Members of the Trumpeldor Zionist Organization celebrating on the eve of their departure for hakhsharah, a pioneer training farm, Riga, 1930s. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)

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Trumpeldor, Yosef

(1880–1920), Socialist Zionist leader; war hero. Yosef Trumpeldor was born in Piatigorsk, Russia, the son of a cantonist (a Jewish soldier inducted as a child into the army of Tsar Nicholas I). Trumpeldor grew up outside the Pale of Settlement, in Rostov-on-Don, and attended dentistry school but soon became active in the nascent Zionist movement. He was particularly attracted to its socialist camp, which was inspired by the ideas of Leo Tolstoy to “return to the land” and establish Jewish agricultural communes in Palestine.

Trumpeldor was conscripted into the Russian Army in 1902 and became famous in the battle of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War, in which he lost his left arm, was cited for exceptional bravery, and was taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese. In captivity he organized a Zionist society of Russian Jewish soldiers, and made plans with a group to emigrate together to Palestine after the war to establish an agricultural commune. After he returned to Russia he was commissioned as a second lieutenant—perhaps the first Jew to become a commissioned officer in the tsarist army, and set about organizing both Labor Zionist groups and associations of Jewish soldiers.

Trumpeldor moved to Palestine in 1912, but was expelled to Alexandria as an enemy national during World War I. There he joined forces with Vladimir Jabotinsky, hoping to found a Jewish fighting force within the British Army, and continued in this effort after Jabotinsky’s abandonment of the project. Thereafter, Trumpeldor helped to found and lead the Zion Mule Corps, which participated in the bloody Gallipoli campaign. He later worked with Jabotinsky in London to establish the Jewish Legion, and returned to Russia after the February Revolution both to recruit Jewish soldiers for the liberation and defense of Palestine and to establish socialist agricultural communes there. To this end, he was one of the founders of the He-Ḥaluts movement, and campaigned throughout Russia on its behalf.

In October 1919 Trumpeldor returned to Palestine and worked unsuccessfully for the unification of socialist Zionist movements there, before accepting a request to lead the Jewish forces defending the Upper Galilee from Arab attacks. On 1 March 1920, he was killed defending the settlements of Tel Ḥai, Kefar Gil‘adi, and Metulah; his last words were said to be “en davar, tov la-mut be-‘ad artsenu” (it is no matter, it is good to die for our country), a phrase later immortalized by the Revisionist Zionist youth movement Betar, which was named in his honor (Berit Trumpeldor) despite his avowedly socialist politics. Trumpeldor’s life story became a legend and source of pride for both socialist and right-wing Zionists, and his graveside became a place of pilgrimage and national memory for the Zionist movement as a whole, and later for the State of Israel, commemorating the new ideal type of Jewish male who could be both a brave soldier and a dedicated pioneer.

Suggested Reading

Bet Trumpeldor Tel-Yosef: Arkhiyon u-muze’on (Tel-Yosef, Israel, 1956); Shulamit Laskov, Trumpeldor: Sipur ḥayav (Jerusalem, 1995).