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Shlomo Ben Yosef

shlomo ben yosephBorn May 7, 1913 , Died June 29, 1938

During our long history in the Diaspora, while we were only passive onlookers in shaping our destinies, we had many martyrs. The moment that we took our future in our own hands, the names of martyrs gave way to names of heroes. They were simple men and women, but their names mark the beginning of an epoch in our history.

The name Shlomo Ben Yosef is one which has entered our history as an example for generations to come. It has become a symbol of the Jewish people's fight for freedom. Yet he did not die on any battlefield. He died on the gallows in Palestine -- the first Jew to receive the death sentence in that country.

Shlomo Ben Yosef was born in 1913 in a small Polish town, the son of a poor family. He joined the Betar while he was still a young boy, and from that moment, his life took on a new meaning. There he learned to love his homeland, Israel, and there he learned to dream of a new life for him and for his people. He was taught that he was not a "poor, dirty Jew" -- the epithet which had been so often flung at Jewish youth that they learned not to question or resent it. He was not a weakling who had to rely on others and be afraid of all; he was the son of kings and a descendant of prophets, a brother of the proud and courageous Maccabees. He was told that he, and thousands like him would be called upon to go to Palestine and make a home there for the millions who must follow.

He became one of the most active workers in Betar, waiting for the day when he could leave for Palestine. When that time came, however, British restrictions had been instituted, and there were no certificates available. No certificates for the thousands like him, who wanted to leave Europe, but could not. He saw the withholding of certificates as an illegal act, a barrier which had been put up against the entry of Jews into the land which was theirs by right. Therefore he decided to join a group of other Betarim who were leaving for Palestine without certificates.

In August, 1937, his luggage consisted mainly of his tefillin, he joined one of the groups of "illegals" on their way to Palestine. The many months which they spent on the way, and the hardships which they had to endure, is a tale which will form an undying part of Jewish legend. The "illegal" immigrants, proud sons and daughters of a people which had never given up its right to its land, entered Palestine by the thousands, overcoming all obstacles in their determination. Among them was Shlomo Ben Yosef, who immediately upon his arrival, joined one of the working groups of Betar, in Rosh Pina.

He arrived in the midst of terrible times in Palestine. For two years, riots had been going on steadily, and daily he heard of new acts of terror, more women and children who had been killed, more communities which had been burned, more Jews who had been molested on the highways. In the face of all this, Jewish youth remained silent.

The Yishuv in Eretz Israel had hoped to overcome those troubled times by a policy of passive endurance, "Havlaga." Lest the charge be made that they had provoked the riots, or had not tried to use peaceful methods, Jewish youth had decided upon this policy, and had stood by it for two years, during which time Arab bandits rode roughshod across the country. Communities were looted and burned; the highways became unsafe for Jewish travelers, and Jews could not venture from one city to another without protection. The British police and Mandatory government, from whom the Yishuv expected protection, were "unable" to find the terrorists. Jews and Arabs alike knew what this meant. Jews became bitter, but remained silent, while the Arabs renewed their battle cry: "The Government is with us!"

To Shlomo Ben Yosef the way seemed clear. If the Government would not police the country, Jews must be awakened to their duty of self-protection. More than the lives of those who had been killed was at stake. The future of Jewish nationhood, and lives of all those who lived for the rebuilding of the Jewish home, were at stake. Early one morning, April 21, 1938, news was received that a contingent of Arab terrorists was on its way to attack a Jewish bus on the Tiberias road. Nerves that for months had stood up to sixteen hours of work every day and five or six hours of guard every night now almost broke down. In desperation, three of the youngest Rosh Pina
Betarim -- Abraham Shein, Shalom Zurabin, and Shlomo Ben Yosef -- went out on to the Tiberias road. Perhaps they might intercept the Arab terrorists in time, perhaps they might frighten them away from the vicinity

A bus passed them: an Arab bus crammed with fellahin. These must be the terrorists, thought the youngsters -- and they fired their revolvers into the air. The Arab bus gathered speed, and within a few seconds vanished from sight. Shein, Zurabin and Ben Yosef waited until the Jewish bus had
passed them safely on the road. Then, with the elated feeling that they had prevented an indescribable tragedy, they left the hills.

This time the police were not long in arriving. The first was a Jewish policeman who suggested to Shlomo Ben Yosef that he throw away his weapon. He refused to do this, and a few minutes later other officers came up and arrested him.

The trial opened in the last week of May 1938. It was very late on Friday afternoon, June 3rd. With a face pale as a ghost's, the president of the Haifa Military Court pronounced the verdict. Shalom Zurabin was to be placed under medical observation, Abraham Shein and Shlomo Ben Yosef were to hand by the neck until they were dead.

The tense electric silence of the courtroom was broken by a dreadful shriek from Shein's sister. She understood no English, and for ten days she had been listening to the evidence that would decide whether her little 18-year-old brother -- now standing up so proudly in the dock -- was to
live or die. This Friday afternoon she could see from the sea of blurred faces around her, which it was to be. She collapsed in a fit of uncontrollable sobbing.

In a voice that stammered and shook, a Jewish interpreter tried to read out the verdict in Hebrew. He sat down, overcome before he got through to the end.

The prisoners were led out. Ben Yosef stood up and shouted: "It is good to die for the Jewish State on both sides of the Jordan" and he went out with his two comrades -- the only cool, detached and unagitated people in the entire courtroom.

After that came three and a half weeks of unceasing attempt to secure a reprieve. Appeals to the British Government and the Palestine Administration came from the Jewish national organizations, from the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, from two Anglican bishops, from the "Manchester Guardian," from the Polish Government, from Chief Rabbi Herzog of Palestine; from British MP's and newspaper editors, from churches and synagogues, from Ben Yosef's aged mother in Poland who begged only that her young son's life be spared until she could reach Palestine to see him for the last time. Jabotinsky himself went to plead with Britain's Colonial Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald. In thousands, the petitions came, but in vain; Shein's sentence was commuted, but Ben Yosef was sacrificed.

Ben Yosef was executed in June, 1938; the whole Jewish world was shocked by the injustice of this, and was deeply moved by the heroism of the young man, in the face of death. On the morning of the execution, Shlomo Ben Yosef was calm, filled with the knowledge that his death would not be in vain. He requested that he be permitted to go to the gallows in his Betar uniform. To the friends who were allowed to visit him in his cell, a few hours before the execution, he said, "I have written on the walls of my cell 'to die or to conquer the hill' ... My death will serve as a symbol of our battle. Betar will march forward, only forward, because this is our mission. Betar must know how to live, how to fight, and how to die. Please tell Jabotinsky that I will go to the gallows with his song on my lips -- the song which I learned ten years ago, about the proud future Jewish generation. My journey to Eretz Israel was a hard one. I did not come with a certificate. I came as a Betari, and I shall die as one, proudly. I entered Palestine in contravention to the laws of the British, but I shall die in accordance with their 'justice' ..."

In the mountains around Rosh Pina lies the grave of Shlomo Ben Yosef -- a simple grave with a few heavy stoned around it. Here lies a son of his people, brave and honest, and sincere. He had returned to his home after 2000 years of absence. He had come a make a place for thousands and thousands after him. A brutal hand put an end to his life, but not to the ideal for which he fought and died.

Shlomo Ben Yosef was right. The Jewish Youth of Eretz Israel heard this shot and broke their silence. He was the first, but not the last. Many young boys and girls, in the few short years after his death, gave their lives for the same cause.

Shlomo Ben Yosef came to Eretz Israel on a peaceful mission, to rebuild the land for his people, but he found it necessary to fight for the right to do this. Jewish youth did not seek the conflict, but when it was forced upon them, they had to learn to face it. He taught them this, and when the young people of Israel were again faced with the necessity to fight -- this time not the Arab marauders who had the tacit approval of the British administration, but the administration itself -- his name took on new meaning as one of their first heroes.


There have been many famous Betaris throught our long history. You can click on the links below to read about these special and brave individuals.



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