Monday, September 12, 2011

Misguided Heroism

This post is by Daniel
Last weekend, our class took a study trip to the Galilee region to learn about Israel’s early pioneers. On the trip, we visited the historical settlement of Tel Hai, the site of the first major skirmish between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Tel Hai was established as a Jewish settlement in the early 20th century. At the end of World War I, the French and the British divided between themselves the lands of the former Ottoman Empire. Most Jewish settlements wound up in British territory, except for four sites, including Tel Hai. The surrounding Arab population was skeptical of the French, and thought Tel Hai might have been harboring French sympathizers. A group of Arabs was allowed to enter the settlement to look around. There was some miscommunication between the Jews and the Arabs and fighting broke out. Eight Jewish settlers were killed. Below, my response to the site.

I was struck by our visit to Tel Hai. Before all else, it strikes me as peculiar that the focus of this site is not on Jewish-Arab relations, but rather on Jewish heroism. I expected Tel Hai, as “the site of the first major skirmish between Jews and Arabs in Palestine,” to engender a discussion on Arab responses to the chalutzim. I could imagine here a sensitive conversation on the role of otherness in Israel, on pioneering compared to colonization, on the difference between critical history and collective memory. Rather, this site politicized as a symbol of military courage. Mine is not a critique of our trip leaders, but rather of how the site fits into the Israeli national narrative. It makes me wonder how Tel Hai fits into the Palestinian national narrative.

I see in Trumpeldor’s dying words—“It is good to die for one’s country”—a rejection of the Old World experience. In its circumstances, the incident at Tel Hai very much resembles a pogrom. The surrounding majority enters a Jewish settlement; violence erupts; people are injured and killed. A pogrom is a catastrophe, but Tel Hai is a victory. Trumpeldor is seen not as a victim but a hero. At least in Palestine, a Jew can be killed for his country.

I can’t accept that it is good to die for one’s country. Har Hertzl, Israel's national cemetery, is not a “good” place. It’s a place of mourning, of sadness, of tragedy. I easily see a connection between Tel Hai and the suicide at Masada. Indeed, suicide was disproportionately common during the 2nd and 3rd waves of olim. Suicide accounted for 12% of all deaths. That’s nearly 1 in 8! History has labeled the Masada suicide as committed by “zealots.” Suicides tear families apart. We at once praise Trumpeldor’s martyrdom and condemn suicide bombers. Both types of bravery are misguided.

We see at Tel Hai a shift in the Jewish psyche. For the first time in centuries, we see Jews refusing to apologize for circumstances beyond their control. There are classic stories from the Old Country that you might live in Poland, but one day wake up to discover that your village is suddenly a part of Prussia. When Tel Hai suddenly became French, its inhabitants refused to apologize. This attitude is bold but dangerous. Still today, Israel can’t apologize for fear of looking weak. Imagine if this were how an adult acted in marriage—the marriage would break apart from inflexibility.

I say all this to illustrate what role place should not play in Judaism. While I’m glad that the Jewish state is in Israel rather than Uganda, I’d like Israel to be more flexible in order to achieve peace. I’d like to see greater compromise. As world leaders encourage Israel to pursue a two-state solution, I hope the settlers in the West Bank can reimagine what Tel Hai might symbolize. With a little more flexibility, there might yet be hope for peace.


  1. I forgot to mention, I read this awhile back, and thank you. I am in the middle of analyzing some articles concerning Palestinian and Israeli notions of place and occupation, and it reminded me of your posting. -Candace