Vladimir Zeev Jabotinsky
Over a hundred years ago Jabotinsky’s political ideas and methods divided the Jewish people and provoked a controversy which has continued till today, not on account of bitter memories, but because the two different approaches are still at the heart of Israeli politics. So many of his battles are still being waged today, both within the Jewish community and with the outside world.
Jabotinsky was born in Odessa in 1880, and was brought up in the Russian culture with no contacts with Jewish life. He was very gifted in a multitude of ways. He translated world literature into Russian, for which he was very highly regarded by the Russian literary world, and later also into Hebrew. and throughout his life wrote highly acclaimed novels and many beautiful poems. In addition, he was a very powerful and convincing orator.
The pogroms of 1903-4 awakened his political Jewish consciousness, and he organised self-defence units throughout Russia. He realised that in a country where anti-Semitism was an official policy, these units would have little effect, but he was convinced that they raised self-esteem and self-confidence of the humiliated Jews. He travelled all over Russia, setting up Zionist branches and, with his oratorical gifts, persuaded many young Jews that their affinity with the Russian revolution would be rejected, and that the only solution for Jews was the establishment of their own State. After hearing Herzl speak at the VI Zionist Congress, he became imbued with Herzl’s political aims and ideas, and these became his driving force throughout his life.
He was in sharp conflict with Russian liberal and revolutionary forces who he accused of failing to denounce the anti-Semitic policy of the government for fear of being denounced as “Jew lovers”. He was convinced that national consciousness should be at the core of Jewish education and, contrary to the views of the assimilationists, he insisted on Hebrew being the language of tuition in Jewish schools. However, this idea was only taken up by the “Tarbut” Organisation in some Eastern Europe countries.
In 1911-1913, the years of the Bialis blood libel trials, Jabotinsky taught that apologetic protestations of innocence and even scientific proof that there were no grounds for the allegations of the anti-Semites did not destroy prejudice, and that the only remedy was the Zionist solution of the Jewish problem.
During World War I he campaigned for the establishment of the Jewish Legion, declaring that Jews would only acquire the right to be heard at a peace conference, if their sons played their part on the battlefield as a national identity. The British military authorities agreed to the formation of the “Zion Mule Corps” which, together with the expeditionary British forces, later saw service in Gallipoli. All Zionist leaders, except Weitzman, were strongly opposed to the formation of a purely Jewish Legion as they felt that it would endanger the lives of Jews living under enemy rule, particularly those living in Palestine under the Turkish regime. Jabotinsky finally persuaded the British War Cabinet that the establishment of the Jewish Legion would be in Britain’s interest. He thus introduced into Zionism a new dimension: the right of the Jewish people to fight for its historic homeland, even before the Balfour Declaration had acknowledged the right of the Jews to build their own homeland.
While serving as liaison officer between the Zionist Commission, the British Occupation Administraton of Palestine and Allenby’s headquarters, Jabotinsky became aware of the anti-Zionist and openly anti-Semitic policy of Allenby’s administration. He protested in vain to Allenby, and then to central government in London, against a policy which violated the solemn promises to the Jewish people and contradicted the policy of England herself. Allenby ordered for him to be demobbed, but the Secretary for Foreign Afffairs, Lord Curzon, agreed that this was a political move, and recommended that Jabotinsky be awarded the Medal of the British Empire. Jabotinsky refused, as this would have closed the matter without dealing with the issue of Allenby’s anti-Semitic policies.
After being demobbed, Jabotinsky and his family settled in Jerusalem, and he became increasingly worried about the effect on the Arabs of the anti-Jewish policy of the military administration. He warned the Zionist authorities that the military circles were in fact encouraging Arab anti-Jewish propaganda. In 1920, the military governor and administrator ignored his warnings that the Arabs were preparing a massacre of Jews in Jerusalem. Jabotinsky therefore set up the first self-defence unit in the country – “Haganah”. Jabotinsky and twenty members were arrested, accused of provoking disorder, as well as pillage, rape and arson. They were condemned to fifteen years hard labour. However, the sentence was quashed, leading the Foreign Office to comment that this proved that the case against Jabotinsky was an act of vengeance rather that one of justice. As a result the military rule in Palestine was replaced with a civilian one, with Herbert Samuel (a Jew) as first High Commissioner. Jabotinsky soon realised that Samuel too was anti-Zionist and in 1921, when the Arabs also came to the same conclusion, they massacred Jews in Jaffa. Jabotinsky declared that this was the result of Samuel’s policy and the Jews’ weak response. He demanded a more active strategy, which was rejected by the Zionist Executive.
Jabotinsky again criticised the Zionist Executive’s weakness when they accepted Churchill’s White Paper of 1922 which was calculated to appease the Arabs by a restrictive interpretation of the Balfour Declaration, and he resigned. Jews of Eastern Europe as well as the Sephardi Jews of Bulgaria begged him to return to politics, showing that his ideas and methods were preferred by many Sephardi Jews long before they embraced Menachem Begin’s government.
In October 1924, Jabotinsky set up an office in Paris for “Zionist Revisionists” - for all opposition groups in the Zionist movement. They outlined their objective thus:
“The aim of Zionism is the gradual transformation of Palestine (Trasjordan included) into a Jewish Commonwealth, under the auspices of an established Jewish majority”.
In the mid-twenties Jabotinsky set up and devoted much time to the para-military youth organisation “Betar” (Berit Trumpeldor), as he firmly believed that “the destiny of the nation was in the hands of the youth”. A two-year self-imposed, voluntary, national service was instituted, many years before this became standard Israeli practice. The ideology of Betar was based on the principle that during the period of state-building there could be only one ideal – the national one, as opposed to the dualism professed by the socialist wing of the Zionist movement, which included class strife. This led to accusations that the Revisionists were “Right Wing” and enemies of the working class, and this portrayal has stuck, in spite of the fact that another principle of Betar was universal equality, that “Every man is a king”.
The basis of Betar education was “Hadar”, a Hebrew word meaning outward appearance, dignity, courtesy and faithfulness, compelling “even an enemy to recognise that this is a nation capable of statehood”. Jabotinsky and his followers were always impeccably dressed and extremely polite.
in 1922, Jabotinsky had toured the USA with the idea of persuading Jews of the diaspora to invest in the Yishuv, which would then export goods to the diaspora, saying “Solid investment, not charity, is needed”. He called this “Tozeret HaAretz LaGolah”. It took many decades for this idea to become accepted. During the XVI Zionist Congress in Zurich, Jabotinsky and his followers were physically attacked during a discussion on procedure of electing representatives from the Yishuv. He said later “Such an expression of inhuman hatred I have never seen, either in Russia, or even among the Arabs during the pogrom days in Jerusalem”. This animosity lasted for decades, and still exists in some quarters.
After yet another outbreak of anti-Jewish riots, which Betar was accused of provoking, the British Enquiry Commission insisted that he give evidence in the UK. Before leaving he gave a speech criticising the Zionist policy and warned against giving concessions to the Arabs, which he foretold would lead nowhere. He continued from London on a world tour, but some months later learnt that the British Palestine Administration would not honour his return visa.
The XVII Zionist Congress refused to endorse the Revisionists’ demand to reassert that the final aim of Zionism was the establishment of a Jewish State, and by doing so to warn Great Britain that the movement would not allow itself to be strangled without a fight and a bitter struggle.
Jabotinsky was the first to realise the danger to world Jewry and to mankind as a whole of Hitler’s Third Reich, and he tried to organise an economic boycott of Germany. However, this attempt was crippled by the “transfer agreement” between the Zionist Organisation and the Third Reich.
Before this could be organised Arlosoroff, the Chairman of the Zionist Executive in Palestine, was murdered. The XVIII Zionist Congress of 1933 accused the Revisionist Movement of being responsible, and accused it of being a terrorist organisation. This brought the Yishuv to the verge of civil war, and the atmosphere in the diaspora was equally tense and hostile.
In 1935 Jabotinsky proposed a Union of World Jewry, an attempt to organise a stateless nation. As it was to include all Jews, he felt that religious thought could not be excluded, even though he himself was not an observant Jew. At the Foundation Conference of the “New Zionist Organisation” in Vienna in 1935, Jabotinsky proposed a new definition of Zionism: the creation of a Jewish state, followed by ingathering of the exiles, liquidation of the Jewish diaspora, with the ultimate aim of the creation of a specifically Jewish culture, its values to be shared by the rest of the world, thus fulfilling the old prophesy “Ki MeZion Tezeh Torah uDvar Adonai MiYerushalaim”.
The headquarters was established in London, and the Irgun Zvai Leumi was also inaugurated. In 1936 Jabotinsky warned the High Commissioner in Palestine that the Arab High Command were preparing further Jewish massacres. Yet again the warning was disregarded as the British were afraid of antagonising the Arabs. In 1937 Jabotinsky rejected a partition plan, later abandoned, on a small piece of the remaining part of Palestine, as he was still hoping to liquidate the diaspora. He warned that if Jewry did not liquidate the diaspora, the diaspora would liquidate Jewry.
In spite of the fact of more anti-Jewish riots in 1936 for which Arabs were not arrested or punished by the British administration, Jabotinsky ordered the Irgun Zvai Leumi to observe “Havlaga” – a non-retaliation policy imposed on the Yishuv by the Zionist Executive. He then realised that this policy was contributing to the deterioration of the Jewish political position, and after Shlomo Ben Yoseph, a Betari from Rosh Pinah, was executed in Acco fortress for attacking an Arab bus, he ordered the end of Havlaga. When the British “White Paper” of 1938 restricted Jewish immigration in spite of the looming disaster for the Jews of Europe, Jabotinsky ordered an intensification of illegal Jewish immigration.
At the outbreak of World War II, Jabotinsky headed a delegation of the New Zionist Organisation to the USA to campaign for a Jewish army. While visiting a Betar camp he died on 29 Tamuz 1940. He had always asserted that there would be a Jewish State “in our time”, and requested that his remains be transferred to Eretz Israel by order of the government of the Jewish State. In 1964, this was done on the instructions of Levi Eshkol. He was buried on Har Herzl, not far from the grave of the founder of the state, whose doctrine and vision he had striven to implement so faithfully.