A portrait of Ze’ev Jabotinsky may still adorn Likud conventions in Israel, but the ideas of this great Zionist leader – who passed away 70 years ago this week – are essentially forgotten and/or ignored.
Born in 1880 in Odessa, Russia, Jabotinsky – who founded Revisionist Zionism and the New Zionist Organization and headed the Haganah and later the Irgun – represents that rare brand of Zionist who is comfortable in his own skin and unabashedly demands what is rightfully his. Unlike many Israelis nowadays, Jabotinsky never cared what Arabs – or anyone else, for that matter – thought of the Zionist project. “Zionism is a moral and just movement,” he once wrote. “And if it is a just cause, justice must win, disregarding the agreement or disagreement of anyone. And if Joseph or Simeon or Ivan or Achmed would like to prevent the victory of the just cause because it is inconvenient for them, it is a duty to prevent them from successfully interfering.”
Most Zionist leaders in the 1920s and ’30s disagreed. Although not widely known today, for many years mainstream Zionists refused to declare the creation of a Jewish state to be Zionism’s ultimate goal for fear of antagonizing the Arabs and the British.
Great Britain, of course, issued the Balfour Declaration, which favored “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” In the years after this declaration, however, Great Britain gradually adopted the Arab position opposing Jewish immigration to Palestine. Jabotinsky argued that pro-Arab British officials stationed in the Middle East prior to the Balfour Declaration were responsible for this slow policy shift and demanded their replacement. He also believed Zionists should appeal directly to British public opinion, which he believed favored the Zionist cause.
Jabotinsky, however, was outvoted. Mainstream Zionists preferred not to rock the boat. If they complained to British officials at all, they did so privately, quietly and with much diplomatic finesse. The result, of course, was that Great Britain patiently listened to the Zionists but then aligned itself with the Arabs who tended to express their opinions a bit more forcefully – often by rioting or killing Jews.
Aside from pure self-interest, Great Britain also found itself naturally attracted to the more self-assertive Arabs. As British parliamentarian Josiah Wedgwood put it:
We like people who will fight, even though we think they are entirely wrong . The Arabs stand up and fight . On the other hand the Jews are always complaining and begging for justice. That of course is the result of 1800 years of servitude. For 1800 years they have been dependent on the good graces of governments and never on their own right arm, and therefore they have the attitude which instinctively antagonizes every Englishman in Palestine . The attitude of supplication, of living on your knees, has a very bad effect among the respectable nations with the Jews.
But Jewish leaders like Zionist Organization President Chaim Weizmann apparently did not understand this natural human contempt for meekness. Hence, instead of demanding British support for Jewish statehood, Weizmann backed off. By 1930, he already wrote in a letter, “I am not for a [Jewish State] . The propaganda which is carried out in certain Zionist circles, like the Revisionists, for a Jewish State, is foolish and harmful…and you could just as well ask for a Jewish State in Manhattan Island.”
Jabotinsky, of course, was of a different psychological makeup. As Count Michal Lubienski, head of the Polish Foreign Office, once said:
Dr. Weizmann has all the chances to retain the allegiance of the Jewish people – because his entire mentality is identical with that of the average ghetto Jew. Jabotinsky’s mentality is spiritually nearer to me, a gentile. I understand him better, he invokes in me a kindred response. For the ghetto Jew, he is, on the contrary, too simple, too direct. He will be listened to, applauded, but he will be followed only by those who have overcome the ghetto complex.
Jabotinsky had no inhibitions about demanding what was his. “Yes, we do want a state,” he told Britain’s Parliament in 1937, “every nation on earth, every normal nation beginning with the smallest and the humblest who do not claim any merit, any role in humanity’s development, they all have states of their own. That is the normal condition of a people.”
Jabotinsky’s desire for a state was also influenced by his conviction that Jews had no future in Europe. He wrote in 1919, “Zionism is the answer to the massacre of the Jews. It is neither a moral consolation nor an intellectual exercise.”
Jabotinsky, however, increasingly found himself at odds with mainstream Zionist leaders in the 1920s and ’30s. When Palestinian Arabs killed hundreds of Jews between 1936-1939, most Zionist leaders urged Jews to maintain havlaga (restraint), but Jabotinsky would not sanction “a situation in which everything is forbidden the Jew and everything permitted the Arab, a situation in which the Jew can be compared to a terrified mouse, while the Arab feels at home everywhere.” He permitted the Irgun to retaliate against the Arabs.
When mainstream Zionist leaders excoriated the Irgun for killing innocent civilians, Jabotinsky responded:
[T]his is superficial and hypocritical babble. In war, every war, every side is innocent. What crime has the enemy soldier committed against me – a pauper just like me, blind like me, a slave like me – who has been forcibly mobilized. If war breaks out, all of us will demand, unanimously, a sea-blockade and a blockade of the enemy’s land, to starve the inhabitants, innocent women and children; and after the aerial attacks on London and Paris we shall expect the reply by planes over Stuttgart and Milan, where there are many women and children. All wars are wars of innocents . That is why every war and its agonies are cursed, for aggressor and victim alike. If you do not want to hurt the innocent, commit suicide. And if you do not want to commit suicide – shoot and don’t babble.
Jabotinsky remained outside mainstream Zionism most of his life. His ideas grew progressively more popular as Great Britain’s perfidy intensified in the 1930s, and his New Zionist Organization, given enough time, might have eventually overshadowed the Zionist Organization. World War II, however, overtook world Jewry in 1939, and a year later – on August 4, 1940 – Jabotinsky died while visiting a Betar camp in upstate New York.
But Jabotinsky’s death did not lessen the rancor mainstream Zionists felt toward him. In 1956, when Jabotinsky’s followers inquired into reburying their hero’s remains in Israel, David Ben-Gurion replied that Israel “needs live Jews, not dead Jews.”
Jabotinsky’s ideas, of course, live on. They heavily influenced such leaders as Irgun commander Menachem Begin, Lechi head Israel Eldad and Kach founder Meir Kahane – and continue to inspire younger generations of Zionists. Throughout Israel’s history, however, the Jewish state’s leaders have represented Weizmann’s brand of Zionism far more than they have Jabotinsky’s. Indeed, when one reads Shmuel Katz’s absorbing biography of Jabotinsky (The Lone Wolf) or Israel Eldad’s fascinating memoirs (The First Tithe), one is struck by how similar leading Zionist personalities in the 1920s-40s resemble contemporary Israeli leaders.
Nor are the Jews’ leaders the only people who haven’t changed. The Jewish masses, unfortunately, remain the same in certain regards as well. Jabotinsky said the following at a rally in Warsaw in 1939, but he could just as well have been speaking to many Israeli Jews in 2010 who sigh, “Mah la’asot? – What can we do?” as their country slowly falls apart around them:
I state with shame that the people behave now as if they were already doomed. I have not found anything like it, neither in history nor in novels. Never did I read of such acquiescence with fate. It is as if twelve million educated people were put in a carriage and the carriage was being pushed towards an abyss. How do such people behave? One is crying, one is smoking a cigarette, some are reading newspapers, someone is singing – but in vain will you look for one who will stand up, take the reins into his hands and move the carriage somewhere else. This is the mood. As if some big enemy came and chloroformed their minds. I come to you now to make an experiment. The last experiment. I cry to you: Put an end to this situation! Try to stop the carriage, try to jump out of it, try to put some obstacle in its way, don’t go like sheep to the wolf.
Elliot Resnick is a staff reporter for The Jewish Press and holds a Masters Degree in Jewish History from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.