Joseph Trumpeldor is a Zionist hero for words he may or may not have said.
“Never mind, it is good to die for our country,” are the words Trumpeldor is said to have uttered while he lay dying, fatally wounded while defending a small northern kibbutz in pre-state Israel.
And to this day, IDF soldiers take to heart during training, telling the story as a way to inculcate nationalist feeling and bravery amongst the troops.
Trumpeldor was born in 1880, Pyatigorsk, in the northern Caucasus, to a Jewish family. He was sent to a Russian municipal school but was not allowed to continue on to high school because he was Jewish, so he studied dentistry instead.
But what truly influenced his subsequent Zionist thinking was the idea of the collective commune as discussed by Tolstoy and practiced in those years by those who lived near his town. The same collective spirit is foundational to kibbutznik thinking.
For Trumpeldor, the communal feeling would serve as a foundation for self-reliant agricultural communities in pre-state Israel, that, if necessary, could resort to defense by armed force. And indeed, Trumpeldor was a renowned soldier, even back in Russia.
Trumpeldor volunteered for the Russian army starting in 1902, and fought in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, during which he was severely wounded and his left arm had to be amputated. Trumpeldor was so dedicated to the Russian cause that he asked, after having recovered, to be sent out again to the field, even though he had the legal right to resign. For this, he received a special mention and was promoted to the rank of a noncommissioned officer.
The port that Trumpeldor was stationed at surrendered in 1904, and he was sent to a prisoner of war camp in Japan, where he helped out fellow prisoners, especially the Jewish ones. There he organized a Zionist group whose goal was to establish agricultural communes—kibbutzim—in Eretz Israel. Trumpeldor eventually returned to Russia, where he was awarded the status of officer, and received several major decorations.
Trumpeldor then started a law degree at the University of St. Petersburg, where he organized a student Zionist movement based on the communal principles he had grown up with. In 1912, he and his comrades moved to Eretz Israel and worked at the Migdal farm in Deganyah. Trumpledor helped defend the Jewish settlements in the lower Galilee from the local Arab populations, who were growing wary of increasing Jewish immigration and the French presence in Lebanon.
During World War I, Trumpeldor stayed true to his Zionist principles, refusing to take on Ottoman citizenship, and for this he was deported to Alexandria, Egypt. There, he organized other Jewish deportees into a battalion that would support the British in their fight against the Ottoman Turks. (This, of course, was decades before the establishment of Israel, when Zionist forces would actually fight against the British to take control of Israel.)
It was then that Trumpeldor accepted the British army’s proposal to form the “Zion Mule Corps,” or Jewish Legion. Trumpeldor worked with Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist leader, in this endeavor. He set out and fought in Gallipoli in 1915, and even took part in a major British offensive against the Turks.
After the successful campaign, Trumpeldor moved to London, where he met Jabotinsky again in order to militarily organize Russian Jews living in England into the Jewish Legion, which would fight for the Zionist cause. Trumpeldor became a sort of diplomat, travelling to Russia to persuade the government to allow Jewish regiments within the Russian army, which could later be sent to the Caucasian front and subsequently into Eretz Israel. But ultimately, the plan to form the General Federation of Jewish Soldiers in Russia, and a similar one for self-defense, failed once Soviet Russia signed the peace treaty with Germany in 1918.
Under the new regime, the regiment was disbanded and outlawed, and Trumpeldor was arrested. He then organized the He-Halutz movement in Russia, which concerned itself with preparing young Jews for immigration to Eretz Israel.
In 1919, Trumpeldor founded an information center in Istanbul for immigrants in transit to Palestine. He returned to Eretz Israel, and asked the British to allow 10,000 Jewish soldiers from Russia to serve as part of the Jewish Legion. Trumpeldor regarded this proposal as a question of life or death for the survival of Eretz Israel; the Russians rejected it.
Later, when skirmishes between the French authorities and Arab rebels were becoming more common in the Upper Gallilee (the French controlled this region after the Sykes Picot agreement after World War I), Trumpeldor was asked to organize the defense of the settlements. In 1920, he banded together the settlers of Tel Hai with those of Kefar Gilad and Metullah in the south. Just two months later, in another skirmish, large numbers of armed Arabs are said to have descended on Tel Hai.
Here’s what followed, according to Encyclopedia Judaica:
“During negotiations with their leaders, an exchange of fire took place in which Trumpeldor received a stomach wound. The battle continued all day. Toward evening, Trumpeldor was taken with other casualties to Kefar Giladi, but died on the way. His last words were, ‘Ein davar, tov lamut be’ad ar?enu’ (‘Never mind; it is good to die for our country’).”
That line is said to be reminiscent of one from the Roman poet Horace, with whom Trumpeldor, like other educated European of time, may have been familiar. The battle was symbolic, signaling the first true Arab-Jewish violence in Palestine.
And the deaths became symbolic to Zionists, too: Trumpeldor and five of his other comrades are now buried between Tel Hai and Kefar Giladi, where a memorial was erected. Crimean immigrants founded the Joseph Trumpeldor Labor Legion shortly after his death and named their settlement Tel Yosef (“Joseph’s hill” in Hebrew) in his memory.
Trumpeldor’s life and death became emblematic for a whole generation of young Zionists both within Israel and in the Diaspora. A collection of his writings and correspondence became a standard text for the youth movement in the 1920s. Trumpeldor even inspired the early social movements and the right-wing group Betar (“Berit Trumpeldor”). That group continues to be among the more controversial right wing Zionist groups for its use of violence in its advocacy.
Trumpeldor House, a museum dedicated to Trumpeldor, was established at Tel Yosef, and collects material connected with his life and death. However, Haaretz reports recently that much of that museum has faded into disuse.
The alcove in the main entrance has been whitewashed in a low-budget and heartrending attempt at renovation. Someone has closed the upper floor with shutters and installed a satellite dish. The place is abandoned except for the museum, which is supposed to be open from 8 a.m. until noon, but isn’t always.
But whatever may be the unfortunate realities of the Trumpeldor Museum, Israeli memory of this early pioneering Zionist remains strong.
A recent op-ed in the Jerusalem Post reiterated the importance of taking IDF soldiers, whether Jewish, Bedouin, Druze, or Christian, to Tel Hai. “Soldiers are – and should be – taken to Tel Hai to discuss the ‘myth’ of Joseph Trumpeldor’s dying words… and whether or not soldiers can fully identify with Trumpeldor’s statement (if he really said it),” the author wrote.
Rachael Levy is a freelance writer who recently graduated from The American University of Paris with a degree in international and comparative politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @rachael_levy.