A Righteous Christian Zionist

On November 18, 2014, two Palestinians carrying butcher knives, axes, and guns stormed a synagogue in West Jerusalem during morning prayers.  They killed five people, four of them rabbis, and injured a number of other worshipers.  Praise for the attack came from both Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as did cautious, equivocal claims of credit for the incident.

This attack was but one of the number of assaults by Palestinians driving cars into Israeli civilians, knife attacks, and stabbing, like that on December 3, 2014 by a Palestinian teenager against shoppers in the Rami Levy supermarket, in the Mishor Adumim Industrial Park, that employs both Israelis and Palestinians.

Not surprisingly, Khaled Mashaal, the chief of the political bureau of Hamas, from his safe home in Qatar, perversely blamed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks.  The best that can be said of Mashaal is that he makes no secret of the consequences of his convictions.  He declared that Hamas would maintain its policy of “armed resistance” and would defend the al-Aqsa mosque, though no one was attacking it.

Equally unsurprising was the response of the World Council of Churches to the brutal murders.  Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of WCC, did express “concern and sadness” at the attack of November 18, and he condemned the violence.  But neither he nor the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land (CRIHL) in Jerusalem, in their expressions of concern, ever mentioned the Palestinian groups responsible for all the attacks.  Rather, in a general fashion that suggested an equivalence of responsibility between Israel and the Palestinians for the attacks on Israelis, the two organizations condemned “the violence between the peoples and communities of the region that caused so much bloodshed in the name of religion.”

The iron has entered the soul of both of these mainstream Christian organizations, which seem incapable of expressing a true and meaningful moral calculus about the evil of Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, including rabbis.  The organizations epitomize, in a disproportionate, insatiable way, a mindset of “deep concern” about any action or proposal by the State of Israel or its Jewish citizens.

It is therefore refreshing and gladdening to be reminded recently that this mindset is not accepted by all Christians.  On December 4, 2014, the ashes of a heroic Christian Zionist, Colonel John Henry Patterson, were reburied at a special ceremony in Israel.  Patterson, an Irishman born in 1867 of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, was a soldier who fought in the Boer War and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1900.  He was notable for shooting tigers in India and, while overseeing the building of a railroad bridge in Kenya, for killing two man-eating lions that threatened to disrupt the construction and were terrifying the railroad workers.

Patterson wrote a book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, about his experiences.  It became the basis of three Hollywood movies, one of which starred Gregory Peck playing Patterson.  Another part of his life, relating to the fatal consequences of a rumored adulterous affair in which he was involved, inspired Ernest Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.

In metaphorical fashion, Patterson carried the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.  He was a Victorian colonialist and defender of the British Empire, but he was equally important as a devoted friend of Jews and later of the State of Israel.  It was Vladimir (Zeev) Jabotinsky, founder of the militant Zionist Revisionist Movement, who said of him, “In all of Jewish history we have never had a Christian friend as understanding and devoted.”

During World War I, with the help of Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor, who had called for a Jewish military unit in December 1914, Patterson set up two battalions of Jewish soldiers in the British army.  He thus became the first commander of a Jewish fighting force for almost two millennia.  He commanded the Zion Mule Corps, a group of volunteers, which fought at Gallipoli in April 1915, and the Jewish Brigade, in essence the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, one of three battalions of the Jewish Legion, recruited from British and foreign Jews, that fought against the Turks, who were allies of Germany.  Lawrence of Arabia led a small and ineffective Arab force against the Turks, familiar in books and films, but the structured Jewish Legion, uniformed soldiers speaking Hebrew, was a more successful force.  Patterson praised the ZMC, the only Army Service Corps present in one part of Gallipoli at the time, and which had landed to fight after only three weeks of training.

When creating the Zion Mule Corps, he invited the Jewish volunteers on March 31, 1915, to “[p]ray with me that I should not only, as Moses, behold Canaan from afar, but be divinely permitted to lead you into the Promised Land.”

Patterson was not only the godfather of a Jewish army; he was also the literal godfather of Yonatan Netanyahu, son of Ben-Zion Netanyahu and brother of the Israeli prime minister, who was killed when leading the unit going to the rescue in 1976 of the hostages held in Entebbe, Uganda by the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

It was Patterson’s dying wish that he and his wife should be buried in Israel.  He died in Los Angeles in 1947 but wanted to lie alongside his comrades from the Jewish brigade.  Finally, his wish came true when his remains were sent to Israel, where they were interred at the military cemetery at Moshav Avichayil.  The burial ceremony was attended by Prime Minister Netanyahu and by the Israeli defense minister.  Already, a street in Jerusalem had been named in his honor.  With the reburial, a debt had been repaid.

It would be salutary if the World Council of Churches and even Archbishop Desmond Tutu could remember the memory and actions of a courageous Christian personality.