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Tel Chai

It's hard to imagine the drama that was played out in this spot, next to Israel's northern border. The sun shines on well-tended lawns, and in between neat wooden shacks lie agricultural implements, carefully placed as if they were pieces of sculpture at a modern art exhibition. It's easy for the casual visitor to miss the significance of this place.

But this small yard witnessed one of the most dramatic moments in the life of the young Zionist community of Israel. Here took place a struggle which has become a legendary chapter in the story of Israel.

Tel Chai was settled in 1918 by a group associated with the Hashomer organization. It was a lonely spot, surrounded by open country, with only the small settlement of Kfar Giladi as a neighbor.

At the end of 1919, tension in the area increased, as the Arabs attacked French patrols and gained effective control of the region. The situation of the isolated Jewish settlements in the Galilee Finger was very bad. A fierce argument developed within the Jewish community over the future of the northern settlements. Some said that settlements must be abandoned, since the price of defending them would prove too high. But others believed that the settlements had to be defended whatever the cost. They believed that abandoning the threatened settlements of Tel Chai and Kfar Giladi would indicate weakness and a lack of determination to defend settlements and would be an open invitation to enemy forces to attack settlements anywhere in the land. The entire Zionist enterprise could be endangered.

The settlers in the northern outposts were determined not to give up. To do so would be treason. But as they surveyed the Arab forces in the area, and compared them to their own meager forces, they nearly des- paired. There were less than 20 defenders in Tel Chai and about the same number in Kfar Giladi; the Arab forces had put the French troops, with all their guns and canons, to flight.

Nevertheless, the settlers were determined to stay. "We will stay, no matter what. We won't let the armed Arabs come near our home," wrote one of the settlers in the communal diary of Tel Chai. "When the decisive moment comes, we'll do whatever we can in an effort to raise the price of our lives as much as possible."

The settlers of the north put out a desperate call to the Jews of Israel for volunteers to help defend the settlements. But only a few responded. One of the settlers in Tel Chai wrote:


“We felt ourselves to be in a continuous siege. We left all the work in the fields - and we didn't even have enough people to do all the jobs in the yard. Our eyes longed to see volunteers coming to relieve us of our endless guarding, but we hoped in vain."


The situation was desperate. The children of Kfar Giladi were evacuated to a settlement further south. In December 1919, the first blood was drawn in Tel Chai when a young worker was killed. A few reinforcements were now sent to the region, under the command of the Russian Jewish military hero Joseph Trumpeldor. Trumpeldor had recently returned after a visit to Russia during which he organized Jewish self-defense groups to stave off attacks after the Russian revolution and mobilized groups of pioneers for Israel. Now back in Israel, he quickly took command of Tel Chai.

There were more incidents - and more casualties. Trumpeldor called for reinforcements from the governing organizations of the Jewish community. On February 8, 1920, he implored: "Armed gangs are multiplying in the area, and they are drunk with the spirit of victory. You must hurry, or it will be too late."

By the time more help was organized it was indeed too late. On March 1, as Trumpeldor sat in conference at Kfar Giladi, a cry went out. "They've attacked Tel Chai!" Tel Chai, was, in fact, surrounded by several hundred armed Arabs - but they had not yet attacked. Somehow Trumpeldor managed to get inside the yard at Tel Chai.

Several times in the past, the Arabs had demanded to search Tel Chai for French soldiers, and the settlers had allowed them to do so. This time the demand came again, and Trumpeldor agreed to let the com- mander of the Arabs and some of his men come in. Once they were inside, gunshots were fired - and what happened next is unclear. The yard rang with rifle shots in all directions. There was chaos. Trumpeldor himself was shot twice in the chest. Finally a cease-fire was established. When the smoke cleared, there were eight Jews dead or dying.

Two days later, the decision to evacuate all the settlements was taken. The dead of Tel Chai, including Trumpeldor, were buried in a communal grave at Kfar Giladi, and the retreat to the south began.

A year later, when the situation in the area improved, the Jews returned to Kfar Giladi. The communal grave was marked by a stone lion, the traditional symbol of independence and courage. It stands as a monument to the bravery of those who fell, determined at all cost to defend what they had built.

One of the most famous songs of the pre-statehood period is this one:

In the Galilee, in Tel-Chai, Trumpeldor fell,
For our people, for our country, the hero Joseph fell,
Over hills and mountains
He ran, to save the name of Tel-Chai,
Saying to the comrades there:
"Follow in my footsteps. "


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