Hebrew acronym for Berit Yosef Trumpeldor (Joseph Trumpeldor Alliance), a youth movement founded in Riga in 1923 by Aharon Propes. Conceived as a small-scale local organization, during its early years Betar’s ideological platform was somewhat vague, concerned chiefly with reviving the idea of the Jewish legions that had operated during World War I.
After a few years, Betar developed a more concise ideology, becoming the official youth movement of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Union of Zionist Revisionists, which itself only came into being in 1925. Betar was confined mainly to Eastern Europe, with branches in Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and other countries—first and foremost Poland, which, in 1928, succeeded Latvia as host to the organization’s headquarters. From Poland, Betar spread to other countries and opened its first branches in Palestine.
Vladimir Jabotinsky (with eyeglasses) and members of the Betar youth movement, Lublin, 1930. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)
In January 1929, Betar held a conference in Warsaw attended by leaders of its national branches. There, Jabotinsky was appointed head of World Betar, a position that was ratified at the First International Congress, in Danzig (Gdańsk) in 1931. Representatives from 24 countries attended the Danzig conference. The principles and aims of Betar were spelled out there, including the following: (1) a stress on Zionist monism, which meant devotion to the idea of a purified Zionism; (2) an aspiration to create a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River; (3) compulsory army training and immigration to Palestine; (4) nurturing of the concept of hadar (dignity), in the broadest meaning of that word; (5) a commitment to learn Hebrew; and (6) total obedience to the institutions of the Betar movement.
When Betar’s headquarters were moved from Riga to Warsaw, Propes settled in Poland and took the position of commissioner of the movement. From 1928, at the urging of the heads of Betar Latvia, a few branches were established in neighboring Lithuania, where membership initially consisted of students from Jewish schools. Betar also opened branches as early as 1928 in Romania, starting with the Bucovina and Bessarabia districts and expanding later into Old Romania (Regat) so that by 1933 there were 70 branches across that country. Though it was considered the youth movement of the Revisionist party, Betar preserved full autonomy and operated independently of its parent body. Jabotinsky completely supported, and even encouraged, this stance.
Demonstration by Betar, the Revisionist Zionist youth movement, Lublin, 1930s. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)
During the 1930s, Betar was active in smuggling illegal immigrants into Palestine from Eastern Europe, especially from Poland. In many instances, the Polish government was fully aware of what was happening, and, to a significant degree, cooperated. The decade was marked by continuous growth in Betar’s membership, especially within its Polish branch. In 1930, according to Revisionist sources, there were 12,000 Betar members in Poland out of a worldwide total of 18,000. Four years later, Poland’s numbers had increased to 40,000 out of 70,000. At the end of 1938, Menaḥem Begin was nominated as a commissioner of Betar in Poland; by then the organization boasted 90,000 members drawn from 26 countries, with the majority originating from Poland.
During the World War II period, Betar’s members organized underground units of Jewish partisan organizations that were spread across Poland. In October 1942, the Igud Tseva’i Yehudi (Jewish Military Union, known by its Polish acronym as the ŻZW) was established in the Warsaw ghetto as an organization operating independently of Ha-Irgun ha-Yehudi ha-Loḥem (The Jewish Fighting Organization [ŻOB]). The ŻZW, most of whose members originated from Betar, played a prominent role in the ghetto’s uprising in April 1943.
Ch. Ben-Yerucham, Sefer Betar, vols. 1–3 (Jerusalem, 1969–?); Joseph B. Schechtman and Yehuda Benari, History of the Revisionist Movement, 1925–1930 (Tel Aviv, 1970); Jacob Shavit, Jabotinsky and the Revisionist Movement, 1925–1948 (London, 1988).
Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler