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(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Zionist movement, in its brief history, has revived many Jewish heroes of old and has given birth to many modern ones. From the ancient rebellions of the Zealots and Bar Kochba to the military exploits of Moshe Dayan, Zionists have always searched for legends to bolster a beleaguered movement and state in trying times. The pantheon of heroes produced by Zionism inspired a generation of pioneers and toughened their children in the struggle for independence in a state of siege.
While enemies such as Iran still threaten Israel, a new generation of Israelis has begun to question the core myths of the Zionist movement. Some Israeli intellectuals - post-Zionists such as Tom Segev come to mind - have converted Masada, once a legend of Jewish defiance in the face of overwhelming foes, into a self-defeating tale of mass suicide. Critics have maligned the role of the Yishuv during the Holocaust, reducing such heroes as Hanna Szenes into pawns of an impotent Jewish leadership in Palestine. Yet, the one icon that has suffered the most from attacks by polemicists against Zionism is Yosef Trumpeldor, the hero of Tel Hai.
Jewish pioneers founded the settlement of Tel Hai in the Upper Galilee in 1918. Arabs attacked the settlement in the Hula Valley after the French took control of the territory of Syria following World War I. On March 1, 1920, hundreds of armed Arabs faced a smaller group of pioneers in a five-hour battle. Six Jewish settlers died in combat on that day - Arabs had murdered two others in previous attacks - and the Jews decided to abandon Tel Hai.
The Arab mob mortally wounded Trumpeldor, a Russian Jew whom the Zionists brought to Tel Hai to help organize the defense of the beleaguered settlement. Eyewitnesses to Trumpeldor's last moments of life said that his dying words were the now legendary, "Never mind, it is good to die for our country." Since he supposedly uttered those Hebrew words "tov lamut b'ad artzenu," Trumpeldor has become an icon of Zionism.
Zionists commemorated 9 Adar, the day of the attack in the Hebrew calendar, as "Tel Hai Day." Every year on that day, communities and schools held memorials for the pioneer heroes. Children from schools around the country - and soldiers as well - would visit the site of the settlement and the cemetery where Trumpeldor is buried. A statue of a roaring lion marks the graves of the fallen settlers.
The legend of the patriotic Trumpeldor served as an inspiration to the young State of Israel engaged in a struggle for existence with its Arab enemies. The Russian Jew who lost his left arm after being wounded in the czar's war against Japan in 1904 became a superhero in the eyes of both Ben-Gurion's Socialists and Jabotinsky's Revisionists. All Zionists wanted to claim Trumpeldor as their own. His dying words became the almost sacred credo of a modern nation.
BUT THE idealization and idolization of Trumpeldor's actions and his last words were not bound to last. In her groundbreaking study of Zionist historiography and memory, Recovered Roots, historian Yael Zerubavel traces the changes in attitude toward Trumpeldor as history unfolded in Israel. After experiencing the horrors of endless war, Israelis began to ask if indeed it was "good to die for our country." Instead, many sabras began to question if Trumpeldor's patriotic last words were ever said. Perhaps Trumpeldor, whose Hebrew may have not been so fluent, merely cursed in Russian as he died.
Trumpeldor's disability also became the subject of dark humor, some of it with a sexual undercurrent. Israelis made jokes about the statue of the lion on Trumpeldor's grave, arguing that it was hollow, as was the whole legend of the one-armed pioneer. Tel Hai, once central to Zionist ideology and ethos, became a tarnished myth, the subject of endless jokes. For post-Zionist intellectuals, Trumpeldor emerged as yet another icon of Zionism that deserved to be smashed. Many post-Zionists discredited Tel Hai as a way to forfeit Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state.
Yet the time has come to revive Trumpeldor the hero and legend of Zionism, without resorting to the type of mythmaking that should be reserved for kindergarten children. It matters little what Trumpeldor's dying words were. It matters little whether he extolled Israel in the last minutes of his life or merely cursed his fate. Yosef Trumpeldor was - and is - a genuine hero of all Jews and Zionists. He was a war hero in the Russian army, a founder of the Jewish battalion known as the Zion Mule Corps during World War I and a first-rate organizer of Zionist youth throughout the Pale of Settlement. His death at Tel Hai was, indeed, an act of heroism.
If he expired cursing his fate in Russian, it only highlights the humanity of a brave man who did not want to die. His role in the defense of Tel Hai inspired generations of Israelis who fought for the Jewish state on the battlefield. Perhaps the jokes about Trumpeldor's missing arm reflect a more mature evaluation of who the man actually was. We should not portray him as a human god in a Zionist pantheon. He was a brave man, but a human being nevertheless. The Jewish people are in need of role models to emulate, not semi-divine humans to worship.
Zionism is still a vital movement and ideology. The challenge Jews face in Israel and in the Diaspora is to mold a new Zionism that is mature enough to admit that the movement has made mistakes in the past - and in its interpretation of the past - and move ahead with the lessons of history.
There is no doubt that the Israeli establishment's attitude toward and treatment of Holocaust survivors, Jewish immigrants from Arab lands, Israeli Arabs and others deserves to come under criticism. There is no doubt that while the mass suicide of Masada reflected the bravery of the fortress's defenders against the Romans, the mass suicide there is not an action to be emulated today. That does not mean, however, that Zionism is merely built on myths and lies, both ancient and modern, whether Betar or Tel Hai.
The attainment of Jewish sovereignty, the building of a Jewish army and a parliament, the project to create the type of "new Jew" who would both stand up for himself and revive the glory of the past, including that of the Diaspora, these are all goals that should be praised. We do not need to look back to the past for icons to worship. We need human role models who will continue to inspire.
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