This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Tel Hai, an iconic event in the history of the Land of Israel, where two young pioneers who spearheaded a move to integrate women in combat roles lost their lives.
Upon immigrating from Russia in 1907, Sarah Chizik was disappointed to find that instead of working in agriculture which she’d dreamed of doing, the Promised Land had other ideas in mind for her.
“A life of cooking and laundry cannot satisfy me,” she complained. “If I can’t get more from life than I am getting, I don’t want to live this way anymore.” Her friend Devorah Drachler, who made aliyah from Ukraine in 1913, also wasn’t too keen on her job as a cook in a workers’ kitchen. The refusal by these two women to accept their inequality vis-a-vis male pioneers placed them at the forefront of a struggle that was tragically cut short.
March 1, the 11th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, marked 100 years since Chizik and Drachler fell in battle, in each other’s arms. The two were the first women fighters in the Yishuv, a pre-state Jewish community, to be killed in action. They lost their lives at Tel Hai, when a small Jewish force sought unsuccessfully to defend the small northern settlement against Arab attackers, in a battle that has achieved mythic status. It is remembered mainly because of the declaration made there by the revered Jewish commander Joseph Trumpeldor, who was also killed there: “It is good to die for our country.”
But while other women who fought over the years for their country, like Sarah Aaronsohn and Hannah Senesh, have long been celebrated, Chizik and Drachler have been relegated to the margins of history in Israel. Despite the values they stood for and fought for, and the continuing relevance of the struggle for gender equality and for integrating women into the military, their names remain largely unknown.
Historian Smadar Sinai, who specializes in gender and Zionist history, recently completed an archival study on the two women who, she says, “symbolized the determination not to give up women’s right to bear arms.”
In 1918, a year and a half before she was killed in action, Drachler sent a letter to members of Hashomer requesting to take part in decision making as well as to participate in activities like guard duty and other roles in that settlement defense organization. “She believed in equality between men and women and was ready to fight for it,” Dr. Sinai writes in a recent scholarly article (in Hebrew) entitled “1920-2020: Between History and Memory.” Some years before that, the historian notes, Chizik had written an essay in school that turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: She expressed the wish to emulate those who fell defending their land “as a hero in the people’s war.”
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A personal example
The two women met in 1920 when they volunteered to go up to the Galilee to join the fighters led by Trumpeldor who were defending Tel Hai. They hoped to set a personal example, to prove their determination in a dangerous arena, in light of the public debate at the time about women serving at the front, Sinai says: “The establishment view at the time was that women should not be part of the combat forces.”
Women did participate in operations of the Nili underground, which fought against Turkish rule in the country, in the Etzel, Lehi and Haganah militias and even in the British Army in World War II. But they only participated in a small number of companies and their roles were limited, Sinai notes, adding that most of these women were involved in combat support but not as actual soldiers on the battlefield.
Manya Shochat, one of the leaders of Hashomer, recalled later that she had tried to talk Drachler out of going to the Galilee.
"It is in no way possible for a girl to go to fight." she told Drachler, "The men are stripped naked, and we will not agree to such a thing."
Sinai writes: “Shochat told Drachler that she could be physically harmed because she was a woman. Her gender endangered her life. Shochat described how she tried to prevent Drachler from going to certain death, but she would not be dissuaded.”
“Now I feel that I am worthy of defending with a rifle in hand,” Drachler said, after she successfully completed her last drill at a firing range. In that context, Sinai found archival testimony from one of the men from Tel Hai, who said Drachler “was the only girl who practiced using a rifle and bullets every single day.”
On March 1, 1920, Arab fighters, led by Kamal Effendi, broke into the room where Drachler was staying at Tel Hai and tried to take her weapon. “When they saw Devorah standing before them holding a pistol, they took it from her hands and when she resisted they shot her. She announced what was happening by shouting to Trumpeldor below and he immediately ordered his forces to open fire...Later she was found dead with a tranquil expression on her face, embraced in the arms of her comrade Sarah Chizik,” according to the Israel Defense Ministry’s memorial website.
“As a member of Hashomer, she knew very well that you never give up your weapon,” Sinai writes, noting that there is some evidence to suggest that Drachler was shota after refusing to relinquish her weapon. “The sight of a young Jewish woman holding a gun was probably not something Kamal and his men were used to seeing,” she adds.
According to the ministry’s site, Chizik was killed by a grenade that the Arabs tossed into the room amid exchanges of gunfire. Eight people were killed, including two women.
One would assume that the fact that they were killed at a formative moment in Zionist history and that were the first women to fall in such circumstances would ensure Drachler and Chizik a place of honor in Israel’s collective memory. Initially, Sinai writes in her article, this was the case: For a time, the two were mentioned more prominently than Trumpeldor’s five male comrades-in-arms, who fell in the same battle. “They were buried separately from the men and immortalized in a statue called ‘The Galilee and its Watchwomen,’” by Yaacov Dov Gordon.
But this trend was later reversed and the women came to be overshadowed by Trumpeldor. For her part, Sinai doesn’t necessarily attribute this sidelining to gender discrimination, as the names of men who fell at Tel Hai are also not mentioned.
That view is countered, however, by Yael Zerubavel, a professor of Jewish studies and history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who researches collective memory. “Although the two women fighters who fell were initially commemorated in a way that emphasized their uniqueness, the traditional cultural mold in which the collective is represented is with male imagery – whether in the image of Trumpeldor as the main hero of the battle or in the way the ‘heroes of Tel Hai’ are referred to in the masculine – pushed them to the margins of national memory,” she says.
Zerubavel adds that the underlying purpose was to create an archetype of “the new Hebrew,” who embodied how far the newly emergent Jewish society was from the image of the Diaspora Jew “and that these collective images focused on male figures.” The Hebrew language, in which the masculine form is used to represent the collective, along with the linguistic connection between gever (“man”) and gevura (“heroism”), also contributed, she notes, “to obscuring the place of women in the heroic myth.”