Joseph Trumpeldor in the uniform of a British army officer but without visible badges, c. World War One
|Born||November 21, 1880
|Died||March 1, 1920 (aged 39)
Tel Hai, British Mandate of Palestine
*Port Arthur (WIA),
World War I
* Battle of Gallipoli (WIA),
Battle of Tel Hai †
|Awards||Cross of St. George|
Joseph Trumpeldor (November 21, 1880 – March 1, 1920, Hebrew: יוסף טרוּמְפֶּלְדּוֹר, Russian: Иосиф Трумпельдор), was an early Zionist activist and war hero. He helped organize the Zion Mule Corps and bring Jewish immigrants to Israel. Trumpeldor died defending the settlement of Tel Hai in 1920 and subsequently became a Zionist national hero. According to a standard account, to him are attributed the last words, reminiscent of Horace: "It does not matter, it is good to die for our country."
Joseph Trumpeldor was born in Pyatigorsk, Russia. His father, Wulf Trumpeldor, served as a cantonist in the Caucasian War, and as a "useful Jew", was allowed to live outside the Pale of Settlement. Though proudly Jewish, Trumpeldor's upbringing was more Russian than traditionally Jewish. Originally in training as a dentist, Joseph Trumpeldor volunteered for the Russian army in 1902. During the Russo-Japanese War, he participated in the siege of Port Arthur, where he lost his left arm to shrapnel. He spent a hundred days in the hospital recovering, but elected to complete his service. When he was questioned about his decisions and told that he was heavily advised not to continue fighting given his handicap, he responded "but I still have another arm to give to the motherland." When Port Arthur surrendered, Trumpeldor went into Japanese captivity. He spent his time printing a newspaper on Jewish affairs and organized history, geography and literature classes. He also befriended several prisoners who shared his desire of founding a communal farm in Palestine. On return from captivity, he moved to St. Petersburg. Trumpeldor subsequently received four decorations for bravery including the Cross of St. George, which made him the most decorated Jewish soldier in Russia. In 1906 he became the first Jew in the army to receive an officer's commission.
World War I
Due to his handicap he began to study law. He gathered a group of young Zionists around him and in 1911 they emigrated to Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire. At first he joined a farm on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and then worked for a time at Kibbutz Degania. When World War I broke out, being an enemy national, he went to Egypt, where together with Ze'ev Jabotinsky he developed the idea of the Jewish Legion to fight with the British against common enemies and the Zion Mule Corps was formed in 1915, considered to be the first all-Jewish military unit organized in close to two thousand years, and the ideological beginning of the Israel Defense Forces. He saw action in the Battle of Gallipoli with the Zion Mule Corps, where he was wounded in the shoulder. The Zion Mule Corps remained in Gallipoli through the entire campaign and was disbanded shortly after being transferred to Britain.
Upon his return to Petrograd, Russia in 1918, he organised Jews to defend themselves and established the HeHalutz, a youth organization that prepared immigrants for aliyah, and returned to the British Mandate of Palestine himself.
Battle of Tel Hai
On 1 March 1920, several hundred Shiites, from the village of Jabal Amil in southern Lebanon, gathered at the gate of Tel Hai, one of four Jewish farming villages in an isolated bloc at the northern end of the Upper Galilee's Hulah Valley. Gangs ('isabat) of clan-based border peasants, combining politics and banditry, were active in the area of the loosely defined border between the soon to be established British Mandate of Palestine, French Mandate of Lebanon and of Syria. The Shiites believed that some French troops had taken refuge with the Jews and demanded to search the premises. The Jews generally tried to maintain neutrality in the chaos, occasionally sheltering both Arabs and French. On this day there were no French soldiers, and the Jews assented to a search. One of the farmers fired a shot into the air, a signal for reinforcements from nearby Kfar Giladi, which brought ten men led by Trumpeldor, who had been posted by Hashomer to organize defense.
It is unclear exactly what happened once Trumpeldor assumed command, but an early report speaks of 'misunderstanding on both sides'. Ultimately, a major firefight raged in which seven Jews and five Arabs were killed outright; Trumpeldor was shot in the hand and stomach, and died while being evacuated to Kfar Giladi that evening. The eight Jews were buried in two common graves in Kfar Giladi, and both locations were abandoned for a time.
After his death, Trumpeldor became a symbol of Jewish self-defence, and his memorial day on the 11th day of Adar is officially noted in Israel every year. The last words often attributed to him, "Never mind, it is good to die for our country" (En davar, tov lamut be'ad artzenu אין דבר, טוב למות בעד ארצנו), became famous in the pre-state Zionist movement and in Israel of the 1950s and 1960s. According to Aviel Roshwald, the authenticity of Trumpeldor's final utterance is well-attested and not questioned by historians despite a widespread belief that they are apocryphal. Other historians state that these words have been under dispute for decades. In the wake of popular scepticism in the 1970s, a counter-version to the official glorified legend, perhaps starting as a joke, discredited the educational tale of his final hours by suggesting that his last words were in fact a pungent curse in his mother-tongue Russian, reflecting frustration with his bad luck. Trumpeldor spoke only broken Hebrew: in his last hours he mumbled requests in his native Russian to have his wounds bandaged, and the American doctor, George Gerry (or Gary), who attended him and was the only firsthand source for this declaration, had been in Palestine for only two weeks, and might have had difficulty in understanding him. These words, which spread like wildfire throughout the Jewish immigrant community in Palestine, are rather atypical for Jews on their deathbed. They are the equivalent in Hebrew of the Latin apophthegm Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, the famous line from the Roman lyrical poet Horace's Odes (iii 2.13), which can be rendered in English as "It is sweet and honourable to die for one's country," or "It is sweet and fitting to die for the fatherland" --- and which inspired numerous nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalist patriots in various countries.
Both right-wing and left-wing Zionists regard Joseph Trumpeldor as a hero. The Revisionist Zionist movement (the precursor to Likud) named its youth movement Betar, an acronym for "Covenant of Joseph Trumpeldor", while the left-wing movements remember Trumpeldor as the defender of the kibbutzim and have established memorials in his honour. In the same year that he died, the Joseph Trumpeldor Battalion for defence and work was founded, which established several kibbutzim. The town of Kiryat Shmona ("City of Eight") is named after Trumpeldor and the seven others who died defending Tel Hai.
- Idith Zertal, Israel's Holocaust And The Politics Of Nationhood, Cambridge University Press, 2005 pp.13-15. That he ever said these words, which are similar to a famous line in the Latin poet Horace, has been challenged. Various versions exist, based on two primary witnesses, Dr George Gerry who had arrived in Israel just two weeks earlier, and Abraham Harzfeld. His Hebrew was broken and stilted: he is known to have spoken Russian while his wounds were attended to.
- Henry Laurens, La Question de Palestine, vol.1, Fayard, Paris 1999 p.502
- Segev, Tom (1999). One Palestine, Complete. Metropolitan Books. pp. 122–126. ISBN 0-8050-4848-0.
- Aviel Roshwald, The Endurance of Nationalism; Ancient Roots and Modern Dilemmas, Cambridge University Press. 2006, p.148).
- Matthew Silver, 'Fighting for Palestine and Crimea:Two Jewish Friends from Philadelphia during the First World War and the 1920s,' in Peter Y. Medding (ed.), Jews and Violence: Images, Ideologies, Realities, Studies in Contemporary Jewry,vol.18, Oxford University Press, pp.201-218, p.215, n.43.
- Yael Zerubavel, 'The Historic, the Legendary, and the Incredible: Invented Tradition and Collective Memory in Israel,' in John R. Gillis,Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, Princeton University Press, 1994 pp.105-126, p.115.
- Yael Zerubavel,Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition, University of Chicago Press, 1995 pp.159-160, 167.
- Matthew Silver, 'Fighting for Palestine and Crimea,' ibid. p.215, n.43
- Idith Zertal,Israel's Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood, Cambridge University Press, 2006 p.14. Gerry said that his last words were 'It is worth dying for our country, and this was later emended. Zertal records that Pinhas Schneourson testified he had heard Trumpeldor, just before his death, in reply to the query:"How are you?"," say: 'It is good to die for our country".(n.14)
- Anita Shapira, Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948, Stanford University Press, 2992 p.101.
- The personal papers of Joseph Trumpeldor are kept at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. The notation of the record group is A42.
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