The most embattled of Zionist prophets gave birth to a movement that has come to dominate the Israeli political system, no less than Ben-Gurion’s Mapai did in the first decades of statehood.
Although little-known in the English-speaking world today, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky (1880-1940) is a towering figure in the history of Zionism whose influence pervades Israel, and whose political descendants dominate its politics. His life was as dramatic and heroic as that of any figure in the annals of 20th century history, from Theodor Herzl to Theodore Roosevelt, from Winston Churchill to the other giants of the age. A new biography in English, the first since 1996, is therefore greatly to be welcomed.
Jabotinsky was not only one of the most important Zionist leaders of the twentieth century, but also a man who could have had the comforts of a career as an eminent playwright, novelist, journalist, lawyer, author, and translator. Instead, he gave up those careers and rechanneled his literary and legal skills into a life devoted to Zionism.
In his new book Jabotinsky: A Life, the latest in Yale University’s distinguished “Jewish Lives” series, Hillel Halkin notes that part of Theodor Herzl’s extraordinary impact on Jews stemmed from their belief that he had a kind of born-again Jewish identity—the result of observing the Dreyfus trial in 1895. Just as Moses had rejected the life of an Egyptian prince to become the leader of his downtrodden people, Herzl gave up his career as a successful, assimilated journalist to do the same. Jabotinsky generated the same kind of veneration, and he holds a particular relevance for contemporary Jews. As Halkin writes:
Unlike the Zionism of the Weizmanns and Ben-Gurions, which aspired to solve not only the Jewish predicament but their own predicament as Jews, Herzl’s Zionism seemed disinterested and therefore grander … Jabotinsky, a rising star like Herzl in the worlds of journalism and theater when he abandoned both for full-time Zionist activity, was to inspire similar emotions.
But the parallel is not just between him and Herzl, or even between him and young Western European Jews of his era. It is also between him and many young Jews of our own age, whose upbringing, while not at all like Chaim Weizmann’s or David Ben-Gurion’s, is a great deal like Jabotinsky’s in Odessa … Odessa had instilled in him, alongside his Jewish identity, a potentially non-Jewish one as well … He had a choice.
The choice he made, and what he put aside in order to do it, is a story that inspires awe. It is a major chapter of modern Jewish history about which many American Jews are unaware.
It is also a key to understanding contemporary Israel and its current leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister since Ben-Gurion. His father, Benzion Netanyahu, was Jabotinsky’s executive assistant in 1940 and, later, an eminent Israeli historian whose final book, The Founding Fathers of Zionism, described Israel as a country that—like America—was built on the intellectual foundations of its founders: Leo Pinsker, Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, Israel Zangwill, and Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Douglas Feith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and Deputy Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush, observed in a 2010 address on the 70th anniversary of Jabotinsky’s death that no current Israeli leaders call themselves Ben-Gurionites or Weizmannites, but “many proudly think of themselves as Jabotinskyites.” Halkin’s subject is an important one, both in terms of Zionist history and present-day Israel.
A biographer seeking to tell Jabotinsky’s story in 230 pages, however, faces major hurdles. Two major Jabotinsky biographies are already available—each a comprehensive two-volume work, each written by a close associate of Jabotinsky: Joseph Schechtman and Shmuel Katz. Together, these total some 3,000 pages. Can anything new be said about Jabotinsky’s life? Can that which has already been told be retold succinctly?
It is to Halkin’s great credit that he has accomplished both. Readers can now discover Jabotinsky’s life and work in a single volume that tells his story in a way at once succinct and new. Jabotinsky: A Life provides a valuable introduction to one of the most important of the founding fathers of Zionism.
The book nevertheless suffers from several significant omissions, some understandable given the page limits of the Jewish Lives series, others reflecting a failure to consider more of Jabotinsky’s political writings. The book also contains, in my view, a serious misjudgment about what Jabotinsky would say to us today.
Halkin begins with a description of Odessa, the city of Jabotinsky’s birth, where he lived his first 17 years before leaving in 1897 to pursue his education in Italy. Those 17 years represented not only his formative years, but those of Zionism as well. Odessa was at the center of the intellectual and cultural development of Jewish nationalism, and the story of the city is in significant part also Jabotinsky’s story.
Today many consider Odessa the archetypal city of the “old country,” but its most salient feature in 1880 was that it was young. It began as an outpost in “New Russia”—the land Russia seized from the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 18th century. As Tsar Alexander I developed Russia’s new southern borders, Odessa grew into an important commercial center, with relatively few governmental restrictions or taxes, and welcomed immigrants. Jews there enjoyed a freedom unknown to those who lived in the dirt-poor rural shetls elsewhere in Russia.
By 1880, the city—on the northern shore of the Black Sea, facing what is now Istanbul to the south—was comprised of Jews, Greeks, Italians, Armenians, Romanians, and Ukrainians, with no one group in the majority. Jews comprised about one-third of Odessa’s 400,000 inhabitants. Decades later, Jabotinsky described the city as populated primarily by “the descendants of the three tribes which once created humanity: the Greeks, the Romans and the Jews.” He called it a place that “did not have any tradition, but it was therefore not afraid of new forms of living.” Halkin quotes one of Jabotinsky’s memories of his childhood Odessa friends:
[M]y Jewish gang had nothing Jewish about it. The literature we read wasn’t Jewish, and we argued about Nietzsche, morality, and sex, not about the fate of Russian Jewry, though this was ultimately our fate, too.
The great appeal of Odessa, in addition to its economic opportunities, was precisely the absence of both Jewish history and the strict rabbinical authority that governed Jewish life elsewhere. The “port Jews” largely abandoned the traditional piety of the “shtetl Jews.” Odessa became both famous and infamous, its reputation captured in two Yiddish expressions: leben vi Got in Odess (“to live like God in Odessa”), and zibn mayl arum Odess brent dos gehenem (“the fires of hell burn for seven miles around Odessa”).
Odessa’s Jews lived with a sense that, as a mid-century survey phrased it, “the flame of civilization … [has] dissipated the shadows of prejudice.” In 1855, the 37-year-old Alexander II became the new tsar and initiated unprecedented change. He abolished serfdom in 1861, ended the conscription of juveniles into the army, and reduced many restrictions on Jews, who called him the “Emperor of Mercy.” In Odessa, Jews had found what they thought was the ideal place to create a new version of Jewish life.
In 1881, Alexander II was assassinated by a group of anarchists, which included a Jewish woman. In response, pogroms swept like tornadoes through Russia, beginning in 1881 and extending into 1882. The new tsar was repressive, the masses anti-Semitic, and the press hostile. The psychological effect on Russian Jews was profound. The impact on one of Odessa’s most prominent physicians, 60-year old Dr. Leo Pinsker, was life-changing.
Pinsker had been part of the first generation of Russian Jews admitted to the universities. His career as a teacher and then a physician made him the personification of the enlightened and educated Russian Jew. In Benzion Netanyahu’s words, for Pinsker, “as it was for every enlightened Jew … [it was] an age of unshaken optimism for the final victory of the liberal idea.” He was the head of the Odessa Society for the Promotion of Culture among Russian Jews, and he was stunned by the widespread, rampant, continuing pogroms that reached even Odessa. They caused him to rethink the principles that had guided his entire life.
In 1882, Pinsker anonymously published an extended essay entitled “Auto-Emancipation,” chastising Jews for waiting expectantly “for the age of universal harmony.” He urged them to embrace a different remedy, “more thoroughgoing than those palliatives to which our hapless people have been turning for 2000 years.” He proposed a new Exodus, back to a forgotten time and place that was part of their identity. Halkin mentions the essay only in passing, but it is worth quoting a short excerpt to illustrate the eloquence of the argument that would later change Jabotinsky’s life:
The Jewish people has no fatherland of its own, though many motherlands; no center of focus or gravity, no government of its own, no official representation. They are everywhere, but are nowhere at home. The nations have never to deal with a Jewish nation but always with mere Jews … [T]he Jews seem rather to have lost all remembrance of their former home … Often to please their protectors, they [renounce] their traditional individuality entirely … We must prove that the misfortunes of the Jews are due, above all, to their lack of desire for national independence; and that this desire must be awakened and maintained in time if they do not wish to be subjected forever to disgraceful existence — in a word, we must prove that they must become a nation. …
Pinsker was well ahead of his time – he published his essay 14 years before Herzl’s 1896 Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). He lacked Herzl’s charisma, however, and the immediate impact of his essay was limited. Two decades later, however, the young Jabotinsky would be captivated by it. In 1903, he would find himself at the center of the Jewish response to an unprecedentedly brutal pogrom. It would mark his entrance, at age 23, into the role that would engage and consume the rest of his life.
The effect of Italy on the young Jabotinsky, as Halkin describes it, was intoxicating. He spent his student years learning Italian, studying with illustrious teachers, living the bohemian life while also a foreign correspondent for a liberal Odessa newspaper. He covered politics, literature, theater, and opera, and filed reports on his travels in the country. He wrote a popular column under the pen name “Altalena” (a name his followers gave in his honor to a historically important ship in 1948). Halkin writes that “Rome opened Jabotinsky’s eyes … to the cultural treasures of a country that embodied every state of Western civilization.”
Odessa was ultimately a provincial town, without a history, without traditions, without a folk shaped and molded by long centuries, without the liberal political structure that alone could protect its diversity from eventual effacement. Rome was the real thing. … [I]t left Jabotinsky with a lifelong vision of what a decent, free, and pleasurable society could be like – the society he was to want for another former and future people of the Mediterranean: his own.
Italy afforded Jabotinsky the chance to live an entirely non-Jewish life. In June 1901, he returned to Odessa for the summer, but when the newspaper Odesskaya Novosti offered him a well-paid position as its regular columnist, he accepted and remained there.
Not long thereafter, Jabotinsky caused a furor in the Odessa Writers’ Club, the city’s liveliest intellectual salon, where he delivered an address on the importance of the individual, arguing that Marxism’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” would pose the greatest threat to freedom in history. The police were called to restore order, and continued to keep tabs on Jabotinsky as a possible anarchist or populist. They arrested him in 1902, scrutinized his books, and jailed him for nearly two months. He remained under surveillance for the next nine years.
In the summer of 1901, his Odessan friend, Shlomo Saltzman, loaned him works by Pinsker and Herzl. Herzl was gaining adherents in Russia and among prominent European intellectuals such as Max Nordau and Israel Zangwill. The following year, Jabotinsky wrote a column defending Zionism from those who attacked it as “reactionary.” He acknowledged that it was unclear whether Zionism was a desirable or practical solution, “but to call it reactionary is grossly to defame a dream sprung from the Jewish people’s sea of tears and suffering … The dream is greater than its slanderers.”
In 1903, a Russian boy was murdered near Kishinev, 90 miles from Odessa. Rumors spread that the Jews were responsible—purportedly to use his blood to bake Passover matzo (Halkin notes that the boy’s uncle was later found guilty of the murder). The government-sponsored press kept the rumor alive, and a particularly vicious pogrom erupted on Easter Sunday, with scores of Jews dead and Jewish women raped in front of their terrified husbands and children. Halkin writes that more than 1,000 Jewish homes and stores were sacked and looted, but the numbers do not adequately convey the severity of the event. The New York Times on April 28, 1903 reported the massacres were “worse than the censor will permit to publish;” that “the Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep;” and that the “scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description.”
Jabotinsky learned of the pogrom during its second day, just as he finished delivering a lecture in Odessa on Pinsker. He joined a clandestine Jewish defense force and threw himself into writing proclamations, raising money for guns, and establishing patrols. He traveled to Kishinev to help distribute money and supplies to the survivors. There he found a scrap of Torah parchment in the debris, and retained it for years. It read : “I have been a stranger in a strange land.” The words were those of Moses in Exodus 2:22. Jabotinsky composed a poem referring to the scrap as:
Just a few words from the Bible, but the sum
Of all one needs to understand
About a pogrom.
Jabotinsky used his poem as the introduction to his Russian translation of Chaim Nachman Bialik’s “In the City of Slaughter,” an epic poem in Hebrew that castigated the “concealed and cowering” reaction of “the sons of the Maccabees” who hid and prayed in Kishinev. It is the most famous poem of the most illustrious modern Hebrew poet, but Jabotinsky’s Russian translation reached an even larger audience. It captivated Russian Jews, who circulated it widely in handwritten copies and read it aloud to audiences. It was, as Halkin writes, “something new in Hebrew literature—not another lamentation for Jewish victimhood permitted by an all-powerful God, but self-castigation for what a powerless God could not have prevented.” Jabotinsky’s translation carried his name far beyond Odessa.
Until then, Jabotinsky had been a playwright—with two plays produced in Odessa—a poet, a translator, a foreign correspondent, and a newspaper columnist. He was one of the few Jews in Russia who might reasonably have expected to enjoy a successful career outside the Pale of Settlement. The Russian author Alexander Kuprin wrote that Jabotinsky had “a God-given talent [and] could have been an eagle of Russian literature had you [Jews] not stolen him from us.” Instead, in 1903, at 23, Jabotinsky became a delegate from Odessa to the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel. There he heard Herzl speak, the year before Herzl’s untimely death at 44.
Halkin opens his chapter on “Jabotinsky the Zionist” with his move to St. Petersburg in 1903 to join the editorial staff of a new Zionist periodical, Jewish Life. He married his wife, Ania, in 1907 after a long courtship, then spent months in Vienna researching the problems of European minorities. He concluded that a people’s future was tied to land and language, and determined “well ahead of most Zionists” (in Halkin’s words) that “in the growing turmoil of the early twentieth century it was every people for itself.”
Virtually all contemporary European Jews resisted that conclusion, believing a liberal order would fully integrate the Jews, but, Jabotinsky refused to avert his eyes from the evidence before him.
In 1912, Jabotinsky earned his law degree from the University of Yaroslavl, and embarked on a 50-stop lecture tour promoting Hebrew-language education in Russia. He established a reputation as a compelling orator, capable of delivering speeches and lectures in multiple languages (which ultimately included Russian, Italian, Yiddish, Hebrew, German, French, English, and Polish). Konstantin Dmitrievich Nabokov, the uncle of the novelist, called him the finest orator in Russia; Arthur Koestler, who heard the great political speakers of his time, wrote that “none of them had [Jabotinsky’s] ability to mesmerize an audience.” Joseph Schechtman recalled Jabotinsky’s address to an audience of Russian liberals in which he listed instances of anti-Semitic violence, punctuating each with the refrain, “And where were you then, all you progressive Russian intellectuals?”
At the outset of World War I, Jabotinsky foresaw that it would mark the end of the Ottoman Empire, and thus grant sovereignty over Palestine to the victors—yet another far-reaching conclusion prominent Zionists resisted. Nordau counseled neutrality, on the grounds that Jews lived in countries on both sides of the conflict. Ben-Gurion, living in Turkish-ruled Palestine, thought the Turks might well prevail, and urged Palestinian Jews to support Turkey to avoid post-war charges of disloyalty. Jabotinsky was certain Great Britain would emerge victorious, and that the Jews’ claim to their historic homeland would only be taken seriously if they fought on the side of those who liberated it. He devoted himself to creating a Jewish Legion to fight on Britain’s side—the first organized Jewish military force in 1,300 years.
Jabotinsky’s effort to form the Jewish Legion was, in Halkin’s words, “a one-man campaign, launched and conducted without an organization, without financial resources, without prior access to the corridors of power, without at first any fluency in spoken English.” The Zionist leadership opposed the idea; Jewish writers such as Ahad Ha’am feared Zionism’s “militarization”; indeed, there was a widespread belief that Jews would not make good soldiers. But as the Legion’s British commander, Lt. Col. J.H. Patterson, later wrote in With the Judaeans in the Palestine Campaign, Jabotinsky “lifted the debate to a level immeasurably above the point of view of his opponents.”
Several months after Jabotinsky succeeded in forming the Jewish Legion, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration. The Jewish Legion fought to support General Edmund Allenby in liberating Jerusalem, with Jabotinsky enlisting as a private and emerging as a second lieutenant.
Jabotinsky’s major achievement after World War I was his formation of a youth organization, “Betar,” a Hebrew acronym based on the name of Joseph Trumpeldor, the legendary soldier who died fighting to protect a Jewish settlement in Palestine; it was also the name of the stronghold where the Jews in the Bar-Kokhba revolt made a last stand against the Romans.
By 1939, Betar had, according to Schechtman, 78,000 members worldwide, half in Poland. Betar offered its followers a wide range of social and cultural activities, taught them Hebrew, Jewish history and Zionist theory, provided vocational training, and trained them—in contrast to other Zionist youth movements—in military skills and self-defense. In 1922, Jabotinsky wrote that he wanted “to see military training become as common among Jews as lighting Sabbath candles once was.”
Betar did not link itself to a specific political ideology—it was neither socialist nor agrarian, but rather “monistic,” reflecting Jabotinsky’s belief that the goal of a Jewish state must rank higher than any particular political perspective. The credo of Betar was “hadar,” a Hebrew word with no exact English equivalent, but which combined “dignity,” “honor,” and “majesty.” Jabotinsky continually reminded Jews that they were the sons of kings. In his 1934 essay, “The Idea of Betar,” he expressed its central principles:
Behind every one of us stand seventy generations of ancestors who could read and write, and who spoke about and inquired into God and history, peoples and kingdoms, ideas of justice and integrity, humanity and its future. Every Jew is in this sense a “prince.”
Hadar was intended to set the standard for a new Jewish society and a new Jewish man. It required that Betar’s members be courteous at all times, walk and eat with grace, allow women, elders, and small children to precede them in public places, and to value humor. Jabotinsky wanted Jews to act in an elevated manner, and to unify in pursuit of the state that was once theirs and to which their claim had never expired. He also thought Zionism as practiced in Betar would save Jewish youth from the siren song of communism, which he had seen take over his native land and produce precisely what he had predicted in his first Odessa speech.
In 1925, Jabotinsky separated from the mainstream Zionist organization, the Weizmann-led World Zionist Organization, to form the “Revisionist” Zionist party. The term conveyed his desire to “revise” Zionism to return to Herzl’s goal of establishing a Jewish state as soon as possible, on the entire area outlined in the League of Nations Mandate. Mainstream Zionists preferred ambiguity about the ultimate meaning of a “Jewish homeland” and the timetable on which to establish a state. Jabotinsky also opposed the socialist orientation of the mainstream Zionists; he thought a socialist economy would fail, and that it discriminated against entrepreneurial Jews. He wanted a state, immediately, for Jews of all classes and callings, from farmers to physicians.
Jabotinsky was more realistic than Labor Zionists about the Palestinian Arabs. He considered the belief that Jewish and Arab workers would unite on class lines to be naïve, and he wrote that forcing Arabs from Palestine was “totally out of the question.” He believed there would always be two peoples in Palestine; his goal was only that the Jews become the majority in their own state, and provide equal civil and religious rights for all citizens, whether Jewish or Arab.
In 1938, in a Tisha b’Av address that is arguably his most well-known, and unquestionably the most poignant speech of his life, Jabotinsky urged the Jews of Poland to leave before the volcano consumed them, a historic warning of stunning eloquence that Halkin curiously omits entirely from his book. In 1940, a few months after the beginning of World War II, Jabotinsky made the perilous cross-Atlantic sea voyage to the United States, on a ship filled largely with refugees, on a mission to organize a Jewish army. He wanted Jews to help “fight the giant rattlesnake” in Europe. He gave speeches of Churchillian eloquence that struck a nerve among overflow audiences at the Manhattan Center in New York. American Jewish leaders predictably shunned him. Jabotinsky died suddenly on August 3, 1940, at 59, shortly after he arrived at the Betar camp upstate New York. Two days later, more than 25,000 people lined the streets of Manhattan to pay homage as his funeral cortege passed slowly before them.
What would Jabotinsky do today? We can answer this question with a high degree of certainty, based on his two most famous essays from 1923 and his final book, published in 1940. Halkin does not discuss the writings, and this lapse leads him to a major misjudgment about Jabotinsky’s current relevance.
In his 1923 essay “The Iron Wall,” Jabotinsky predicted that the Jews in Palestine would face ceaseless Arab violence until they convinced the Arabs that they could not force the Jews to flee. Since the Zionists were committed to equal rights, peace did not depend “on our attitude to the Arabs, but entirely on the attitude of the Arabs to us and to Zionism.” He predicted they would resist a Jewish state “as long as there remains a solitary spark of hope” that they could prevent its creation. He envisioned eventual discussions of “Arab national integrity,” but thought such discussions were both premature and counterproductive before Arab acceptance of a Jewish state.
In his companion essay, “The Ethics of the Iron Wall,” Jabotinsky cited a Talmudic story to illustrate his view. Two men find a piece of cloth on the road. “A” says “I found it. It’s mine.” But “B” says: “No, I found it, and it’s mine.” They take their dispute to a judge and A—hoping to impress the judge with his magnanimity—says: “We both found the cloth, and therefore I ask only half of it, because the second half belongs to B.” Jabotinsky noted the Talmudic teaching is “very disappointing to our magnanimous gentleman”:
The judge says: “There is agreement about one half of the cloth. ‘A’ admits that it belongs to B. So it is only the second half that is in dispute. We shall, therefore divide this into two halves.” And the obstinate claimant gets three-quarters of the cloth, while the “gentleman” has only one quarter, and it serves him right. It is a very fine thing to be a gentleman, but it is no reason for being an idiot. Our ancestors knew that. But we have forgotten it. We should bear it in mind. …
It is incredible what political simpletons Jews are. They shut their eyes to one of the most elementary rules of life, that you must not “meet halfway” those who do not want to meet you.[Emphasis added]
More than 66 years after the establishment of the state of Israel, the Palestinian Arabs still refuse to accept it as a Jewish state: their version of a “two-state solution” gives them a state and, in addition, a “return” to Israel, based on their insistent rejection of its legitimacy as a Jewish state. In the meantime, Israel has agreed that almost all of Judea and Samaria will become a Palestinian state, so the debate centers on a purported “right of return” to Israel. For the Palestinians, the “return” is like a Talmudic piece of cloth to which they consistently cling, while Israel magnanimously agrees to split the land.
If he were alive today, it is a virtual certainty that Jabotinsky would counsel that any discussions with the Palestinians about “Arab national integrity” are destined to be futile until the Arabs are ready to recognize a Jewish state, and he would point to the last 20 years as indisputable proof. He would make Arab recognition of a Jewish state the new Iron Wall—a non-negotiable condition for peace talks, something Israel is owed as a matter of hadar.
Moreover, if he witnessed what Palestinian nationalism has become—a movement unable to form the basic institutions of a peaceful, democratic state, a Palestinian society steeped in anti-Semitism, repeatedly rejecting offers of a state from a succession of Israeli prime ministers—it is highly likely that Jabotinsky would counsel that it is time to return to the one-state solution he endorsed in his 1940 book, The War and the Jew, which is once again a solution to grapple with after two decades of failed attempts to effectuate a two-state one.
In an imaginary conversation in the book’s epilogue between the biographer and his subject, Halkin asks Jabotinsky, “What should Israel do now?” The fictive Jabotinsky responds: “Get the best deal you can … The best possible deal for the Jewish people was all I wanted.”
That is not, however, “all” Jabotinsky wanted; indeed, it is not what he wanted at all. It reflects the Jewish psychology Jabotinsky spent his life seeking to correct. He wanted Jews to insist on their fundamental rights, not to accept whatever the Arabs or others might be persuaded to give them. Settling for “the best possible deal,” instead of insisting on that to which one was entitled as a matter of history and hadar, led to outcomes such as what the magnanimous Talmudic gentleman received.
Halkin concludes that Jabotinsky was more prescient than all other Zionist leaders on virtually every significant issue of the day, but he judges him a political failure. Jabotinsky’s story, however, extended beyond his lifespan, and his influence endures. His principles became those of one of Israel’s leading political parties; his protégé became the country’s transformational prime minister; today, his intellectual descendant is the current prime minister. Jabotinsky lies today on Mount Herzl, among Israel’s most revered leaders. It would take a longer volume, perhaps two, to convey his story in full.
Banner Photo: Jabotinsky Institute in Israel