Legion of Jews

A perspective on the Jewish Legion, a distinct Jewish unit of the British army, which helped fight for the liberation of Palestine.

SOLDIERS OF the Jewish Legion 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
SOLDIERS OF the Jewish Legion 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘But it was left to a small and almost negligible group of Zionists,’ said Gershon Agron, a member of the Jewish Legion and founder of The Palestine Post, “first to assert the almost revolutionary idea that Jews should go into battle as Jews, in vindication of a common ideal and of an idea peculiarly their own: that of taking some part in the liberation of Palestine as the Jewish heritage.”
William Braiterman of Baltimore, a legionnaire, put it this way: “Many Jews joined the legion in the hope it would improve chances for the establishment of a Jewish homeland.” Individuals from Texas, Maryland, South Carolina, New York and Pennsylvania wanted to serve, and did so with great valor.
Several years ago a study of the Jewish Legionnaires was published by Dr. Michael Keren and Dr. Shlomit Keren, professors at the University of Calgary. Entitled We Are Coming – Unafraid, the book contains selections from diaries and letters of those who fought in the so-called Jewish Legion, a distinct unit of the British army under the direct command of Lt.-Col. John Henry Patterson, who served under Gen. Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby in the Palestine campaign, 1917 to 1919.
“As immigrants from Russia,” Michael Keren writes, “they [the legionnaires] were reluctant to fight on the side of Great Britain, which aligned with the Tsarist regime they had just escaped.”
However, he feels these young men participated in this war alongside the British because “when the call came to fight for the Land of Israel to which they were religiously attached for 2,000 years, many of them, mainly from North America, volunteered.”
As Abraham Simon of New York, later of Spartaburg, South Carolina, said, “the prayers swept us along as we sought to make Eretz Yisrael once more our own.”
THE JEWISH Legion came into being because of the efforts of two legendary Zionist figures of the 20th century, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Yosef Trumpeldor.
Jabotinsky is best known as the Revisionist who founded the Betar movement, and the Herut movement, which became part of the Likud. Trumpeldor never had a chance to create a movement, but fighting with one arm, the other lost in war, he died at the battle of Tel Hai in 1920. His heroic image became a legend.
With the constant efforts of Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor, the British authorized the Zion Mule Corps in 1915. Two years later, after the Gallipoli tragedy, in which there were more than 200,000 Allied casualties, Great Britain decided to permit three units of Jews to fight with the British Army in the battle to free Palestine from the Turks.
Later a fourth unit was created. 1917 was a year Jews will never forget: the legion was born, the Balfour Declaration was issued, and General Allenby liberated Jerusalem.
In a letter to his brother in fall of 1918, Abraham Simon recalled some of those personal memories he had of the Battle of Megiddo.
“We camped out west of Megiddo not too far from the water. Our Fusilier units had been linked up with several British corps whose commanders used us as they pleased. The battle awaited us.
Early in the morning, September 19, we attacked and overwhelmed them because our superior manpower outnumbered them.
“The Turks and their German military advisors, so we were told, retreated hastily.
We were on the move – the victory was ours.
“To our amazement, the British and Australian cavalry units swept by us creating havoc among those who would kill us.
We still fought hard – it was not over. On the third day we heard aeroplane(sic) engines above us. Soon they came into sight. They bombed what was left of the Turkish army. From then on our job was just to round up prisoners.”
CONGRESSWOMAN JEANETTE Rankin of Montana interpreted the events in this way: “For all the Jews who want to go back to the land of their fathers to live a free, unrestricted life, they should be able to speak Hebrew, to develop their own educational and economic systems, their own literature and their own cultural and industrial institutions.”
Recruitment began in the US, England and Canada with great interest. By April 1918, 1,000 had signed up in the US, mostly from New York and Chicago, but also four from Sioux City, Iowa. Included were David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, then living in America. The following story, cited by Keren, demonstrated the recruiters left no stone unturned.
A young man, known for getting in trouble, was brought from Russia to his family in Chicago in the early 20th century.
Instead of turning himself around, he focused on card playing in coffeehouses. In 1918 two recruiters for the Legion turned up in the city.
“I asked them where actually is the land of Israel, and what is it good for? The officers talked about the lazy Turks who are preventing the development of the land.
The recruiters continued by saying that the land is mainly uninhabited... the country is waiting for its redeemers, [for] the children of Israel to reclaim the land.”
He was moved.
“I got up and called to my friends: ‘Let’s go and enlist in the Hebrew legion of the Zionists and kick the Turks out.”
The British officer appointed to be in charge of the recruiting for the Jewish Legion in North America was Maj. C. Boordman White. All those recruited would be serving as British soldiers. President Woodrow Wilson had authorized a three-month recruitment drive in the US in the latter part of 1918.
Maj. White’s office was in Manhattan, in the Candler Building at 220 West 42nd Street.
A most informative interview with him appeared in many papers on September 13, 1918, written by Hirsh Leib Gordon, who became a legionnaire himself.
The writer described White thus: “He was tall, slender but powerful looking man, with an aristocratic face... he measures me with his piercing eyes.”
Quite fascinating is White’s evaluation of the role of the legionnaires-to-be.
The writer asked several questions which he believed would be important for American Jews and the general American community.
“What is the motivation, Major White, for the recruits signing up?” “They come, because they feel the call of the Christian soldiers,” White noted, “who fight for the liberation of the Jewish land, and also because they see at their sides the marching Jewish Legions, with the Jewish flags at their heads.”
Gordon wanted to know how the Jews were looked upon as fighters.
White answered clearly.
“In the United States and Great Britain the greatest prize fighters were and are Jews. Even when they take the name John or McCarthy for business reasons they are still Levy and Cohen in the flesh.”
White took it one step further.
“The reports from the training camps are unanimous in the assertion that the men of the future Jewish army are very loyal and obeying – ready to sacrifice their lives for an ideal.”
The most unusual question focused on the so-called fact that Russian military authorities took Jewish young men with “small chests” into the service because the Russian medical opinion was that it was “normal for Jews not to be well developed.”
The major emphasized that “the physical condition of the Jewish Legionnaires is of a very high average. The examining doctors inform me that there is a very great percentage among the legionnaires, who have exceptionally strong constitutions and are developed like athletes. I know this information is accurate because the medical examiners are exceptionally strict.”
At the time of the interview 5,000 had signed up to enlist – 5,000 more were expected. White pointed out that the “legionnaires committee at 169 East Broadway was doing outstanding propaganda work.”
THE ONGOING fascination with the Jewish Legion can be seen in The New York Times, which has published obituaries of about 40 legionnaires. One, in the early 1990s, was that of Harry Rosenblatt, who died at age 101. He was quoted as follows: “The legion included some 5,000 young Zionists from all over the world by the end of the war. David Ben-Gurion, first prime minister of Israel, served in the ranks.”
Rosenblatt was one of the few American legionnaires to get to Palestine to march under Allenby’s command into Jerusalem in December 1917. “What was meaningful to the Jews was the sight of Allenby walking into the city. He wanted to pay the great metropolis its proper due.” Visitors to the IDF History Museum can see Rosenblatt’s picture on display.
“Finally the dream I have had my whole life is being fulfilled,” one soldier wrote home. “Today is the day that I will enter the land of Israel. I did not sleep the entire night.... We started to march out of Lod (where the train had brought them) and we marched quite a lot until we finally reached our camp.... No tents, we got a little bread and fell like the dead on the ground of Judea and slept.”
“Amazingly,” Agron pointed out, “10 percent of the entire Palestinian Jewish population signed up for the Legion... among them fathers and sons, brothers, youngsters not quite out of their teens and old men who shaved off their beards to cancel their actual age.”
The Keren book includes this quote from the letters of Dr. Jack Lis of Houston dealing with his visit to Tel Aviv on a Saturday in March 1919: “It was possible to feel that it was the Sabbath, although there were very few religious symbols to be seen. That is why” he emphasized, “it appealed to me so much. Even though I am not religious, I still find it pleasant to feel the atmosphere of Shabbat in the streets and to see the dressed up marching on Herzl street.”
In Agron’s review of the Legion he focused on this statement of Allenby with regard to the battle of Megiddo: “It was significant to notice the good fighting qualities shown by the 38th and 39th Jewish Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers.”
After the war, Agron returned to his home in Philadelphia, spending his time writing and handling public relations for Zionist movement. In 1926 he made aliya as a journalist. Eighty years ago, in 1932, he founded The Palestine Post, today The Jerusalem Post.
When he died on November 2, 1959, David Ben- Gurion eulogized him.
“Gershon Agron’s untimely death brings grief and shock. A volunteer from the US, he was a member of the first Jewish Legion in our generation. He labored for the Jewish people and set a standard for journalism in our nation.” ■
Dr. David Geffen lives in Jerusalem and has written extensively about American Jewish history and Jews in Mandate Palestine. His uncle, Abraham Simon, fought in the Jewish Legion.