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Joseph Trumpeldor (December 1, 1880March 1 1920, , ), was an early Zionist activist, notable for helping organize the Zion Mule Corps and bringing Jewish immigrants to Palestine.

Early life

Joseph Trumpeldor was born in Pyatigorskmarker, Russiamarker. His father, Wulf Trumpeldor, served as a cantonist in the Caucasian War, and as a "useful Jew", was allowed to settle outside the Pale of Settlement. Though proudly Jewish, Trumpeldor's upbringing was more Russian than traditionally Jewish. Originally in training as a dentist, Joseph Trumpeldor volunteered for the Russian army in 1902. During the Russo-Japanese War, he participated in the siege of Port Arthurmarker, where he lost his left arm to shrapnel. He spent a hundred days in the hospital recovering, but elected to complete his service. Trumpeldor was truly dedicated to his country. When he was questioned about his decisions and told that he was heavily advised not to continue fighting given his handicap, he responded "but i still have another arm to give to the motherland". When Port Arthur surrendered, Trumpeldor went into Japanese captivity. He spent his time printing a newspaper on Jewish affairs and organized history, geography and literature classes. He also befriended several prisoners who shared his desire of founding a communal farm in Palestine. On return from captivity, he moved to St. Petersburgmarker. Trumpeldor subsequently 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.

World War I

Due to his handicap he began to study law. He gathered a group of young Zionists around him and in 1911 they emigrated to Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire. At first he joined a farm on the shore of the Sea of Galileemarker, and then worked for a time at Kibbutz Degania. When World War I broke out, being an enemy national, he went to Egyptmarker, where together with Ze'ev Jabotinsky he developed the idea of the Jewish Legion to fight with the British against common enemies and, the Zion Mule Corps was formed in 1915, considered to be the first all-Jewish military unit organized in close to two thousand years, and the ideological beginning of the Israel Defense Forces. He saw action in the Battle of Gallipoli with the Zion Mule Corps, where he was wounded in the shoulder. The Zion Mule Corps remained in Gallipoli through the entire campaign and was disbanded shortly after being transferred to Britain.

Political activist

Upon his return to Petrogradmarker, Russia in 1918, he organised Jews to defend themselves and established the HeHalutz, a youth organization that prepared immigrants for aliyah (immigration to Palestine), and returned to Palestine himself, then under the British Mandate. He was one of the founders of the Zionist Socialist movement in Palestine.

Tel Hai

On 1 March 1920, several hundred Shiites, from the village of Jabal Amil in Southern Lebanonmarker, gathered at the gate of Tel Haimarker, one of four Jewish farming villages in an isolated bloc at the northern end of the Upper Galilee's Hulah Valleymarker. Gangs ('isabat) of clan-based border peasants, combining politics and banditry, were active in the area of the loosely defined border between the soon to be established British Mandate of Palestine, French Mandate of Lebanon and of Syria. The Shiites believed that some French troops had taken refuge with the Jews and demanded to search the premises. The Jews generally tried to maintain neutrality in the chaos, occasionally sheltering both Arabs and French. On this day there were no French soldiers, and the Jews assented to a search. One of the farmers fired a shot into the air, a signal for reinforcements from nearby Kfar Giladimarker, which brought ten men led by Trumpeldor, who had been posted by Hashomer to organize defense.

path from the Tel Hai courtyard..
..up to the Kfar Giladi courtyard

It is unclear exactly what happened once Trumpeldor assumed command, but an early report speaks of 'misunderstanding on both sides'. Ultimately, a major firefight raged, and seven of the Jewish defenders were initially killed; Trumpeldor was shot in his hand and then his stomach. A doctor only arrived toward evening, and Trumpeldor died while being evacuated to Kfar Giladi. Five Arabs were killed in the fighting as well. The eight Jews were buried in two common graves in Kfar Giladi, and both locations were abandoned for a time.

National hero

After his death, Trumpeldor became a symbol of Jewish self-defence, and his memorial day on the 11th day of Adar is officially noted in Israel every year. His reputed last words, "Never mind, it is good to die for our country" (En davar, tov lamut be'ad artzenu אין דבר, טוב למות בעד ארצנו), became famous in the pre-state Zionist movement and in Israel of the 1950s and 1960s. These words closely resemble a translation of Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, the famous line from the Roman lyrical poet Horace's Odes (iii 2.13), which can be rendered in English as "It is sweet and honourable to die for one's country," or "It is sweet and fitting to die for the fatherland" --- and which inspired numerous Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century nationalists patriots in various countries. However, a slightly different reading is possible because of the stress on "our" country and Trumpeldor's personal story: he had, after all, come within an inch of losing his life for another country where his people were not even full-fledged citizens. One is tempted to read between the lines: "no-one likes to die in battle, but if I have to go, at least it's for our own country rather than somebody else's".


Joseph Trumpeldor is regarded as a hero by both right wing and left wing Zionists. The Revisionist Zionist movement named its youth movement (and precursor to Likud) Betar, an acronym for "Covenant of Joseph Trumpeldor", while the left wing movements remember Trumpeldor as the defender of the kibbutzim and have established memorials in his honour. In the same year that he died, the Joseph Trumpeldor Battalion for defence and work was founded, which established several kibbutzim. The town of Kiryat Shmonamarker ("City of Eight") is named after Trumpeldor and the seven others who died defending Tel Hai.


  1. Henry Laurens, La Question de Palestine, vol.1, Fayard, Paris 1999 p.502

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