The visionary Zionist who everyone misunderstood

Seventy years after his death, Vladimir Jabotinsky’s legacy is still being debated


By Colin Shindler, July 28, 2010
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Vladimir Jabotinsky

Vladimir Jabotinsky

Vladimir Jabotinsky was one of the founding fathers of the modern Zionist movement. He was one of the great inspirers of discriminated and impoverished Jewish youth in Eastern Europe in the inter-war years. In a pre-television era, audiences would sit patiently for hours, enthralled and entranced by his rhetoric.

A Russian-Jewish intellectual who spoke most European languages, his addresses were compared to those of Trotsky and Churchill. There are stories of emaciated, bedraggled supporters in the Soviet gulag, coming across a former comrade, and immediately asking: "Jabotinsky, does he live?"

Despite the fact that he left behind a large volume of writings, today in the UK, on the 70th anniversary of his death, he is virtually unknown. If his name has resonance, it is because there is a street called after him in Ramat Gan. Some might remember that he was erroneously labelled as "a fascist" by those who wish to bend history to their political agenda of delegitimising Israel.

In Israel itself, the right-wing believe him to be the "Father of the Revolt" against the British Mandate. The left see him as a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, embracing capitalism over socialism.

In August 2008, an Israeli Labour minister of education attempted to remove Jabotinsky's name from a list of 100 important figures who should be studied in Israeli schools. A few months later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu preposterously claimed that the Likud Party had been founded by Jabotinsky. When the then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was trying to win over the Israeli right to the plan to disengage from Gaza, he quoted Jabotinsky's comment in an article of 1915 that: "We have never seen a settlement as an end in and of itself."

Menachem Begin at the graveside of his mentor,  Vladimir Jabotinsky

Menachem Begin at the graveside of his mentor, Vladimir Jabotinsky

The contemporary imaginary Jabotinsky has become the plaything of politicians, entangled in ideological mythology, while the real Jabotinsky has been lost in the mists of time.

Menachem Begin throughout his life genuinely saw Jabotinsky as his teacher and mentor, the hero of his youth in Poland. When he became Israel's Prime Minister in 1977, he delayed a first meeting with United States President Carter in order to visit Jabotinsky's grave on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem and inform him that his disciples now constituted the government of Israel.

Yet Begin also re-invented Jabotinsky after his death in 1940 and cherry-picked from his writings. Jabotinsky was conscripted to confer legitimacy on Begin's pre-independence struggle against the British and to fortify his leadership. Jabotinsky, it was argued, would have followed the path of Begin's Irgun military group if he had lived.

Maybe, but what passes for some as certainty, for others remains unlikely due to contradictory past evidence and can only reside within the realm of speculation.

Begin came from the radical wing of the Betar movement, headed by Jabotinsky, who was independently also president of the Revisionist Zionist movement. Whereas Jabotinsky and his Revisionists believed in Britain's promises and diplomacy, Betar and the Irgun believed in the armed struggle for independence. Begin never regarded himself as a Revisionist, only as an adherent of "the Jabotinsky movement". When Jabotinsky wrote his famous article, The Iron Wall, he understood armed struggle in terms of defending settlements against Arab attacks. Begin turned defence into offence, by advocating "military Zionism" and the conquest of Palestine by Jewish military might.

Jabotinsky emphasised military training in his speeches and writings so that Jews should stand up for themselves, not so that they could initiate armed conflict. Unlike Begin and his followers, Jabotinsky never sympathised with the IRA and the Irish struggle against the British. Begin's Irgun became the Herut movement in 1948 and was the nucleus for the formation of the Likud in 1973. Ironically, Begin's Herut stood against the official Revisionists in the first Israeli election - and trounced them.

While Jabotinsky remained a deep source of inspiration for Begin and the Irgun, it was actually the forgotten figure of Abba Achimeir who was the intellectual originator of the idea of armed struggle within the Zionist movement. Achimeir originally came from the left, but crossed over in the 1920s to express appreciation of Mussolini who had also left Marxism behind. In the days before the Italian dictator embraced antisemitism, Achimeir's weekly column in the daily Doar Hayom was entitled From the Notebook of a Fascist.

In the early 1930s, Achimeir was considered a rival to Jabotinsky and influenced many a downtrodden Jewish youth. Achimeir's heyday came and went. Although he was tainted by his flirtation with fascism, his legacy of militancy lived on among Jabotinsky's young acolytes. It gave meaning to young Jews who helplessly watched the storm clouds gather in Europe.

Yet Jabotinsky was scathing about fascism and those of his supporters who purported to have "an understanding" of it. "Duce is a translation of that most absurd of all English words, 'leader'," he wrote. "Buffalos follow a leader, civilised men have no 'leaders'."

Today religious West Bank settlers quote Jabotinsky in their campaigns, yet Jabotinsky had at best an indifference, at worst a disdain, for religion. He associated it with Jewish weakness and inertia.

He wrote: "Physical courage and physical force was of no use, prowess of the body rather an object of ridicule. The only true heroism of the ghetto acknowledged was that of self-suppression and dogged obedience to the Will above." Indeed, on one occasion, he called together his diplomats to a meeting, only to be informed by one of his furious aides at the gathering that it was Yom Kippur.

Jabotinsky's brilliance prevented him from defeating his opponents in the political arena. In 1931, he had the opportunity of succeeding Chaim Weizmann as president of the Zionist Organisation and installing a Revisionist-led coalition. He rejected this chance and instead made the dramatic gesture of tearing up his delegate card at the Zionist Congress.

Benjamin Akzin, for many years, one of Jabotinsky's closest associates in the Revisionist movement, described him as someone who united "a first-rate logical mind with the soul of a poet dissatisfied with the humdrum of daily life".

On Jabotinsky's death in New York at the age of 59, Zalman Shazar, later a President of Israel, commented: "Jabotinsky always thought of himself as a beloved child, destined to be the first violinist, not needing any orchestra and not needing to be bound by one." Yet even his bitterest rivals in the Labour movement paid tribute to his uniqueness and his ability to move masses by his eloquence and passion.

The writer, Arthur Koestler, rightly depicted Jabotinsky as a "national liberal" in the great 19th-century tradition, "a successor to Garibaldi and Mazzini". Yet it is often the case that the founders of influential movements such as Lenin or the Baal Shem Tov have their histories revised to align them with current beliefs and expectations. The fate of Jabotinsky is therefore no exception. But students of Zionist history deserve better.

Colin Shindler is Professor of Israeli Studies at SOAS, University of London. The paperback version of his 'The Triumph of Military Zionism: Nationalism and the Origins of the Israeli Right' was recently published by I B Tauris.

    Last updated: 3:49pm, July 28 2010