Jewish Ideological Movements

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The History of the Betar Movement

Warszawa, Poland


The Betar movement was founded in 1923 in Riga, Latvia following a visit of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. During his visit he gave a series of lectures about activist activities while promoting his opinion regarding military training that will be integrated with the establishment of Jewish defense units in Israel. By the end of that year, groups of Zionist youths from different schools were organized with the aim of putting an end to the image of “The Diasporal Jew.” Three years later in 1926, the first group immigrated to Israel and they founded the Petakh Tikvah “Menorah group” which occupied itself with pioneering activities.

Until 1928, revisionist youth from Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Germany, France and Israel joined the movement.

The first Betar congress was held in 1925. There, Ze’ev Jabotinsky was appointed “the head of Betar,” a title he carried until his death. Another two world congresses were held in later years, the second congress in 1935 in Krakow, the third in Warsaw in 1938. During those two congresses, the representatives of the different Betar branches set in motion the plans for the future of and discussed the nature of the movement.

The ideas of the movement

Jabotinsky himself formulated and developed the ideological foundation of the movement. Prima facie, the idea was simple but actually the mission was difficult due to objective causes--the Jewish people lived in the Diaspora under “un-normal and un-healthy” conditions. Living in the Diaspora for two thousand years prevented the Jewish people from acting as one, as a unified nation. The Jewish people, scattered around the world, avoided defending itself with weapons during times of danger and forgot the tasks that were necessary to accomplish. Disorder controlled its way of life and negligence became inseparable from private and public life.

The task of the Betar was to decide what kind of Jew was needed in order to establish a Jewish state in as fast and perfect way as possible; to shape a new generation of youth able to immigrate to Eretz Israel and establish their future state.

Those who decided to become part of this mission had to be willing to work according to the model of “a pioneer ready for everything.” This meant that that they would do whatever was needed in order to establish the National Home--in one word, to build, to sacrifice the private “me” for the sake of “all.”

Every “Betari” has to act in “Hadar” (a Hebrew word with a dozen meanings, e.g. beauty, pride, loyalty, good manners, etc.), but actually in everyday language the “Betari” himself must always behave perfectly.

Betar denied the class struggle of the Socialist and considered the wealthy people as an essential factor for building the state and spreading the Hebrew language among Jews in the Diaspora as a mission.

Fulfillment of the ideas of the movement

The idea of “legion” expressed Jabotinsky’s wish to shape a new type of Jew, with a military ability and courage, as opposed to the diasporal Jew. He turned the idea of brigades as a foundation for his point of view, as a force that would lead Zionism to political independence.

Indeed, one of the types of training emphasized by the movement was a military one. There was a hierarchical division in the various branches, as well as ceremonies, orders and defense training, sport training, foot drills and lectures.

A department was established for the teaching of the Hebrew language, as well as spiritual education that included Jewish history and Zionism.

A department for practical training was meant to give the new Betari the tools for pioneering productivity after their immigration to Israel, i.e. pioneer and agricultural training and an adequate lifestyle.

Later on they added a marine department that sent the first sailing ship to Israel. This was a real landmark as far as the new Hebrew seamanship was concerned.

“The National Sport” became the nickname for the immigration of those who came to Israel illegally. This violated the rules of the British mandate and cost many time in jail and eventual deportation from the country.

During the 1920’s, Betar started bringing groups of immigrants through the northern border of Israel. Later on in 1936, Jabotinsky’s call for all Jews to leave the Diaspora aggravated world conditions: “Jews, put an end to the Diaspora or the Diaspora will put an end to you!”

One of Betar’s great projects was “Af-Al-Pi” immigration, the illegal immigration to Israel that occurred until World War II. During this time, many ships loaded with Betar’s immigrants arrived to Israel in order to establish villages.

Betar’s members were active in organizing groups of immigrants by bringing them from inland Europe to different ports that would take them to Israel on rented ships. More than 17,000 Jews immigrated to Israel in this way.

Bielsk Podlaski, Poland
year unknown

Menachem Begin, seated front row center, with glasses.

During and after the Holocaust

A few cases are known of rebellion among members of Betar during the Holocaust, e.g. in Krakow, during a battle against the Gestapo, that had to do with the waving of a Betar flag. Also, there were other incidents in Hungary, Vilna and Warsaw. The most famous incident was during the rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto where the Jewish military organization, revisionists and Betar members took part.

After the Holocaust, different representatives of the revisionist movement were active. Among them was “the revisionist rescue committee” which acted in order to renew the communication with members of the movement and send them to Israel. Gradually relations were formed with survivors from the various Balkan states and with Jewish survivors in Romania. New branches were established there and also in Bulgaria.

After the establishment of the State of Israel the Israeli branch renewed its activity with vigor. Betar chose new routes to fulfillment, most of which had to do with the enforcement of the Jewish settlement in Israel, with the distribution of Zionist education in Israel and in the Diaspora, and with communal activity.

Betar is unique as far as ideology and legacy is concerned, but is still active today as is the rest of the youth movement in Israel and in many other Jewish communities in the world.

Written for the Museum by Roni Peled.

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