Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Teaching Myth and History: The Battle of Tel Hai

This semester I am teaching a History of Zionism course to three sophomore classes. I have chosen to use this class as an opportunity to explore the nature of historical truth. The Arab-Zionist conflict seems like a perfect case study of this issue not only because there are two competing narratives of the same historical events, but the choice of narrative may have important political implications for the future.

Yesterday, I used the story of the battle of Tel Hai to explore the interaction of myth and history. Students began by reading Benny Morris’s account of the battler. Morris writes describes how following the British withdrawal from the Galilee in 1919 and the French failure to assert sovereignty, rebellious Bedouin tribesmen pushed for control. There were four Jewish settlements in the region. At first, the Arabs announced that they meant no harm to the Jews and attempted to persuade them to join the revolt, but the Jews insisted on neutrality, and therefore, the Arabs began to treat them as enemies.

In January of 1920, two out of the four settlements decided to evacuate until the security of the area was assured. The other two settlements, Kfar Giladi and Tel Hai remained in order to show their commitment to including the area in a future Jewish National Home.

On March 1st, a group of Arabs gained entry to Tel Hai saying that “they wanted to check whether the Jews were quartering French Troops. A fierce firefight erupted, apparently triggered by an unintentional shot by one of the Jewish guards.” In the fighting, six Jews, including the military commander, Joseph Trumpledor, died. Trumpledor’s last words were reputed to have been, “It is good to die for our country.” Following the battle, the remaining settlers withdrew to the south abandoning the settlements (Morris, Righteous Victims, 92-93).

Morris’s account makes the decision of the settlers to stay put seem questionable and dangerous, the circumstances of the battle complicated, and the results inconclusive. However, the battle of Tel Hai quickly became a modern national myth. Trumpledor was seen as the model of a nationalist hero, willing to give his life to defend his country.

Even prior to the attack it seems that Trumpledor himself conceived of Tel Hai in mythological terms. On February 9th 1920, Trumpledor wrote about “a new generation, children of eretz yisrael... prepared to sacrifice themselves in defense of this border.” He goes on to describe how Metulla, one of the already evacuated settlements, “has been almost wrenched from our hands.”

Trumpledor's account seems somewhat melodramatic. First, there was no border. Trumpledor was one of a small group of settlers far from the main population of Jews in Palestine. Furthermore, Metulla had hardly been “wrenched” from the Jewish settlers. As Morris argues, the inhabitants of Metulla had abandoned the settlement realizing the impossibility of securing and defending it.

I asked my students to pick out to summarize key points of the document. They noticed that Trumpledor perceived the situation as a case of small, weak group surrounded by a strong group bent on destruction. I asked them to brainstorm other stories that shared these elements. At first, they stuck to stories in the Jewish tradition like Masada, the story of the Macabees, and the story of the Israeli war of independence. Then they started to get more creative. They added Braveheart, the American Revolution and The Lord of the Rings to the mix. Finally, a student suggested the 2004 Red Sox and their triumph in the ALCS.

Eleven days after the battle of Tel Hai, on March 12, 1920, one of the inhabitants of Tel Hai described Trumpledor's death. After being shot, the settler wrote that Trumpledor,
“asked that someone push his intestines back into his stomach. Not one of us dared to take this duty upon himself. But he reassured us saying, 'No matter: wash your hands and I will show you what to do.' In a wondrous silence and cold calm he watched us push his intestines back inside and wrap the wound with a towel. After we had finished dressing the wound, he said, 'These are my last moments; tell everyone that we defended this place to the last for the sake of the honor of Israel.'”

My students had no trouble identifying the Trumpledor figure in each of the other stories they had mentioned. William Wallace, George Washington, Legolas and Gimli all share some of Trumpledor's superhuman attributes; maybe Curt Schilling does as well.

They realized that the narrative of Tel Hai that in the mind of Trumpledor and in the minds of the other Zionists took on much more significance than the historical account given by Benny Morris.

The next class, we further investigated the relationship between the mythological narrative of Tel Hai and the historical study of Zionism. We read Bialik's poem “City of Slaughter” in which he seems to view the vicitms of the 1903 Kishniev pogrom with contempt.

Bialik writes,

“Behold on tree, on stone, on fence, on mural clay,
The spattered blood and dried brains of the dead.
Proceed thence to the ruins, the split walls reach,
Where wider grows the hollow, and greater grows the
On wreckage doubly wrecked, scroll heaped on manuscript,
Fragments again fragmented—
Come, now, and I will bring thee to their lairs
The privies, jakes and pigpens where the heirs
Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,
Concealed and cowering,—the sons of the Maccabees!
The seed of saints, the scions of the lions!
Who, crammed by scores in all the sanctuaries of their shame,
So sanctified My name!
It was the flight of mice they fled,
The scurrying of roaches was their flight;
They died like dogs, and they were dead!”

I asked the students to summarize the key points of the document. They noticed how Bialik uses references to Jewish history to mock the victims and to indict them for inaction. He talks about the “cowering sons of Macabees,” and calls them “mice, roaches and dogs.” We again brainstormed similar stories. They quickly noticed that the theme of the weak, oppressed, and exiled Jew. They were able to mention stories from the destruction of the temple to the holocaust that had similar elements. They realized that the story of the oppressed Jew is almost directly opposed to the narrative of Trumpledor and the battle of Tel Hai.

According to Yael Zerubavel, “Trumpledor emerged as the first national hero of the young Hebrew society in Palestine” (Recovered Roots, 43). But why did this story become a myth rather than a different story? Zerubavel quotes Eliade as saying, “For something genuinely new to begin, the vestiges and ruins of the old cycle must be completely destroyed.” Zerubavel argues that it was precisely the old myth of the exilic Jew with which the story of Tel Hai contrasted to create a myth of a new Jew ready to fight and die to defend his country. In the absence of the old myth, the new myth could never have formed.

I asked the class to consider the relationship between history and myth and to reflect on which one is more important? By the end of class, students discussed the extent to which the mythological narrative of Tel Hai is important. Some argued that even if the story is exaggerated and even if it took on a significance that exceeded the objective historical facts, stories can be important for giving people hope and helping them make sense of their place in history. Other students pointed out that it is important to learn the objective historical facts when making political decisions because while other groups have different myths, they will have the same facts. One student questioned whether it is possible to distinguish history from myth and whether all history is to some extent informed by myth. His classmates disagreed.

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