The Betar Movement (בית"ר, also spelled Beitar) is a Revisionist Zionist youth movement founded in 1923 in Riga, Latvia, by Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Betar members played important roles in the fight against the British during the Mandate, and in the creation of Israel. It has been traditionally linked to the original Herut and then Likud Israeli political parties.
In the post-Versailles Treaty Poland, Betar became the fighting arm of the disenchanted right-wing Jewish settlers, who felt victimized by the treaty's anti-German stance which, through the creation of Poland, deprived them of the Germanic culture and as they spoke Yiddish - the German language.
Whereas in other parts of Poland, that until the Versailles Treaty belonged to Russia, Jews would express a more leftist sentiment. In the Polish National Committee's report of 8th December 1919, the then temporary Polish Governing Body, we find: "In Kielce in the Polish Kingdom, a group of 300 Jewish youths organized a public demonstration on the city streets, shouting: 'Long live Lenin! Long live Trocky! Down with Poland!'. They were confronted by antagonized populous; in the bloody confrontation that ensued, about 40 demonstrators were killed. They fell victim not because they were Jews, but because they were Bolsheviks, because they offended Polish national sentiments and attempted to lead the country towards anarchy."
It is in this environment, that Jews felt a need to create a coherent and strong self defense arm. Latvia, with its historical and lingual links to German culture and language, offered an ideal haven.
Jabotinsky also wanted to connect the name of the first Jewish fighter after 2000 years to the name of the last fort of Jewish uprising against the Roman Empire in the Bar Kokhba's revolt, Betar, showing that Betar was intent to create a new generation of Jewish warriors. In order to produce the needed acronym, the normal spelling of Trumpeldor's name in Hebrew was changed - תרומפלדור instead of טרומפלדור.
In 1936 Betar membership in Poland alone numbered over 50,000 and was in permanent conflict with the polish radical nationalist movement, National Radical Camp or ONR. ONR had about a tenth of Betar's membership.
In the campaign for Israel's creation in British controlled Palestine, some Betar members fought in the militant Irgun against British rule. A few "graduates" from Betar Poland even joined Abraham Stern's more radical Lehi militant group. Members of Betar were also instrumental in setting up Israel's navy.
Many of Israel's most prominent public figures on the Right have been "graduates" of Betar, including former Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and former Defence Minister Moshe Arens. Current Kadima Member of Knesset Yoel Hasson is a former national head of Betar in Israel.
Today, the Betar Movement is primarily involved in Jewish and Zionist activism. 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. Although Betar has suffered a drastic decline in membership and activities since the 1970s, the movement continues to boast a few strong branches. The most notable of these are the Betar chapters of Australia and Cleveland, Ohio.
As the Likud party, under Benjamin Netanyahu's leadership, moved away from the traditional values of Revisionist Zionism, Betar drew criticism from many on the political right. Old-time Herut supporters, viewing themselves as ideological purists, have claimed that Betar had turned into a breeding grounds for youth seeking political careers. In the late 1990s, Benny Begin broke away from Likud to form Herut – The National Movement. This trend has continued in many countries around the world, and can be seen on Betar's central website.
Betar's chief disadvantage was the predominance of other youth groups. Belonging to the left wing and the Kibbutz movement, Hashomer Hatzair ("Young Guard" - Socialist Zionist), HaNoar haOved vehaLomed ("the Working and Learning Youth" - Labor Zionist), and Habonim Dror (Freedom Builders - Socialist/Labor Zionist), had taken most Israeli youth in throughout the 1950s-70s. Alongside them were the Tzofim (Scouts) and Bnei Akiva. Today Betar remains a marginal youth movement in both Israel and the Diaspora, and has remained far from the power that its parent movement, the Likud, had on the country. Many Betar members, however, have become important political figures in both the Likud and Kadima parties.
Betar-Tagar was active in Montreal and Toronto during the 1980s Lebanon-Israel conflict. A revival of Betar occurred in Montreal on November 9th, 2006. Entitled "Taking Liberties: Terrorism in the West," the event 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. Again at McGill University in March 2007, Betar Montreal held "Radical Islam Awareness Week," a three day conference featuring former Sudanese slave Simon Deng, Canadian lawyer and security specialist David B. Harris 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 co-founder of the Western Standard newspaper Ezra Levant and Jonah Goldberg of the National Review.
During the period of the early to mid-90's, Ronn Torossian served as National President and had hundreds of people involved. Previous leadership in the U.S. included Glenn Mones, Barry Liben and Fred Pierce(Mid 70's), and Benny Rosen (60's).
In addition to its programs for younger students it also has an affiliated program for college age students called Tagar. Betar strongly promotes the idea of Aliya, Jewish immigration to Israel .
Previous Shaliachs to the U.S. have included Sallai Meridor, current Israel Ambassador to the U.S.(late 1980's), Eli Cohen, former Israel Ambassador to Japan (early 1990's), Tova Vagimi, Sharon Tzur and others.
Betar Australia was established in 1948 in Melbourne. 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 maon (home) has been located in Beit Herzl on Old South Head Rd in the Eastern Suburbs since the early 1980s. The Sydney movement has experienced periods of increase and decline, but probably reached 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 also holds annual seminars for senior chanichim as well as educational and training conventions for the senior leaders.
Betar has always been at the forefront of activism in the Australian Jewish communities. From its first protests against the pro-Nazi German pianist Walter Gieseking in Melbourne in 1952 by releasing pigeons and stink bombs during one of his concerts through the battling neo-Nazi groups in the 1960s to spearheading the Sydney Jewish community to protests on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and 80s. Betar Sydney was closely involved in the annual protest outside the Soviet Consulate in Trelawney St, Woollahra each Pesach, as well as mass protests outside the Bolshoi Ballet, the Moscow Circus on Ice (at the Sydney Entertainment Centre) and during the visit to Canberra and Sydney of Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. In later years, Betar took the initiative to organize community protests outside the Iraqi Embassy in Canberra during the First Gulf War and the Iranian Embassy to protest Iranian state sponsorship of terrorism. Betar also marched in front of the German Consulate in Sydney to protest rising anti-Semitism in the then-newly-reunified Germany. In 2004 Betar Sydney was active in protesting Dr. Hanan Ashrawi's receiving of the then Sydney Premier's peace prize.
Betar Australia Inc. is strong in sending Jewish Australian youth to Israel on long-term programs, in January 2008 sending 9 school-leavers on the year long program, Shnat Hachshara, as recognised by the Australian Zionist Youth Council.
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