Per Jönsson
Last updated: 26 February, 2013

Joseph Trumpeldor – Zionist martyr

It is good to die for our country; the Zionist settler Joseph Trumpeldor supposedly said when he was shot to death by Arab nationalists. Since then, his last words have become famous in Israel.

In Israel’s northernmost corner, on a small strip of land between the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon, lies the small village of Tel Hai with breath-taking views over the Hula Valley and Syria’s crests. Hundred years ago, some Jewish farmers lived here and tried to maintain neutrality in the great power struggle between France, Great Britain and Syrian nationalists, who all tried to control this corner of the Galilee. But the neutrality attempt failed, and Tel Hai became the theatre of a bloody battle that gave the Zionist project in Palestine its first full-fledged martyr – Joseph Trumpeldor.

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Trumpeldor is a name that turns up no matter where you go in Israel. Every city has its Trumpeldor Street; of Tel Aviv’s thirteen beaches the most central is called Trumpeldor Beach. In many municipalities there is a Trumpeldor cemetary where the country’s most prominent sons and daughters rest. Trumpeldor’s date of death is celebrated every year as a national holiday. The name Trumpeldor is used in brands for everything from clothing and soda to realtors.

The real Joseph Trumpeldor was significantly less conspicuous. Born in Russia in 1880, he first became a dentist but then joined the Imperial Russian army and lost one of his arms in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905. As a devoted Zionist he moved to Palestine in the then Turk-Ottoman Empire, but was forced to go to Cairo when the First World War began. There, he participated in the founding of the Zion Mule Corps, the first all-Jewish military unit in almost two thousand years. Trumpeldor and his mules participated in the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915-16, where he was wounded as well, but returned to Palestine after the war and helped Zionist immigrants to organise their local self-defences. It was in that capacity he came to Tel Hai on March 1, 1920 to assist the locals who Arab nationalists suspected had hidden French colonial soldiers. A firefight broke out where Trumpeldor and a dozen others were killed, after which Tel Hai fell into the hands of the British mandate in Palestine.

A bagatelle in the long Arab-Jewish conflict perhaps. But after his dead Trumpeldor was made a symbol for the Zionist struggle for the right to live in the Country Israel, and his final words became famous to this day: “It is good to die for our country.” In both the left and right field of Israeli politics, Trumpeldor has been considered a national hero – as a military protector of settlements (right) and promoter of the socialist oriented Kibbutz movement (left).

The historian Tom Segev has pointed out that Trumpeldor as Jewish martyr has meant infinitely more for Zionists’ perception of the world and self-image after his death than what he did during his lifetime.

The parallel is striking with the Muslim preacher Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, who organised the Palestinian Arabs’ fight against Brits, Frenchmen and Zionists and was killed in a suicide-like firefight with British colonial soldiers in 1935. Since then, al-Qassam has been celebrated as a Palestinian national martyr, with Hamas naming its militia the al-Qassam Brigades after him.

On one of the annual memorial days for Trumpeldor, the former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said that it is not good to die for our country; it is good to live for it. Rabin did not get what he wanted – he was assassinated in 1995 for having signed Israel’s only peace-like agreement with the Palestinians. But after a century of conflict between Jews and Arabs, Rabin’s moral still seem superior to Trumpeldor’s.

Translated from Swedish by David Hedengren.

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