The Long Shadow of Joseph Trumpeldor

The man who helped found the first all-Jewish combat unit in millennia died exactly 100 years ago. His legacy is grievously under-recognized.

Joseph Trumpeldor in 1905. World History Archive via Alamy.

Joseph Trumpeldor in 1905. World History Archive via Alamy.

Observation
March 2 2020
About the author

Oren Kessler is a Tel Aviv-based journalist. He was previously deputy director for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and is currently writing a book about the 1936-39 Palestinian revolt.

Joseph Trumpeldor is a name familiar throughout Israel. Most of the country’s cities have streets bearing his name (Haifa has two), and Tel Aviv’s most iconic cemetery carries it as well. But beyond the basics—his one arm, his gallant death 100 years ago on March 1, 1920—knowledge of the man tends to dwindle.

That is a shame; Trumpeldor’s life was short, but his achievements in it were vast: combat decorations in Manchuria, co-founding the first Jewish combat units in millennia, helping unify a factious and fractious Zionist movement in Palestine. And in his death he became Zionism’s most-celebrated martyr—one whose example fused and sanctified settlement, labor, and perseverance and served as a model for Jewish self-defense and Jewish self-sacrifice ever since.

 

Trumpeldor’s family confronted the same choices facing most Russian Jews in the latter half of the 19th century: Torah or Tolstoy, separation or assimilation, perseverance or emigration. But in one crucial aspect the family differed: its patriarch was, by no choice of his own, a military man.

Wolf Trumpeldor had been a thirteen-year-old boy in Russia-controlled Poland when, in 1853, he was abducted and forced into a quarter-century of military service for the tsar. This was the “canton” system, the empire’s Russification program for its minorities—Poles, Gypsies, and above all Jews—and he would serve in it as a combat medic through four tsars, the Crimean War, and Russia’s decades of conquest in the Caucasus.

The system was punishing for Jews: the army forbade Jewish prayer, kept cantonists from centers of Jewish settlement, and required they write home in Russian, which their families typically didn’t understand. Somehow, through it all, Wolf remained a Jew; legend has it he was once offered decorations and promotions for saving a prince’s life but refused because he would have had to renounce his faith.

Upon his release, Wolf availed himself of one of the few advantages of a cantonist’s life: as a “Useful Jew,” he could live anywhere in the empire, not just the Pale of Settlement. He settled in the Caucasus town of Pyatigorsk with his second wife Fedosia, with whom he had seven children. They named the fourth child, born in 1880, Osip (Joseph), or Osya for short.

A precocious boy, Joseph venerated Russian literature. Under Tolstoy’s influence, he adopted vegetarianism and pacifism even before hitting puberty, abjuring smoking and drink, spending hours training his six-foot frame, and sleeping on a sheet on the floor. Near their town was a commune inspired by Tolstoy’s vision of a spartan, collectivist life on the land. Joseph was jealous.

His choice of role model was no accident. The Trumpeldor home, if proudly Jewish, was above all Russian. Family members spoke Russian together, not Yiddish; his mother was drawn to Orthodox Christianity and encouraged her husband, unsuccessfully, to convert. Still, Joseph was given some limited Jewish religious education, and in his teens became drawn to the Jewish national movement promoted in Vienna by the eccentric journalist Theodor Herzl. Inspired, the teenage Joseph went so far as to organize an informal Zionist youth group among the few Jews in town.

But “Zionist organizer” would not yet suffice as a profession. Joseph had hoped to enter the sciences, but his father’s military service proved insufficient to exempt him from the Jewish quota. Instead he started to follow his brother into dentistry—until fate, in the form of an army conscription, led him to his father’s vocation. Driven by his pacifist convictions, he thought of declaring himself a conscientious objector, but worried it would feed suspicions of Jewish cowardice. So in 1902 he enlisted.

Soon Russia was at war with Japan over competing ambitions in the Far East, and Joseph was deployed to Manchuria. There, in the summer of 1904, shrapnel tore away most of his left arm, landing him in the hospital for 100 days. Shortly after the injury, he wrote to his father:

There is no point in being sorry about it. First, because being sorry won’t make any difference, and second because there are many who lost both right and left arms. . . . I hope that the one right hand with which I write this serves me so well in life that even those with two hands will be jealous.

Insisting on returning to battle, Joseph was promptly taken prisoner. Nearly two-fifths of the Russian prisoners of war were Jewish, and it was in the POW camp that he expanded his Zionist activism beyond his small-town Caucasus roots. He organized a miniature Jewish polity he dubbed—in Hebrew—the “Sons of Zion Captive in Japan.” The group established a school, library, loan agency, and theater troupe, and printed a weekly newsletter in Russian and Yiddish. He remained in captivity for a year.

Upon his release in 1906, Joseph became the first Jew to receive a Russian officer’s commission. In a ceremony in St. Petersburg, the tsarina decorated him for bravery and presented him with the gift of a prosthetic arm. Offered a military career, he declined.

 

Trumpeldor was twenty-six and, like so many twentysomethings then as now, lacked direction. But one truth was unavoidable: Jewish existence in Russia had never been more onerous. For three decades, a string of laws had curtailed the ability of Jews to live outside of towns, obtain mortgages, attend high school or university, join a profession, or participate in elections. In the three years before his army release, pogroms in Odessa, Kishinev, Kiev and beyond—most with government complicity or tacit assent—had left thousands dead.

So the survivors began to move. More than two-million Jews left Russia in Trumpeldor’s lifetime. Most went to the Americas and Western Europe, but a hardy few to Palestine, enough so that the clear majority of the 70,000 pioneers of the First (1882-1903) and Second (1904-1914) waves of aliyah hailed from Russia. Like them, Trumpeldor’s heart was in the east. While ostensibly studying law, he began to ready himself for aliyah, founding the Russian branch of Healutz, a movement that prepared prospective pioneers for farming life in Palestine. “There we will be at home; not with strangers,” he wrote to his brother, envisioning the prospect of

looking over my own fields in my own land. No man will tell me: “Go away, wretch—you are a foreigner in this land!” But if anyone does, then by might and by sword will I defend my fields and my rights. . . . . And if I fall in battle, I shall be happy. I shall know why I have fallen.

Arriving in Palestine by ship in early 1912, he joined Degania, the country’s first kibbutz, situated near the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Trumpeldor relished kibbutz life: the hard labor, the rocky hikes, the mental jousting over socialism and Zionism. But trouble arrived again before long, in the form of the Great War. Still a subject of Russia but living in the Ottoman empire, with which Russia was at war, Trumpeldor found himself an enemy alien. He along with some 6,000 other Jews were deported by the Ottomans to Egypt, where he stumbled into a Zionist activist on his way to Palestine. The two discovered they had much in common—both born the same year in Russia, both proud but assimilated secular Jews with a love of Russian letters. It was Vladimir Jabotinsky.

They had their differences. Though secular himself, Trumpeldor saw a place for religion, even managing to acquire Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, and Passover matzahs while in Japanese captivity. Jabotinsky, for his part, tended toward agnosticism if not outright atheism, and thought Hebrew should be written in Latin characters. The starkest difference was ideological: the former dreamed of an agrarian, socialist Jewish homeland, while the latter’s youthful Marxism-Zionism had faded after the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, an orgy of violence that killed 50 Jews and wounded some 600. In its place, he sought full Jewish territorial and political independence, and gave precedence to the practical concerns of settling the land and self-defense over more high-flown notions of divine will or the brotherhood of the working man.

Still, the two grew close. Jointly they appealed to the British in 1915 to create an all-Jewish military unit to help oust the Ottomans from Palestine, thereby planting the seeds, they hoped, for Jewish independence or autonomy under the British crown. London agreed, partly: not to a fighting unit but to a transport one, and not in Palestine but for the impending offensive on Constantinople. Even the unit’s name, the Zion Mule Corps, mixed the epic with the mundane.

Jabotinsky was skeptical of the idea. He had hoped for a fully autonomous Hebrew fighting unit to liberate the Promised Land, not Jews on mules hauling supplies in Turkey. He continued lobbying in London while Trumpeldor, who enthusiastically embraced the initiative, shipped out.

Trumpeldor joined the mulemen at Gallipoli, Winston Churchill’s disastrous 1915-1916 attempt to invade the Ottoman heartland that cost the Allies upward of 300,000 casualties. By then a British captain, Trumpeldor was shot through the shoulder that once held his arm, but again he insisted on returning to the fight. “Many of the Zionists whom I thought somewhat lacking in courage showed themselves fearless to a degree when under heavy fire,” recalled his commander. “Captain Trumpeldor actually reveled in it, and the hotter it became the more he liked it.”

In 1916, Britain disbanded the Zion Mule Corps. But Trumpeldor’s lobbying with Jabotinsky had paid off: the following year London finally established a five-battalion Jewish Legion and agreed to deploy it to the Holy Land.

News of the Legion’s creation reverberated across the Diaspora. David Ben-Gurion, a Labor-Zionist activist riding out the war in New York, had opposed the effort, encouraging Jews to enlist in the Ottoman and not the British army. The establishment of the Jewish Legion was so undeniable an accomplishment—Trumpeldor and Jabotinsky had created the world’s first all-Jewish combat unit in two millennia—that Ben-Gurion switched sides and joined the Legion himself.

The newly-formed group acquitted itself well. Over the summer and fall of 1918 the Legion fought in the Jordan Valley and in history’s last major cavalry battle at Megiddo, the biblical Armageddon. It was the death blow to the Ottomans in Palestine.

 

After the war, Trumpeldor returned to Palestine a civilian, alighting at Jaffa in 1919. What he found there appalled him. Just two years after the Balfour Declaration, with Palestine still under British military control and the land’s future entirely unclear, the Zionist movement was riven by infighting. The chief antagonists were Berl Katznelson’s Aḥdut HaAvodah (Labor Union) and Yosef Sprinzak’s HaPoel Hatsa’ir (The Young Worker), and despite their virtually identical platforms—both were secular, socialist expressions of Labor Zionism—each managed to find the other intolerable.

The Zionists faced a colossal struggle. They would need to win political autonomy, to open the doors of the land to immigration and to settlement, to organize forces for self-defense, to construct competent bureaucracies to provide for their own health care and Hebrew education, and much more; infighting would accomplish little of that. So Trumpeldor threw himself into the task of unification, spending his first months shuttling diplomatically between Jaffa and Haifa, centers of Zionist organizing, to build a united front for the long campaign ahead. He penned a widely-read plea for unification in the leading Zionist journal Kuntres. “Every moment is precious,” he wrote. “Everyone who enters the Land is saved from certain death or a life of coercion. Every moment we delay will be counted as a sin.”

But Trumpeldor’s Zionist legend would grow thanks less to his internal diplomacy than to a discipline that he had so long before resisted: combat.

In late 1919 and early 1920, the victorious Allies met to finalize the division of the vanquished Ottoman empire. Following the lines laid down in the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, Britain was preparing to formalize its control over Palestine, while France was readying itself to rule Syria, against the wishes of the area’s Arabs, who sought independence. The land north of Lake Hula—today called the Galilee Panhandle or Finger—was caught in between the two European powers. Though nominally under control of the French, their military presence was scant and lawlessness rife.

The area was also home to four Jewish farming hamlets set up in Ottoman times: Metula, Hamara, Kfar Giladi, and Tel Ḥai. These settlements, together numbering over 100 people, were periodically attacked by local Bedouin raiders and Shiites who suspected the Jews were collaborating with the French against Syrian-Arab independence.

In December 1919 those tensions escalated. One of the Tel Ḥai settlers was killed; residents of Metula evacuated to Sidon, while those of Hamara fled to Tiberias, after which armed Arab men torched their village.

Virtually alone among the Zionist leadership, Trumpeldor had known heavy fighting, and his wartime role with the Mule Corps and Jewish Legion lent him added charisma. So the leadership of the embryonic Jewish defense forces asked him to organize the northern pioneers’ defense. Trumpeldor readily agreed, and headed north on horseback.

Weeks passed, the situation grew more dire, supplies and manpower ran low. In February 1920 a second man was killed at Tel Ḥai. Trumpeldor became anxious. Writing in Russian (his Hebrew remained limited), he exalted “the new generation, the children of Israel, free men, standing on the border, ready to sacrifice their lives.” Still, he warned colleagues further south, the outlook was bleak. “Hamara is no more. Metula is almost taken from us, and a terrible threat is looming over Tel Ḥai and Kfar Giladi,” he wrote. “Two graves have already been laid. Forty young people here are in danger . . . they know that the reckoning will come, whether sooner or later, but it will come.”

Zionist leaders convened an emergency meeting in Jaffa. Jabotinsky, Trumpeldor’s wartime ally, deemed the settlements too remote to defend and pushed for their evacuation. Ben-Gurion, head of the Labor Union party, insisted the farmers stay, arguing that “If we flee from bandits, we’ll need to abandon not just the Upper Galilee, but all the Land of Israel.”

In this way more weeks passed. Trumpeldor again begged the leaders in Jaffa to send aid. “The situation in the Hula Valley is becoming more serious. Gangs of bandits roam, drunk with victory. Another fifteen people must be replaced,” he wrote. “More people are required who know the language and can come to terms with our neighbors.”

But three weeks later, still nothing had arrived. Food and ammunition were almost nil, and the settlements’ defenders were exhausted. “People are needed,” he wrote later that month, in his last letter. “The comrades are tired and demand they be given the opportunity to go south. You must send us at least twenty people.”

Nobody answered his call. The Zionist leaders continued to quarrel in Jaffa; Tel Ḥai remained on its own. On March 1, 1920, a Monday, the residents of the town watched as hundreds of armed men massed outside their village. One of the Jews fired a shot in the air, a signal to the neighboring villages to come to their aid. A group of local reinforcements set out from Kfar Giladi, led by Trumpeldor.

After they arrived at Tel Ḥai, a half-dozen Arabs on horseback rode up, demanding to know if any French troops were inside. The Jews deliberated, but decided to allow them in; the visitors had launched such investigations before, always without incident. This day was different, though the exact course of events may forever remain obscure. One witness later said the armed men offered the Jews protection from the French, which the settlers rebuffed, causing offense. At one point one of the Arabs grabbed the pistol of a female guard, though it’s unclear if she had pointed it at him first. In response, Trumpeldor fired, either in the air or at the man himself.

A gunfight erupted, accompanied by grenades. Five Jews, including two women, died quickly, and five Arabs. Trumpeldor was wounded, first in his hand, then in his stomach. He asked for water, pushed his protruding guts back into his torso, and settled in to wait for a doctor. But aid from Kfar Giladi arrived only in the evening, and during transport there for treatment, Trumpeldor, who had survived Manchuria, Japan, and Gallipoli, succumbed. He was thirty-nine.

 

Zionist mythology would record that his dying words, spoken in Hebrew, were “No matter; it is good to die for our country.” That’s unclear; Trumpeldor knew only rudimentary Hebrew, and the doctor attending him, an American veteran of the Jewish Legion, spoke even less. Still, the words stuck, and, with them as his final testament, Trumpeldor became Zionism’s first martyr. As against meaningless death by persecution in the Diaspora, his death underscored the superior value and meaning of Jewish sacrifice in Palestine. And soon enough it would birth what historians call the Tel Ḥai legend, a story turned into a lesson that land, once settled, was not to be abandoned.

In wake of the battle, the entire yishuv, right and left, claimed Trumpeldor as its own. On the right, Jabotinsky wrote a poem to his slain friend:

From Dan to Beersheba,
from Gilead to the shore,
There’s no trail on our soil
not soaked in bloody gore.

            . . . . .

Between Ayelet and Metula,
in his silent grave,
The blood of our border watchman
a hero, one-armed, brave. 

Jabotinsky later founded a youth movement he named Betar, ostensibly after the ancient fortress where Bar-Kokhba had led Jewish rebels against Rome; but the name doubles as an acronym for Brit Yosef Trumpeldor: the Joseph Trumpeldor Alliance.

For their part, the socialist Zionists founded their own movement, the Trumpeldor Labor and Defense Battalion. They cleared swamps, paved roads, drilled for self-defense, and established kibbutzim like Tel Yosef (Joseph’s Mound) in the hero’s honor.

His wish for unification was likewise honored. The fall of Tel Ḥai helped convince Zionist leaders of the need for a unified self-defense, and, mere months after his death, the rival Zionist groups joined together to create the Haganah, the organized pre-state armed force that would later form the core of the IDF. The rivals also heeded Trumpeldor’s call for political and economic cooperation: by year’s end they had created the Histadrut labor-union federation, which would dominate Labor Zionism—and subsequently the state of Israel—for decades. (In his memoirs, Ben-Gurion, the longtime Histadrut leader, directly tied the institution’s founding to Trumpeldor’s appeal for unity.)

And in keeping with the Tel Ḥai legend—that land settled would not be relinquished—the village by that name was reconstituted, along with Kfar Giladi (with which it later merged) and Metula.

The persistence paid off: in 1924 Britain and France decided the presence of the Jewish villages there meant uppermost Galilee ought to be attached to Palestine rather than to Syria. A precedent was set: in 1936, the British Peel Commission recommended partitioning Palestine into an Arab and Jewish state, where the latter’s border “follows the existing northern and eastern frontier of Palestine”—namely, including Tel Ḥai and its surroundings. A decade later, the UN partition plan followed Peel’s template.

Or was it Trumpeldor’s? For the Galilee Finger is the one-armed soldier’s most tangible bequest to the state of Israel. In May 1949, after the armistices that ended Israel’s War of Independence, the newborn state founded a city a few miles south of Tel Ḥai and called it Kiryat Yosef, or City of Joseph. A year later it was renamed to honor all six of those lost that day at Tel Ḥai and the two in prior attacks; it would henceforth be known as Kiryat Shmona, or the City of Eight. Seven decades on, some 25,000 Israelis make their homes in the city; it is thanks to Trumpeldor that the earth under their feet is Israel and not Syria.

 

Today, March 2, 2020, Israel votes in an unprecedented third election within a year, the results of which will, by all prior appearances, again be inconclusive, with no party able to form a coalition. Indeed, Israelis can agree on little these days. On critical questions—like annexing parts of the West Bank, religion’s place in politics, and whether a prime minister under indictment should resign—the nation is split virtually down the middle.

Yet the example of Trumpeldor remains a remarkable source of consensus, even if most do not appreciate the full scope of his story. This Friday—the Hebrew date of his yahrzeit—students, soldiers, and youth groups from left and right will ascend to the statue of a roaring lion that marks his grave at Tel Ḥai, as they have done annually for 100 years. In 2020, as in 1920, his lesson of selflessness and unity continues to reverberate in the Jewish state he died for but never saw.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Joseph Trumpeldor