When good men who did great things pass into the next life, they leave an example for this one. Tom Derek Bowden was 17 when he first set foot in the land that once was – and would again be – Israel.
It was 1938 and he was stationed in Palestine under the mercurial British officer Orde Wingate, an ardent Zionist. Bowden was awed by Wingate and his commitment to training local Jews to defend themselves from their Arab tormenters. While there, Bowden fell in love with a young kibbutznik, Hannah Appel, but the outbreak of war frustrated their plans to marry.
In 1941, he was despatched to Vichy-held Syria-Lebanon, where he was badly injured and his sergeant, Moshe Dayan, lost an eye, 26 years before becoming Israel’s defence minister.
Bowden, invalided, demanded a new commission and spent three years as a paratrooper before being wounded again and captured dropping into Arnhem. The Nazis found letters from Hannah among his belongings and an interrogator gloated: ‘I’ll show you what we do with the Jews’, before sending him to Bergen-Belsen to dispose of corpses.
He survived the war, resigned his British Army commission and travelled to Palestine, where he enlisted as David Appel and joined the 5,000 Machalniks who came to fight for Israel in 1948. Bowden commanded an anti-tank unit, founded the IDF parachute school, authored its training manual and set up the country’s paratrooper brigade, which two decades later proved vital to victory in the Six Day War.
Bowden, who died this week aged 97, lived a remarkable life, all the more so because, unlike most Machalniks, he wasn’t Jewish. He had no connection to Israel or Judaism. Non-Jewish Machalniks split between Christian Zionists and mercenaries but Bowden was gently Anglican, initially unfamiliar with Zionism, and from a very wealthy family. ‘I fell in love with this Jewish girl and the Jewish state,’ he once told the Jewish Chronicle, but what got him there in the first place?
‘I was going to make sure [the Jews of Palestine] didn’t get stamped on. They were going to kill the whole sodding lot of them. I’d seen enough annihilation.’ Thus did Derek Bowden become HaMitnadev Hutz LaAretz (‘a volunteer from outside the land’) and one so unassuming that, his service to Jewish history rendered, he returned to Britain and lived out a quiet life as a Norfolk farmer.
The lessons Derek Bowden had to teach us are enduring but especially seasonable. We are confronted as he was by the timeless mania of anti-Semitism, history’s most unoriginal sin. The players are new and the stage dressed a little differently but it is an otherwise faithful adaptation.
Bowden’s first lesson is his simplest: always be for the Jews. When the world asks you to choose between the Jews and their enemies, or insists on your neutrality in the matter, never hesitate to choose the Jews. Your philosemitism will be in the minority most of the time and some Jews will regard it with suspicion but it is a moral imperative nonetheless. The preservation of Jewish life, community and peoplehood is a civilisational commandment. No society can be advanced whose Jews aren’t free, equal and safe.
Another lesson from Bowden’s life is that being for the Jews often requires courage. Few are called on to show the measure of valour Bowden did and he is a useful reminder that, whatever sufferances come with philosemitism and Zionism, your inconveniences are minor compared to his.
Bowden teaches us, too, that there is no conditional solidarity with Jews. He is no friend who is only there when it’s easy or politically palatable. Zionism and Jewish peoplehood are inextricably linked and Bowden understood that if the modern Jewish state was strangled at birth it would indeed mean another ‘annihilation’ of the Jews. Bowden fought for Israel for the same reason anti-Semites fight against it: Israel is the home of Jewish strength and Jewish security.
Volunteers from outside the land are as necessary today as they were seven decades ago, even if their role has changed along with the theatre of engagement. Modern Machalniks are defending Jewish rights, confronting anti-Semitism and challenging the delegitimisation of Israel online, within political and social organisations, and in international institutions.
They may not boast the pluck or braun of Derek Bowden but they are, in their own modest way, living by his humbling example.