Although never a darling of the media, the Betar Zionist youth movement has made a lasting impact in the Jewish world, and hundreds celebrated the group's 95th anniversary at a special event in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Generations of youth were influenced by their involvement with Betar, including President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Part of the evening included a video message from Rivlin, who called Betar the most influential movement in Israel.Founded in 1923 in Riga Latvia, led the group until his passing in 1940. Betar members, such as former prime minister Menachem Begin, went on to form the Irgun Zvai Leumi and later the Herut Party, precursor to today's Likud.
Today, the youth group has chapters throughout Israel and the world and is headed by Neriya Meir, who spoke to The Jerusalem Post about the special birthday. "At our first international conference in 1929 in Warsaw, Poland, it was decided that henceforth our conferences would always be held in Jerusalem," Meir stated.
Among the 700 participants was 94-year-old Idit Liberman. The Betar member still remembers meeting Jabotinsky in Germany in 1933. He recommended that her family as well as others leave Europe and immigrate to the land of Israel, then the British Mandate of Palestine. This is how she survived the Holocaust.
Liberman is one of the few people still alive to have personally met the influential leader, after the passing of former defense minister Moshe Arens in January.
Other 90-something veterans of the youth group attended as well, mingling with the teenagers of today, singing old Betar songs and watching videos of past and present activities.
Meir noted that the group is experiencing a revival, having opened a chapter in Sao Paulo, Brazil, this year as well as in Florida. and fifteen centers throughout Israel. "We promote aliyah and believe in strengthening Zionism," Meir said.
He also expressed pride in the opening of the new Plugat HaKotel museum in the Old City of Jerusalem, which teaches about the role of the small group in defending the Jewish neighborhoods in the 1930s.
Meir called Betar meetings as kind of like "an ideological beit midrash" (house of learning), using the term most often associated with Torah study. "Our goal is to fight assimilation. We teach Krav Maga self defense classes and teach about Zionist history." Although he stressed aliyah as a value of Jabotinsky, he said that even those who cannot move to Israel for whatever reason, "can strengthen their connection to the Jewish homeland."
Yaakov Hagoel, Vice Chairman of the World Zionist Organization and Executive Director of World Betar also spoke at the event, noting that today Betar is recognized for its contribution to Israeli society, "after years of being in the margins."
He added, "those who grew up with the Betar songs and teachings are still connected to its core values. Countless leaders in the legal system, education and politics have grown up in and have been educated by this movement."