Memorial Day

The hidden American history of one of Zionism’s foundational battles: Tel Hai

Two of those killed in the 1920 clash were veterans of the American 39th Jewish Battalion, Jacob Tucker and William Scharff, but for years their roles, and even names, were unknown

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

The 'Roaring Lion' monument at Tel Hai in northern Israel commemorates the deaths of eight Jews, six men and two women, who were killed in late 1919 and early 1920 in clashes with local Arabs. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
The 'Roaring Lion' monument at Tel Hai in northern Israel commemorates the deaths of eight Jews, six men and two women, who were killed in late 1919 and early 1920 in clashes with local Arabs. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

They were some of the first Jews killed defending a Zionist Jewish community in what would later become Israel. The story of how they died is national lore. But virtually no one knows anything about them.

They were the “Americans” killed in the legendary Battle of Tel Hai 102 years ago.

The battle on March 1, 1920, represented one of the first direct conflicts between Jews and Arabs in Mandatory Palestine, a prelude to the clashes that would continue over the next two and a half decades, culminating in the War of Independence and the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 — or at least, that is what is understood in the popular Israeli consciousness.

The true history of the fight for Tel Hai is less one of Jews and Arabs squaring off, and more one of an apparent misunderstanding in a period of high stress and generally heightened tensions that turned deadly and quickly escalated out of control.

Nevertheless, the event almost immediately became a rallying cry for the pre-state “Yishuv,” or Jewish proto-government in Palestine. It has remained a Zionist cultural touchstone for the past century. Each year the government continues to host annual ceremonies to mark the battle, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett this year discussing how the significance of the Battle of Tel Hai continues to resonate today.

“Tel Hai embedded in our consciousness that Jews who want lives of labor and of creativity in their land are required — unfortunately until this day — to take their turns holding a weapon and defending themselves,” Bennett said in his speech.

Indeed, the purported, though disputed, final words of the battle’s hero, Joseph Trumpeldor — “No matter: It is good to die for our country” — still serve as a central element in the Zionist military ethos, and the eight people killed in the confrontation and in two preceding attacks are commemorated in the name of the nearby city of Kiryat Shmona (literally, Town of the Eight).

Yet for all of the lofty importance given to the battle and to the Jewish men and women who were killed in it, shockingly little is known about two of them, Jacob Tucker and William Scharff, two members of the British Jewish Legion who had joined the Jewish outfit from the United States and served in then-Palestine until their release a few days before the battle.

They were the proto-“lone soldiers” of today’s Israeli military, staying in Palestine after their service in the Jewish Legion and then falling in a battle that became a key event in the formation of a new Zionist mythology.

Yet on the wall at Tel Hai where photographs are hung of those who were killed defending the settlement, their frames are empty.

Photographs of the eight Jews — six men and two women — who were killed in late 1919 and early 1920 in clashes with local Arabs, at the Tel Hai Museum. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The Jewish Legion, originally known as the Jewish Battalions, was a British outfit that fought in then-Palestine in World War I. It was the brainchild of Trumpeldor and revisionist Zionist visionary Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who both believed in the need for Jews to learn how to fight and in the need to tie the fate of the Zionist enterprise to the British, who were poised to take over Palestine once the war ended.

Though the legion is best known for being the unit in which Zionist figures associated with the pre-state Yishuv like Jabotinsky, Trumpeldor, David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi served, more than a third came from the United States, served in the 39th Battalion, and returned home once the war ended. (Not all of them by choice: To appease local Arabs, the British often did not give legionnaires the option to stay and reneged on agreements to provide them with land in Palestine.)

Both Tucker and Scharff stayed in Palestine after they were released from their battalion. Slightly more is known about Tucker, who left behind some documentation, as well as relatives in the United States. Virtually nothing can be confirmed about Scharff, however, as any documentation about him has either been lost entirely or at least cannot readily be found.

This didn’t need to be the case. Information about Tucker and Scharff was readily available when they died, but while there was immediate interest in the battle of Tel Hai and in praising the fallen defenders’ bravery, virtually no one at the time went to the trouble of learning their names. Until 1935 — 15 years after the battle — Tucker and Scharff were known to the Jewish public of then-Palestine by their last names only. Their full names were immediately known to Jewish authorities in Palestine and to the American government, but for unknown reasons Jewish officials either never shared this information with the press or the press never asked for it.

In a bid to correct this oversight of history and bring to light American Jewry’s role in the famed battle of Tel Hai, The Times of Israel has scoured the archives of the Jewish Legion, the Tel Hai Museum, the British military, the US State Department and the Central Zionist Archives and contacted the living family members of the two American defenders. Some of the information gleaned from these archives has never before been published.

The Zionist battle that wasn’t really about Zionism

The community of Tel Hai was established in 1905, as something of an offshoot of the more established Metulla nearby, in an area known as the “finger of the Galilee,” which juts up into what is today Lebanon. In 1918, members of the Hashomer organization, a Jewish militia group, formed a kibbutz at Tel Hai, albeit one with very few members.

When the Allied powers defeated the Ottoman Empire in World War I in October 1918, this part of the Levant — the area around the current borders between Israel, Lebanon and Syria — became the site of a new conflict. Two years prior, the British and French had divided up the region between themselves in a secret deal known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, under which the United Kingdom would control what is now Jordan, southern Iraq, and some of then-Palestine, while France would take Lebanon, Syria, northern Iraq, and southeastern Turkey.

Separately, however, the British were also promising to support Arab leaders’ formation of an independent state in Syria, leading Faisal I bin al-Hussein bin Ali al-Hashemi to declare the creation of the Arab Kingdom of Syria in late 1918, much to France’s displeasure.

Tel Hai, a former Jewish settlement in northern Israel, the site of an early battle in the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is now part of Kibbutz Kfar Giladi. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

The Jewish communities of Tel Hai, Metulla, Kfar Giladi and Hamarah were thus smack in the middle of this fight between the British, French and local Arabs. Though the Jews of Palestine did have an interest in seeing the British gain control over the area and not the French — who were less inclined to favor the prospect of a Jewish state — they generally worked to keep out of the conflict, occasionally offering shelter and assistance to all sides.

The weeks before the Battle of Tel Hai saw a number of acts of violence in the area, some tied to the aforementioned struggle between the Arabs, French and British — as some Arab leaders still believed that the Zionists were cooperating with the French — and some connected to the general lawlessness in the area in the wake of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled over the region.

On the night of December 12, 1919, Arab bandits began firing wildly into Tel Hai, shooting Shneor Shaposhnik in the stomach and fatally wounding him, according to news reports from the time. Two months later, Aharon Sher, who had traveled up to Tel Hai to help with its defense, was shot dead outside the settlement after a scuffle between Arab robbers and Tel Hai members as the latter were working their field.

In the midst of this violence, Trumpeldor was brought in to help defend the Jewish settlements in the Upper Galilee, arriving at some point in late December 1919. He, in turn, issued a number of calls through local newspapers, posters and by word of mouth to veterans of the Jewish Legion to help in this effort.

Tucker and Scharff were among a few dozen former legionnaires who heeded this call and traveled north, in some cases by foot, to the Upper Galilee communities, arriving in the area on February 28 — two days before the battle.

The battle itself

The events of March 1 — or by the Hebrew calendar, the 11th of Adar — are somewhat unclear. Those involved gave interviews over the years about what happened in Tel Hai on that day, but their accounts occasionally changed, including about key aspects such as when orders were given to fire.

But the essential details are as such: On the morning of March 1, a sentry at Tel Hai saw 150 to 200 Arab militiamen, some of them in uniform, led by Kamal al-Hussein, a local Bedouin leader who vigorously opposed the French and supported the Arab Kingdom of Syria, and whose home village of Khalisa in the Hula valley had been attacked by French troops earlier that winter. (Interestingly, this “villain” of the battle of Tel Hai later became an ally of the Yishuv, helping Jews purchase land in then-Palestine.)

Joseph Trumpeldor.

The roughly two dozen people in or just outside Tel Hai grabbed what weapons they had and took positions at various spots around the compound, while a number of people, including Trumpeldor, who had gone to the nearby settlement of Kfar Giladi, rushed back.

The Arab troops demanded to be let inside Tel Hai, saying they believed there may be French troops inside. The atmosphere was tense as the Arab troops began searching the community. The Jews in Tel Hai kept their guns in hand and trained at the Arab troops throughout the inspection.

What happened next is a matter of historical debate. As al-Hussein and some of his men were searching in an upstairs room, one of the two female Tel Hai “defenders,” Dvora Drechler, called out to Trumpeldor “they are taking my pistol,” and then a shot rang out. Who fired the shot and under what circumstances is not known, though it appears to have been in a struggle between Drechler and al-Hussein or one of his men.

In any case, Drechler was shot in the mouth and appears to have died instantly. Some claimed that Trumpeldor gave an order to open fire after Drechler cried out, but most others said the order to shoot came after the initial shot. There was then a rapid exchange of gunfire, during which one of the Arab militiamen also threw a hand grenade through the window of the top room. Most of those inside the upstairs room were killed, either from gunfire or the grenade blast, including Scharff, who had gone up there after having traveled back to Tel Hai with Trumpeldor from Kfar Giladi.

“We found Scharff in the corner, like a soldier killed half-anchored to the wall, apparently by a bullet. Dvora also lay next to him, killed by a bullet,” according to a letter written by Zionist leader Avraham Herzfeld after the attack, based on testimonies from those present.

During the exchange, Arab troops also opened fire at the people inside Tel Hai’s internal courtyard, including Tucker, though not before the recently released legionnaire apparently killed one of al-Hussein’s men. Tucker was fatally wounded and died a few hours later. Trumpeldor was also inside the courtyard, having run out there after giving the open-fire order, and he too was shot, twice, once in the arm and once in the stomach. Trumpeldor was severely injured, but remained conscious throughout the battle, though he transferred command to Pinhas Schneerson, who had come to Tel Hai from Kfar Giladi.

According to Mordechai Braverman, one of the people at Tel Hai, al-Hussein tried to end the fighting, saying what had happened was a misunderstanding and that he could calm the Arab side. And yet the fighting continued for several hours, with a short intermission in the middle to allow the two sides to clear away their casualties.

By nightfall, the gunfire had largely subsided and Trumpeldor told Schneerson to call for the doctor at Kfar Giladi, Dr. Gershon Gary, another American former legionnaire. Gary arrived a short time later and assessed the wounded in Tel Hai and had them brought to Kfar Giladi for further care. While checking Trumpeldor’s condition, Dr. Gary claimed the Russian war hero uttered his famous last words: “No matter: It is good to die for our country.” If Trumpeldor, who had limited knowledge of Hebrew, truly said that line or if he instead uttered a curse in Russian that sounds similar remains debated among historians. He succumbed to his wounds en route to Kfar Giladi.

In total, six Jews were killed in the fighting on March 1 — Drechler, Muntir, Chizik, Scharff, Tucker, and Trumpeldor — along with an unknown number of Arabs. This group of six would quickly become known as “Trumpeldor and his comrades.”

After the fighting, it was decided to abandon Tel Hai, to bury the dead in two shared graves and destroy any supplies that were left inside. The remaining reinforcements were sent to Kfar Giladi and Metulla, the last two remaining Jewish settlements in the area, which continued to be harassed by Arab irregulars. Kfar Giladi was temporarily abandoned as well during this period, but settlers returned to it several months later.

The myth of Tel Hai

Tel Hai was mythologized almost immediately after the battle. Eleven days after the fighting, Zionist writer Berl Katznelson wrote the now-famous poem “Yizkor,” or memorial, about the battle and the preceding violence, which was published in the Labor Zionist Kuntress magazine. This poem served as the basis for the memorial prayer that is still said for fallen Israeli soldiers four times a year, on the holidays of Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot.

In that same issue of Kuntress, Dr. Gary wrote his account of the battle, including Trumpeldor’s purported last words.

The famous ‘Yizkor’ poem commemorating the eight people killed at Tel Hai by Zionist writer Berl Katznelson, published in the Kuntress magazine on March 12, 1920.

Within days, articles were published in most leading newspapers in Palestine, and a short time later, the story even made it to the farthest-flung parts of the United States, appearing in California’s “Bnai Brith Messenger” a few weeks later.

In all of these, Tucker and Scharff were referred to by their last names only. The American Bnai Brith Messenger also incorrectly identified the American legionnaires as “Munter and Sharf (sic).”

It would take another 15 years before Tucker and Scharff’s first names were published in Jewish newspapers, thanks to another legionnaire, a Canadian named Leo Hefetz, who requested information about the men from British authorities.

In the article, Hefetz wrote that their names “should be known in the annals of bravery of the Labor Yishuv in the Land of Israel,” adding that he “doesn’t understand why this hasn’t already happened.”

Indeed, there was no reason for Tucker and Scharff’s names to have been lost; Zionist authorities at the time knew who they were.

On March 26, 1920, the Zionist Commission provided information about the pair, including their names and identification numbers, to the American consul in Palestine, Otis Glazebrook.

In addition, the commission told Glazebrook in a letter that it had reached out to their next of kin and added that they knew Tucker “has a brother in Chicago who is a furniture manufacturer.”

No one appears to have followed up on this tip.

According to Nakdimon Rogel, a journalist who wrote one of the definitive accounts of Tel Hai, the two “American” casualties fell victim to the desire of early Zionist leaders to develop a national mythos.

An account of the battle of Tel Hai published in the B’nai Brith Messenger in California on May 21, 1920.

“The lack of interest in the details and in the people, other than those details and generalities that could be used for polemics and propaganda, is expressed in the total indifference to the two veterans of the ‘American’ battalion who fell at Tel Hai,” Rogel wrote in his book, “Tel Hai: A front without a home front.”

In a critical analysis of Tel Hai’s meaning as an event, Yael Zerubavel of Rutgers University said the battle and its hero, Trumpeldor, offered something to the two main Zionist movements of the time: to the Revisionists, it offered a story of Jewish bravery and self-defense, and to Labor it was a tale of Jews protecting an agricultural settlement.

The battle thus became a rhetorical device for the different Zionist factions and as a result the “history was of interest to the rival parties only so long as it proved or disproved their moral claim to the myth,” Zerubavel wrote in a 1991 article.

What do we know about them?

Painfully little is known about Scharff.

Despite exhaustive searches of American, British, Canadian and Israeli records, exceedingly few details about William Wolf Ze’ev Scharff could be found. No record could be found of an entrance to the United States by someone with that name and his approximate age. According to the National Archives of the United Kingdom, roughly two-thirds of its original World War I service records have not survived. Attempts to retrieve Scharff’s service records from the British government therefore failed.

One of the survivors of the battle of Tel Hai, Yitzhak Kanev, described Scharff as having “felt foreign and strange” and said that “no one knew him or called him by his first name.”

In 1959, a man named William Cohen sent a letter to Tel Hai claiming his wife Celia was Scharff’s sister. Cohen inquired about a parcel of land near Tel Hai that they believed Scharff had received as “a reward for his military efforts.”

When Nahum Horowitz, who founded the Tel Hai museum, informed him that no such land existed and asked for more information about Scharff or a photograph of him, no reply was ever received. Efforts to track down descendants of William and Celia Cohen were unsuccessful.

The only potential source of available information about him from before his time in Tel Hai comes from an Israeli man named Avi Scharff, whose father Yossi claimed to be a relative of Scharff, though that is not supported with documentation or hard evidence. Avi Scharff said his father never specified how the two were related but indicated he was a brother or a cousin. He only mentioned this connection later in life, when they happened to visit the famous “Roaring Lion” monument to the Battle of Tel Hai, on which Scharff’s name is written.

Former president Reuven Rivlin lays a wreath on the ‘Roaring Lion’ monument in Tel Hai in northern Israel on March 9, 2017. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

In a phone conversation with The Times of Israel, Avi Scharff said his father described Scharff as being “an adventurer” who used to roam the hillsides of Poland alone as a young man. According to Avi Scharff’s father, William Scharff left Poland as a teenager, traveling first to Canada to work as a lumberjack and from there to the United States. Neither the Canadian nor the American government has a record of Scharff’s entrance to their country (including under any combination of the various first names he used, William, Wolf and Ze’ev, as well as various spellings of his last name, Scharff, Sharf, Sherf, Scharf, etc.).

On August 9, 1918, Scharff enlisted in the 39th Battalion, according to British records. His motivations for joining the legion are not entirely clear. Though Avi Scharff said he could not speak to Scharff’s politics specifically, he said his family generally did not support the Zionist cause at that time.

As he enlisted in August 1918, Scharff would likely have reached Palestine in time to perform some peacekeeping activities before demobilization. He was released from the military on February 16, 1920, and less than two weeks later, he made his way to Tel Hai.

More is known about Tucker.

His enlistment information, for instance, was preserved in a copy that was sent to the US Provost Marshal General’s Office, the government body that tracked recruitment. This small document, roughly the size of a notecard, offers his birth year — 1894 — though elsewhere he’s listed as being born in 1893. It also lists his place of residence when he joined — a Jewish neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan — as well as his occupation: mechanic.

A notecard submitted to the US government with details about Jacob Tucker, who was killed in the battle of Tel Hai.

A form that Tucker filled out upon his release showed his desire to stay in Palestine and willingness to work in agriculture or in a “cooperative factory,” as well as the fact that he spoke English and Yiddish, but not Hebrew.

In addition to these documents, two men who claimed to have known Tucker and his family wrote letters about him to the Tel Hai Museum archive, offering more personal descriptions of the man.

He was born in Goniadz, a small town outside of Bialystok, in what is now Poland but was then the Russian empire, to Rabbi Abraham Kalman and Chaia Gittel. When not studying, Rabbi Abraham Kalman worked as a woodworker, while Chaia Gittel sold milk in order to support the family, with Tucker helping her carry the heavy milk cans, according to David Bachrach, who wrote one of the letters.

A childhood friend from Goniadz, Yosef Ben-Efraim Halpern, who also served in the Jewish battalions, wrote in a letter acquired by the Tel Hai Museum archive that Tucker “was blessed with a melodious, smooth and pleasant-sounding soprano voice” and used to perform in the local choir and on high holidays. In his letter, Bachrach too recalled Tucker’s fine voice, though he said it was an alto.

Like his father, Tucker learned woodworking and set up his own shop making spindles for spinning thread.

At some point after the turn of the century, Tucker left Goniadz and moved to the United States, following in the footsteps of his brother Louis, who immigrated to the US in 1904 or 1905 (in the 1930 census, he said the former, while in 1940, he said the latter) and settled in the Chicago area, working as a furniture maker.

Yaakov set out on his way… for the last time, to Tel Hai

It is not clear if Tucker had received American citizenship by the time he enlisted, though it is likely he did not. On his recruitment card, Tucker listed his nationality as “Jew,” not “American.” Moreover, by the time he joined the legion, Tucker would have been at least 21 years old, possibly 22, which would have made him eligible for the US draft and thus unable to legally serve in the British military.

Tucker appears to have begun identifying with the Zionist cause while still living in Poland. “The Zionist spirit took root with us with the appearance of Dr. [Theodor] Herzl,” Bachrach wrote.

Bachrach said Tucker’s father did not share those leanings “but he had absorbed the Zionist spirit into himself, and that spirit led him to the land [of Israel].”

Though newspaper clippings from Chicago over the years show that Tucker’s brother Louis was involved in a number of Jewish organizations, including Zionist ones, the family did not support his decision to travel to Palestine and fight in the Jewish battalion, according to a relative of Tucker who spoke to The Times of Israel but asked not to be identified by name.

Attempts to retrieve Tucker’s service record from the British government similarly failed. It is thus unknown in which battles Tucker fought, though as one of the earlier recruits from the US to the 39th Battalion he likely would have made it to the front in time to participate in the Battle of Megiddo, but this is purely speculative.

Tucker was released from the battalion on February 16, 1920. Halpern said Tucker stayed with him at his home in the Neve Shalom neighborhood, one of the first Jewish neighborhoods built outside Jaffa.

“From Tel Hai a call came for all veterans, from anywhere they’d spread out in the land [of Israel], to grab a weapon in their hands and come to help Tel Hai. From my home in Neve Shalom, our dear Yaakov went out,” Halpern wrote. He recalled Tucker attempting to travel to Tel Hai several times, but repeatedly having to turn back due to issues with the train. “Only on the fourth day, the train was fixed… Then Yaakov set out on his way… for the last time, to Tel Hai.”

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