Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Some fight courageously on the battlefield. Others take huge risks for a just cause. And then there are those who some people see as heroes, but whom others consider to be dangerously foolhardy characters!
Simeon Bar Kochba is the classic ‘ambiguous hero’. In 132 CE he launched a huge revolt against the Romans in Judaea, who had destroyed Jerusalem 60 years earlier. Rabbi Akiva supported his struggle; many Jews saw him as the messiah. But in 135 CE the powerful Roman Army crushed the revolt, killing Bar Kochba in his holdout, Betar, razing the land and massacring 580,000 Jews. (See below for a video about Bar Kochba).
Many see Yohanan Ben Zakkai as the real hero of that period. He headed the leading Pharisee school in Jerusalem. Supporters smuggled him out of the destroyed city in 70 CE. He persuaded Rome to allow him to move his academy to Yavneh. In this way Judaism survived, despite the destruction of its holiest sites. (See below for a video about Rabbi Yonanan ben Zakkai and his importance to Judaism.)
In the Middle Ages many Jews chose martyrdom rather than forced conversion. The list of the Ten Martyrs forms part of the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) service. In 1296 Isaac ben Samuel of Meiningen collected the names of these and subsequent martyrs for his Memorbuch (memorial book).
Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (c.1215-1293) was one of the greatest tosaphists (Talmudic commentators) and religious poets. He was jailed for life in an Alsatian fortress in 1286. Legend says he refused a ransom raised by Jews to release him, for fear of creating a precedent that would be exploited by antisemites.
Rabbi Isaac Abravanel wrote a stinging riposte to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand’s Alhambra order of expulsion in 1492. While it failed to prevent disaster, it nonetheless marked a courageous assertion of Jewish rights for future generations.
Yosef Trumpeldor (1880-1920) lost an arm while fighting in the Russo-Japanese War of 1902. He settled in Deganiah, Palestine, and founded the Zion Mule Corps in 1915. Trumpeldor was wounded at Gallipoli. He created the He-Halutz youth pioneers group, and died defending the Galilee settlement of Tel Hai against Arab raiders in 1923.
In 1972 Ehud Barak (later Israel’s Prime Minister) led Unit 269 which relieved a Sabena airliner hijacked in Tel Aviv. The next year he disguised himself as a woman to lead a sea-borne assault unit in Beirut. His team killed three PLO leaders suspected of masterminding terrorism. Also in 1973, Yemenite-born Avigdor Kahalani led the tank unit that turned back the Syrians who had overrun the Golan Heights.
Refuseniks fought for the right for Jews to leave the Soviet Union for Israel. One was Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky, a scientist who was refused an exit visa in 1973, and was jailed for 13 years on false charges of treason in 1978. Released in 1986, he symbolised the refusenik cause and was later a minister in the Israeli government.
Sally Becker, an artist, was 33 years old when she decided to go to Bosnia and try to help . She began by delivering medical aid and food to the small Jewish community in Mostar and through them, she was given permission by Croat commanders to evacuate wounded Bosnian children and their families from the besieged city. Following this evacuation she was dubbed ‘The Angel of Mostar’.
She managed to secure permission for the delivery of humanitarian aid to all sides of the conflict and for the evacuation of wounded civilians. She led a convoy of 50 vehicles and two hundred volunteers from Britain carrying many tons of medical aid and food and evacuated 98 wounded. Two months later (mid winter) all aid agencies were grounded due to snow. She borrowed a helicopter and flew into central Bosnia alone to bring out 55 wounded children and their families.
When the war spread to Kosovo she crossed the mountains on foot carrying paediatric medicines to Junik, a town surrounded by Serb forces. She was asked by the parents of many sick and wounded children to try and evacuate them but as they reached the Albanian border they were ambushed . Fortunately the rest of the group made it safely across but remaining behind to help a woman and her two young children, Sally was captured, interrogated, abused and imprisoned by Serb paramilitaries. Due to intervention by the British government she was eventually pardoned and released, whereupon she returned to the border of Kosovo. She traced the children (and found almost 100 others also in need of help) The US accepted half of the evacuees, but while she was trying to secure places abroad for the remaining 50 she was shot by masked gunmen. Although the President of Albania sent a helicopter to evacuate her, she refused to abandon the children , remaining there for several weeks, until they had been accepted abroad for medical treatment.
Perhaps the greatest heroes are the ones we seldom hear of; mothers and fathers who raise families, individuals who channel their skills into making life better for others.
‘Who was Judah Maccabee?’ by Dr Henry Abramson
‘Who was Bar Kochba?’ by Dr Henry Abramson
‘Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’ by Dr Henry Abramson
‘Hannah Szenes: Poet, Hero, Martyr of the Holocuast’ by Dr Henry Abramson