Remembering Mendel Portugali: A Pioneer of Jewish Defense

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Remembering Mendel Portugali: A Pioneer of Jewish Defense

On This Day, 1917

On this day in 1917, Mendel Portugali, a founder and leading figure of Bar-Giora and later, Hashomer – the first modern Jewish defense organizations in Israel, and precursors to the Haganah and IDF – passed away following a tragic self-inflicted gunshot accident.

Early Life and Revolutionary Beginnings

Born in Calarasi, Moldova (then under the Russian Empire) in 1888, Portugali grew up in an observant environment, attending traditional Jewish elementary school, or “cheder”. His last name suggests descent from Portuguese-Jewish refugees expelled centuries earlier. Excelling in math, he initially studied commerce in Kishinev but was expelled for his involvement with a revolutionary group. He subsequently worked as a tradesman.

Struggle and Exile

Portugali dedicated himself to rallying his fellow Moldovans against the Czar’s oppressive regime. His actions, deemed as “inciting Jew” by the government, led to his arrest, brutal treatment, and a sentence of five years of hard labor in Siberia. Surviving near an Eskimo village, he learned to fish, which helped him endure his exile. Two years later, he was pardoned and returned to Moldova.

Activism and Defense

In Moldova, Portugali engaged with Poalei Zion, worked as a journalist, and taught math, all while being monitored by Russian authorities. He was instrumental in defending the Jewish community during the Bessarabian pogroms, an involvement that forced him to flee his homeland.

Founding Bar-Giora and Hashomer

In Ottoman-occupied Palestine, Portugali co-founded Bar-Giora, a Jewish self-defense organization named after Shimon Ben Giora, a leader of the first major Jewish rebellion. Its goal was to protect Jewish towns from attacks. Bar-Giora eventually evolved into Hashomer, the precursor to the Haganah and IDF.

Tragic End and Legacy

As a farmer and key member of these organizations, Portugali’s life was cut short at 29 due to a fatal accident while on duty. He was buried in Kfar Giladi, leaving behind a profound legacy in Jewish defense history.

Original post appears here on Instagram.

Written by ✍🏽: @jewishistoryguy