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The Betar Movement (בית"ר, also spelled Beitar or Bitar) is a Revisionist Zionist youth movement founded in 1923 in Riga, Latvia, by Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky. Chapters sprang up across Europe, even during World War II. After the war and during the settlement of what became Israel, Betar was traditionally linked to the original Herut and then Likud political parties of Jewish pioneers. It was closely affiliated with the pre-Israel Revisionist Zionist splinter group Irgun Zevai Leumi. It was one of many right-wing movements and youth groups arising at that time that adopted salutes and uniforms. Some of the most prominent politicians of Israel were Betarim in their youth, most notably prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin, an admirer of Jabotinsky.
Today, Betar promotes Jewish leadership on university campuses as well as in local communities. Its history of empowering Jewish youth dates back to before the State of Israel. Throughout World War II, Betar was a major source of recruits for both the Jewish regiments that fought the Nazis alongside the British and the Jewish forces that waged an ongoing guerrilla war against the British in Palestine. Across Europe, Betar militia played major roles in independently resisting Nazi forces and other various assaults on Jewish communities.
Betar was founded by Ze'ev Jabotinsky at a meeting of Jewish youth in Riga, Latvia, arranged by Aaron Propes in 1923. Jabotinsky spoke of the Arab attacks on the settlement of Tel Hai and other Jewish settlements in the Galilee. He believed that these incidents, indicative of serious threats to the Jewish Palestinians, could only be addressed by the recreation of the ancient Jewish state of Israel, extending across the entirety of both Palestine and Jordan. This is the defining philosophy of Revisionist Zionism. Jabotinsky proposed creating Betar to foster a new generation of Jews thoroughly indoctrinated in these nationalist ideals and trained for military action against all enemies of Judaism. In 1931, Jabotinsky was elected as rosh Betar ("head of Betar") at the first world conference in Danzig.
Joseph Trumpeldor, the leader of the Jewish settlers who were killed by remnants of the Arab Revolt at Tel Hai in 1920, serves as the primary role model of the Betar. A disabled man with only one arm, he led his people in the futile defense of the settlement and died with the words, "Never mind, it is good to die for our country" (Hebrew: "אין דבר ,טוב למות בעד ארצנו"). This was particularly significant given that the Jews did not yet have a country: Trumpeldor was referring to sacrificing one's life in order to further the creation, or re-creation, of the state of Israel. The words translated as "never mind" in Shir Betar ("The Betar Song") written by Jabotinsky, refer to Trumpeldor's last words. As the song expresses. Betar youth were to be as "proud, generous, and fierce (alternatively translated to 'cruel')" as Trumpeldor, and just as ready to sacrifice themselves for Israel.
The name Betar בית"ר refers to both the last Jewish fort to fall in the Bar Kokhba revolt (136 AD) and to the altered Hebrew name of "Brit Yosef Trumpeldor" ( ברית יוסף תרומפלדור ). Although Trumpeldor's name is properly spelt with tet (ט), it was written with taf (ת) so as to produce the acronym.
Despite notable resistance from fellow Jews both Zionist and non-Zionist, Betar quickly gained a large following in Poland, Palestine, Latvia, Lithuania, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and elsewhere. It was particularly successful in Poland, which contained the largest single Jewish settlements at the time, due to the Russian pogroms having forced surviving Jews southwest into the area.
In 1934, Poland was home to 40,000 of Betar's 70,000 members. Routine Betar activities in Warsaw included military drilling, instruction in Hebrew, and encouragement to learn English. Militia groups organized by Betar Poland helped to defend against attacks by the anti-Semitic ONR. Interwar Polish government helped to military train Betar  whose members openly admired Polish nationalist camp and imitated some of its aspects
The group initially praised Mussolini for his anti-communism and fascist principles, leading it to adopt the black uniform shirt of Italian fascism for a short period. Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia, however, was seen as "cowardly" by Betar and they broke with him shortly after.
Throughout the 1930s and early 40s, Betar aided in the widespread immigration of Jews to Palestine in violation of the British Mandate's immigration quotas, which had not increased despite the surge of refugees resulting from both Nazi oppression/genocide and a general surge of anti-Semitism around the globe. In total, Betar was responsible for the entrance of over 40,000 Jews into Palestine under such restrictions.
During World War II, Betar members, including former Polish Army officers, founded Żydowski Związek Wojskowy (literally "Jewish Military Union"), which fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Mordechai Anielewicz, the head of the other major uprising group, Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB, lit. "Jewish Combat Organization"), also gained his military training in Betar. He was the secretary of the prominent Betar Warsaw organization in 1938. He left it to join and quickly take leadership of the left-wing Zionist Hashomer Hatzair group in Warsaw.
In the summer of 1941, Julek (Joel/Jakób) Brandt, a Betar leader from Chorzów who was a relative of Samuel Brandt, the chairman of the Hrubieszów Judenrat (Jewish Council), arranged for several hundred Betar members from the Warsaw Ghetto to work on local farms and estates, including one in Dłużniów and Werbkowice. Most of the Betar youth were killed in the spring of 1942 and in subsequent months, together with the local Jewish population. A small number, however, returned to the ghetto and later took part in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in the ranks of the ŻZW. Brandt escaped from a transport heading for the death camp at Sobibor. He was denounced by local peasants who turned him over to the Gestapo in Hrubieszów. There, he was put to work by Gestapo Obersturmbannführer Ebner, who named him chief of a small work camp. At the end of 1942 or the beginning of 1943, Ebner shot and killed him.
Jewish fighters under the leadership of Yosef Glazman, head of Betar Lithuania, battled the Nazis alongside the Lithuanian partisans in the forests of Vilnius; anti-Nazi partisans in most other nations, however, were unwilling to fight alongside Betar. The Song Of The Partisans, an anthem traditionally sung by Holocaust survivors on Yom HaShoah, was written in memory of and dedication to Glazman.
In 1938, David Raziel became the head of both Betar and the Irgun Zevai Leumi, AKA Etzel, AKA the National Military Organisation. The Irgun's anthem was the third and final verse of the Betar song. Raziel died shortly into World War II, while taking part in Iraq in a failed British sabotage mission against German interests.
The tactics of the Irgun-Betar coalition against Palestinian Arabs demonstrated the overall Zionist and Israeli strategy of overwhelming retaliation. Throughout most of the 1930s and 40's, the two organizations typically bombed collections of Arab civilians in response to any attack of any kind on any Palestinian Jews. The Irgun worked closely with Betar in Palestine and worldwide, particularly with respect to illegal immigration into Palestine, but they remained organizationally and structurally separate. As British policy and Jewish needs/demands grew more opposed, Betar and the Irgun stepped up their military campaign against the British, based primarily on guerrilla tactics of sabotage and assassination.
With the outbreak of World War II, Raziel and Jabotinsky declared an unconditional ceasefire against the British, as Britain and the Zionists had a common enemy in Germany. Raziel's second-in-command, Abraham "Yair" Stern, broke away and formed the Stern Group, later renamed LEHI (Lohamei Herut Yisrael, lit. "Freedom Fighters For Israel"). It continued to attack British targets. Radical elements of Betar joined LEHI but most stayed with the Irgun.
Future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who had headed Betar Poland prior to WWII, reached Palestine at the war's end and took immediate control of both Betar Palestine and the Irgun. He led the two organizations in their contribution to the war that established the de facto state of Israel in 1948-49. Betar and the Irgun remained functionally intermingled, consistently sharing leadership and manpower. By contrast, the Haganah, the official defense organization of the Jewish Agency, and its military wing the Palmach had practically no Betar members.
Members of Betar were also instrumental in setting up Israel's navy, the Israeli Sea Corps. The first Israeli plane was flown into Palestine by Jabotinsky's son, Ari, at the time a member of the Betar World Executive.
Many of Israel's most prominent conservatives have been "graduates" of Betar, including former prime ministers Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Ehud Olmert, as well as the current leader of Hatnuah Tzipi Livni, and former Defense Minister Moshe Arens. Yoel Hasson, now Kadima Member of the Knesset, is a former national head of Betar in Israel.
Since the 1970s, Betar has suffered a drastic decline in membership and activities. It remains much involved in Zionist activism, however. Tagar, Betar's young adult movement, was active on many university campuses throughout North America during the 1980s, as part of the Revisionist Zionist Association, and Betar played a major part in raising the awareness of Soviet oppression of Jews, and fighting for the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel. It remains relatively prominent in Australia and in Cleveland, Ohio.
Most recently, in 2014, Betar has organized marches and demonstrations in France, to protest the rise in Anti-Semitic incidents there, including attacks against synagogues and individual Jews. At those marches, Betar has displayed the emblem which was formerly used by the Jewish Defense League (JDL).
Once a vibrant movement tied to the opposition Herut Party, Betar's following in Israel has declined since the 1970s due to a generally transformed political landscape. An important change has been the rise of religious conservatives in Israel. Though Betar had many of the same political goals as the rapidly growing Gush Emunim ("Bloc of the Faithful") and Bnei Akiva youth movements (tied to the National Religious Party), they remained a secular movement. They did not join the latter organizations in their taking of the contested West Bank and Gaza territories. During the 1980s, as a result of the Camp David Accords negotiated by Menachem Begin (the leader of Herut and its successor movement Likud), a similar effect occurred due to the rise of the Secular Right. The more extreme movements drew youth away from Betar.
As the Likud party under Benjamin Netanyahu moved away from the traditional values of Revisionist Zionism, Betar drew criticism from Israeli conservatives who identified as ideological purists. While Betar had consistently been a source of powerful political figures in Israel, its leaders were criticized for was placing partisan political expediency above greater ideological priorities. In the late 1990s, Benny Begin broke away from Likud to form Herut.
Betar Toronto currently focuses on opposing the Israeli apartheid analogy. In February 2006 at the University of Toronto, Tagar organized a "Know Radical Islam Week" featuring activist Nonie Darwish, former Sudanese slave Simon Deng, Dr. Salim Mansur (a Muslim activist speaking on gay rights in the Middle East), and presentations by Honest Reporting and Palestinian Media Watch.   The event was also co-sponsored by the Toronto Secular Alliance and other allied groups. Betar has also worked in Toronto and Montreal with off-campus organizations, such as the Canadian Coalition for Democracies, to promote the importance of secular and participatory politics in Canada. In March 2007, Betar-Tagar at the University of Toronto changed its name to 'Zionists at U of T'.
Betar-Tagar was active in Montreal and Toronto during the 1980s Lebanon-Israel conflict. A revival of Betar occurred in Montreal on November 9, 2006, as an event entitled "Taking Liberties: Terrorism in the West". It featured keynote speaker Dr. Salim Mansur and was the first film screening of Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West at McGill University. It was co-organized with Conservative McGill students. At McGill University in March 2007, Betar Montreal held a "Radical Islam Awareness Week" similar to the one at the University of Toronto the year before. Speakers included David B. Harris, a Canadian lawyer and security specialist, and John Thompson of the Mackenzie Institute. Concurrent with the 2007 Montreal program, Betar in Toronto held "Freedom and Democracy Week" at the University of Toronto. Speakers included Ezra Levant, co-founder of the Western Standard newspaper, and Jonah Goldberg of the National Review.
The first branch of Betar in the United States was founded in October 1929, led principally by Joseph Beder, William Katz, Haim Messer and Israel Posnansky. Beder had visited Palestine under the Mandate in the spring of 1929 and come in contact with Betar members there. The first activity of Betar USA was a Chanukah party alongside local branches which existed already in eastern New York and the Lower East Side.
When Soviet Russia imprisoned the ailing Dr. Michael Shtern because his sons were openly Zionist, a group of seven Betarim from New York City traveled to Russia and offered to exchange themselves for Shtern and serve his sentence in his stead. The Russian government refused their proposal and deported them. The group was led by Fred Pierce and included Elie Yossef and Gilad Freund.
Betar maintains a Shaliach in New York City and Cleveland, Ohio. The Cleveland chapter offers a fall and spring camp that is open to all cities. Betar offers summer and winter tours of Israel. It is one of the few movements that offer students a chance to visit the West Bank. Both programs allow students to spend time at Kedumin, Itamar, Alon Moreh, Sderot, East Jerusalem, and Hebron. They have officially adopted Kedumin as a sister city and spend an extensive time volunteering there. The winter tour is for college-age students and runs in late December.
During the period of the early to mid 90s, Ronn Torossian served as National President and increased Betar USA membership into the hundreds. Previous leadership in the U.S. included Glenn Mones, Barry Liben, Fred Pierce (early to mid 70s), and Benny Rosen (60s). In addition to its programs for younger students, Betar USA also has an affiliated program for college-age students called Tagar. Betar strongly promotes the emigration of American Jews to Israel.
Previous Shaliachs in the U.S. have included Sallai Meridor, former Israel Ambassador to the U.S. (late 1980s); Eli Cohen, former Israel Ambassador to Japan (early 1990s); Tova Vagimi; Sharon Tzur; Yitzhak Kerstein; Shlomo Ariav; and Shlomi Levy.
Betar UK is an active group of over 150 members, headquartered in London. It is involved in Zionist activism including martial arts training, government lobbying, criticism of national media, and pro-Israel demonstrations. Anti-Zionist demonstrations and pickets used to occur every week outside the Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street before 2010 and Betar UK used to organized a counter-demonstration each week during that period until it lost its 'charity' status for being political.
Betar UK existed in the late 1930s but had ceased functioning when the state of Israel was established. The movement's revitalization began in 1974 with Eli Joseph with the assistance of Eric Graus and George Evnine. Yisrael Medad of the World Betar Movement arrived in the UK in 1975 and built a winter camp at Sherborne School in Dorset, a summer camp in north-west France, and a two-week summer camp in Israel. Branches were opened in various locations in Greater London and elsewhere. Educational and cultural activities were organized and demonstrations were held on the themes of Soviet Jewry and Jews in Arab lands as well as on local British issues. Betar used to share offices with the Herut Movement at 73, Compayne Gardens, London, at the "Tel Chai House" but since the sale of the property has regulat meetings at various locations throughout Stamford Hill and other Greater London areas although their website has not been updated for a number of years. Betar and Tagar UK still work closely with pro Israel political and lobbyiest groups and are currently looking for new headquarters in London.
Betar Australia was first established in Sydney in 1924 soon after its establishment in Latvia, but it floundered at some time in the 1920s or 1930s when its leadership moved to Palestine. In 1948, Betar members from Harbin China and elsewhere reestablished Betar in Melbourne to help provide refuge for the many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who remained without assistance. Betar later expanded to Sydney, Canberra, and Brisbane. The Queensland branch celebrated its 50th reunion in 2006.
The largest Betar Australia snif (local organization) can be found in Sydney, on Australia's East Coast. Betar Sydney's maoz (home) had been located in Beit Herzl on Old South Head Road in the Eastern Suburbs since the early 1980s, but it recently moved to a Jewish cultural center in Bondi Junction. The Sydney movement has experienced various periods of expansion and contraction, reaching its zenith in the early 1990s. During that time, winter camps regularly attracted over 220 chanichim (campers). Summer camps were also large, often held in conjunction with the rest of Betar Australia. Several federal camps were held during that time, including Jamboree in Toowoomba, Queensland. Betar Australia also holds annual seminars for senior members as well as educational and training conventions for its senior leaders.
Betar has been at the forefront of Jewish activism in Australia. Betar Australia began protesting Nazi supporters and sympathizers in 1952 when it released pigeons and stink bombs during one of the concerts of the allegedly pro-Nazi German pianist Walter Gieseking in Melbourne. The group battled neo-Nazi groups in the 1960s, and in the 1970s and 1980s, it spearheaded the protests of the Sydney Jewish community on behalf of Soviet Jewry. The group was instrumental in supporting the annual protest outside the Soviet Consulate in Trelawney Street, Woollahra, which occurred each Pesach, and has supported mass protests outside the Bolshoi Ballet and the Moscow Circus on Ice at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. It also protested Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's visit to Canberra and Sydney. In the 1970s, the group demonstrated against a visit of the General Union of Palestine Students to the Australian Union of Students after the latter had moved to the political left. In later years, Betar Australia took the initiative to organize community protests outside the Iraqi Embassy in Canberra during the First Gulf War and outside the Iranian Embassy to protest Iranian state sponsorship of terrorism. The group also marched in front of the German Consulate in Sydney to protest what it perceived to be a resurgence of anti-Semitism in postwar Germany. In 2004, Betar Sydney was active in protesting Dr. Hanan Ashrawi's receiving of the Sydney Premier's peace prize.
Australia Betarim very often emigrate to Israel and maintain close relations between the two nations. Betar Australia sends several members to Israel's hasbarah programs each year.
Once the largest youth movement in the nation, Betar South Africa has since dwindled greatly. Headquartered in Johannesburg, the group hosts a 3-week summer camp each December and continues annual programs to send youth to Israel. Like Betar Australia, Betar South Africa sees many of its members permanently emigrate to Israel.
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