IN THE summer of 2010, two years before his death at age 102, Benzion Netanyahu gingerly made his way to the gravesite of his mentor Ze’ev Jabotinsky on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl.
Netanyahu had served as Jabotinsky’s personal secretary in 1940, the same year he died on August 4 (29th of Tammuz) at Camp Betar in Hunter, New York. Standing alongside the elderly historian was his son, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the titular head of the Jabotinsky movement.
Jabotinsky was so vilified by Israel’s first premier, David Ben-Gurion, that he forbade bringing Jabotinsky’s remains to Israel.
Only in 1964, when Levi Eshkol took over the premiership, did Israel’s government grant permission for reburial.
The Zionist battle lines between the secular nationalism Jabotinsky embodied and the socialism personified by Ben-Gurion have largely been relegated to history.
Which isn’t to say that Jabotinsky’s legacy isn’t still reviled by old-line leftists.
For example, the octogenarian American polemicist Milton Viorst argues in his latest book “Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal” that Jabotinsky’s hawkish followers ‒ foremost being former premier Menachem Begin and Netanyahu – are to blame for the absence of peace between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs.
On the whole, though, time has tempered attitudes toward Jabotinsky. His image appears on Israeli bank notes, and scores of streets across Israel — even in Tel Aviv, where mayors tend to be Laborites ‒ are named after him.
For the Likud today, Jabotinsky is what Abraham Lincoln is to the Republican Party: a mascot. Certainly, his picture hangs in the offices of the Likud Party in Tel Aviv (alongside Begin’s), but one would be hardpressed to find anything more than trace elements of his legacy in Netanyahu government policies or in the views of rank-and-file Likud members.
Still, as an ideological beacon Jabotinsky has fared better than former president Chaim Weizmann, whose General Zionists faded into Likud, a party that itself was cobbled together out of the mergers of various center-right factions.
Jabotinsky also has done no worse than Ben-Gurion, whose Mapai Workers Party was subsumed into an amalgamated Labor Party that ran under the Zionist Union label in 2015 ‒ and whose constituency is scarcely proletarian.
Jabotinsky was a multifaceted personality, both a cosmopolitan and a nationalist. Like America’s James Madison, his political philosophy stemmed from a particular conception of human nature: political systems need to take into account that people are basically self-interested. Jabotinsky was, in essence, a classical liberal which, in his day, meant that he championed civil liberties, the rule of law, economic freedom and representative ‒ as opposed to direct ‒ democracy.
Oddly enough, those who castigate the Right today often do so by invoking Jabotinsky’s name. Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who migrated from a Labor upbringing, lamented (with Netanyahu in mind) that today’s Likud “is not the Likud movement I joined ‒ the Likud of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin.”
At a special Knesset session on August 3 to mark the 76th anniversary of Jabotinsky’s death, both Netanyahu and Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog invoked his legacy to trade charges over ideological bias in, and control over, the Israeli media.
“What would Jabotinsky think about your efforts to silence the media?” Herzog needled.
“The people will judge at the voting booth and decide with their remote control – that’s Jabotinsky’s view,” retorted Netanyahu.
Among active politicians, those who do more than pay lip-service to Jabotinsky’s legacy are a dwindling cohort. In fact, it is hard to think of any beyond President Reuven Rivlin and MK Benny Begin.
“When I was young, right-wing meant liberal, and liberal meant right-wing,” Rivlin tells The Jerusalem Report. Those who identify with Jabotinsky, he says, need to defend “human rights for every citizen.”
In contrast, today’s more religious and populist Right has been pursuing legislation that would hamstring Israel’s admittedly hyper-activist Supreme Court so as to bend it to popular will. On civil liberties too, the Right has no interest in limiting the power of the state-established ultra-Orthodox (and non-Zionist) rabbinate. Netanyahu, though personally not observant, has allowed Jerusalem’s Western Wall plaza to be administered as if it were an ultra-Orthodox shtiebel.
In his day, Jabotinsky rejected delegitimization of Reform Judaism. Naturally, deducing what Jabotinsky ‒ who died at age 59, eight years before the establishment of the state ‒ might have done in 2016 is a matter of pure conjecture.
Perforce, he was a product of his milieu.
Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky was born on October 18, 1880, in Odessa, Russia.
In “Jabotinsky: A Life,” Hillel Halkin, his most recent and most accessible biographer, describes the city as cosmopolitan, not obsessively religious, diverse and tolerant.
Toward the end of his book, Halkin imagines Jabotinsky being asked for advice on Israel’s current situation, and has him counseling, “Never take advice from a dead man.”
In “The Jabotinsky Story,” his first biographer Joseph Schechtman similarly emphasizes Odessa’s ethos as cosmopolitan and liberal, where “Jewish learning was scarce and the tenor of everyday life was devoid of any traditional color.” And Shmuel Katz, in his massive 1996 biography of Jabotinsky, “Lone Wolf,” also emphasizes that Odessa was “the least Russian of all the cities in the Empire of the Tsars” and left “a deep imprint” on Jabotinsky’s intellectual development.
Jabotinsky himself wrote that he had “no inner contact with Judaism,” and had not “breathed the atmosphere of Jewish cultural tradition” as a youth. Would he have felt at home in a national camp that leans not just politically, but theologically and often socially, to the right? Yisrael Medad, a Jabotinsky expert, former Betar leader, and a veteran religious settlement campaigner, tells The Report that too much is made of Jabotinsky’s secularism.
He points to the research of Eliezer Don-Yehiya of Bar-Ilan University, who has argued that Jabotinsky’s attitude toward Orthodoxy softened and, indeed, by 1935 his New Zionist Organization included a plank that welcomed the Torah’s role in the task of nation-building.
“There is more to Judaism than the laws of kashrut,” Jabotinsky said. In other words, he came to appreciate that religion was a key element in Jewish civilization. No true believer, he nevertheless saw value in rooting the ethics of a future Zionist polity in religion.
At his paramilitary Betar (Brit Trumpeldor) youth movement camps, the food was kosher and Shabbat was respected.
He wished for a “Jewish state that will be Jewish,” and wanted Judaism to inform education.
Halkin notes that in the late 1930s, Jabotinsky went to great lengths to create an alliance with the Orthodox Zionists. It didn’t happen, but it would have been an arrangement based on principles rather than ‒ as was the case with Ben-Gurion’s socialists ‒ on convenience, Halkin tells The Report.
At the same time, there is no hint, even in his later-in-life writings, that he would have been reconciled to a state in which halakha was binding.
Jabotinsky was immensely talented, a master of languages ‒ he spoke Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, Italian and German ‒ and personally a charismatic and spellbinding speaker. He studied law in Switzerland and Italy, but early on turned to journalism, becoming a correspondent for Russian dailies and often writing under the nom de plume “Altalena.” Like Theodor Herzl, Jabotinsky was adept at writing light or satirical prose known as feuilletons.
Throughout his Zionist life, Jabotinsky and his family were financially hardpressed.
There were times when his contributions to the New York-based Yiddish language Jewish Morning Journal provided his only reliable source of income.
If the Dreyfus Trial was Herzl’s defining moment, the devastating April 1903 Kishinev pogroms were the turning point in Jabotinsky’s public life.
He became a fierce advocate of Jewish self-defense. Fearing that the pogroms would come to Odessa, he joined a nascent Jewish self-defense group. That same year, he attended the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel.
In 1906, he was among those Zionist theoreticians who advocated a synthesis of cultural Zionism, education in the Diaspora, political work and settlement in Eretz Israel.
The World Zionist Organization appointed Jabotinsky editor of several publications, and sent him in 1909 to set up shop in Constantinople.
His Hobbesian world view was already discernible in a 1910 essay entitled “A Man Is a Wolf to Man,” in which Jabotinsky wrote, “Do not believe anyone, be always on guard, carry your stick always with you ‒ this is the only way of surviving in this wolfish battle of all against all.”
At the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914, a reformist Russian newspaper made Jabotinsky its roving European correspondent.
Early on, he foresaw that the Ottoman Empire ‒ which controlled Palestine ‒ would be defeated by the Allies. And, like Weizmann (who was then his political comrade and friend), Jabotinsky wanted the Zionist movement to drop its officially neutral stance and side with Britain in World War I. Both men saw British imperialism as a force for good.
WITH WEIZMANN’S quiet support, he campaigned for the creation of a Jewish Legion within the British Army to fight for Palestine, seeing such a move as a way to hitch Zionist aspirations to those of a Britain that seemed poised to supplant Ottoman Turkey in the Middle East. The British consented to create only a Zion Mule Corps, which took part in the 1915-1916 Gallipoli campaign.
The Legion was belatedly approved in 1917, and in 1918, Jabotinsky and the Legionnaires entered Jerusalem with the British army. But he failed to persuade Britain to maintain the Jewish Legion after WWI as a Jewish fighting force in Palestine.
Few remember today, but in 1920, it was Jabotinsky who helped establish the Hagana in Jerusalem to defend against Arab rioters during Passover that year. For his troubles, the British ‒ already backtracking on their November 2, 1917 Balfour Declaration pledge to facilitate a Jewish homeland in Palestine ‒ arrested Jabotinsky and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. A public outcry ensued, and he was granted an amnesty by British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel.
If there is one Jabotinsky position that today is widely embraced, it is that the Zionist-Arab conflict is a zero-sum game.
In his famous 1920 “Iron Wall” essay, recalls Halkin, Jabotinsky argued that the Arab world will never make its peace with a Jewish state until convinced by Jewish military strength and strategic superiority that such a state can never be prevented or removed by force of arms.
Jabotinsky served on the Zionist Executive from 1921 to 1923. Always the gadfly, he dissented from the official go-along get-along Zionist policy on Britain. Taking a page from Herzl, Jabotinsky demanded that the World Zionist Organization make explicit that Zionism’s final aim was the establishment of a Jewish state. When, in January 1923, the WZO refused, he quit the executive.
Weizmann’s empathy for Britain’s Palestine conundrum and his ensuing accommodationist Zionism ‒ Jabotinsky did not want the movement to reconcile itself to Britain’s 1922 excision of 77 percent of the Mandate’s Jewish homeland territory to create what is today the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan ‒ led Jabotinsky to break with Weizmann.
ON DOMESTIC issues, he rejected the notion that socialism and class struggle should animate the Zionist movement. For him, the individual and the interests of the nation as a whole were what mattered. The socialists denounced him as an enemy of the workers, as a militarist, and tarred him as a fascist.
In “The Making of Modern Zionism,” Shlomo Avineri, the doyen of Israeli political science, writes that “Jabotinsky’s alternative to the hegemony of the socialist movement then emerging in Palestine” wasn’t pure laissez-faire capitalism. Jabotinsky envisioned a Zionist society in which the polity would provide a social and economic safety net including health care.
If by “fascist” his political enemies meant Jabotinsky was intolerant of minority rights, favored dictatorial rule, used demagoguery or religious literalism to whip up the masses ‒ they were barking up the wrong tree.
Halkin tells The Report that Jabotinsky was a firm believer in minority rights, including the rights of non-Jews living among Jews.
“Of course, all this can be said to have been theoretical,” says Halkin. “In practice, he never had to take positions on minority rights in a sovereign Jewish state. But I believe that if he had lived in such a state, he would have fought for those rights, as unpopular in some nationalist circles as this might have made him.”
Halkin continues, “He had a very strong sense of justice and fairness. I don’t believe he would have kept it under wraps as a matter of political discretion. He never minded being unpopular half as much as he minded being untrue to himself.”
As for militarism, for Jabotinsky arms were a matter of survival and pride. He wrote, “For centuries, the nations of the world had been used to hearing that Jews were defeated here, and Jews were protected there ‒ you either defeated or protected us ‒ and it is difficult to decide what was more humiliating: the defeats or being protected. It is time to show the world a Jewish rifle with a Jewish bayonet.”
To give expression to his philosophy, Jabotinsky created the Revisionist Zionist Party on April 25, 1925, in Paris. He had already established Betar in Riga in 1923, and had designed its uniforms and composed its anthem himself.
In British Mandate Palestine, the Hagana evolved into Palestinian Jewry’s semiofficial defense arm masterminded by Ben-Gurion. Jabotinsky had been barred by British authorities from reentering Palestine ‒ following an overseas lecture tour ‒ in the wake of the murderous 1929 Arab riots.
As Arab violence grew more extreme, some Hagana leaders rejected the Zionist establishment’s policy of havlaga, or restraint.
Inspired by Jabotinsky’s militant ideas, they established the underground Irgun in 1931 as a breakaway. In practice, Jabotinsky had rather limited say over the Irgun even though, after 1939, he was touted as its supreme commander.
Meanwhile, though permanently in exile, Jabotinsky was astonishingly creative.
He wrote short stories, poems, songs, dictionaries, textbooks and plays, not to mention polemic essays. He translated Hebrew poetry into Russian, and translated Dante’s “Inferno” into Hebrew. In 1926, Jabotinsky released “Samson the Nazarite,” the first of several novels.
Come World War II, Jabotinsky demanded a Zionist alliance with Britain despite its policy of keeping the gates of Palestine locked to Jewish asylum seekers. It was precisely Britain’s locked-door policy that led Avraham Stern ‒ one month after Jabotinsky’s death in August 1940 ‒ to form the radical breakaway Freedom Fighters for Israel, more commonly known as the Stern Gang.
Jabotinsky’s position on the Arabs of Palestine was nuanced. He by no means rejected Arab civil rights. Indeed, he wanted to create a situation of absolute equal rights.
“If things fare badly for the Arabs of Palestine,” he wrote “then things will fare badly for the entire country. The political, economic and cultural welfare of the Arabs will thus always remain one of the main conditions for the well-being of the Land of Israel.”
In 1937, he told the Palestine Royal Commission that there was “no question of ousting the Arabs. On the contrary, the idea is that Palestine on both sides of the Jordan could hold the Arabs, their progeny and many millions of Jews.” He went on, “What I do not deny is that, in that process, the Arabs of Palestine will necessarily become a minority in the country of Palestine.”
But that was in 1937, when there were 9.5 million Jews in Europe ‒ many of whom Jabotinsky fully expected would be prepared to move to Israel. But six million of those were murdered in the Nazi genocide.
Eight months after Hitler came to power in Germany, the Zionist socialist establishment rejected Jabotinsky’s call for an all-out economic boycott of Germany. In fact, on August 25, 1933, they launched the Haavara program for the transfer of Jewish property from Nazi Germany to Palestine.
In those prewar days, the Nazis wanted, foremost, to rid Germany of its Jews, and were willing to facilitate emigration to Palestine in a scheme that allowed the transfer of Jews and their capital, in the form of German export goods. The arrangement undermined the boycott of German goods, but it eased the arrival of some 60,000 German Jews to Palestine, and boosted Palestine’s economic development.
JABOTINSKY WORKED tirelessly to promote the mass evacuation of European Jewry to Palestine ‒ which he initially thought could happen over a 10-year period ‒ in conjunction with various European governments, particularly Poland.
Ultimately, Europe did not want to antagonize Britain, which, in response to Arab rage, had greatly restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. And Hitler moved faster and more fiendishly than even Jabotinsky’s worst nightmare.
The schism between Jabotinsky and the socialists had become ever more visceral.
The socialists were convinced that Jabotinsky’s followers were responsible for the 1934 assassination in Tel Aviv of Haim Arlosoroff, head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency and a key player in the Haavara scheme. The rift was never to be bridged, even after Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky held a London summit in October 1934. The socialist movement simply rejected any rapprochement, thereby prompting Jabotinsky to pull out altogether from the World Zionist Organization.
Addressing a Warsaw audience in Yiddish on Tisha Be’av, August 7, 1938, Jabotinsky delivered an eerily prescient warning to Polish Jewry: “I continue to warn you incessantly that a catastrophe is coming closer… My heart bleeds that you, dear brothers and sisters, do not see the volcano which will soon begin to spit its all-consuming lava. I realize you do not see this because you are immersed in your daily worries. Today, however, I demand from you trust. You were convinced that my prognoses have proven to be right. If you think otherwise, then drive me out of your midst. However, if you do believe me, then listen to me in this 12th hour. In the name of God! Let any one of you save himself as long as there is still time. And of time, there is very little…”
Jabotinsky was spared having to witness the materialization of this apocalyptic prophecy. But neither did he live to see the day when the socialist Zionists accepted his line ‒ and explicitly demanded a Jewish state with a Jewish majority and unlimited immigration.
At Jabotinsky’s New York City funeral in August 1940, tens of thousands lined Second Avenue trying to catch a glimpse of the hearse carrying his remains. The broygez was momentarily set aside, and all Zionist factions were represented inside the chapel.
The odium between Jabotinsky’s followers and Ben-Gurion’s camp would get much, much, worse before it got better. But now, in every practical sense, it is over: history has granted each camp a degree of vindication.
But if Jabotinsky’s battle with the Left is finished, his place on the right has never been more uncertain. On the one hand, his legacy is alien to the demagogic, religiously indifferent, soccer hooligan set who have carved out a niche inside Likud. On the other hand, today’s mainstream Right is imbued by religious ‒ occasionally messianic ‒ fervor; it’s bolstered by the stunning success of the settlement enterprise, and inspired by a new pantheon of heroes – some of whom claim halakha supersedes the law of the land.
Yet, one right-wing insider with contacts among both religious and secular factions insists that the Orthodox Right wants and welcomes old-school secular nationalist support.
Even so, it is hard to shake the feeling that to the extent that today’s Right does pay homage to Jabotinsky, it is more out of courtesy than affinity.
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