He was Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu’s godfather. President Teddy Roosevelt counted him as a friend. And in a recently published biography, author Denis Brian calls him the father of the Israeli army. His name is Colonel John Henry Patterson.
During World War I Patterson trained and commanded the Jewish soldiers of the Zion Mule Corps and the 38th Battalion of the British army’s Royal Fusiliers, one of several battalions that comprised the Jewish Legion. Many of these soldiers, Brian argues, formed the backbone of what later became the Israeli army in 1948. “Without those men it’s almost certain that Israel would have been defeated,” Brian says.
Greatly influenced by his wartime experience, Patterson, a non-Jew, spent the remainder of his life (he died in 1947) lobbying for the Zionist cause. He worked alongside the likes of Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who had lobbied for and then fought in the Jewish Legion; Benzion Netanyahu, the father of former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Lieutenant Colonel Yoni Netanyahu, who was killed in Israel’s 1976 raid at Entebbe Airport; and Peter Bergson of the activist Bergson Group.
Patterson is most famous in history for his lion-hunting exploits in Africa in 1898, which are depicted in three movies. However, what most fascinates Brian, author of The Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson, is Patterson’s unusual dedication to Zionism. Brian recently spoke with The Jewish Press.
The Jewish Press: How do you explain Patterson’s love for Jews and dedication to Zionism?
Brian: He was very impressed with the Jewish soldiers he fought with and got to know. He was particularly impressed with Jabotinsky, who he regarded as a great individual as well as a great leader.
He obviously was also brought up on the Bible, which influenced him a great deal. That, in fact, is also why many of the American presidents have been so pro-Zionist from the very start. You may not know this, but John Adams, the second president of the United States, wanted 100,00 Jews to invade Palestine and take it over. He recommended this in a correspondence with a Jewish friend.
You write of an incident in which Patterson stood up for the honor of Jews.
Yes, a fairly high-ranking British officer called one of his soldiers a dirty Jew. He had his men surround the officer with bayonets and got him to apologize. Then he contacted the British government and the man was sent abroad.
Patterson worked more closely with Revisionist Zionists like Jabotinsky than Labor Zionists like Chaim Weizmann or David Ben-Gurion. Why?
Being a military man and a historian, Patterson believed one had to fight for one’s existence. That was more in line with Jabotinsky’s idea than that of Weizmann, who felt it was more important to be diplomatic, discuss things with the British, depend on the British, etc.
Why did you write this book?
I wrote a biography of Ernest Hemingway in which I discovered that one of his books, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, was based on Patterson’s experience in Africa. Then I discovered that people didn’t know that Patterson was a man of many lives. Almost everybody thought he just had to do with lion hunting, but then I discovered that he had this Jewish link, which I found much more fascinating. I had previously written a biography of Einstein, so I knew about what was happening in Palestine at the time. So the whole thing got together like that.
You write in the book that history has not been fair to Patterson. How so?
I think that other than Harry Truman, no non-Jew has been more responsible for Israel’s existence than Patterson. Israel would not have won in 1948 without the trained leaders that came out of Patterson’s army.
But he’s not given his due. He’s probably known to 1 in 10,000 people in Israel and to even fewer in America. Many people know of Lawrence of Arabia. Well, he was Patterson of Palestine and, in fact, Patterson had much more of an effect than Lawrence on the future of the Middle East.