In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many of the early Zionist pioneers thought it essential that the Jews learn how to defend themselves. But the Jewish People hadn’t fielded an army since the Bar Kokhba Revolt against the Roman Empire in the year 135 CE. As a whole the Zionists had very little military experience. But that all changed with the onset of World War One in 1914, which provided an opportunity for the Zionists to not only get combat experience, but to also demonstrate loyalty to Britain, and, perhaps, get rewarded for their efforts.
The Ottoman Empire was falling apart, and the Jews were afraid of what the Turks would do if the Jews sided with the British. Paranoid about enemy sympathizers, the Turks began expelling thousands of Jews from Palestine, especially those of Russian origin. They sent around 6,000 Jews abroad, mostly to Egypt, where a few hundred of them banded together to form a Jewish fighting unit for the British.
On March 13, 1915, a meeting was held in Alexandria to determine a response to the Jewish deportations. It was led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the most influential and controversial figures in Israeli history. He believed that since neither Turkey nor the Arabs would ever support Zionism, the only way the Jews would ever get a homeland would be to ally with the winning side in the war: the British. At the meeting he met Joseph Trumpeldor, a kindred spirit with significant military experience, and together they launched a new Zionist project to create a Jewish army.
Although the British struggled to authorize a Jewish fighting unit, they eventually allowed the Jews to form a supply battalion: a mule transport unit that would carry supplies to British soldiers on the front lines. Thus the Zion Mule Corps was born, with the Grand Rabbi officiating at the ceremony. Their first mission: to support the Allied invasion of Gallipoli. A disastrous campaign for the Allies and the only major military victory for the Ottoman Empire during the war, the Zion Mule Corps found themselves in the thick of the fighting. They suffered casualties and fought with distinction, impressing the British. Though disbanded in 1916, another Jewish fighting force came into being, called the Jewish Legion, with over 5,000 soldiers who continued to fight on the side of the Allies.
Meanwhile, back in Palestine, a small group of Jews launched a covert intelligence campaign against the Turks. The Aaronsohn siblings and a few friends formed an espionage unit called NILI to gather intelligence against the Turks and report back to the British. Sarah Aaronsohn ran the show from her home in Zichron Ya’akov, but in 1917 she was caught by the Turks and tortured for information. She committed suicide before being taken to prison for further interrogation, which led to significant controversy over whether she could be buried in a Jewish cemetery. She is today an Israeli national hero.
In his spare time Jabotinsky translated Edgar Allen Poe into Hebrew.
Jabotinsky’s famous slogan was, “better to have a gun and not need it than to need it and not have it.”
Trumpeldor lost an arm in battle but after several months of recovery he rejoined his unit. When asked why he continued to fight, he said, “I still have another arm to give to the motherland.”
The Zion Mule Corps refused to unload the unkosher bacon supplies until they received a special dispensation from the Grand Rabbi.
Sarah Aaronsohn, having committed suicide in violation of Jewish law, was only allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery if a small fence was placed around her gravesite.
NAMES TO KNOW
Vladimir Jabotinsky: Russian journalist from Odessa whose experience of the violent pogroms of the early 1900s convinced him that the Jews needed to learn self-defense. He had a much more antagonistic approach to the Arabs and was focused on aggressive colonization of the Land of Israel. He is the origin of Israel’s right-wing politics.
Joseph Trumpeldor: colorful Israeli national hero from Russia with numerous military exploits to his name. The most decorated Jewish solider in Russian history, he emigrated to Palestine in 1911 and was one of those deported to Egypt.
Sarah Aaronsohn: One of the founders of NILI, a Jewish espionage unit working against the Turks. At 24 years old she left her marriage to start NILI with her siblings and another fighter whom she fell in love with. She committed suicide in 1917 after capture by the Turks, becoming both a religious and secular symbol of Zionist martyrdom.
KEY CONCEPTS TO KNOW
Outraged by the pogroms afflicting the Jews of Russia, in particular the infamous Kishinev pogrom of 1903, Jabotinsky formed Jewish self-defense leagues with the purpose of arming and training Jews to defend their communities. He believed that the Jews would never establish a homeland in Palestine without being able to defend themselves, and made self-defense the central pillar of his Zionist activity.
The Zion Mule Corps, and its successor Jewish Legion, were the first Jewish fighting units since the first century CE. They fought for the Allied cause in the hopes that when the British defeated the Ottomans, the Jews would be rewarded for their loyalty with a Jewish homeland in Palestine. They also saw World War One as a learning opportunity to train fighters and develop military skills and experience that could be used for self-defense in Palestine.
Some Jews in Palestine also wanted to join the fight against the Ottomans by forming controversial espionage units. The most famous was NILI, organized by the Aaronsohn family and a few close friends. But many in the Yishuv were vehemently against such activity, worrying that the Turks would respond with mass reprisals and persecution. In several instances local Jews turned in Jewish spies in the hopes of currying favor with the Turks, and even after the war continued criticizing the NILI for putting the Yishuv in danger.