Yosef Trumpeldor – The man and the legend


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Yosef Trumpeldor (1880-1920) lived a short life; forty years altogether. Yet, in those short years, he accomplished more than most people who live twice as long. He was an admired Jewish leader in his life and a symbol for the new Jew after his death. This is his life story.

In 1827, Czar Nicholas I introduced what became known as the Cantonist Decrees. These decrees called for the forced conscription of Jewish boys into the Russian Army. These boys were between the ages of 12 and 18 and were forced to serve for 25 years. During their army service, every effort was made to convert them to Christianity.

Yosef Trumpeldor was born in a small-town Pyatigorsk, Russia in the northern Caucasus. His father was conscripted into the Nicolai army, where he served for twenty-five years. His father maintained his Jewishness and influenced Yosef in the spirit of Judaism. Yosef Trumpeldor knew that he was a Jew and was proud of it.

He grew up in Rostov-on-Don, outside the Pale of Settlement (territory within the borders of czarist Russia wherein the residence of Jews was legally authorized.) In 1888, when Rostov was made part of the Don military region, it was detached from the Pale of Settlement and thus was closed to Jewish residence. However, Jews who had settled there prior to 19 May 1887 were allowed to remain. The Ḥoveve Tsiyon movement (a pre-zionist Jewish national movement in Russia and Romania) was popular in Rostov in the 1880s.

Yosef Trumpeldor was strongly influenced in his youth by the model of collective communal life which he witnessed at a nearby farming commune established by followers of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s “return to the land” idea. In Trumpeldor’s mind, the idea of collective living became merged with the Zionist ideal of settling Erez Israel, and he dreamed of establishing agricultural communes in Erez Israel which, if necessary, would be defended by armed force.

In 1894 He was denied admission to the gymnasium in Rostov due to a limit imposed on the number of Jews who were allowed admission (numerus clausus). He moved to the city of Pyatigorsk and lived with his older brother Herman, who taught him dentistry.

He became Zionist after the 1st Zionist congress in Basel in 1897. In the same year, he establishes and chaired a Zionist group in his town. In 1902, he was certified in Kazan as a dentist. In the same year (1902) when the Russo – Japanese war began, Trumpeldor joined the Russian Army. He felt obligated to fulfill his duties as a citizen. He wanted to prove by his action that the charge of “Jewish cowardice” was false.

During the defense of Port Arthur, he volunteered for service in the commando troops, which bore the brunt of the Japanese attacks. During a fierce battle in 1904, Trumpeldor was hit in his left arm by a piece shrapnel. The arm had to be amputated. On leaving the hospital, he wrote to his commander, requesting permission to return to the front: “True, I have now but one arm, but it is the right one capable of handling a sword or rifle.” Trumpeldor wish was granted and he returned to the front, having only one arm. He was promoted to a non-commissioned rank. When Port Arthur fell, Trumpeldor became prisoner of war. He spent a year in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, where he organized five hundred fellow Jewish prisoners into a Zionist society.

In 1906, when the war was over, Trumpeldor was introduced to the Czarina, and by royal order was promoted to the rank of officer. He received four decorations for bravery including the Cross of St. George, which made him the most decorated Jewish soldier in Russia. In 1906, he became the first Jew in the army to receive an officer’s commission – the only Jew in the Russian army to receive such honors without being forced to convert to Christianity.

He refused offers to remains in the army. Having one hand, he couldn’t practice dentistry so he began studying law at the university of St. Petersburg. At the same time, he looked for other Jews who wished to go to Israel to settle there. He organized a student Zionist movement based on the communal principles he had grown up with.

In 1912, he left behind his status as a Russian war hero, his law and dentistry professions, and together with his friends, he moved to Israel and worked at the Migdal farm and in Deganyah. Trumpeldor helped defending 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.

In 1913 Trumpeldor traveled to Vienna to participate in the 11th Zionist congress. From there he returned to Russia to establish Jewish schools and to call for more volunteers to join him in settling Israel. Upon his return to Degania, he continued working as a farmer (performing all the chores with one arm), and assist in protecting the settlement.

When World War 1 (WWI) broke, Trumpeldor refused to join the practice of most of the Jewish settlers in Israel and become an Ottoman citizen. He was expelled to Damascus and from there moved to Alexandria, where together with Zeev Jabotinsky, he promoted the idea of assembling a Jewish battalion, which will fight alongside British soldiers in the war against the Ottoman Empire in liberating Israel. Many of the Zionist leaders objected to the idea in fear that the Ottomans will retaliate against the Jewish settlers in Israel.

The British also weren’t excited about the idea, but eventually agreed to establish a Jewish transportation battalion that will support British troops in Gallipoli. The idea was not popular among the Jewish volunteers. Trumpeldor, however, believed that having Jewish soldiers supporting the British will help the Zionist agenda in Israel after the war. Thus, the Zion Mule Battalion was created. There were 650 Jewish soldiers in the battalion. Lieutenant Colonel John Peterson was the unit commander and Yosef Trumpeldor was his deputy.

In 1915, after 2 weeks of training, the battalion was sent to Gallipoli. For the first time, after 1,800 years in the Diaspora, there was once again a military unit that all its soldiers were Jewish and the spoken language was Hebrew. The British attack in Gallipoli failed. 12 of the battalion’s soldiers were killed and 5 were injured. When the battle was over, Lieutenant Colonel John Peterson left the unit for health reasons and Trumpeldor became the unit commander.

After the retreat from Gallipoli, and the refusal of the British to shift the battalion to the front, the battalion was disassembled. 120 Jewish soldiers traveled to London and joined the 38th battalion of the King’s Shooters. They were led by John Peterson and participated in liberating Israel from the Ottomans in 1917. In Israel, more battalions were assembled; the 39th and 40th King’s Shooters battalions, thus, one year after the Zion Mule Battalion was disassembled, there were three Jewish battalions in Israel.

After the Zion Mule Battalion was disassembled, Trumpeldor traveled to London to create a Jewish battalion based on Jewish Russian immigrants. When the Communist revolution broke in Russia, Trumpeldor traveled to Russia to negotiate with the temporary government the establishment of a Jewish battalion which will make its way to Israel through Armenia. This initiative died when the Bolsheviks took control. Trumpeldor returned to Israel where he focused on establishing a labor union that will protect the rights of the Jewish workers.

When the Ottomans were defeated and the British took control, the Jewish settlement in Israel had high hopes that the British’s Balfour Declaration, about establishing a home for the Jewish people in Israel, will be fulfilled. The Arabs expected that a Great Syrian kingdom, ruled by the Hashemites, will be created. The French expected the British will honor the secret agreement, signed in 1916, which gave them control over Lebanon, Syria and the Upper Galilee. The British honored their agreement with the French and withdrew from the Upper Galilee. This led to the Franco-Syrian War between the Hashemites and France.

At that time, there were four isolated Jewish settlements in the Upper Galilee. Metula, Kfar Giladi, Tel Chai, and Hamra, which were located in the territory transferred to the French. The French forces did not establish control over this area and violence erupted.

Most of the violence was initiated by Muslim Arab gangs against Christian Arab villagers and French troops. Initially Jewish settlements were not specifically targeted, but with time the situation has changed and Muslim Arab gangs began targeting the Jewish settlements. On November 15, 1919, an Arab gang wearing French uniforms entered Kfar Giladi. They stole weapon, money, and property. They killed one Jewish settler.Two days later they attacked again.

There were 9 people in the Tel Cahi settlement; 7 men and 2 women. They realized that they couldn’t protect themselves and asked for help. In December 1919 Yosef trumpeldor was sent by the Hagana leadership for few days to the upper Galilee to assess the situation and assist in organizing the defense of the isolated four Jewish settlements in this area. Upon his arrival, Trumpeldor recognized that the situation was very dangerous and asked for volunteers to join him in the defense of the Upper Galilee. The attacks continued.

On one occasion Trumpeldor and his friends were attacked and were robbed of their belongings including their cloths. The Jewish settlement Hamara was attacked and was burned down after it was evacuated. A new French unit arrived in Metula. The Jewish farmers left Metula and moved to Tel Chai. The French troops burned down the village

On February 9th Trumpeldor wrote to the Hagana headquarters that the Arabs are determined on destroying the Jewish settlements and begged for help. In a meeting of the Hagana leaders, David Ben Gurion and the rest of the leadership agreed to send reinforcement, but resources were limited.

On March 1st, 1920, an Arab gang came to Tel Chai, stating that they were looking for French troops. They were allowed in, but when they tried to take the Jewish farmers’ weapons, Trumpeldor gave the order to open fire. Trumpeldor was hit in his hand and stomach. The Tel Chai settlers were able to push off the Arab gang, but decided to abandon Tel Chai. People around Trumpledor were not trained in CPR and did not know how to treat him so Trumpeldor himself pushed in his guts. The settlers evacuated Tel Chai at night. They walked in heavy rain and mud. They carried their injured and dead with them. Yosef Trumpeldor died on the way to Kfar Giladi.

The settlers of Kfar Giladi did not let Tel Chai’s evacuees stay in their village even one night. They buried the dead in a common grave and then continued to Kibbutz Manara. On the way, they received help from local Arab Bedouins. In the morning, they left for Kibbutz Ayelet Hashachar, which was in British teritory.

On March 3rd, Kfar Giladi was also attacked by a large Arab gang. The defenders abandoned the position and retreated to the Arab Shia village of Taibe where they were given shelter and an escort to Ayelet Hashahar. For several months after that, Jewish settlement in the Upper Galilee, did not exist.

The Franco-Syrian War entered its last stages in July 1920, with the defeat of the Hashemites in the Battle of Maysalun. The border in the area of Upper Galilee was finally agreed between the British and the French, and this area was transferred to British control. Jewish settlers returned to Kfar Giladi and Metula few months earlier. They did not return to Tel Chai. The settlement was absorbed into Kfar Giladi. Tel Chai was transformed into a museum. Today, the settlement of Tel Chai remains as it was then; a fort and buildings of gray basalt stones with red tiled roofs. A roaring lion monument was built on the burial place of the Tel Chai heros.

The significance of the Battle of Tel Chai is in its influence on Israeli culture, both inspiring and enduring heroic story and profoundly influencing the military and political strategies over several decades. In his death, Trumpeldor became a symbol of a Jew who fought for the right of every Jewish settlement to exist. Yosef Trumpeldor is mostly known for a sentence he said before he died. According to one testimony Trumpeldor said in Hebrew something like “It is good to die for our country”.  In 1970s this testimony was challenged by another person who was there. This person stated that Trumpeldor did not say anything, that he was in pain.

Regardless, generations of young Israelis grew up on this story. It was part of the curriculum in elementary schools when I was a student. It was considered an essential component in preparing the next generation of Israelis for the day that they’ll have to defend the young country.

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