It would not be exaggerating to claim that the Zionist leader for whom the most city streets across Israel are named is Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky, a fact that should astound anyone familiar with the conjectured perception of Jabotinsky as Zionism’s enfant terrible, a man who symbolized divisive contentiousness. He continues to be perceived as an extremist and a militarist, and was even accused of promoting Jewish fascism. He was hated in Zionist socialist corners as well as amongst Jewish communists. In 1933, the Warsaw bulletin of the Marxist-Zionist HaShomer HaTzair youth movement included a caricature of Jabotinsky staring into a mirror with the figure of Hitler staring back in the reflection.
Jabotinsky was misconstrued and misquoted during his lifetime as well as after his death, as currently exemplified by journalist Peter Beinart, who does so repeatedly. In his 2012 book The Crisis of Zionism, Beinart impugns Jabotinsky, intimating that Jabotinsky did not believe Zionism could be judged by external standards of universalistic morality, that he expressed “racist views,” possessed a fascist outlook, and “looked to the Afrikaners and Ukrainians to craft a Zionism unencumbered by the moralism of the prophets.”
Even in death, Jabotinsky was positioned “outside the camp.” At the end of 1929, he left Palestine for a speaking tour in South Africa, after which the British banned him from ever returning to Mandatory Palestine. From then on, he resided in the Diaspora.
Jabotinsky died in 1940 in the Catskills region of New York at a summer camp of the Betar youth movement, which he had founded. His body was interred on Long Island and his will, written in 1935, stipulated that “My bones if I be buried outside of the Land of Israel, should be transferred to the Land of Israel only at the express order of the Jewish government of that country when it will be established.” David Ben-Gurion, who had designated him as “Vladimir Hitler,” refused to permit his reinternment in the State of Israel. It was Ben-Gurion’s successor, Prime Minister Levy Eshkol, who ordered Jabotinsky’s reinternment in 1964. What is remarkable was Jabotinsky’s steadfast belief that a Jewish state, indeed, would be established; it was just a question of when.
This year, as every year, Jabotinsky’s yahrtzeit will be observed on July 28 (the 29th of Tammuz), in a state memorial ceremony, in the presence of the President of the State of Israel and often the Prime Minister, as well as a representative of Israel’s Supreme Court.
As Jonathan Kaplan has summarized in his doctoral thesis, Jabotinsky’s Zionist political strategies, together with his Revisionist Party, opposed the conciliatory attitude of the Chaim Weizmann-led Zionist Organization; disagreed with the preferential attitude awarded to the socialist settlement enterprises; and predicted long-term struggle with the Arabs in Palestine. He sought the re-establishment of the Jewish Legion he had founded during WWI, and also sought to exclusively focus on the immediate establishment of a Jewish state with a Jewish majority on both sides of the Jordan River. His approach was maximalist in its demands, assertive in its political activity, and initiated independent diplomatic schemes.
The past three decades have seen the publication of numerous books on Jabotinsky, mostly in English and Hebrew. In addition, over 150 academic articles have been published in journals. Colin Shindler authored The Triumph of Military Zionism and The Rise of the Israeli Right and Daniel K. Heller authored Jabotinsky’s Children: Polish Jews and the Rise of Right-Wing Zionism. Jacqueline Rose was quite impressed with Jabotinsky’s novel The Five, and her review of the novel was published in The Nation. Hillel Halkin’s biography of Jabotinsky was reviewed in the New York Review of Books and Avishai Margalit described Jabotinsky as “an exceedingly interesting man: a novelist, translator, poet, playwright, journalist, polemicist, and probably the most remarkable public speaker in modern Jewish life…with his exceptional charisma.”
With the growth of Russian-language studies on the origins of Zionism and more documents from Russian archives becoming available, research into Jabotinsky’s early years has developed into a serious field of inquiry. Edited by the late Felix Dektor are several volumes of Jabotinsky’s Collected Writings, containing his newspaper columns and other works in Russian from 1897-1907. Brian J. Horowitz authored the outstanding Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Russian Years, 1900–1925. In December 1990, the Harvard Ukrainian Studies published “Vladimir Jabotinsky and the Ukrainian Question, 1904-1914,” an article by Olga Andriewsky (currently Associate Professor at Trent University), in which she wrote that “One of the first political thinkers of the Constitutional Era [1905-1917] to recognize the pivotal significance of the Ukrainian question for the future of the Russian Empire as a whole was the young Jewish publicist Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky.” Further, she contended that he had become,
in effect, one of the most outspoken advocates of the Ukrainian national movement in the Russian Empire. Through the sheer force and clarity of his ideas, Jabotinsky ultimately succeeded in accomplishing what the Ukrainian intelligentsia had themselves been trying to do for many years – compel the progressive Russian intelligentsia to confront the Ukrainian question.
Jabotinsky’s name is mentioned often in the Knesset plenum, no less by those on the Left than on the Right as his social welfare ideas have been revitalized and echoed even by Labor Party MKs. These have been well-treated by Raphaella Bilski Ben-Hur in her Every Individual, a King: The Social and Political Thought of Ze’ev Vladimir Jabotinsky. Additionally, the Israel Democracy Institute issued the special downloadable pamphlet, Ze’ev Jabotinsky on Democracy, Equality, and Individual Rights.
Thus, among the questions that now should be considered are: Why is Jabotinsky important? To what extent were his ideas and policies correct? Was the animosity directed at him justified? And what can we gain from rereading him today?
What follows does not attempt to conclusively answer those questions, but rather provides extensive excerpts from Jabotinsky’s writings that will serve as sources of reflection.
In his 1934 piece, “The Ideal of Betar,” Jabotinsky outlined that he wanted “to create a Jewish state in the shortest possible time and in the most perfect form…to create a ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ citizen.” But he was well aware of the challenges, for “the Jewish nation is currently ‘abnormal’ and ‘unhealthy’, and the whole system of relations in the Diaspora contradicts the upbringing of a normal and healthy citizen.” He further explained,
During the two thousand years of dispersion, the Jewish people have lost the ability to direct all their aspirations towards the fulfillment of one purposeful goal, have unlearned how to act as one nation, have lost the ability to defend themselves with weapons in their hands in case of danger.
That is an assertion which, seventy-four years after Jewish statehood was resurrected, has not lost its essential truth.
His Zionism stemmed from his unwavering stance, developed in the last fifteen years of the Russian Empire, that the Jews are a people. A people have characteristics and rights stemming from their identity, their language, their culture and their shared experiences. Earlier, in his 1913 article “Instead of an Apology,” Jabotinsky contended that:
We have nothing to apologize for. We are a people, like all peoples; we have no pretensions to be better. As one of the first conditions for equality, we demand that we have our rights recognized, the right to have our scoundrels, just like other peoples have them.
In 1904, Jabotinsky wrote that Zionism’s political goal
is the national, spiritual and political revival of the Jewish people on its territory and alleviating the lot of the Jews, saving them from destruction through immigration to this territory…. Before Eretz-Yisrael, we were not a people and did not exist. On the soil of Eretz-Yisrael arose, from the fragments of different tribes, the Jewish tribe. The soil of Eretz-Yisrael has nurtured us, made us citizens; creating a religion of one God, we breathed in the wind of Eretz-Yisrael, and fighting for independence and hegemony, we breathed its air and fed on cereals born from its soil. In Eretz-Yisrael, the ideologies of our prophets grew up and the Song of Songs was sung. Everything that is Jewish in us is given to us by Eretz-Yisrael; everything else that we have is not Jewish. Jewry and Eretz-Yisrael are one and the same. There we were born as a nation and matured there. And when the storm threw us out of Eretz-Yisrael, we could not grow further, just as a tree uprooted from the ground cannot grow further. And all our life activity was reduced to the protection of our individuality, which was created by Eretz-Yisrael.
Jabotinsky asserted the rights of Jews as a people to claim national rights. He based the Revisionist Movement’s demand that the future Jewish state consist of a territory from “both banks of the Jordan” on Jewish history as well as on understandings reached at the Versailles Peace Conference. There, the Zionist Organization openly demanded that the Jewish national home extend from the Litani River to the Red Sea and from near El Arish to just west of the Hejaz railroad line in Transjordan. Jewish national identity was not imagined or made up. It was attested to throughout history.
As Raphaella Bilski Ben-Hur explained in Every Individual, A King: The Social and Political Thought of Ze’ev Vladimir Jabotinsky, Jabotinsky held that each nation possessed a self-identity based on physical, psychological and historical experiences. These experiences stemmed from the land upon which the nation developed, the language of its people, and its cultural/religious formulations, as well as how they conducted themselves and how others behaved toward them. While he did employ the term “race,” it was not in the scientific sense that was promoted by eugenicists but more in the sphere of an “ethnic psyche” or a “racial recipe/spectrum.” Thus, it was less predicated on blood or a specific gene, but rather on a mutual “living together” and a shared heritage and legacy. Using this as a foundation, Jabotinsky went beyond geographical borders and sought to adapt popular economic theories of his day by presenting them as modern formulations of biblical programs. His essay, “The Social Philosophy of the Bible,” uses the Shabbat, the Jubilee Year, Peah and other concepts not only to demonstrate that Jews possessed an ancient social philosophy and economic system that worked but to distinguish it from the ideologies of socialism and communism, which he viewed as harmful not only to an economy but to the Jewish people.
For Jabotinsky, the essence of the social philosophy of the Bible was that
God has created the world, but man must assist in improving it. To achieve this purpose, he must fight, even ‘declare war against heaven,’ in order to uproot that which is not suitable for a just world order. His weapons in this war are the knowledge of good and evil – his spirit and his intellect.
Jabotinsky vigorously opposed the idea of “class,” which submerged man’s innate individualism and saw in “class struggle” a process that would delay or even destroy the Jewish people’s efforts to establish a state as it distracted their energy and time on matters that were secondary. Given what was happening in Europe, Jabotinsky viewed the establishment of the state as the primary and immediate goal. Strikes were to be regulated by appeals to a national arbitration board.
Thus, for the non-Zionist and other Jewish socialists, as well as the Histadrut and the Mapai party, Jabotinsky became an “enemy of labor.” And from there it was but a short skip to the accusation of being a fascist.
As for Jabotinsky’s thinking on economics, it was bound up with what he wrote of “social liberation” whose “recipe” consists of two short and simple laws:
First: every person who demands it for any reason receives from the state a certain minimum of his needs – a minimum that society will consider sufficient in a given country and in a given era of technical culture. Secondly: in order to guarantee this minimum, the state has the right to mobilize people and requisition material things in the amount of this need…[and] what we call the basic needs of every person – that for which he now has to fight and look for a job and worry shraen gvald when he does not find a job – consists of five elements: food, accommodation, clothing, education of children and the opportunity to be treated in case of illness. In Hebrew, we can use five words beginning with a mem: mazon, maon, malbush, moreh, marpe.
David Schwartz’s research concludes that Jabotinsky
supported a social democratic approach in the economic dimension, to protect both individualism and the idea of the welfare state. The state has to give the individuals their basic needs. The message was one mixed with liberalism and nationalism yet he drew elements from the social heritage of the Bible, such as the Fallow Year [Jubilee] and tithing.
Schwartz understands that Jabotinsky objected to a “class war” and proposed national arbitration to solve workers’ issues rather than riling strikes, as “it is necessary to take into account one interest, the interest of the establishment of the State … the development of Jewish places for the absorption of Jewish immigrants, so as to create a Jewish majority in the future state”.
In his 1932 article, “Yes, To Break,” Jabotinsky called to break up the monopoly of the General Workers Union (the Histadrut) that was dictating work relations in the Land of Israel. Jabotinsky feared that the engagement in a class war would only delay the revolution of the Zionist national movement, and infuse the Zionist movement with unnecessary fractiousness and intra-hostility.
In describing his hopes for the regime of the future Hebrew State, he wrote in a 1934 letter to the editor of Posledanya Novosti (Current News), a Paris Russian-language newspaper, in response to an attack published by Russian émigré Sotsialisticheskiy Vestnik (Socialist Herald) weekly, accusing Revisionism of being fascist and promoting terror,
I hope that this will not be a fascist regime. I believe in the freedom of speech and freedom of association, in the absolute equality between all people and chosen leadership. The idea of the ‘leader’ is considered by me to be nonsense…I prefer the worst liberalism over it by a thousand times, with all its shortcomings. In general, I espouse the political outlooks of the 19th century…and I adhere to the heritage of Lincoln, Gladstone, and Mazzini.
Bilski Ben-Hur is very adamant that despite his occasional assertive terminology, Jabotinsky was a liberal-democrat, that his political outlook was humanistic and that he supported “old-fashioned parliamentarianism.” She asserts that Jabotinsky was purposely distorted due to the political motives of those who opposed him. She further notes that Jabotinsky detested fascism whereas, for example, Shlomo Avineri, in his January 1980 article in Haaretz, attempts to characterize Jabotinsky as promoting “integral nationalism,” with essentially fascist tones. Professors Michael Stanislawski and Brian Horowitz maintain that Jabotinsky was a cosmopolitan and remained faithful to the ideas of individualism and was no fascist.
Menachem Mautner has written that Jabotinsky perceived the state as “an interesting combination of libertarian traits together with an emphasis on the state’s duty to ensure its citizens’ social rights.” Indeed, Jabotinsky’s attitude towards Arabs and minorities, Jewish nationalism, realism and the doctrine of strength, individualism and human nature all stemmed from a liberal outlook.
In August 1933, in response to yet another accusation of his presumed “fascism,” Jabotinsky wrote in Noya Veltavina that
Revisionism is not fascist. The ideas common to it and to Italian fascism are the negation of the class war the requirement for arbitration as the sole way to resolve work conflicts, and the subjugation of the class interest to the interest of the nation. However, Revisionism believes in democracy, a parliamentary regime, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of association.
Dmitry Shumsky, who insists on “reinterpreting” Jabotinsky through an oppositionist prism, nevertheless admits to his extremely complex and multifaceted outlook based on the milieu of late Tzarist Russia. He notes that Jabotinsky envisioned “an ideal multiethnic nation.” He sees that
on the one hand, a deep inner connection with Jewish ethnic nationalism is noticeable, and on the other, the young Jabotinsky operates with local, cultural and social realities without any Jewish connotation…recognizing individual civil rights and collective civil rights – the state of all Russian citizens and all national groups.
Jabotinsky was a militant nationalist at a time when “militancy” was not a woke term for terrorism. Most of all, he promoted pride, as opposed to the stance of self-accusatory Jews, who through moral inversionism seek satisfaction in a form of self-induced anxiety as Jews-against-themselves practicing self-laceration. That we now witness Jews preferring Jewish powerlessness as a virtue, and actively seeking emotional and moral identification with people openly committed to the annihilation of Jews, would have astounded Jabotinsky even though he dealt with such lunacy in 1903.
In his “Letter to the editors of Osvobozhdenie [Liberation] from an Ethnic Jew,” Jabotinsky confronted the phenomenon as it appeared then:
a part of the progressive Jewish world stubbornly refuses to recognize Zionism’s right to exist, this can be attributed to the influence of a certain part of the Jewish intelligentsia, which has hitherto set the tone for us… enlightenment ideas penetrated the Jewish ghetto, blinded our best people and prevented them from understanding the reality around them. Instead of going to the people, they began one by one to leave the people, leaving them to their fate. Torn off from all soil and caught up by that temporary rationalist trend that then carried away the entire European world, the Jewish intelligentsia began to find solace in various dogmas and rationalistic constructions.
And he continued:
I summarize what has been said: the entire European world – both anti-Semite and free-thinking – is unfair towards the Jews: the first one would like to kill us alive, and from time to time he actually performs this execution on us; the second, in general, treats us humanely and would be ready to give us rights, but at the cost of giving up our national identity, so that very often we become unbearable from these too-friendly embraces. When a certain part of the Jewish intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie wanted to assimilate and renounce their individuality at all costs, European society, after a short outburst of generosity, rudely pushed it away, did not want to accept it into its environment, and when now another part of the intelligentsia, responding to urgent needs without plan and goal of the nomadic masses of Jewry, calls them to self-emancipation and national unity. Whatever we do, in the words of Lessing – der Jude wird verbrannt [The Jew must burn].”
Jabotinsky then added one more aspect of the failure of these Jews to be true Jews and to seek self-preservation as Jews. That same year, in his article “Kadimah,” he theorized:
Anti-Semitism could not give rise to Zionism. Anti-Semitism could only give rise to the desire to flee from persecution along the path of least resistance – that is, apostasy. But in order for a call to national self-consciousness and revival to sound instead of preaching apostasy, something was needed besides anti-Semitism, an internal stimulus, an internal and positive imperative was needed. This imperative lies in the life-giving instinct of national self-preservation, which has given us the strength to pass through the order of history.
Jewish university students today would serve themselves well by reviewing and debating Jabotinsky’s conceptualizations.
His distaste for the program that was put into practice by Weizmann and his Mapai confederates drove his demand to return to the Herzlian approach of proud and forthright diplomacy. Politics would be the instrument that would gain statehood no matter how many kibbutzim and even factories were built by pioneers, socialists or middle-class entrepreneurs.
Jabotinsky also found it intolerable that the official Zionist leadership seemed to possess hostility to the Gentiles. At a conference in January 1927, he described “the attitude of the Zionist leaders towards the non-Jewish world” as “a typical ghetto mentality, which regards all non-Jews as Goyim, as enemies. With such a mentality nothing can be achieved. It is time that the Jewish people began to have confidence in the Goyim.”
Nevertheless, he saw merit in self-reliance, writing in 1903,
one should not think that Zionism is walking along its path with outstretched hands, begging outsiders for a sop of sympathy. First of all, we remember that it is not the sympathy of strangers that will save us, but our own initiative. We will not beg for the support of public opinion, which is necessary for the accomplishment of our task, but will win it by this initiative…We follow our path because an irresistible inner imperative says so, and the strength of this imperative vouches for its vitality and value. And at the same time deeply aware of ourselves as honest friends of brotherhood and progress, we should not look to the right or to the left, and we will not wait for praise either from strangers or from those who want to be strangers”.
Yet diplomatic engagement was at the core of his Zionism, which meant relationships with governments. In a speech in Haifa, reported in Haaretz on October 26, 1926, he declared:
The issue is not that it is difficult to build [a state] without politics, but that it is impossible. There is no trick that will help, and there are no shortcuts. Because there is only one path, which Herzl carved out for us, and that is diplomatic Zionism. The building of a national home is a diplomatic process. Industry is a diplomatic process. And the same is true for agriculture, immigration and so on. It all begins with diplomatic warfare.
Three years later, he continued to hammer on this theme in a column entitled “Elections in England,” published in Doar HaYom, May, 1929:
There is no friendship in affairs of state: There is pressure. The scales are tipped not by a leader who is positively or negatively disposed toward you but by the intensity of pressure, which is exerted by the citizens themselves . . . Even the most minor reform will not be achieved without lobbying and battling. Those who do not have the energy or the daring or the talent, or have no desire to fight, will not achieve even the slightest modification in our favor, even if the government is composed of our staunchest friends. This is not prophecy: It is arithmetic, a simple axiom. Nothing to doubt or argue about.
His second element of divergence from the Zionist establishment was his attitude toward Arab residents in the country. Jabotinsky’s foundational view regarding the Arab opposition to Zionism is found in the essays “The Iron Wall” and “Ethics of the Iron Wall,” which appeared at the end of 1923. This past April, the Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen Media Network published an analysis of those articles in Arabic by Elif Sabbagh, as well as an earlier analysis, written in English by Ali Jezzini in February He was starkly clear regarding the possibility of an ‘arrangement:’
We are unable to offer any compensation for Palestine, the Arabs of Palestine nor to the Arabs in their other countries. Due to this, a voluntary agreement is unthinkable. Moreover, those persons who think this agreement as a conditio sine qua non for the achievement of Zionism can already now say “non” [no] and abandon Zionism.
In “The Left,” a January 1925 article in Razsvet (Dawn), Jabotinsky pointed to that camp as fomenting, as it were, a conflict with the Arabs:
The main instigator of this conflict is – again due to the nature of things – not the Jewish owner, but the Jewish worker. From the Arab point of view, the whole danger lies in the onslaught of Jewish labor, and not Jewish capital. First of all, because there are few capitalists and many workers.
Jabotinsky was, however, willing to go to extremes to assure the Arab population of the future Jewish state that they would be in a safe environment.
Jabotinsky was very serious about guaranteeing those rights and for many of his adherents in today’s Israel, his view was quite radical. In his last book, published in 1940, he detailed his ideas in the chapter “Arab Angle – Undramatized.” As for civic equality, he suggested that
The principle of equal rights for all citizens, all races, faiths, languages and statuses will be established without any restrictions in all spheres of public life, provided that the right of Jews of other countries to repatriate to Palestine and acquire citizenship is not violated.
Moreover, “In every cabinet in which a Jew is head of government, an Arab will be offered the position of deputy, and vice versa.” As for cultural autonomy, Jabotinsky stipulated that
Ethnic groups – Jewish and Arab – must be recognized as autonomous political entities, equal before the law. The state is obliged to grant them autonomy in the following areas: a) religion and personal status; b) education at all its levels, especially primary compulsory; c) state support, including all types of social assistance”. In addition, he wished that “A minister, independent of the party, will represent each ethnic group in the government.
On the other hand, he was resolutely pessimistic that many overly-exuberant proponents of peace, those who viewed that value as more important than achieving Zionism’s basic goals (whom he referred to as “our peace-mongers”), had “lost their Zionism already.” Countering the influential Hebrew University-based Brith Shalom intellectuals–the precursors of Israel’s contemporary peace camp–he was convinced that:
No agreement on the basis of ‘bi-nationalism’ is possible…It is not possible because the Arabs simply are not blind nor are they fools…We all want peace with the Arabs. One condition, though, is required: that there be no doubt among the Arabs of Palestine that the Jewish majority will be created at any cost. Only then, when no doubt remains, the Arabs of Eretz-Yisrael will act as any smart people would in the face of fate that cannot be altered: they will accommodate themselves to the fate, and even attempt to understand the historic justice of their fate and will begin negotiations with us regarding guarantees of equality of rights of majority and minority in the future Hebrew Land of Israel.
While other Arab countries have adopted his suggestion, the events in the Land of Israel have clearly confounded and contradicted Jabotinsky’s rationalism. As evidenced by their actions, they still hope to be able to eliminate Israel.
While Jabotinsky did not “foresee” the Holocaust, he did rail against the complacency that had set in during the mid-to-late 1930s, as if world Jewry had been self-chloroformed. In Vienna in September 1935, in his programmatic speech at the founding Congress of the New Zionist Organization, he expressed his frustration, saying:
We are now, apparently, on the verge of an abyss, on the eve of the catastrophe of the world ghetto, in a period that in Jewish tradition is called “the days of the coming of the messiah” or, at least, “the days of terrible torment preceding the coming of the messiah,” And in the face of this in the catastrophe of the world, Jewry stands unarmed from all points of view: petty goals, dwarf organizations, a chain of obstacles and the political insignificance of Zionism.
As early as 1932, Jabotinsky’s own practical response was to urge and organize “illegal” immigration into Mandatory Palestine by land via Lebanon and sea to thwart increasing British restrictions that were set in place to counter and placate Arab terror. British security measures inside the country had failed the Jewish population between 1936-1939, when Arabs murdered over 500 Jews, burned and looted property, raped, cut down trees, blocked water sources and more. Jabotinsky gave orders to the underground Irgun Tzvai Leumi to move from defense to a policy of resistance and retaliation. His last efforts in the months prior to his unexpected death in America were devoted to founding a Jewish fighting force.
Let us leave the last word to Jabotinsky, from his Response to M. M. Vinaver, published on January 25, 1907:
I have not hidden my flag and never will; I am a Zionist and do not understand the Jewish good outside of Zionism. But I do not recognize the Jews in Russia as aliens, I do not consider them foreigners….We are not strangers or foreigners, we are native citizens of this land; we want to bear all the duties, all the duties that will be assigned to all its citizens, and we demand for ourselves all the fullness of the rights that will be assigned to them. But at the same time, we will not swear, as it is done in italics in your group’s appeal, that large masses of the Jewish people will “never leave” the countries they now inhabit…For we know for sure that we are not the masters here and will never be the masters, because the social atmosphere of all areas where the Jews live is not created by them, but by the national majority, in its image and likeness, in accordance with its way of life and its needs; and therefore the irresistible force of things, independent of our influence, step by step, inexorably and unceasingly, will push back and push out national minorities…It is unthinkable to fight against this force of things, and this is precisely why we Zionists really consider any attempts to radically “ground ” the Jew within the diaspora to be utopian.