As usual Jeffrey Goldberg gets it wrong in this item he posted at The Atlantic about Josef Trumpeldor. For those who don’t know the national myth, Trumpeldor was a genuine Jewish Russian war hero who settled in post World War I Palestine and organized Jewish self-defense groups to battle local Arab groups hostile to both French colonial and Jewish interests.
According to legend, the far northern outpost of Tel Hai came under attack and Trumpeldor was summoned from a nearby kibbutz to command the defense. He and several other Jews died in the ensuing battle and he was supposed to have said on his death bed: “It is good to die for our country.”
An illuminating article at the Meretz USA site quotes a survivor of Tel Hai as saying Trumpeldor’s REAL last words, presumably addressed at the Arab who shot him, were in his native Russian: “Motherfucker.”
The late Baruch Kimmerling, in his seminal review of Death and the Nation, had this to say about Trumpeldor’s death:
As Zertal points out, the Zionist leadership made appeals to the defenders of Tel Hai to withdraw, citing their poor weapons and their immense numerical inferiority. After a heated debate, this option was rejected by the Jewish community leadership…
In other words, the political leadership appealed to the Tel Hai hotheads for a tactical retreat and instead they chose to make a nationalist statement at the risk of their lives. Zertal argues that this was the beginning of the Zionist cult of death which posited that it was as good to die for one’s country as to live for it. And it was certainly better, according to Zionist thinking, to die for one’s country than die like dogs as Diaspora Jews did during the Holocaust.
Yet another example of the death myth is the story of Masada’s holdouts against the Romans who died rather than surrender to the Jewish enemy. To this day, the IDF holds a major military ceremony for every trainee at Masada to inculcate this culture of sacrifice in the new troops.
But it is critically important to understand that like George Armstrong Custer at the Little Big Horn or even Jim Bowie and Daniel Boone at the Alamo, Trumpeldor and his fellow Jews had choices that made far more sense tactically. But they chose the route of defiant nationalism, seeking to make a statement to the Arabs that they would not give an inch no matter what. And they paid with their lives.
So, far from being heroes or martyrs (do I hear the word “shahid” anyone?), they are closer to the headstrong fool represented by Custer who allowed his stubbornness, self-regard, and underestimation of the enemy to cloud his judgment, thus leading to annihilation of himself and his comrades.
Contrary to Goldberg’s blithe, trite and superficial understanding of Trumpeldor, modern critical Zionism should learn a lesson that the object of Israelis must not be Trumpeldorian martyrdom, but a pragmatic resolution of conflict that embraces life for both peoples. Or to quote the Torah: “Seek life and pursue it.”
Thanks to Phil Weiss for making me aware of Goldberg’s piece.