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 rosh Betar ("head of Betar") at the first world conference in Danzig.
Joseph Trumpeldor, the leader of the Jewish settlers who were killed at Tel Hai in 1920, served 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 establishment of an independent Jewish state. The words of Shir Betar ("The Betar Song"), written by Jabotinsky, include a line that quotes Trumpeldor's last words to "never mind". As the song expresses, Betar youth were to be as "proud, generous, and fierce [alternately translated as 'cruel']" as Trumpeldor, and 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 CE) 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.
Vladimir Jabotinsky in the company of Betar commanders, Palestine
Despite resistance from both Zionist and non-Zionist Jews, Betar quickly gained a large following in Poland, Palestine, Latvia, Lithuania, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and elsewhere. It was particularly successful in Poland, which had the largest Jewish population in Europe at the time.
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. The interwar Polish government helped Betar with military training.
Some members admired the Polish nationalist camp and imitated some of its aspects.
Members of Betar in Europe, circa 1934.
Members of Betar movement at a summer camp in the Polish
resort town Zakopane
Betar formation in Berlin
Zeev Jabotinsky (bottom right) meeting with Betar leaders in Warsaw
. Bottom left Menachem Begin
Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, Betar aided the widespread immigration of Jews to Palestine in violation of the British Mandate's immigration quotas, which had not been increased despite the surge of refugees from the Nazi persecution and murder of Jews. 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 (ŻZW; "Jewish Military Union"), which fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Mordechai Anielewicz, the head of the other major uprising group, Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB; "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 Josef Glazman, head of Betar Lithuania, battled the Nazis alongside the Lithuanian partisans in the forests outside 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 ("National Military Organisation", known as "Etzel"). 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 were at odds with the mainstream Zionist establishment's policy of restraint in response to Arab attacks. Throughout most of the 1930s and '40s, 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, Avraham "Yair" Stern, broke away and formed the Stern Group, later renamed LEHI (Lohamei Herut Yisrael, "Freedom Fighters For Israel"), which 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 World War II, 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 1948–49 war that established the initial borders of the newly proclaimed state of Israel. 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, and former Defense Minister Moshe Arens. Former Likud/Kadima minister (in several offices) Tzipi Livni MK was a youth Betarist. Yoel Hasson MK was formerly national head of Betar in Israel. Livni and Hasson later formed Hatnuah, which in 2015 allied with Labor in the center-left Zionist Union.
Since the 1970s, Betar has suffered a 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.
In the early 21st century, Betar had around 21,000 members globally.
Most recently, in 2014, Betar 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, some Betar members displayed the emblem formerly used by the Jewish Defense League.