11th of Adar


Hebrew translation: The 11th of Adar (March) — Day of Tel Hai — Defense of the Galilee

This poster was published by the Jewish National Fund to commemorate a fatal skirmish at the Zionist settlement of Tel Hai (Hebrew and Arabic: Hill of Life) on March 1, 1920 in Mandate Palestine. Josef Trumpeldor, an accomplished military hero and the embodiment of Zionist courage and commitment, died there along with seven other Jewish militia members. The central visual feature of the poster is the monumental sculpture by Avraham Melnikoff which is officially titled "The Lion of Judah", but which is almost universally called by ordinary Israelis "The Roaring Lion".

The landscape surrounding the base of the sculpture is an idealized rendition of the Upper Galilee kibbutz (Hebrew: collective farm) of Tel Hai, depicting several kinds of trees, a scattering of tels (Hebrew and Arabic: low hills) several buildings, a water tower and a watchtower. The lion, symbol of the "Tribe of Judah", the city of Jerusalem and globally of strength and dominion, rises vertically from the landscape. Indeed, it dominates the physical landscape in much the same way the militaristic principles it celebrates have dominated Zionism's psychological landscape since Trumpeldor's time. A radiant, ascendant sun backfills the entire upper half of the poster and is meant to reinforce the idea that the Zionist ideals Trumpeldor championed are (still) vibrant. Compositionally, the poster strives to convey the ideas of fertility, lushness, progress and resilience. Printed entirely in Hebrew, it suggests a narrowcast distribution strategy.

The subtext for this poster is that even though Trumpeldor died here, and even though the skirmish he died in was minor, muddled and inglorious, his subjective assertions about the Zionist mystique remain intact. The 11th of Adar has been made into an Israeli national holiday and posters such as this one are printed every year by any number of Zionist and Israeli agencies. Owing to these efforts to heroicize him, every Israeli knows about the military exploits of Josef Trumpeldor, not merely the ones related to Tel Hai, but also his role in the creation, together with Vladimir Jabotinsky, of the Jewish Legion. Both men have major streets in Tel Aviv named after them and innumerable towns and collective farms in Israel pay homage by naming streets, parks, schools or buildings after them. Moreover, both men are considered to be the founding principals of the modern Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Though it would not likely strike a disinterested observer as important, the most significant visual element of this poster is the undecipherable Hebrew inscription carved into the stone plaque under the lion's front paws which reads: "Never mind: It is good to die for one's country". These are said to be Trumpeldor's last words, uttered at Tel Hai. Although there is considerable controversy over their accuracy, or even validity, what is not in doubt is that his military spirit as defined by his life, and death, was adopted as the esprit de corps of the emerging Israeli military. Another important feature of this memorial is that it is a tomb: Trumpeldor is buried at the memorial site and generations of Israelis have made pilgrimages there to establish or restate their commitment to Zionism.

Trumpeldor's cavalier epitaph, and the myth that grew up around it, reverberated through Zionist culture for decades and fueled a new image—that of the heroic, selfless Zionist. His favorite phrase, and the first of his dying words were: "en davar" (Hebrew: never mind) were inculcated by generations of Israelis. Trumpledor's insouciance manifested itself in the casual bravado that came to be synonymous with the Israeli military. Neither the authenticity nor morality of Trumpeldor's death-myth was substantially challenged until the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. At that time the sacrifice implicit in his words were questioned, even disputed, by young Israeli soldiers being ordered to fight their country's first purely offensive war. The Lebanon War, (officially called Operation Peace for the Galilee) considered immoral and illegal by many Israelis, would test the limits of Israeli social cohesion as few others ever had.

It would produce another "first" as well: the refusal of a decorated, high-ranking officer, Colonel Eli Geva, to obey a direct command to attack. Like the news of Trumpeldor's death, the news of Geva's actions reverberated throughout Zionist culture and inspired almost two hundred other Israeli soldiers to challenge orders. It also inspired the "Refusniks" a movement of current Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. Geva was never prosecuted by the Israeli military command because no one thought his actions were driven by other than moral considerations. Though he was immediately discharged and lost his pension, no one questioned either his dedication or his courage. For Geva, and many other Israeli soldiers Trumpeldor's epitaph has become anachronistic: the yishuv militias were an invasionary occupation force, fractured, surrounded and vulnerable. Its situation was desperate and it had everything to gain from fighting offensively. Geva's Israel is hyper-militarized, imperial, and powerful. It had little to gain from an offensive campaign yet that is what it launched in 1982 into Lebanon. Ever since, Israeli citizen/soldiers have openly questioned, and even denounced, the call to die casually.