Monday, March 25, 2013

The Jewish Legion Celebrates Passover in Palestine
in World War I

The British army captured Jerusalem from the Turks in December 1917 and continued their Palestine campaign for another year until the capture of Damascus. Meanwhile, the Jewish Legion, consisting of Jewish volunteers, sat in Cairo chafing at the bit to join the fight in Palestine.  They finally joined Allenby's forces in June 1918 and fought against the Turks in the Jordan River Valley.
The Jewish Battalion, a Passover Seder in Jerusalem, 1919.  (Harvard, Central Zionist Archives) The photo is signed by
Ya'akov Ben-Dov who moved to Palestine in 1907 from Kiev. He was drafted into the Ottoman army during World War I and
served as a photographer in Jerusalem.  Ben-Dov filmed Allenby's entry into Jerusalem in 1917.

The Jewish battalions of the Jewish Legion were manned by volunteers from Palestine, Europe, the United States and Canada, soldiers stirred by the call to action by Zionist leaders Zev Jabotinsky and Yosef Trumpeldor.  Colonel John Henry Patterson, the unit's first commanding officer, described the Legion:
Recruiting poster for Jewish soldiers
"The Jewish Legion was the name for five battalions of Jewish volunteers established as the British Army's 38th through 42nd (Service) Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers. The initial unit, known as the Zion Mule Corps, was formed in 1914-1915 during World War I, when Britain was at war against the Ottoman Turks, as Zionists around the world saw an opportunity to promote the idea of a Jewish National Homeland."
Soldiers from the Jewish Battalion on Passover in Jerusalem. The
caption in the Harvard/Central Zionist Archives lists the date as
1918. The Hebrew inscription behind the soldiers reads "Pesach
Jerusalem 5678" which corresponds to 1917-1918.

The photograph of the soldiers sitting in Jerusalem is something of a mystery. 

It is dated 1918, but the Jewish Legion was still based in Cairo in the spring of 1918.  Examining the head gear of the soldiers suggests the group consisted of Jewish fighters from various units -- British, Australian cavalry, and Scottish -- who assembled to participate in the Passover seder in Jerusalem prior to the Jewish Legion arriving in Palestine. 

16-year-old volunteer Yitzak Jacov Liss
from "Diary of a Young Soldier" by
Jeanne Samuels

More information on the Jewish Legion is available in We Are Coming, Unafraid: The Jewish Legions and the Promised Land in the First World War by Dr. Michael Keren, professor of Political Science, and Dr. Shlomit Keren, professor of History and Israel Studies, at the University of Calgary. They present personal diaries, letters and memoirs of soldiers who fought in the Jewish Legions.  "In the First World War, many small nationalities joined the war in order to ensure self-determination when it was over. This was also the case with the Jewish battalions,” writes Shlomit Keren.

"Jewish Legion enters a Jewish village in the Land of Israel" from
"We Are Coming, Unafraid"

Indeed, the Jewish Legion ignited the spirit for the Jewish self-defense forces in Palestine that evolved eventually into the Israel Defense Forces.

Read more about Colonel Patterson and the Jewish Legion at The Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson: How an Irish Lion Hunter Led the Jewish Legion to Victory.

View a previous posting on Yemenite Passover Seder in Jerusalem


  1. As Jabotinsky notes in his The Story of the Jewish Legion (Ackerman 1945), p. 130, "after a month on the Shechem front and two weeks' rest, we were sent to the Jordan Valley. It was the middle of August 1918".

    A more precise dating of the first operational military action of his battalion is that on July 7, 1918, he writes to his wife from Jerusalem but on July 9, the letter is from Abuein (a village west of Sinjil, which is west of Shiloh). On July 22, he writes his wife that he is leaving for Jerusalem to participate in the foundation stone-laying of the Hebrew University and from there to Cairo to deal with the rest of the Legionaires. On August 7, his letter home is again dated Jerusalem. On Aigust 22, the next letter is from Bir Salaam.

  2. I have a copy of the picture entering "Rishon L'Zion" with ColonelPaterson and Margolin it is in the collection of postcard type photos of my wife's grandfather's David Blick's -39th Royal Fuseiler's photo collection

  3. My great uncle served in the Jewish Legion. I have all his personal letters in Yiddish to his brother and numerous postcard pictures including him in his uniform. I need to get the letters translated and then I would like to donate them to a Jewish Museum. I have heard there is one in Israel for the Legion. Does anyone have a contact number? Thanks I can be contacted at

  4. Legions Museum website: