Saturday marked the 68th anniversary of the passing of a great man, one whose contributions to the establishment of the State of Israel and its defense cannot be overstated.
And though his name graces numerous streets, thoroughfares and educational institutions throughout the land, Orde Wingate's unique role in helping to lay the foundation for the revival of Jewish sovereignty has nonetheless begun to fade from public memory.
Just ask any young Israeli about Wingate, and they will most likely think you are referring to the institute for physical education and sport in Netanya, rather than the man for whom it was named.
This is a grave injustice, one that simply cannot be allowed to occur. We are doing a great disservice to history, and to ourselves, by not doing more to remember him.
Put simply, Wingate was a Christian warrior for Zion, a man whose biblical passion and beliefs propelled him to defy the pro-Arab sentiments of the day and embrace the Zionist cause. He set a noble example of unapologetically fighting terror, staunchly rejecting appeasement both as a policy and a world-view.
In 1936, at the height of the Arab terror campaign known as the Arab Revolt, Wingate was serving as a captain in British intelligence. Assigned to British units posted in Mandatory Haifa, he quickly came to admire the Jewish people and their determination to reclaim the land that had been promised to them by the Creator.
Wingate began training Jewish volunteers, who served in active defense units that came to be called the Special Night Squads. They launched daring missions to protect Jewish communities from Arab terrorists, often undertaking operations that penetrated deep into Arab villages.
Wingate drew on his deep love and profound knowledge of the Bible, employing strategy and tactics he had distilled from studying the campaigns of Joshua, Gideon and King David. As an officer, he emphasized the need for preemptive strikes, and insisted upon taking the fight to the enemy's territory. Both of these principles later came to serve as central tenets of Israel's defensive posture and military doctrine.
Wingate organized special training courses at Ein Harod, where some of the future leaders of Israel's military were schooled. He dreamt of one day leading a Jewish army, and befriended various Zionist leaders such as Chaim Weizmann and Moshe Sharett.
To Jews living in pre-state Israel, Wingate came to be known as "Hayedid," or "the friend," but many of his British colleagues looked askance at his fondness for the Jewish cause. Fellow officers criticized him, forcing Wingate in 1939 to submit a formal appeal in which he wrote, "I am not ashamed to say that I am a real and devoted admirer of the Jews.... Had more officers shared my views, the [Arab] rebellion would have come to a speedy conclusion some years ago."
As a result of his stance, Wingate was unceremoniously recalled to England, where the authorities went so far as to bar him from ever returning to the land of Israel.
With the outbreak of World War II, Wingate was assigned to Ethiopia to counter the Italian fascist occupation of the country, which he did with great success.
He was then sent to Burma, where he led a group of jungle fighters in the battle against Japanese forces. It was there, on March 24, 1944, that Wingate, by then a major-general, died in a tragic plane crash. He was just 41 years old. In his short life, Wingate had managed to win Britain's Distinguished Service Order three times.
More importantly, however, he won the gratitude of the people of Israel.
When word of his death reached Jerusalem, a memorial service was organized for him at Yeshurun Synagogue and a special version of the Kel Male Rachamim prayer was even composed on his behalf. "Remember unto him his love for the words of your prophets concerning the return of the House of Israel to its Holy Land," the text of the prayer said, adding, "May the name of Orde Wingate be remembered in the book of redemption of the House of Israel for eternity."
David Ben-Gurion said that had Wingate lived to see the establishment of the State of Israel, he would have surely been asked to lead its nascent military. And in his autobiography, Chaim Weizmann referred to Wingate as the "Lawrence of Judea," highlighting his "passionate sympathy – one might say his self-identification – with the highest ideals of Zionism." Each year, the Jewish War Veterans of the USA hold special ceremonies in America and Israel to honor Wingate and his legacy.
It was at one such event in 1995 that then-chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau told a poignant story, noting that while stationed in Burma in 1943, Wingate had written to a friend to say that he had not forgotten the Zionist cause. "You promised not to forget us," Rabbi Lau said, "and we promise not to forget you, not us, nor our children." In light of all that Orde Wingate, a British officer and Bible-believing Christian, did for our people, that is one promise that we should all strive to keep.
May his memory be for a blessing.