Ever wonder why the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona (the "Community of Eight") is named after a number? Or where the football team Beitar Jerusalem got its name? The answers lie in the legends of Zionist heroism, in the famous Battle of Tel Hai.
On March 1, 1920, hundreds of Shi'ite Arabs from southern Lebanon attacked a Jewish outpost in the present-day Galilee Panhandle. Eight Jews, including two women, were killed. Angry at the French for not granting the Arabs of Syria independence in reward for revolting against the Ottomans in World War I, the attackers took out their resentment on the Zionists, even though they had nothing to do with the betrayal.
Among the fallen was the leader of Tel Hai’s defenders, Joseph Trumpeldor, a 39-year-old, one-armed Russian immigrant. His purported last words – “Ein davar, tov lamut be'ad artzeinu” ("Never mind, it is good to die for our country”) – became the mantra of Zionist heroism in the New Yishuv. The choice to fight and die rather than flee became the bedrock of an emerging Israeli military and political doctrine of bravery – of holding onto territory at all costs.
While there is little dispute among historians that Trumpeldor did indeed mouth these famous last words, were they really his own? The Roman poet Horace's Odes – “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” translated as "It is sweet and honorable to die for one's country" – was a declaration used by many European nationalists before Trumpledor’s death.
Aside from the authorship issue, another controversial aspect to the story is whether the self-sacrifice of Tel Hai’s defenders was truly necessary.
Established only two years prior to its capture, the Tel Hai outpost was situated in the Upper Galilee, far away from the majority of Zionist immigrants on the Mediterranean coastal plain. Aside from its isolated location, in 1919 the British and French amended the borders in the region, with its northern section, containing Tel Hai, given to the latter. The Zionists were displeased by this development, particularly since they wanted the sources of the Jordan River to be part of the Jewish state they envisaged following the British Mandate. They also had to decide what to do with the Jewish settlements that now fell under French rule.
Yet, the dilemma was more about identity than territory. The practical importance of defending Tel Hai, far from the New Yishuv’s core, was dwarfed by the need for a national myth of self-sacrifice. Despite its far-flung location, there were many within the Zionist leadership that claimed that the Jews should hold on to every dunam of land under their control. By defending Tel Hai, they were sending a message: We will not back away from a fight.
Indeed, the fall of Tel Hai did not lead to the fall of the New Yishuv, and Zionist leaders got their juicy martyrdom story. Trumpeldor served as an archetypal New Jew – devoted to the restoration of Jewish freedom and honor lost amid millennia of docility and despair. His heroic efforts inspired a new generation of selfless warriors capable of fighting to secure an independent state.
Today, Tel Hai is part of Kibbutz Giladi and is a popular tourist attraction, home to a famous monument with a stone lion commemorating its fallen, and an eponymous college with the tagline “On the Frontier of Israeli Education.” Beitar – an acronym for "Brit Yosef Trumpeldor" (“The Covenant of Joseph Trumpeldor”) – became the name of the Revisionist Zionist youth movement, and a litany of place names and football and basketball clubs. Numerous streets in Israel also bear the name Trumpeldor, as does a famous cemetery in Tel Aviv.
Indeed, his legend lives on, though a spirit of individualism that was shunned in its founding years increasingly defines contemporary Israel. Many young Israelis, wisely or foolishly, seem to be asking themselves whether it really is good to die for their country.