Joseph Trumpeldor: the man and his legacy

This article is a follow-up to my Maximum Rocknroll column on Jewish socialism vs Jewish nationalism and should be considered a non-canonical column.

UTOPIA ATTEMPTED

I call them “horseshoe heroes.”

I consider the assertions of horseshoe theorists—that far left and far right closely resemble each other like the ends of a horseshoe—to be utterly bogus. Yet I acknowledge that a select few individuals have become icons simultaneously for both the Left and the Right. I’m not talking here about Keith Preston’s pan-secessionist idiocy which likes to claim that everyone from Mikhail Bakunin to Julius Evola are default “horseshoe heroes” and therefore “go beyond Left and Right.”  I’m instead pointing to the vagaries of Third Positionist figures like Juan Perón who managed to be embraced by the political Left and Right through their actions and ideas.

One such individual was the early socialist Zionist Joseph Trumpeldor who achieved the status of “horseshoe hero” long before Third Positionism was a thing. In the process, Trumpeldor’s death-in-action became the inspiration for elements of Labor Zionism to transcend their Jewish-based ethnic socialism into true international socialism. Finally, Joseph Trumpeldor and his legacy gave rise to the utopian myth that a true social Zionism might have transcended the political Zionism that prevailed. If political Zionism meant the colonization of Palestine by any means necessary to establish a Jewish State—Israel—social Zionism intended the communal settlement of Palestine/Israel as a non-state binational commonwealth, with autonomous federations of Arab and Jewish communities residing side by side.

When I studied the history of Zionism as an undergraduate at UCSC, I sponsored a student-organized and lead class on the subject of socialist Zionism with two other students. My fellow student teachers were both left of the Left Jews who identified with the Chutzpah Collective in the United States and sympathized with Matzpen in Israel. For them Joseph Trumpeldor was the exemplar of just such a social Zionism.

JOSEPH TRUMPELDOR: SOCIALIST ZIONIST

Joseph Trumpeldor was born in Pyatigorsk, Russia, in 1880. His father served as a cantonist during the Caucasian War and was designated a “useful Jew” who was allowed to live outside the Pale of Settlement. Joseph was proudly Jewish, but his upbringing was more Russian than traditionally Jewish. The years leading up to 1905 proved crucial to his development. He was a patriotic Russian who volunteered for military service in 1902, served during the Russo-Japanese War, and fought in the siege of Port Arthur. He lost his left arm to shrapnel, was briefly a Japanese POW, and returned the most decorated Jewish soldier in the Russian army, becoming the first Jew in the army to receive an officer’s commission in 1906.

The wave of revolutionary socialist militancy around the failed 1905 Russian workers soviet revolution overlapped with one of the bloodiest waves of Russian antisemitic pogroms from 1903 to 1906, introducing Joseph to both socialist and Zionist agitation. He professed sympathies for anarchist syndicalism and admired Peter Kropotkin, promoting Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid and eventually declaring himself an anarchist communist. And he gathered with fellow youthful Zionists in St. Petersburg by 1909 to study Ber Borochov, Nachman Syrkin and A.D. Gordon, and to advocate for Jewish self-defense.

Affiliated with the Poale Zion tendency within Labor Zionism, Trumpeldor emigrated—made aliyah—to Ottoman Palestine in 1911 where he did farm work, most famously at Degania, often considered the first kibbutz and the “mother of all kibbutzim.” When the first World War started, he was declared an enemy national by the Ottomans and went to Egypt where he met fellow Russian army veteran Ze’ev Jabotinsky. It’s unclear how far along Jabotinsky was in his slide right toward Hebrew fascism, but this may have been the first historical example of a red-brown alliance on the level of personal friendship. Apparently, they bonded over not just the need for Jewish self-defense, but the notion that the “new Jew” needed to be an armed Jew.

They approached the British about organizing an armed force of Jewish volunteers to fight against the Ottoman Empire and seize Palestine for the British Empire. Instead the British agreed to sponsor an auxiliary volunteer transport mule corps, an idea which Jabotinsky rejected outright but Trumpeldor enthusiastically accepted. The Zion Mule Corps was born. The Mule Corps participated in the fierce fighting on the Gallipoli Front as the Zionist volunteers Trumpeldor recruited acquitted themselves with bravery. Joseph refused to leave the battlefield despite being shot through the shoulder and Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson reported that “Captain Trumpeldor actually revelled in it, and the hotter it became the more he liked it…” After the dissolution of the Zion Mule Corps, Trumpeldor, Jabotinsky, and one hundred twenty Mule Corps veterans served together in the 16th Platoon of the London Regiment’s 20th Battalion. Their initiative for a Jewish armed force was ultimately accepted and expanded by the British military into five battalions of international Jewish volunteers, the 38th to 42nd Service Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers, raised in the British Army, and were referred to as the Jewish Legion. The 38th, 39th, and 40th Battalions saw combat in Palestine against the Ottomans. The Zion Mule Corps and Jewish Legion were deemed the first formal, all-Jewish military units organized in nearly two thousand years. Officially, the fighting Jew had been reborn.

Trumpeldor returned briefly to revolutionary Petrograd in 1918, organized Jews to defend themselves, and established the HeHalutz youth movement that prepared immigrants making aliyah for agricultural settlement in Palestine. HeHalutz eventually became an umbrella organization for various Zionist pioneer youth movements. As Britain and France carved up the Middle East, Joseph returned to what would become British Mandated Palestine where he was posted to Kibbutz Kfar Giladi by the unofficial Zionist militia Hashomer (successor to the Poale Zion controlled militia Bar-Giora) to organize defense for the northernmost part of the Upper Galilee. By then Theodor Herzl’s slogan about Palestine being “a land without a people for a people without a land” was proving the lie as Palestinian Arabs agitated against both Zionist colonizers and Western imperialism. The British had encouraged Arab nationalist rebellion against the Ottomans starting in 1916. Called the Arab Revolt, it lasted through 1920 and the Nebi Musa/Jerusalem riots.

The intent of the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence—in which the British government agreed to recognize Arab national independence after the war in exchange for the Sharif of Mecca sparking the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire—was betrayed first by the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, then the 1917 Balfour Declaration, and finally the 1919 Versailles Treaty. Western imperialist designs on the Middle East were clear, and when a territorial adjustment between the British Mandate in Palestine and the French Mandate in Lebanon lead to the administrative transfer of the northernmost part of the Upper Galilee from the former to the latter in 1919, the Arabs in the region grew alarmed. The Zionist settlements in the area preferred to remain under British rule and so the Hashomer militia tasked with defending Jewish colonization in Palestine was put on high alert. When Lebanese Shi’ite Arabs attempted to search the settlement of Tel Hai due to their suspicions of French espionage, a major firefight ensued with Hashomer in which five Arabs and eight Jews were killed, among them Joseph Trumpeldor who was wounded in the hand and stomach before dying while being evacuated to Kfar Giladi in March, 1920.

Trumpeldor’s supposed final words: “Never mind, it is good to die for our country” modeled on a famous Horace quote, may have been a sincere dying sentiment, an ironic Russian deathbed curse, or a dubious apocryphal allusion now contested for decades. In any case, Trumpeldor became a symbol for Jewish self-defense and a national hero for Zionists on the Right and Left. Jabotinsky and his Revisionist Zionist Movement named its youth movement Betar, an acronym for “Covenant of Joseph Trumpeldor.” Labor Zionism honored him as the defender of the kibbutzim movement with several memorials, including one for the eight who died at Tel Hai. The settlement of Kiryat Shmona is named after that attack. In August, 1920, the Joseph Trumpeldor Labor and Defense Battalion (Gdud HaAvoda) was founded in Palestine.

LABOR BATTALION: LIBERTARIAN COMMUNISM

Gdud HaAvoda was established with the help of Trumpeldor’s third aliyah followers in Hashomer Hatzair who emigrated from Crimea. Based on principles of communal labor, settlement and defense, all income was pooled. They paved roads, drained swamps, worked in construction and agriculture, and established several kibbutzim, including Ein Harod, Ramat Rachel and Tel Yosef. After learning their skills in the battalion, many former members left to join the Solel Boneh construction company. When Gdud demanded a unified organization for all Jewish workers, the Histadrut (General Organization of Workers in Israel) was founded in Haifa in December, 1920, and grew rapidly. David Ben-Gurion, head of the Ahdut Haavoda political party, was elected its General Secretary in 1921. As a powerful, fully independent entity, it operated without any interference from the British colonial government.

The Histadrut attempted not only to unionize all Jewish workers in British Mandated Palestine but to own as much of the business and industry in the Jewish Yishuv as possible with a lock on the economic activities of its member communal and cooperative farms through the establishment of the Nir company, an aggressively centralizing syndicalist strategy. This accorded well with Ben-Gurion’s nationalist plans to make the Histadrut into a Jewish “state in the making.” The Histadrut also offered social and cultural services and health care (through Kupat Cholim). Its function was not to socialize the means of production it held but to strengthen its role as a “national enterprise.” Workers were wage labor hierarchically organized and centrally controlled, albeit cooperatively structured. According to Ze’ev Sternhell: “The Histadrut was interested in accumulating wealth and gaining political power, not in creating a socialist utopia.” This ran afoul of Gdud’s social strategy to “build up the land through the creation of a general commune of Jewish workers” rooted in a Palestine-wide cooperative system of equality and democratic self-management. The battalion wanted to establish larger agricultural settlements skilled at including agriculture and industry combined into a single institution, paving the way for a true socialist commonwealth based on “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” Already the largest workers’ commune in Palestine, Gdud considered itself the direct progenitor of the Histadrut, while the Histadrut considered the battalion a direct threat—an economic competitor and political rival. Gdud wanted to “democratize” the Histadrut while the Histadrut wanted to take over, or better yet dissolve Gdud altogether.

Conflict arose between Gdud and Ben-Gurion’s Ahdut Haavoda and then the Histadrut from the start. Gdud wanted to be an independent contractor bidding for public works jobs directly from the British Mandatory government’s Department of Public Works, whereas the Histadrut and Ahdut Haavoda demanded exclusive control. Ahdut Haavoda’s Agricultural Workers’ Federation and the Histadrut’s Bureau of Public Works only reluctantly allowed Gdud to participate in the settlement of the Jezreel Valley in 1920-22. These conflicts came to a head in 1922-23 over the issue of common treasury. For Gdud, common treasury meant that losses would be compensated with gains socially, thus maintaining an overall positive balance sheet over time. For Ben-Gurion and the Histadrut, each specific loss needed to be balanced out by a corresponding gain, an item-for-item accounting in a general treasury. When Kibbutz Ein Harod, which belonged to Ben-Gurion’s Ahdut Haavoda party, demanded that Gdud repay its debts to the kibbutz, the Histadrut backed the kibbutz and accused the battalion of misappropriating funds. It was implied that if the battalion could not honor its obligations, Gdud should be merged with Ahdut Haavoda. Gdud eventually did repay its debts while criticizing both the Histadrut and Ahdut Haavoda as not sufficiently socialist. But in doing so it gave the Histadrut the upper hand, and tacitly acknowledged that national goals were to be given priority over social values. Already disappointed that the Histadrut lacked centrality and a capacity to seize control of its related labor organs, Ben-Gurion used the Gdud Executive Committee’s leadership crisis in 1926 to force the eventual liquidation of the battalion by 1929.

The 1922-23 crisis over finances prompted Gdud to split between a pioneering rightwing and an overtly socialist leftwing that championed a genuine social Zionism. The battalion’s Left continued to demand a general commune in a socialist Palestine and made common cause with Hashomer Hatzair over creating a binational Arab/Jewish state in Palestine/Israel. To Ben-Gurion’s insistence that Labor Zionism shift “from class to nation” as the culmination of political Zionism, communist elements organized within Gdud to work to transform Jewish ethnic nationalism into international working class consciousness. The Gdud Executive Committee split politically over this and subsequently expelled a communist fraction in 1926, leading to the battalion ceasing work in 1927 prior to its complete dissolution in 1929. The Histadrut’s main rival had been gutted, its leadership decimated. Some members of Gdud’s communist fraction returned to Russia, where they formed a commune named Vojo Nova (Esperanto for “A New Way”), which was later liquidated during the Stalinist purges.

UTOPIA BETRAYED

Gdud HaAvoda and its communist splinter represented the Left’s most advanced position both within socialist Zionism and socialism in Jewish Palestine, striving to pose a social strategy based on class as opposed to a national strategy based on ethnicity. In the final analysis, the battalion could not overcome socialist Zionism’s primary contradiction of being a settler-colonial “socialism for one people.” Yet Gdud was a credit to the political legacy of Joseph Trumpeldor as well as the inspiration for a social Zionism that produced its own negation in the communist splinter expelled by Gdud. In the end, a communally based binational commonwealth of contiguous autonomous federations of Arab and Jewish communities in Palestine/Israel proved utopian, and the international communist alternative it engendered insignificant. Yet the myths surrounding Joseph Trumpeldor remain potent. Unfortunately, Trumpeldor’s legacy is marred and that mythos muddied by his appropriation as a nationalist hero by Revisionist Zionism’s Hebrew fascism. As a result of some questionable ideas and actions, his varied associations, a love of war and adventure, Joseph Trumpeldor also qualifies as a “horseshoe hero” combining diverse aspects of the Zionist Left and Right prior to his death.

It’s no accident that the period roughly between the fin de siècle and the second World War saw a myriad of larger-than-life “men of action” arise who subsequently differentiated themselves between Left and Right—André Malraux and T.E. Lawrence, George Orwell and Joseph Conrad, Joseph Trumpeldor and Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The latter pair, as participants in Zionism, moved respectively left and right as their movement grew and diversified, much as Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí claimed different politics as Surrealism developed. It was a crucible time, a condition of severe trial brought on by world events in which different elements violently interacted, melted, were reduced to their essences, and occasionally synthesized into something new. In such crucible times it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between ideological decay and revitalization, between cultural decadence and renaissance, between social decline and progress. Whether we live in similar times remains to be seen.

 

SOURCES:
(1) The Israelis: Founders and Sons by Amos Elon
(2) The Other Israel: The Radical Case Against Zionism by Arie Bober
(3) The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State by Ze’ev Sternhell
(4) The Zionist Legacy: Water and Agriculture Management in Israel by Legrenzi, Trentin, et al

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