It seems to me that before June 2020, Juneteenth was a seldom known holiday for the majority of African Americans and that there was even less awareness of it outside of Black America.
Zionists should take this as a sign that in today’s politically charged environment, where others are reevaluating how to utilize the imagery of historical anniversaries to remind each other and the world about centrally important concepts, that the right thing for us to do is to realize that we can and should do likewise.
We have not only the right but the obligation to regain a very important commemoration that we have lost. That is: the annual observance of Yom Tel Chai on the 11th of Adar.
One hundred years ago a battle took place in the Upper Galilee that saw young Jewish defenders, led by the legendary Joseph Trumpeldor, attempt to protect Jewish lives and property from Arab attackers and who sought to destroy modern Zionism while it was still in its infancy. The memories of Tel Chai, Trumpeldor, and those who were slain with him, were honored, treasured, and beloved as symbols of the pioneers of Eretz Israel in the years between World War I and World War II by Zionist movements from across the gamut of political outlooks.
Earlier this year we failed to mark the hundredth anniversary of the death of these first Zionist martyrs.
Joseph Trumpeldor accomplished more in his tragically shortened life than is appreciated today. We can correct this. Let’s agree now to put in place plans to mark Yom Tel Chai in 2021 and thereafter as it should be observed.
A century after his combat death, Trumpeldor stands out as one of the most important individuals who played a part in the founding and building of the State Of Israel. A courageous soldier, a brilliant and indefatigable organizer, and a highly principled and selfless pioneer.
Born in Russia in 1880, Trumpeldor lost an arm during the Russo-Japanese War at the 1904-1905 Siege of Port Arthur. Taken off of the front-lines because of his injury, he pleaded with his commander: “Even though I have only one arm, it is my right arm, and my request is that I be given a sword and rifle to continue to fight.”
Later he was a prisoner of war and organized Zionist activities for hundreds of Jewish fellow captives.
Trumpeldor rose to become an officer in the Czarist army, an extremely rare accomplishment for a Jew. After returning from the war, the intensification of Russian anti-Semitism convinced him that as a Jew, he had no future in Russia. His thoughts turned again to practical Zionism and he decided to leave Russia for the Land of Israel.
At this time, Trumpeldor developed the theoretical groundwork for the pioneering Zionist organization that eventually became known as HeChalutz. This was a group of young Jews who focused on preparing a generation of diaspora youth for a life of farming and manual labor in the Land of Israel. Trumpeldor envisaged the HeChalutz as “an army of anonymous servants of Zion,” which would renounce lives of ease and luxury for the “supreme challenge of building up” the Jewish community in the Land of Israel.
Trumpeldor arrived in the Land of Israel in 1911 and worked as a laborer in the Galilee. There, he became acquainted with the problems Zionist pioneers were facing. He saw that many Jewish landowners were hiring Arab workers instead of Jewish laborers because they were cheaper; he chose to take up the issue and called for Jewish employment. He also became involved with the HaShomer Jewish defense group.
Attending the 11th World Zionist Congress in 1913, Trumpeldor participated in the discussions about the problems of enlarging the scale of Jewish settlement activities in the Galilee. Immediately thereafter he returned to Russia with the hope of organizing a mass immigration of Jews to the Land of Israel. He returned to Israel on the eve of World War One to find that the Ottoman Turkish government was at war with Russia and was deporting to Egypt, Jewish residents of Russian background who refused to accept Turkish citizenship.
In Egypt, Trumpeldor joined with Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940). They contacted the British army to propose that Jewish emigres be organized to fight alongside the British. The result was the Zion Mule Corps commanded by Trumpeldor of which over 550 saw action in the Gallipoli campaign where they were given orders in Hebrew and had a Star of David insignia. These men were the first Hebrew soldiers comprising a Jewish military force in modern times. Trumpeldor was promoted to captain and strongly emphasized discipline and devotion among his soldiers. The reputation for courage and heroism that the Zion Mule Corps quickly earned was a testament to Trumpeldor’s success.
After leaving the Zion Mule Corps, Trumpeldor was inspired by its success and visited Russia with the plan to create a 100,000 man force to take the Land of Israel from the Ottomans. Trumpeldor devoted himself to organizing groups of Chalutzim throughout Russia and after the fall of the Kerensky government to the Bolsheviks, he departed Russia for the last time and returned to the Land of Israel for a third time in 1919. Throughout all of this timeframe, he continued to seek a way to organize an armed Zionist force to take over Israel.
Back in Israel he quickly perceived the precarious situation of the Zionist settlements in the Galilee. He organized the defenses at the farming community at Tel Chai. He fell in the legendary battle there. His last words, “Tov lamut be’ad artzenu (It’s good to die for our land)” and due to his bravery he was turned into a symbol of what Zionist pioneer fighting spirit could be.
Trumpeldor had already been a Zionist legend during his lifetime and after his death those who knew him sought ways to mark his death and continue his work. A group of Russian HeChalutz named a labor battalion after him. Jabotinsky wrote a poem in his fallen comrade’s honor and named a Zionist youth movement and its sports club Brit Yosef Trumpeldor (Betar) in his memory. The city of Kiryat Shemona was dedicated to him and the other seven defenders who all lost their lives in 1920 to safeguard Zionist communities in the Upper Galilee. At the battle site a massive stone statue of a lion of Judah was built to mark his grave and became a national shrine that Zionist youth movements still visit annually. And that is a very good thing. But this is not enough.
The story of Tel Chai should be made to be as inspiring as the Alamo is to this day to Texans and we should use Juneteenth as a blueprint for how to revive Yom Tel Chai as a holiday.
But, there is more. When we speak of Tel Chai we should remind the world that when Zionists were building in the Land of Israel 100 years ago there were no Palestinians being displaced due to the fact that there was not a nation called Palestine in existence. And, moreover, the attackers were from Jabal Amel in southern Lebanon. Jews were not invading the Galilee, Zionists were farming on land they purchased, the actual invaders were Arabs from Lebanon.