The film is grainy and amateurish, but the image is stirring: one-armed Yosef Trumpeldor, Zionist national hero, plowing a field in the Galilee in 1913.
By coincidence, the 100-year-old film clip of one of the most remarkable figures in Israel’s history was posted on YouTube shortly before Trumpeldor’s name appeared in the news in connection with the controversial study of Israeli and Palestinian textbooks that was released in February.
The study – “Victims of Our Own Narratives?” – was funded by the U.S. State Department and carried out by a Jerusalem-based Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land. Staff researchers examined books used in Israeli and Palestinian schools and concluded that both sides are equally guilty of incitement against the other.
The Israeli Ministry of Education called the study “biased and unprofessional” and three members of the international Scientific Advisory Panel overseeing the study rejected their colleagues’ methodology and conclusions.
One of the most controversial sections of the study dealt with the textbooks’ promotion of “martyrdom-sacrifice through death.” The study found passages in Palestinian books such as: “Every stone is violated, every square cries out in anger, every nerve is abuzz, death before submission, death before submission, forward!” and “With all this, the call to raise the overall performance to the level of shedding one’s blood becomes a sacred national right which it is difficult to relinquish or be lenient on.”
The study then argued that Israeli textbooks likewise promote “the value of martyrdom-sacrifice through death.” As evidence, it cited two books that described Yosef Trumpeldor as a hero and quoted his dying words, “No matter, it is good to die for our country.”
“Trumpeldor’s heroic defense of his home is a very different kind of ‘martyrdom’ from that frequently associated with the Palestinian movement,” notes Prof. Gil Troy of McGill University, author of the book Why I Am a Zionist. “To overlook that point, and implicitly compare Trumpeldor’s death in defense to suicide bombers or any kind of terrorism in offense – which Palestinians frequently call ‘martyrdom operations’ – is like comparing a policeman and an armed robber because both have guns. Trumpeldor died defending his home and country, not slaughtering innocents to advance a political goal.”
As a teenager growing up in Russia in the late 1800s, Trumpeldor was attracted to Zionism as well as the pacifism and communalism of the philosopher Leo Tolstoy.
“He did not have a trace of militarism in his character,” Prof. Anita Shapira, a leading Israeli historian of Zionism, has written. Nonetheless, Trumpeldor served with distinction in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, suffering wounds that cost him his left arm. Despite his injuries, he requested and was granted permission to return to the battlefront.
Trumpeldor arrived in the Holy Land in 1912 and, together with a small group of likeminded pioneers, settled at the Migdal farm, a fledgling Jewish settlement in the Galilee, on the site of what had been a Jewish town in biblical times. A harsh environment and primitive living quarters were the norm.
After the Migdal project broke up in 1913 over ideological disagreements and other problems, Trumpeldor traveled to Europe as a Zionist emissary. He served as a delegate to the Eleventh Zionist Congress, in Vienna, and then organized Zionist cells in Russia. Returning to Palestine in 1919, Trumpeldor volunteered to work at an Upper Galilee settlement called Tel Chai.
The small kibbutzim and other Jewish settlements in that region had few residents and fewer weapons, making them easy targets for local Arab terrorists. Attacks ranging from robbery to arson and murder were commonplace.
Some Zionist leaders favored sending aid to the northern border towns. Yitzhak Tabenkin argued, “If we withdraw from Tel Chai, we will retreat all the way to the desert.” But Menachem Ussishkin, chairman of the Zionist Commission, warned that “we would, by sending young men with arms, anger the Arabs unnecessarily.” Ussishkin eventually changed his mind and reinforcements were sent, but they arrived too late.
On March 1, Arab forces entered Tel Chai on the pretext of searching for illegal weapons, and a battle ensued. Six of the Jewish defenders, including Trumpeldor, were killed.
The last stand at Tel Chai, and Trumpeldor’s dying words, became an inspiration to the young Zionist movement. “This was the first time in Jewish history for two thousand years that Jews had preferred to die in battle rather than to retreat,” Prof. Shapira notes.