Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit asked the Jerusalem District Court Wednesday to block the sale of a letter written by Joseph Trumpeldor, calling it an “asset of a public-national character” and of “historical and national importance of the first order.”
The letter, in Hebrew, was written in 1915, five years before Trumpeldor’s death in the Battle of Tel Hai. Trumpeldor is regarded as one of the greatest heroes of the Zionist movement. The letter was sent to the father of Benjamin Wertheimer, a soldier who served in the British army’s Zion Mule Corps under Trumpeldor in World War I and died at the Battle of Gallipoli.
“You have won my respect by your ability to educate your son such that he was both a good man and a good Jew as well as a good military man. I realize that your heart aches greatly, but know that your son fell as a hero for the Jewish people and the Land of Israel,” the letter said. The language seems to foretell the alleged last words of Trumpeldor himself before his death in 1920, “It is good to die for our country.”
The letter was a response to the father’s request for the return of his son’s tefillin. “Among the items that have remained are his tefillin and I would very much like them, as they were so dear to him, as a memento. You are assured of the love of man nesting in your heart for making efforts to have them returned to me, and I will never forget you and this favor. Written and sealed with a tear,” the father wrote.
The sale of the letter by Jerusalem’s King David Auctions was blocked in June 2019 over fears that it was stolen. The anonymous seller claimed he bought it legally for $500 from a private collector in the United States. He seeks to sell it at an opening bid of $100,000. He claims to have acted in good faith.
The letter was stamped as property of the Beitar Museum, the precursor to the Jabotinsky Institute. The institute says the stamp proves the letter, a gift to the museum from Trumpeldor’s fiancee, was stolen from the collection.
For the past three years the letter has been the subject of laborious judicial proceedings. Mendelblit told the court that beyond suspicions that the letter was stolen, its unique contents should prohibit its sale.
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“It constitutes a cultural asset in the form of a historical document connected with the Jewish people’s national revival in its land of origin. ... Both the contents of the document and the identity of its writer are intimately linked to our collective-national, Zionist and Israeli identity,” Mendelblit wrote.
In addition, he said, “The letter constitutes a primary historical source, involving one of the central figures in the history of the people of Israel’s national revival and of a Hebrew defense force. ... It is in the highest interest of the State of Israel to preserve its cultural and historical heritage. The state sees preserving this as an inseparable part of its obligation to the public, the Jewish people and future generations.”
The attorney general also argued that because the letter contained the stamp of a public institution, it is not the private property of an individual. Under the circumstances, he said, archival material like this should not be subject to commercial transactions.
The intervention of the attorney general in a lawsuit involving an archival item isn’t unprecedented. Among others, in the last several years, the Israeli government sued for the return of draft copies of Israel’s Declaration of Independence; the handover of the collection of rabbinical rulings on agunot from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to Yad Vashem; and for the National Library to keep the “Damascus Crowns,” centuries-old Bibles that had been smuggled out of Syria by the Mossad.
The Justice Ministry has been working to revise Israel’s Archives Law, which is badly out of date, to make it better suited to determining when the government and/or a public archive has the right to nationalize items that are in private hands.