Review: Jabotinsky: A Life

Colossus or neo-fascist?


By Hillel Halkin
Yale University Press, £18.99

This is a revelatory exploration of Vladimir Jabotinsky, "father of the Israeli right". He has been projected as a colossus by Menachem Begin and succeeding generations of Likud leaders. The Zionist left, aided and abetted by David Ben-Gurion, depicted him as a neo-fascist. Hillel Halkin's book helps to reclaim the real Jabotinsky through an examination of his literary work and personal letters.

The young Jabotinsky was expected to have a great future as a man of Russian letters but his continuing failure to make a breakthrough - his play Krov closed after two performances in Odessa - was undoubtedly a factor in his rediscovering his Jewishness and recasting himself as a Zionist. He once remarked that he had thrown away the key to that side of his persona. Yet, as Halkin demonstrates, this inner Jabotinsky always resided within the charismatic public figure and magnetic orator. It led to contradiction in his political actions and complexity in his character.

In contrast to past biographies, Halkin uncovers the human Jabotinsky who chased women in his youth in Italy. At the end of the First World War, he was the much-lauded founder of the Jewish Legion that took part in the British conquest of Palestine. Halkin surmises that the private Jabotinsky probably had an affair with Nina Berligne, the daughter of an olive-oil manufacturer in Palestine in 1919. His hitherto faithful wife, Ania, wrote to him: "I hear that you're fine and not living a dull life. I don't intend to either."

While there was a deep bond between them, Ania was less enamoured by Zionism and the long absences of her husband. Halkin suggests Jabotinsky may have found it convenient to be barred from Palestine by the British in 1930 because both he and his wife felt more at home in London's Belsize Park.

While he has painted a remarkably insightful picture of Jabotinsky, Halkin gives little space to Jabotinsky's struggle with the maximalists within his Revisionist movement. After all, Avraham Stern (of the Stern Gang) referred to him as "Hindenberg" - yesterday's man. The profound political differences with Begin, then the head of Polish Betar, are hardly touched upon. Jabotinsky's bizarre plan for an Irgun uprising in 1939 could certainly be interpreted as a sop to the maximalists' breast-beating - but it isn't. Jabotinsky died disappointed, in 1940, both with his inability to control the radicalism of his acolytes and his failure to establish another Jewish Legion among the Jews of North America.

Halkin concludes with a delightfully imagined present-day conversation with a resurrected Jabotinsky. "Get the best deal you can with the Palestinians," advises the imaginary Jabotinsky. Halkin could have reminded Jabotinsky that he had written in October 1915 that he had never seen "a settlement as an end in and of itself". Or asked "Would you have joined Kadima or Likud in 2004?"

Halkin has done his research well yet few references are given because "a great deal written about Jabotinsky is not available in English". This is a shame as his well-crafted and fascinating book has added a new dimension to the serious study of Jabotinsky as a pivotal figure in Zionism.

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