col. Count Bentinck who also took part in our discussions, and many others”.
That very day – August 31st, 1897 – Herzl’s right-hand ally, Max Nordau, wrote a touching note to Dunant: “The day when Zionism is so secure that it can take a look back to its rise and ponder on its origins and its history, your efforts for it will have the recognition they deserve for their astonishing foresight and for their true Christian generosity”.
The life of Henry Dunant was celebrated in Israel when a section of the Jerusalem Forest was dedicated to his memory. Situated just below Mount Herzl, its shady groves provide places for children to play and families to picnic. The spot, quietly reminiscent of Dunant’s beloved Swiss Alps, is tangible proof that neither the Jewish people nor the Christian Zionists have forgotten Dunant’s passion for the restoration of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland.