Study equates Zionist pioneers with Arab terrorists

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Click photo to download. Caption: Israeli President Shimon Peres places flowers on the grave of early Zionist activist Yosef Trumpeldor in Tel Hai, Israel on Feb. 21, 2013. Credit: Mark Neyman/GPO/Flash90.

The film is grainy and amateurish, but the image is stirring: one-armed Yosef Trumpeldor, Zionist national hero, ploughing 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, titled “Victims of Our Own Narratives?,” was funded by the U.S. State Department and carried out by a Jerusalem-based group, the 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.

Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad praised the study, which he said “confirms that Palestinian textbooks do not contain any form of blatant incitement.” The study’s co-director, Prof. Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University, said it was “amazing” that Palestinian textbooks are not harsher, in view of what he called “the atrocities that Palestinians are living under.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Yosef Trumpeldor. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Israeli Ministry of Education, however, called the study “biased and unprofessional,” and three members of the international Scientific Advisory Panel overseeing the study rejected their colleagues’ methodology and conclusions. Yale University professor Bruce Wexler, who designed the study, responded that Israeli officials who have questioned the study “make for poor and dangerous national leaders.”

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,” Prof. Gil Troy of McGill University, author of the book Why I Am a Zionist, told “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.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Yosef Trumpeldor. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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. While held captive by the Japanese, Trumpeldor formed a Zionist group in the P.O.W. camp and began making plans settle in Turkish-ruled Palestine.   

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 British visitor to the area in 1879 reported seeing a gravesite that was said to be that of Dina, daughter of the biblical patriarch Jacob, but there are no signs of it today.) A harsh environment and primitive living quarters were the norm.

One hundred years ago this spring, a movie camera captured images of those remarkable early days of Zionism. “To the best of my knowledge this brief film clip is the only existing footage of Trumpeldor,” the noted Israeli filmmaker Moshe Levinson told It was originally part of a documentary made in 1913 to mark the 35th anniversary of the establishment of the town of Petach Tikvah. Lost for many decades, the film resurfaced in a Paris archive in 1997 and was included in an Israeli documentary about life in pre-World War I Palestine. In one 10-second sequence about “the firsts furrow after Passover,” Trumpeldor, distinctive because of his handicap, is seen ploughing a field. It can be viewed at:

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 Hai.

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.

One of the Tel Hai pioneers, Aharon Sher, wrote an article in the Labor Zionist journal Kuntres in early 1920, appealing for men and weapons to be sent to Tel Hai, on the grounds that “A place once settled is not to be abandoned.” That phrase became a popular slogan, especially after Sher was gunned down by Arab terrorists while ploughing a field on Feb. 1, 1920.

Some Zionist leaders favored sending aid to the northern border towns. Yitzhak Tabenkin argued, “If we withdraw from Tel Hai, 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 Hai 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 Hai, 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. Yosef Haim Brenner, an early Zionist intellectual and ardent advocate of Jewish-Arab coexistence, called Trumpeldor “a symbol of pure heroism.” Brenner himself was murdered by Arab terrorists just one year later.

In sharp contrast with today's Arab militants, the Zionists glorified agricultural work and advocated the use of force only as a last resort. “It is not with blood that we wish to redeem our land, it is not by the sword that we wish to conquer it, but, rather, by physical toil,” the journal HaPoel HaTzair asserted. “Yet we will not give up one handful of the soil of our homeland, we will not abandon even one position. And where one has fallen, thousands will come to take his place.”

Interestingly, many of the songs and poems about Tel Hai that were written in the years to follow did not even mention the Arabs. A famous poem by Berl Katznelson, called “Yizkor,” spoke movingly of Trumpeldor and the other fallen defenders without ever identifying their killers.

Because Trumpeldor lived in the era before the major right vs. left ideological splits in the Zionist movement, he was embraced as a hero by both camps. Labor Zionist youth movements made pilgrimages to Trumpeldor’s gravesite, as did the nationalist Betar youth movement, which is named after him. (“Betar” is an acronym; the T stands for Trumpeldor.)

Trumpeldor’s final words have special meaning for Moshe Brodetzky, an American volunteer in Palestine who in 1947 was hospitalized with malaria. “One afternoon, I noticed that one of the nurses who was treating me had been crying,” Brodetzky told “She said she had been at the bedside of a man who was on one of the illegal immigrant boats. He had been doused with burning oil by the British soldiers when he resisted arrest. As he lay dying from his wounds, he had repeated Trumpeldor’s words, ‘No matter, it is good to die for our country.’” 

“That man wasn’t comparable to a suicide bomber,” Brodetzky said. “He didn’t want to die and he wasn’t trying to hurt anyone else. Like Trumpeldor, he just wanted to live his life in peace in the Jewish homeland. Those few seconds of film of Trumpeldor working in the field really sum up the difference between him and the Palestinian terrorists to whom he is now being compared. His idea of ‘sacrifice’ was to plough and revive the land that had been neglected by the Arabs, while their idea of ‘sacrifice’ has been to teach their children to hate and kill and be killed, instead of trying to lead productive lives.”

Dr. Rafael Medoff is coauthor, with Prof. Chaim I. Waxman, of the “Historical Dictionary of Zionism.”

Posted on February 24, 2013 and filed under Features, Israel.