Tel Chai Day (the eleventh of the Hebrew month of Adar) falls this Wednesday. In the Yishuv (prestate Israel) this day was marked with equal ardour by both the ideological left and right streams of the Zionist movement. The defence, and ultimate fall, of Tel Chai in 1920 entered the pantheon of heroic Zionist tradition, together with the fall of Masada in 70 CE and the fall of Beitar in 135 CE (which effectively marked the end of Jewish armed resistance in the land of Israel for almost two millennia). In each case, Israeli memory transformed events that ended in death and defeat into heroic myths and symbols of national revival.
This phenomena of counter-memory is brilliantly analysed by Dr. Yael Zerubavel in her magnum opus, Recovered Roots, Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition. She claims that the deliberate inversion of these military defeats was an important facet of the political agenda of the nascent Zionist movement. Zerubavel notes that the annual commemoration of Tel Chai (with its emphasis on the heroic Hebrew-speaking, fighting pioneer youth) provided a point in time where the Yishuv could, “celebrate its origins and highlight its symbolic departure from exile.”
One of the gravest challenges to contemporary Zionist pride is the phenomenon of “Post-Zionism.” There is a tendency among Post-Zionist “new” historians to ridicule iconic founding tales of classic Zionism. The Tel Chai saga in particular has suffered its fair share of “myth shattering” by this group. In his book The Jewish State, The Struggle for Israel’s Soul, Yoram Hazoni states:
Today there exists the possibility that [Post-Zionist’s] are on the verge of transforming Israel into precisely that which the early dreamers of Zion had fought to escape: A State devoid of any Jewish purpose or meaning, one that can neither inspire the Jews nor save them in distress.
Hazony’s scathing attack on Post-Zionism and its proponents would seem to bode ill for the future of Zionist identity and pride. All of this contributes toward the disconnect felt by some Israelis regarding the great Zionist sagas of the founders of the Jewish State. This kind of self-doubt and reassessing the “carved in stone” educational foundations of Israel’s history is a major contributing factor to the lack of clarity and direction of some of Israel’s youth.
Let us return to Trumpeldor’s famous last words before he died, “It is good to die for our country” (dulce et decorum est). This statement should be interpreted as representing a vision of total commitment to fulfilling the national needs without any other ideological considerations. A few years before his heroic death Trumpeldor formulated to Zeev Jabotinsky his credo of a fighting pioneer. If we want to build a “brave new world” for the Jewish people to return, Trumpeldor states that we must all be prepared to selflessly do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. He said:
We must establish a generation of Jews without interests or habits. They must simply be like a bar of steel. Malleable but malleable like steel, the type of metal that can be forged into whatever is necessary for the nation’s furnace. “Is a wheel missing? I’m that wheel! Perhaps there’s no screw or piston? Take me! Is someone needed to dig up the earth? I’m a digger! Is a soldier needed? I’m a soldier! What else is needed a policeman, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a fetcher of water? Please turn to me; I can do all of these things. I have no face, no psychology, no emotions, nothing what severs. What am I? I’m the pure idea of service, ready at all times, unburdened by any prior commitment. I respond to only one command: Go out and build!
The prestate generation knew how to die as heroes because they knew how to live as heroes.