The Earliest Memorial to the Zionist Movement’s Fallen Soldiers

April 14, 2021 | Allan Arkush
About the author: Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University.

Today is Israel’s Day of Remembrance for those who died to protect to the Jewish state, which at sunset gives way to Yom Ha-Atsma’ut, the day of independence. Allan Arkush tells the story of how some early Zionists sought to memorialize a group of Jewish guards who were killed by Arab raiders in 1909:

The earliest literary commemoration of Zionism’s fallen heroes was a book titled Yizkor, published in Palestine in 1911 by members of Po’alei Zion (Workers of Zion). . . . The Yizkor book echoes the traditional memorial prayer [of the same name], but it doesn’t repeat it. Instead of calling on God, it begins, “Let the people of Israel remember.” As [the historian Anita] Shapira writes, “This is a collective memorial service of the people, and the people is supposed to derive conclusions from the death of its heroes and apply them to its new life.”

While Yizkor doesn’t seem to have had a significant impact in the Yishuv, a couple of rank-and-file members of Po’alei Zion found it very useful a few years later. Expelled by the Turks from Palestine at the beginning of World War I, David Ben-Gurion and Yitzḥak Ben-Zvi had made their way to the United States, where they were struggling to put their party on the map. With this aim in mind, they initiated in 1915 the publication of a Yiddish translation (for who in America could understand Hebrew?) of Yizkor. As Tom Segev writes in his recent biography of Ben-Gurion, it was “a huge success. Memorial evenings were held all across America, and Ben-Gurion became a sought-after guest.”

More remarkable is the story of how the book came to be translated into German, which can be found at the link below.

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