Uphill Political Struggle: Joseph Trumpeldor in Japan and Manchuria, 1904-1906

Jonathan Goldstein. Israel Affairs. Volume 24, Issue 1. February 2018.

Much of the tragic history of Jews in modern times has taken place ‘in the belly of the monster’, in Europe itself. Jews have also had an important, albeit lesser-known, history in East Asia, where they have lived for centuries. The first migrants traversed the Silk route and established a residential community in the Chinese commercial metropolis of Kaifeng during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). By the 1800s, Jews resided in other foreign trading enclaves, notably Macao, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tianjin. Many were of Levantine or American origin. After 1898, Russian-Jewish entrepreneurs settled in Imperial Russia’s Chinese Eastern Railway leasehold in Manchuria. Many remained during the subsequent Japanese/Manchkuoan occupation. Approximately 18,000 Central European Jews found refuge from Hitler in Shanghai, and, to a lesser extent, Harbin, Tianjin, and even in remote Chongqing, many hundreds of miles up the Yangzi River. Expatriate Jewish communities thrive today in many of the above-named cities as well as in Beijing and Shenzhen.

Among the lesser-known aspects of East Asian Jewish history is the Zionist activity of Russian army officer Joseph Trumpeldor (1880-1920) in Japan and Manchuria between 1904 and 1906. He lost his left arm during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and subsequently endured a year-long Japanese imprisonment. His Zionist commitment intensified during that confinement. As a senior officer, he attempted to propagate his newly found faith among his fellow Jewish prisoners. He briefly revisited Manchuria on his return to European Russia in 1905-1906 and attempted to impart Zionism to the local Jewish population. He subsequently emigrated to Ottoman Palestine, rose to prominence in the British army in World War I, including service at the Battle of Gallipoli, and perished in 1920 in defence of the Galilean farming community of Tel Hai in what was by then British Palestine.

As the prototypical ‘new Jew’ who settled, defended, and died for a Jewish homeland, Trumpeldor was revered by Jews and non-Jews of many ideological persuasions. His exploits in the Levant made him, arguably, the most celebrated Jewish military hero of the first half of the twentieth century. Trumpeldor biographers David Belotserkovskii, Shulamit Laskov, Pesah Lipovetsky, and Joseph Schechtman have traced his lifetime experiences and participation in the debate over appropriate remedies to alleviate the plight of Russian Jewry. Historians Ber Kotlerman, Rotem Kowner, Meron Medzini, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, and Yakov Zinberg, have focused on Trumpeldor’s Zionist advocacy while he was a prisoner of war (POW).

This article situates Trumpeldor’s East Asian experience within the broader context of his career, focusing on two questions: (a) What was the impact of Trumpeldor’s East Asian sojourn on East Asian Jewry, specifically the Jews of China and Manchuria at the time of his visit? Manchuria was then a Chinese province partially under Russian control. Subsequently it fell under Japanese, and ultimately Chinese Communist, rule. (b) What was the impact of Trumpeldor’s East Asian experience on the Zionist movement as a whole? To answer these questions it is first necessary to examine Trumpeldor’s European intellectual roots.

Trumpeldor’s earliest Zionist inclinations

Born in 1880 in Pyatigorsk, in Russia’s Caucasian region, Trumpeldor became attracted to the Zionist movement at an early age. His Polish-born father Wulf served as a Cantonist in the Balkan wars of the 1879s and, as a ‘useful Jew’, was allowed to live outside the Pale of Settlement, the Jewish residential region of European Russia. Joseph’s upbringing was more Russian than Jewish. His elder sister converted to Christianity. Another brother and sister intermarried. Joseph received six months of a rudimentary Jewish education only because of his father’s influence over his Christologically inclined mother. From whatever source, he adopted a secular Jewish identity which remained with him for the rest of his life.

While still in Pyatigorsk, Trumpeldor trained as a dentist, receiving his diploma in 1900. Already as an apprentice he became concerned by the fierce anti-Semitic pogroms raging across Russia. He gravitated to the embryonic Zionist movement, which offered a solution to the plight of Russian Jewry in the form of national rebirth in its ancestral homeland. He helped organise an informal Zionist youth group in his hometown.

A major crisis of conscience faced by many Russian Jews was whether to serve in the czar’s army at a time of rampant anti-Semitism. Many draft-eligible Jews fled Russia altogether or deserted shortly after conscription. Many Russian immigrants then participated in anti-Russian and anti-czarist activity outside of Russia. A notable expression of this opposition was the effort of the Russian Jews of Atlanta, Georgia to raise money for a Japanese battleship to be named the ‘Kishineff’, after the Russian city in which a notorious, government-abetted pogrom had occurred.

Unlike many other draft-eligible Russian Jews, Trumpeldor faced no crisis of conscience. Probably because of his military upbringing, he was unflinchingly loyal to the czar. He was drafted into the Russian army in 1902. A year later, with war with Japan imminent, he sought to fulfil his patriotic duty by requesting assignment to Port Arthur at the tip of China’s Liaodong peninsula ‒ the southernmost stronghold defending Russia’s leasehold within China.

Trumpeldor thus became one of perhaps as many as 30,000 Russian-Jewish soldiers to commit to serving their monarch in Manchuria in the Russo-Japanese War. He was posted to a detachment that guarded the port of Dalian, by then under Japanese siege. That battle turned out to be the war’s longest and most violent and on 7 August 1904, while fighting, Trumpeldor lost his left arm to Japanese shrapnel. After spending 100 days recovering in a Russian hospital, he elected to complete his army service. According to Shanghai’s Israel’s Messenger, the most widely circulated Jewish newspaper in East Asia, Trumpeldor told his commanding officer:

I have been left with one arm, but that one is the right one. Therefore, wishing to share in the fighting with my comrades as heretofore, I beg to request your Honour to plead for me that I may be furnished with a sword and a revolver.

‘I assure you it’s nothing’, Trumpeldor reportedly reassured his lifelong friend and colleague David Beltcharkovsky. ‘You’ll see how we’ll work the fields of Eretz Israel’.

Trumpeldor received four decorations for bravery, including the Cross of St George, making him the most decorated Jewish soldier in the Russian army. After Port Arthur surrendered, he became a prisoner of war and was taken to the Hamadera and Takaishi camps in Japan proper. Those facilities, some 20 kilometres from Osaka, housed approximately 10,000 Russian soldiers, including 1739 Jews.

The Japanese policy of segregating Jewish (and other) prisoners from ethnic Russians worked to Trumpeldor’s advantage as he deepened his understanding of Zionism and sought to promote that ideology. Under the regulations of the Hague Convention of 1899, the conditions in Japanese POW camps were not harsh. Censored correspondence was permitted, prisoners received allowances, and there was no forced labour. Soldiers who had been under constant fire during the siege of Port Arthur were able to recover from wounds and build themselves up physically. Trumpeldor was provided with an artificial arm, and was given the opportunity for political activism. His overall strategy was more complex than simply urging czarist soldiers to pack their bags and move to Palestine. During his year-long imprisonment, he repeated in letters to his family his desire to disprove the generally accepted libel that Jews were cowards and disloyal to their country, even as they were being discriminated against both within the Russian military and in Russia as a whole. Not wanting to see Zionism branded as one more subversive movement within Russia, he advocated a simultaneous commitment to czarism and Zionism. Those who felt immediate peril should emigrate. Others would follow at an appropriate time and in an organised fashion. He himself was not ready to emigrate, but wanted to hold that option open. With this caveat in mind, he established a Zionist Society with approximately 125 members. Taking the Hebrew title Bnei Tsion mi-Shvuyim be-Yapan (Captive Sons of Zion in Japan), the organisation published a rump Russian/Yiddish newspaper with a weekly circulation of about 300 copies. Writing to his parents in October 1905, he summarised his deepening commitment

When have the Jews found anything but suffering and persecution here [Russia]? The time has come when we must stand on our own feet as a people. There, in Israel, we shall not be dependent on others; there we shall make our own lives.

It should be noted that even among Trumpeldor’s fellow Jewish prisoners, Zionism remained a minority ideology. Most remained attached to traditional, anti-Zionist Orthodox Judaism and sought to remain in Russia.

Spreading Zionism among Jewish civilians: Trumpeldor’s Harbin visit in 1905-1906

Moving beyond Trumpeldor’s activity among his fellow prisoners, there is some evidence about his efforts to convert Russian/Jewish civilians in Manchuria upon his release from Japanese captivity in December 1905. On his way back to Europe, he stopped in the Manchurian commercial hub of Harbin, a city with a distinct Jewish population.

Harbin’s Jews had arrived in 1898 as merchants supplying the Russian-built Chinese Eastern Railway. Imperial Russia encouraged such migration, urging settlement in what was informally referred to as ‘Russia’s Colony in China’. To attract settlers, the railroad administration relaxed economic, residential, educational, and other social and cultural restrictions that applied to Jews in Russia proper.

According to the memoir of the late Teddy Kaufman, son of Dr Abram Kaufman (1885-1971), the secular leader of Harbin Jewry, in 1903 there were approximately 500 Jewish civilians in Harbin. After Russia’s defeat in 1905, many demobilised Jewish soldiers joined them and were present at the time of Trumpeldor’s visit. Kaufman writes that Trumpeldor ‘lectured to the Jewish youth about Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel and told them about “The Pioneer” (Hehalutz) and “The Guard” (Hashomer) movements’.

Although Hehalutz was not formally organised until 1918, it had forerunners in Ottoman Palestine in 1905-1906. These pioneering communities would expand into larger agricultural villages, notably Kibbutz Degania, to which Trumpeldor would migrate several years later.

Kaufman does not indicate how long Trumpeldor stayed in Harbin, when and where his oratory took place, or precisely who heard him speak. But he did evaluate Trumpeldor’s effectiveness. Trumpeldor did not need to educate Harbin’s Jews about the trials and tribulations of Russian Jewish life, a topic they knew first-hand. Working to Trumpeldor’s disadvantage was the fact that Harbin was a community of willing residents who had settled in a residential zone with full civil liberties. They were not desperately seeking another homeland. Therefore, while Trumpeldor’s listeners could empathise with his concerns, they differed with him on appropriate remedies. Some Kharbintsy were already non-Zionist, socialistically inclined adherents of Der Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund in Lite, Poyln, un Rusland (The General Union of Jewish Workers in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, usually referred to as ‘The Bund’). Others favoured the emergent Folkspartei (often rendered in Latin characters as VolksparteiFolkspartey, Folkists, or Folks Party), a Russian-Jewish political organisation founded by Simon Dubnow in St Petersburg after the abortive 1905 revolution. Folkists championed Jewish cultural autonomy within Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe and opposed both Socialism and Zionism. Finally, as in the Hamadera and Takhaishi camps, many Kharbintsy were adherents of traditional non-Zionist Orthodox Judaism. Perhaps idealistically, those believers felt that their customs and traditions could best be preserved within the confines of czardom, with as little social disruption as possible.

A twenty-first century Zionist can argue that Bundism, the Folkspartei, and traditional Orthodox Judaism were flying in the face of reality: their movements could never overcome hardcore Russian anti-Semitism. But in 1905-1906 they could not be disabused of their illusions. This was especially true in Harbin, where Kharbintsy had arrived as willing settlers. They were not about to forsake imperial privilege for the vagaries of a utopian haven somewhere else, least of all in the underpopulated and underdeveloped territory of Palestine. The politics of the community would change with the arrival in 1912-1913 of charismatic Zionist leaders who themselves opted for Harbin over Palestine but, unlike the Bundists, Folkspartei, or the Orthodox, supported the notion of Palestinian settlement ‘for others’. These later activists included Teddy Kaufman’s parents, who embraced Herzlian Zionism during their medical training in Switzerland; Rabbi Aharon Kisilev, a Volozhin Yeshiva classmate of Zionist luminaries Haim Nahman Bialik and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda; and Dr Shlomo and Hanna Ravikovitch, grandparents of the Israeli poetess Dalia Ravikovich. Like Trumpeldor, they would ultimately migrate to Palestine, but not in 1905-1906.

Taking into account Kaufman’s affirmation that Trumpeldor’s pleas fell largely on deaf ears, what can be said about any residual benefit of his East Asian sojourn for Zionism? This question must be answered within the context of the extent to which Zionism had already penetrated the Far East by 1905-1906.

Far Eastern Zionism in 1905-1906, and Trumpeldor’s Impact

Rather than introducing an ideology, Trumpeldor’s aim was to expand the popular base of an extant movement. In this respect he resembled Theodor Herzl, who, after a mind-opening visit to Sofia, sought to expand his following from a largely Ashkenazi base to one with an important Sephardi component.

Even more so than Bulgaria, East, South, and Southeast Asia, exclusive of Manchuria, was already a region with a substantial Zionist enthusiasm. For decades, there had been a Zionist inclination among the Bene Israel Jews of northern India. In 1903, Baghdadi Jews established a branch of the World Zionist Organization in Burma, then under the protective umbrella of British colonial rule. In Nagasaki in 1905, simultaneous with Trumpeldor’s imprisonment and formation of a Zionist group, the Austrian Sigmund David Lessner established a Zionist association that would soon affiliate with Herzl’s mother organisation. Just north of the Chinese border, in Chita, Irkutsk, Omsk, Tomsk, and Vladivostok, and westward to Bokhara and Tashkent, Russian Jews who had voluntarily emigrated or escaped czarist exile formed groups that may have included Zionists. A Zionist society had also been established among American servicemen stationed in the Philippines.

Far-and-away the best organised of these fledgling Zionism groups was that of the Shanghai Baghdadis. It thrived under the dynamic leadership of N.E.B. Ezra, who edited Israel’s Messenger/Mevasser Yisrael. That publication reported news of the entire Jewish world and was the most widely read Jewish periodical in East, Southeast, or South Asia. Ezra and his supporters made Shanghai the operational base of a network that stretched west to Aden, north to Yokohama, south to Hong Kong and Singapore, and south-east to Surabaya and many other cities of the Dutch East Indies.

Ezra’s Zionism had minimal influence on Trumpeldor, whose commitment stemmed from his Eastern European roots. Nor is there is evidence, apart from sporadic references in Israel’s Messenger, that the Jews of China knew very much about Trumpeldor when he was a soldier in Manchuria, a prisoner of the Japanese, or ultimately a returnee to Russia proper via Manchuria. But by the 1920s, after Trumpeldor’s death, a reverse osmosis occurred. Precisely because of Trumpeldor’s dynamism and sacrifice, Russian Zionist leader Vladimir (Zeev) Jabotinsky organised an entire movement in Trumpeldor’s name. Popularly known as Betar, the organisation was formally entitled ‘Brit Trumpeldor’, which translates from the Hebrew as the ‘covenant’ or ‘fraternity’ of Trumpeldor. That movement promoted Jabotinsky’s and Trumpeldor’s ideals worldwide, with notable successes in South Africa, Ireland, and pre-Holocaust Central and Eastern Europe.

By the late 1920s, Betar emissaries had entered China, first at Harbin, later at other Manchurian cities, and finally in Tianjin and Shanghai. Betar propelled a new generation of Far Eastern Jews of multiple ethnicities and ideologies toward Zionism. The question then arises: why were Trumpeldor’s propagandising efforts in East Asia unsuccessful during his lifetime yet much more influential by the 1930s and 1940s?

On the one hand, there is Betar’s own explanation, citing its roots in the 1920s and significant expansion by the 1940s. Yana Liberman, head of the Darga Aleph chapter of Shanghai Betar, argues that success was due to the determination of a younger generation of leaders directly inspired by Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor:

Throughout the years, while the fate of Political Zionism sailed between the calm waters of the Balfour Declaration and the rough seas of the White Paper, Betar in China led the Jewish Communities in their complete identification with Jewish Independence and Statehood.

On the other hand, without in any way minimising the militancy of the Betar leadership, it is clear that the movement operated in the 1930s and 1940s in a context far different from what Trumpeldor faced in 1904-1906. Czarist Russia collapsed in 1917. Unlike the uneasy security provided to Jews under czardom, and subsequently under the Japanese and Manchukuoan administrations, Mao’s Communist revolution of the 1940s portended only peril and dislocation. The very places that Jews once considered safe havens became insecure. There is testimony that, under those conditions, Trumpeldor’s vision of 1904-1906 was realised in 1948-1949. Rahma-Rose Jacob Horowitz, an Iraqi citizen whose family had lived in China since 1863, described her family’s movement toward Zionism. Forty-three years after Trumpeldor’s Harbin oratory, they migrated to Israel in a formal exodus organised by Yana Liberman and other leaders of Harbin, Shanghai, Dalian, and Tianjin Betar. According to Horowitz:

Frictions there had been between Jews and Jews and some surfaced in ugly fashion. With the [Chinese] civil war raging … the three Jewish communities [Baghdadi, Russian, and Central European] finally combined to send an appeal to the new State of Israel, requesting asylum for those who had no visa pending, and the response was immediate and generous. All were welcome, without exception, and shipping was being arranged to bring the exiles home. The first boat was Wooster Victory. It sailed the last week of 1948 crammed to the gills with Jews from the Near East, Russia, and from Nazi-lands, all finally in the same boat, quite literally.


It is clear that Trumpeldor waged an uphill, largely unsuccessful, battle to instil Zionism in an indifferent if not hostile Far Eastern Russian-Jewish community. That constituency, situated in the privileged atmosphere of Harbin, did not wish to migrate to Palestine. To the extent that it espoused any social activism, that community’s commitment was narrowly confined to reform within Russia via socialistically inclined Bundism and cultural Folkism. Many preferred no major social change at all, merely a tenuous maintenance of status quo Orthodoxy. Trumpeldor appears to have had slightly more success with Jewish soldiers under his command during his imprisonment in Japan. In the case of these ‘converts’, he literally held an audience captive. One can only wonder if his men would have been similarly inclined in the nurturing and open atmosphere of Harbin. While evidence of his success even among his own men is fragmentary, he did establish a precedent for Zionist activism by Jewish and non-Jewish officers and chaplains in the inter-war years and during and shortly after World War II.

Trumpeldor’s personal commitment to Zionism unquestionably deepened while he was in czarist military service in East Asia and Japanese confinement. It received its fullest expression in 1912 when he emigrated to Kibbutz Degania in Ottoman Palestine. His career then served as the inspiration for a movement that would gain strength after his death, influence the leaders of the Jewish exodus from China in 1948-1949, and provide the ideological basis for the emergence and growth of the Herut, Gahal, and Likud political parties in Israel. Some of his admirers, such as Japan’s fundamentalist Protestant Makuya movement, have gone so far as to view Trumpeldor as the ‘Pioneering Father of Israel’. Viewing him as only partially successful in his political efforts in Japan and Manchuria much earlier may somewhat tarnish the myth of the one-armed hero and pioneering farmer, as expressed in the traditional Israeli army song Gibor Yosef Nafal (The hero Joseph died) and other Zionist hagiography. The inclusion of the Japanese and Manchurian dimensions of Trumpeldor’s uphill political struggle situates this hero within a far more realistic, and less Eurocentric, context.