In 1916, after being stranded in Switzerland for nearly two years due to the outbreak of World War I, Rav Kook was invited to occupy the rabbinic post of the Machzikei HaDat congregation in London. He accepted the position, but on condition that after the war he be allowed to return unhindered to Eretz Yisrael.
“Not many days passed,” noted Rabbi Shimon Glitzenstein, his personal secretary in London, “when already an atmosphere of influence on all circles of Jewish life in this large and important community was formed. All recognized his extraordinary concern for the entire Jewish people.”
While Rav Kook certainly did not plan to spend three years in London, he would later describe the momentous events of this period — events in which he took an active role — as a “revelation of the hand of God” (Igrot HaRe’iyah vol. III, p. 100).
Soon after his arrival, Rav Kook was forced to battle Jews who were working to undermine the Jewish people’s hopes of national rebirth in the land of Israel. Certain assimilated leaders of the British Jewish community, who considered themselves “Englishmen of the Mosaic faith,” openly opposed the Zionist front. This powerful group, which included the staunchly anti-Zionist Lord Montagu, had great influence on the British government due to their socio-economic and political standing. They publicly declared to the British government that the Jewish religion has no connection to Jewish nationalism, and that they opposed all plans to designate Palestine as the Jewish homeland.
In a public notice “in response to this national treachery,” Rav Kook harshly condemned all those “who tear apart the Jewish soul,” seeking to shatter the wondrous unity of Jewish religion and Jewish nationalism.
“The entire debate whether it is our national or our religious heritage that preserves and sustains us [as Jews] is a bitter mockery. The perfection of “You are one and Your Name is one, and who is like Your nation, Israel, one nation in the land” is indivisible.”
Rav Kook’s statement described the cruel injustice perpetrated by the nations over the centuries, and demanded that they atone for their terrible crimes by returning Eretz Yisrael to the Jewish people and help establish an independent Jewish state. The letter was read in all British synagogues after the Sabbath Torah reading and made a deep impression. He then sent an additional letter urging the members of all British synagogues to immediately request that the British government “aid us in our demand to return to our holy land, as our eternal national home” (Igrot HaRe’iyah vol. III, pp. 107-114).
Rav Kook’s efforts succeeded, and the spiteful letter written by the influential Jewish leaders was disregarded. The major British newspapers noted the spontaneous protest, thus repairing the negative impression caused by the assimilationists.
During the parliamentary debates over authorizing a national Jewish home in Palestine, several parliament members raised the claims advanced by the Jewish assimilationists. Such a mandate, they insisted, is contrary to the spirit of Judaism. Then Mr. Kiley, a proponent of the declaration, stood up and asked:
“Upon whom shall we rely to decide the religious aspect of this issue — upon Lord Montagu, or upon Rabbi Kook, the rabbi of Machzikei HaDat?”
After the Balfour Declaration was passed in 1917, the Jewish leaders held a large celebratory banquet in London, to which they invited lords, dignitaries, and members of Parliament. Speech after speech by Jewish communal and Zionist leaders thanked the British for their historic act. When Rav Kook was given the honor of speaking, he announced:
“I have come not only to thank the British nation, but even more, to congratulate it for the privilege of making this declaration. The Jewish nation is the “scholar” among the nations, the “people of the Book,” a nation of prophets; and it is a great honor for any nation to aid it. I bless the British nation for having extended such honorable aid to the people of the Torah, so that they may return to their land and renew their homeland.”
Rav Kook saw in the national return of the Jewish people an overt revelation of the hand of God. How could one be blind to the Divine nature of this historical process? He later wrote:
“An imperviousness to God’s intervention in history plagues our generation. A series of wondrous events has, and continues to take place before us. Yet blind eyes fail to see the hand of God, and deaf ears fail to hear the Divine call guiding history.
This sequence of events began with the immigration of the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov and the Vilna Gaon to Eretz Yisrael. They were followed by the awakening of the Chibat Zion movement and the establishment of the first settlements. The Zionism founded by Herzl, the settling of the land by the pioneers of the Second Aliyah, the Balfour Declaration, and the affirmation of the mandate in San Remo by the League of Nations - these are the latest developments.
Taken individually, each event may be explained in a rational manner. But when they are viewed together, we may discern a wondrous chain of complementary links created and guided by a Divine hand. As the prophet of redemption cried out: ‘Hear, O deaf, and look! O blind, that you may see!’ (Isaiah 42:18).”
(Silver from the Land of Israel, pp. 181-184. Adapted from Mo'adei HaRe’iyah, pp. 391-393; Celebration of the Soul, pp. 186-189. Additional material from Encyclopedia of Religious Zionism vol. 5, pp. 179-190.)