Leading the ‘new Maccabees’: Lt.-Col. John Henry Patterson

"Patterson was a friend of the Jewish people, and his role should be recognized – especially in times like ours, when support of Israel by non- Jews is very important."

Lt.-Col. John Henry Patterson (photo credit: JABOTINSKY INSTITUTE IN ISRAEL)
Lt.-Col. John Henry Patterson
 Growing up as a Protestant in Ireland, John Henry Patterson read as a child the stories of biblical military heroes.
Years later, he became the commander of the Zion Mule Corps, the first Jewish military unit in nearly 2,000 years.
Last week an event was held at Tel Aviv’s Jabotinsky Institute, declaring December 4 as Patterson Day to honor this British officer and Christian Zionist, who was among the pioneers of Israel’s defense and a staunch supporter of the Zionist cause.
December 4, 2014, was the date that Patterson’s remains were reinterred in Moshav Avihayil (near Netanya), literally cementing the officer’s deep connection to the Jewish state.
The annual Patterson Day was launched by the Jabotinsky Institute, the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel and the Beit Hagdudim Museum in Avihayil.
“We want to commemorate Patterson since he was a fine example of non-Jews who have recognized the Zionist enterprise,” explains Yossi Ahimeir, director of the Jabotinsky Institute. “Patterson was a friend of the Jewish people, and his role should be recognized, especially in days like ours when support of Israel by non-Jews is very important.”
Patterson’s remains were bought to Israel nearly 70 years after his death. The idea was raised in 1999 when Patterson’s grandson, Alan, met with Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the grandson of the famed Revisionist leader of the same name at the Jabotinsky Institute.
It wasn’t until 2010 that Alan asked the institute to bring his grandfather’s remains to Israel. The Prime Minister’s Office, Defense Ministry and its museum department, Moshav Avihayil and Beit Hagdudim were all involved.
In the US Jerry Klinger, who as president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation also researches Christian Zionists, made extraordinary efforts in the long process of bringing Patterson’s remains. “If we fail to remember, honor and respect those who sacrificed for us, because they are not Israelis or Jewish, we will be alone,” he asserts.
“Patterson Day is a debt of honor to John Patterson,” says Ezekiel Sivak, Klinger’s contact in Avihayil, who for four years worked with him on bringing Patterson’s remains and those of his wife, Frances, from Los Angeles to Israel. The Prime Minister’s Office was also involved.
Born in 1867 in Ireland, Patterson “knew the Bible well, was inspired by biblical warriors, and was aware of the importance of Israel for the revival of the Jewish people,” explains Sivak.
At the age of 17, Patterson joined the British Army and served in India, Africa and Palestine. In 1898, he supervised the construction of a bridge over the Tsavo River (in present-day Kenya). Two man-eating lions held thousands of workers at bay. After months of attempts, Patterson killed the two beasts. His book, The Man-eaters of Tsavo, documents his adventures there. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order following his service in the Boer War (1899–1902).
Patterson returned to service during World War I. In 1915 he was appointed by Gen. Maxwell to become commander of the Zion Mule Corps, founded by Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Zionist activist and hero Joseph Trumpeldor in Alexandria.
Jabotinsky was in Egypt as a journalist, and Trumpeldor had expelled from Palestine by the Turks.
The unit played an important role in carrying water, food, ammunition and supplies in the Gallipoli campaign against the Turkish army. Patterson was commanding officer with Trumpeldor second- in-command.
“Patterson and Jabotinsky were in contact for many years, until Jabotinsky’s death in 1940 in New York,” says Ahimeir.
“Patterson didn’t become commander just due to his military record, but also because of the importance he saw in integrating the Jewish people in their land,” says Rachel Silko, director of Beit Hagdudim, who spoke at the event.
Patterson wrote in his book With the Zionists in Gallipoli: “It is curious that Gen. Maxwell should have chosen me [to command a Jewish unit], because he knew nothing of my knowledge of Jewish history and my sympathy for the Jewish race.
When as a boy I eagerly devoured the records of the glorious deeds of the Jewish military captains, such as Joshua, Joab, Gideon, Judas Maccabee, I never dreamed that I in a small way would become a captain of a host of the Children of Israel.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at last year’s ceremony in Avihayil that Patterson was “the commander of the first Jewish fighting force in nearly two millennia, and as such he can be called the godfather of the Israeli army.”
After Jabotinsky’s death, Patterson became close to Revisionist activist Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, father of the prime minister. Benzion’s older son, Yoni Netanyahu, was named Yonatan after John Patterson.
“The soldiers in the Zion Mule Corps were Russian Jews who were expelled to Alexandria by the ruling Turks,” relates Sivak, whose wife is a granddaughter of Yasha Goldin (later he changed his name to Yaakov Golan). “Goldin was an officer in the Zion Mule Corps and served under Patterson.”
Many residents of Avihayil are descendants of the World War I Jewish Legion veterans who founded the moshav.
The Jewish Legion was founded after the disbanding of the Zion Mule Corps in 1916. It included five battalions, including the 38th battalion of Royal Fusiliers, headed by Lt.-Col. Patterson. Jabotinsky was a lieutenant in this battalion. The Guardian in 1918 termed the Jewish Legion as the “New Maccabeans.”
The Beit Hagdudim Museum, a Defense Ministry museum, has two major displays highlighting the contribution of Jews to the British Army in both world wars. The display devoted to the 10,000 Jewish volunteers in World War I presents photographs of volunteers from England, US, Canada, Argentina and the Yishuv, rifles, a model of a Zion Mule Corps soldier with a mule, a depiction of the Gallipoli landing scene, and David Ben-Gurion’s letter to his father describing his service. Patterson’s dress uniform with medals and sword are on display, as well as a letter from the lord mayor of London allowing the soldiers to march through the streets of London with fixed bayonets.
According to Sivak, “Patterson had visited Avihayil in the 1930s and received a warm welcome.
Some nonagenarian residents recall his visit from their youth.” So it was only natural that when grandson Alan Patterson relayed his grandfather’s wishes to be buried in Israel, Moshav Avihayil was chosen.
Patterson died in the US in 1947, shortly before Israel’s independence.
It is only fitting that Patterson Day falls out around Hanukka, the holiday that marks, among other things, Jewish heroism.