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The Christian Role in Israel

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16 Apr 2018 (All day)
The Christian Role in Israel

As the people of Israel celebrate the 70th anniversary of the nation’s modern rebirth in 1948, they are looking back with great respect for all those who worked to establish the state and then fought bravely to secure victory in the War of Independence. This includes a number of Christian figures who played key roles in Israel’s founding seven decades ago.

Christians impact the UN Partition Plan
The passage of the UN’s Partition Plan for Palestine on 29 November 1947 paved the way for Israel’s independence, with the help of some unheralded Christian friends.

With Arab-Jewish clashes mounting in Mandatory Palestine, the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) was sent in summer 1947 to conduct an inquiry and propose a solution. The committee members were impressed with Jewish advances in the land. But they refused to meet with the 250,000 Jewish refugees in displacement camps across Europe, until the saga of the refugee ship Exodus ’47 unfolded. The vessel was packed with 4,500 desperate Holocaust survivors, and was attacked by British forces as it approached the coastline.

Rev John Grauel, a Christian sympathiser with the Zionist cause, volunteered as the only non-Jewish crew member and witnessed the British assaults on the Exodus off Haifa. He rushed to Jerusalem and gave compelling testimony before the committee; how the ship was rammed seven times, then boarded by armed sailors who shot and clubbed to death defenseless boys.

“The Exodus had no arms,” Rev Grauel insisted. “All they fought with were potatoes, canned goods, and their bare fists.” The refugees eventually were returned to Germany. The tragedy stretched out several months before a worldwide audience, fuelling the committee’s growing sense of its humanitarian mission.

Rev William Hull also impacted UNSCOP that summer, especially the Canadian delegate, Justice Ivan Rand. Also from Canada, Rev Hull had ministered in Jerusalem since 1935 and knew first-hand of the injustices visited upon the Yishuv by British and Arab alike. Over dinner one evening, Justice Rand listened to Hull’s views and later admitted their encounter clarified his understanding of the dispute and gave him new appreciation for Zionist endeavours. Justice Rand was a respected member of the committee and, since Canada was part of the Commonwealth, his anti-British leanings held great sway. He took a firm position that Britain had unfairly restricted Jewish immigration and land purchases.

Guatemalan Ambassador Jorge Garcia-Granados, a revered Christian diplomat on UNSCOP, understood the real meaning of the Jewish return. In The Birth of Israel, Granados writes of UNSCOP’s enthusiastic welcome in Tel Aviv that summer, “I contemplated the enormous mass of humanity filling the square and overflowing into the streets… still applauding, still cheering… It was then that I first really realised what the coming of our committee meant to the Jewish people. We held in our hands life or death.”

The majority of UNSCOP recommended ending Britain’s role in Palestine, partitioning it into separate Jewish and Arab states with economic ties, and placing Jerusalem under an international trusteeship. The UN Partition Plan (Resolution 181) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 29 November 1947 by a vote of 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions.

The Jewish Agency accepted this decision, but the Arabs launched an armed resistance to the plan. By the time the British Mandate ended on 14 May 1948, Arab-Jewish fighting had resulted in a de facto partition of Eretz Israel and the Jewish people were poised to declare the rebirth of their ancient nation.

At 4:00 pm on May 14th, Jewish leader David Ben-Gurion addressed the crowd gathered inside the Tel Aviv Art Museum. In declaring the new state of Israel, he proclaimed that its moral and legal foundations had been laid by “the Balfour Declaration, the UN Partition Resolution, the sacrifice of the Zionist pioneers, and the torment suffered by Jews in recent years”.

Later that day, the UN met in New York to consider last-minute Arab proposals designed to avert impending Jewish statehood. In the midst of the debate, the US delegate went to the rostrum to officially confirm that President Harry Truman had just given de facto recognition to the new State of Israel at 6:11 pm. Despite stiff opposition from both his Secretary of State and Defense, Truman was steeped in the Bible and swayed by compassion for a beleaguered minority people. Moments later, Ambassador Garcia-Granados, once a member of UNSCOP, arose to announce Guatemala as the second country to recognise the new state.

Christians defend the new state
The outnumbered Jewish forces under Ben-Gurion’s command now awaited the expected invasion of armies from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. The leaders of the Haganah, or Jewish Underground, had been trained to fight by British officer Orde Wingate during the Arab uprising of the late 1930s. A staunch Christian Zionist, Wingate had taught his officers to always command from the front, not the rear – a doctrine still followed by the IDF to this day!

During the ensuing War of Independence, the Jewish forces in the land were joined by some 4,700 volunteers from 59 countries who came to help defend Israel. Most were Jewish veterans of World War II, but there were also around 200 Christians who joined them, including many of the pilots in Israel’s fledgling air force. These courageous volunteers came to be known as “Machalniks”, and they brought invaluable fighting skills and experience to the newly-formed Israel Defense Forces.

One of the most notable Christian Machalniks in 1948 was Tom Derek Bowden, also known as Capt David Appel to his Jewish troops. Bowden had begun his military career as a cavalry officer in Mandate Palestine, serving under Wingate in a counterterror unit. Then in World War II, he was back in the region fighting with Allied forces in Syria, where he was badly wounded in the same battle in which his sergeant, Moshe Dayan, lost his eye. During these times in the Land, the affable Bowden made many Jewish friends and even dated a local Jewish girl. This would later cost him when fighting near the end of the war in Holland.

Switching over to a paratrooper brigade, Bowden took part in the battle of Arnhem, where he was wounded once more and captured by German troops. After a daring escape, he was recaptured and searched by SS guards, who found letters on Bowden from Jewish friends in Palestine. So he was sent to the Bergen-Belsen death camp for a month, where he was forced to carry Jewish corpses for burial in open pits.

Bowden later recalled that the experience changed his life. As the war ended, he left the British army. But when he heard about the Arab threats against Israel in May 1948, he rushed by boat and plane to Haifa to join the battle. Because of what he had witnessed at Bergen-Belsen, Bowden said he simply felt compelled to come defend the Jews from another attempt at annihilation.

At first he joined the 7th Brigade in the battle for Latrun. He was in charge of a unit of Polish Jews who had just arrived from the refugee camps in Europe, and without knowing their language he taught them how to handle rifles by hand gestures. He also took part in the forging of the Burma Road to Jerusalem and continued with the brigade as it battled its way through the Galilee.

With the armistice of 1949, Bowden was asked to start a parachute school. As company commander and chief instructor of Israel’s first parachute regiment, the 72nd Battalion, Bowden brought army surplus parachutes from England and made four jumps “before breakfast every day”. He also wrote Israel’s first training manual for the paratrooper brigade, which went on to fame in the 1956 Sinai Campaign and the 1967 Six-Day War.

Today, Derek Bowden is 96 years old and resides near Norfolk, England, with his wife Eva. He is the last-known living Christian Machalnik from the 1948 war and remains proud that he was the first Christian commander in the IDF. During a recent courtesy visit by ICEJ-UK national director Rev David Elms, Bowden also affirmed that it was his Christian faith and compassion which motivated him to go defend the new nation of Israel at its rebirth.


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