Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky
“There can be no doubt that a strong personality cannot operate in a confined area; the stronger the character and the broader the sweep of his activities, the more difficult it is for him to remain within a given square on a chessboard. A man of great stature must at times err and violate the properties of joint activity.”
Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky was born in 5641 (October 1880), in the Russian city of Odessa. His father, a highly esteemed merchant, died when Ze’ev was still a boy. His mother, who in later years settled in Eretz Yisrael, was a descendant of the famous Dubner Maggid (Yaakov ben Wolf Kranz). Although he studied Hebrew in his early youth, Jabotinsky received his academic education in a mainstream Russian school where at an early age he displayed outstanding literary talent. As an admirer of Edgar Allen Poe, he translated The Raven into Russian while still in high school. When Jabotinsky reached eighteen, a leading Russian daily, the Odesskie Novosti, assigned him as its correspondent in Switzerland. Later he went to Rome where, while working as a correspondent, he studied law. Jabotinsky’s linguistic genius manifested itself very early in life and he easily acquired knowledge of several tongues. His articles were widely read and he soon became recognized as one of the brilliant exponents of Russian journalism.
In 5661 (1901), Jabotinsky returned to Odessa where he joined the staff of his paper. He wrote under the pseudonym of “Altalena” and became one of the most popular columnists in Czarist Russia. He authored novels, plays and poetry while translating into Russian classic literary works. At age twenty one, he had two plays running on the Odessa stage. His writings reflected an individualistic tendency and strong liberal trend antagonistic towards excessive state authority.
After the terrible Kishinev Pogrom of 5663 (1903), Jabotinsky was stricken with horror and searched for a meaning to what had taken place. He wandered the site of the violence for hours until something caught his eye. It was a small piece of parchment from a desecrated Torah Scroll lying in the street. It contained two Hebrew words: Eretz Nokhria – “a strange land”. This powerful revelation pierced Jabotinsky’s heart and impelled him to the realization that his people could never securely live in a land not their own. Subordinating his other literary activities, he devoted all his talents and zeal to championing the Zionist cause. He organized self-defense leagues and fought for Jewish minority rights throughout Russia. Famous Russian writers, among them Maxim Gorki, complained in later years that the Zionists “stole” Jabotinsky from the Russian intelligentsia, where a great literary future awaited him. They praised his linguistic and stylistic talent and mourned his devotion to Jewish politics as a loss to Russian literature.
Jabotinsky was elected as a delegate to the Sixth Zionist Congress, the last in which Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl participated. During this period, Jabotinsky was active in spreading the Hebrew language throughout Russia, and establishing the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Following the outbreak of World War I, Jabotinsky left for the front as a newspaper correspondent. While in Alexandria he met Yosef Trumpeldor and together they worked for the establishment of the Jewish Legion – an all Hebrew fighting battalion that would assist Great Britain in conquering Palestine from the Turks. The Zion Mule Corps was eventually set up as an auxiliary unit, which consisted of several hundred men, mainly from Russia, who had been exiled from Palestine by the Turks and had settled in Egypt. One of these soldiers was David Ben-Gurion, later a great opponent of Jabotinsky and the State of Israel’s first Prime Minister. The British opposed the participation of Hebrew volunteers in Palestine and they instead served as a detachment for mule transport elsewhere on the Turkish front. Trumpeldor viewed this as a great achievement but Jabotinsky was unsatisfied as it was not a fighting unit, nor did it serve in the liberation of Israeli soil. In later years, however, he admitted that Trumpeldor had been correct and that the Zion Mule Corps was an important first step in the attainment of a Hebrew military force. The unit served with great distinction on the front lines of the Battle of Gallipoli. When the Zion Mule Corps was disbanded, Jabotinsky traveled to London, where he took energetic steps to establish Hebrew units to fight in Palestine as part of the British Army. Only in the summer of 5677 (1917), however, did Britain finally agree to establish three Israeli units, the first Hebrew military forces since the Bar Kochba Revolt. Jabotinsky served as a Lieutenant while participating in the assault of the Jordan River crossings and the conquest of Esalt from Turkish rule. Following these battles, he was decorated by the British for his courage. He later expressed regret that Hebrew soldiers could not participate in more combat because the British opted to restrain them in the background rather than allow them to play a role in the battle.
Great Britain drafted the Balfour Declaration in 5677, pledging Palestine as a national homeland for the Jewish nation. Palestine, at that time was comprised of what is today the State of Israel and what is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The Balfour Declaration won legal ratification by the League of Nations at the San Remo Conference of 5680 (1920) and Great Britain was given a mandate to govern Palestine for an interim period in order to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish homeland therein.
But upon assuming their mandate, the British Colonial Office began to strategize methods of negating the Balfour Declaration and retaining British dominion over the region. Turning to their traditional policy of “divide and rule”, they encouraged Haj Amin el Husseini to incite Arab violence against the Jewish community in hopes it would create an impression of instability. Riots broke out on Passover of 5680 as British officials indifferently looked on. Arabs wielding clubs and knives shouted “etbah el yahud!” (slaughter the Jews!) and “el dawla ma’ana!” (the government is with us!) as they fell upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem’s Old City. The pogroms continued for three days until the British finally intervened and declared martial law. Because of a misguided faith in their friendly relations with local Arabs, the Jewish leaders of the Old City refused assistance from the Haganah (Defense) militia and prevented their entry. Therefore only the Old City suffered casualties during the riots. The surrounding neighborhoods, however, accepted Haganah aid, led personally by Jabotinsky, and these areas were effectively protected from pogroms. But after the violence had ended, the British arrested nineteen Haganah fighters for daring to protect the Jewish neighborhoods. A few hours later, Jabotinsky presented himself at the police station and declared that he was responsible for the defensive. He was tried before a British military tribunal and condemned to 15 years hard labor. Following a public outcry, however, the Haganah fighters received amnesty and were released from the Acre prison. Through this ordeal, Jabotinsky had learned that the road to national liberation must inevitably pass through prison walls. This was the road along which every revolutionary movement must travel, and was to be expected of Zionism which, by its inherent nature, is a complete revolution.
In 5681 (1921), Jabotinsky became a member of the Zionist Executive and helped to found Keren Hayesod (Jewish National Fund). That winter, he traveled to the United States for over six months in order to raise funds for the new organization. Joining his delegation were Professor Albert Einstein, Professor Otto Warburg and Nahum Sokolow.
During their Palestine Mandate, England developed imperialist ambitions for the Middle East and began to renege on their commitments to the Zionist cause. The British had previously guaranteed the Hashemite tribe lordship over most of the Middle East in exchange for their support during World War I. But internal Arab rivalries caused the Hashemite Emir Abdullah to be displaced from ruling the Hejaz. In 5682 (1922), in an effort to appease Abdullah, British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill excluded 77% of Palestine from all legal stipulations dealing with Hebrew aspirations. The first in a series of four White Papers was issued, significantly limiting Jewish immigration and severely truncating the Israeli homeland’s borders. A Hashemite Arab kingdom was consequently established in the majority of Palestine. This artificial state came to be known as Trans-Jordan. Thus the Jews were left with only 23% of what the Balfour Declaration and League of Nations had stipulated.
During Jabotinsky’s stay in the United States, he received news of Britain’s perfidious White Paper. While the more pragmatic Zionist leaders, led by Chaim Weitzman, were willing to accept whatever borders they could receive, Jabotinsky contested the injustice on principle and even composed a song championing Israel’s claim to both banks of the Jordan River.
As a bridge is held up by a pillar
In the wake of Zionism’s meek response to Churchill’s treacherous White Paper, Jabotinsky condemned what he called the “erosion of Zionist demands” – the leadership’s apprehension to clearly state that the goal of the Zionist Movement is a sovereign Hebrew state. He argued that Zionism no longer demanded but instead adopted the exile attitude of “shtadlanut” – trying to curry favor in gentile eyes. The issue of Trans-Jordan and the evolutionary leadership’s inability to state clear Zionist goals became issues of heated discussion within the Movement, leading to Jabotinsky’s resignation from the World Zionist Executive. His resignation, however, did not stem from disillusionment with the Zionist ideal, but rather with the officials at the helm. It occurred to Jabotinsky that his generation was not ready for the revolutionary character of Herzlian Zionism. A movement had to be born that would create a new type of Jew, free from the idiosyncrasies and inferiority complex of the exile – like the champions featured throughout the Hebrew Bible. By bringing about a revolution in values and self image, Jabotinsky hoped to revive the ancient spirit of the proud Israeli hero. Along with a number of veterans from the Zionist Movement, he established the Union of Zionist-Revisionists (Hatzohar) which called for the immediate establishment of a Hebrew state with an Israeli majority on both sides of the Jordan.
Revisionist Zionism came into being as a direct challenge to the policies of Chaim Weitzman. Two diametrically opposed ideologies were now battling for command over the Zionist Movement. Jabotinsky advocated a forthright approach of presenting fundamental Zionist aims explicitly. He was against the propounding of half truths, whether to the Hebrew masses or to the gentile nations. Like Herzl before him, Jabotinsky rejected “muted Zionism” and refused to “turn the Zionist Movement into a fraternity of whispering, conspiratorial smugglers”. Opposing him, Weitzman advocated a cautious struggle and the application of “one step at a time” tactics. But Jabotinsky demanded a return to Herzlian Political Zionism with stated goals set forth in a charter.
At this time, Jabotinsky addressed students of the Riga Hebrew School in Latvia. He visited two classes, one of young children and one of teenagers. To the young children, he spoke of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s revival of the Hebrew language. To the teenagers he told the story of Yosef Trumpeldor who had valiantly given up his life to protect the northern settlements. Jabotinsky preached mass immigration to Eretz Yisrael and urged the youth to “learn to shoot”. Aharon Propes, later remarked that “I knew he was the leader I had been waiting for all my life”. As Jabotinsky described the courage of Trumpeldor, a student interrupted saying, “what now? You have no right to preach such views and inspire young people if you have no intention of calling them to action!” Jabotinsky was inspired by this demand and embarked to build a movement that would inculcate Jewish youth with Revisionist ideology. Because several Riga students were stirred by his talk of Trumpeldor, they organized themselves into what became known as Betar (Brit Yosef Trumpeldor), the official youth movement of the Zionist-Revisionists, with Aharon Propes elected president. The standard of Betar was revolutionary yet simple – the full subordination of everything else to the realization of the Zionist ideal: a Hebrew state on both sides of the Jordan within the boundaries stipulated by the Balfour Declaration and League of Nations. With Jabotinsky at its head, the young movement aimed at educating Jewish youth with a military dignity and nationalist spirit. In addition to being the acronym for Brit Yosef Trumpeldor, there was another inspiration behind the name Betar. The village of Betar was the final stronghold of the Bar Kochba Revolt against Rome. And now this new movement would continue in the spirit of Israeli heroism, being the next link in the chain after Bar Kochba’s defeat. Upon the establishment of Betar, Jabotinky composed an anthem for the movement.
The Betar Movement spread throughout Europe, especially in Poland, where violent anti-Semitism was routine. Young Jews, accustomed to the humiliation of being oppressed, were suddenly inspired by the nationalist ideals of Betar and Jabotinsky’s liberal teachings. At long last, Israel’s youth were being taught self respect. Employing the heroic Israeli examples of the Maccabees and Bar Kochba, Betar infused young men and women with a sense of pride that had been missing from the Jewish reality since the commencement of the exile. The pride of Betar, however, was an inner splendor and not the arrogance that characterized the mainstream Zionist leadership. Betar’s pride, based on the valor of ancient Hebrew warriors, was a call to action and a mature commitment to the future of Israel. This pride was in fact the height of humility. Not a false humility that asks “who am I to act?” but one that answers a call with “who am I not to act?” This humble sense of responsibility became the trademark of Jabotinsky and his followers for years to come.
Through Betar, Jabotinsky worked to infuse youth with the concept of Hadness (monism), a belief in and dedication to one ideal alone. This preached that the soul of Israel must be completely devoted and directed towards the resurrection of the Hebrew nation on its soil. In order to achieve this goal, one must be willing to sacrifice all else, including his very life. Jabotinsky argued that the Zionist ideal is all embracing, all demanding “and I am seeking out youth who will dedicate themselves to one belief and no other, be content with it, be proud of it, and elevate it above all else. In the beginning, G-D created the nation; anything leading to its renaissance is sacred, anything that interferes, profane; anyone who prevents it is evil, as are his banner and beliefs”. Confident of Israel’s right to its homeland, Jabotinsky introduced revolutionary ideas to Jewish discourse that would attract many people to rally behind his flag. The official Zionist leadership, however, remained conceptually primitive, still begging gentile nations to charitably grant them a small strip of land.
Although Jabotinsky believed that his movement would meet with greater success functioning independently, the Hatzohar Executive Committee demanded a return to the World Zionist Organization. Jabotinsky reluctantly submitted to the will of the majority and the Revisionist Party participated in the elections to the 14th Zionist Congress in 5685 (1925). Jabotinsky re-entered the Zionist Movement as the sole delegate for the Revisionist Party but during the course of the congress session, three delegates from other parties joined him, creating a four member faction.
During these years, the Labor Zionist faction, headed by David Ben-Gurion had become a powerful force within the Zionist Movement. Coupled with Weitzman’s evolutionary approach, Labor’s dominance created difficult obstacles for the Revisionist agenda. The liberal Jabotinsky viewed the attempt to merge Socialist principles with Zionist concepts as “idol worship”, as the plight of the Hebrew nation called for complete dedication to its salvation. He argued that Labor Zionism extracted valuable energies from the Zionist ideal and diluting it with foreign values. In fact, the very existence of a “Socialist Zionism”, or even a “Religious Zionism” for that matter, contradicted the Revisionist ideal of Hadness. Jabotinsky also criticize the powerful Socialists for creating unnecessary divisions within the Jewish community of Palestine by way of their class struggle and open discrimination against non-Socialist Zionists. Jabotinsky instead advocated a social policy he called the “Five Mems” – Mazon (food), Ma’on (housing), Malbush (clothing), Marpeh (health) and Moreh (education). In his view, the state would be required to provide these essentials to every individual within a free market economy uninhibited by oppressive government intrusion. Ben-Gurion and his faction derided Jabotinsky as an enemy of the worker and resolved to block the Revisionists from gaining power within the Movement.
During the years 5688-5689 (1928-1929), Jabotinsky resided in Palestine and edited the Hebrew daily Doar Hayom while, at the same time, undertaking increased political activity. As British colonial interests became progressively more hostile to Zionism, Jabotinsky’s voice became increasingly threatening to the empire. He stood out as a firebrand for asserting Israel’s rights and exposing Britain’s treachery to the Jewish public. Fearing the growth of his political influence, the British administration sought to neutralize his activities. Their opportunity came in 5689 when Jabotinsky left Palestine on a lecture tour. The British simply denied him re-entry and Jabotinsky was forced to live out his years in the exile.
Jabotinsky never enjoyed participating in the World Zionist Congress. It felt fraudulent and he knew there to be little chance of changing it from inside. But in 5691 (1931), at the behest of his party, he agreed to make one final attempt. After a successful election campaign, the Revisionists were entitled to a 52 man delegation, 21% of the Congress and the third largest faction. Since the Arab riots of 5689, a feeling of gloom had pervaded the Zionist Movement. Many were disappointed in the compromising Zionist Executive and began voicing opposition to Weitzman’s docile leadership. People were particularly bitter over his statements retracting the basic claims of Herzlian Zionism. In fact, between Arab violence, British betrayal and Jewish inaction, the Zionist enterprise appeared to be in full retreat. Conditions were ripe for a revolution from within.
The Revisionist Party became the focus of activity as it strove to pass a resolution on the ultimate aim of Zionism – a Hebrew state with a Jewish majority. After Jabotinsky’s impressive speech entitled “I believe”, there was intense lobbying to gain the necessary votes in order to pass the resolution. The Revisionists secured heavy support from the Mizrahi Religious Party and from a group of American Zionists led by Stephen Wise. The two sides in the Congress appeared to be evenly matched as the scales were tipping towards the resolution being passed. Alarmed by the likelihood of Jabotinsky’s victory, the Labor Party conspired to sabotage the resolution through frightening undecided delegates ahead of the scheduled vote. At a secret caucus meeting the plot was hatched to have an urgent telegram sent by the Haganah (by that time under the Labor Party’s hegemony) to the congress. This message would contain an explicit warning from Palestine that if the “Ultimate Aim” resolution was passed, a new wave of Arab attacks against the Jewish population would erupt. The false telegram succeeded in unnerving many delegates, causing them to withdraw their support at the last moment. The resolution was defeated. In the pandemonium that followed the vote, Jabotinsky’s thunderous statement that “this is not a Zionist congress!” reverberated through the conference hall. He then rose and publicly tore his delegate card, whereupon his admirers lifted him shoulder high and bore him out of the hall. Although he would again be involved in behind-the-scenes maneuvering, this was the last time Jabotinsky ever participated in an open World Zionist Congress.
Jabotinsky soon founded the New Zionist Organization to conduct independent political activity for free immigration and the establishment of a Hebrew state. The Irgun Zvai Leumi underground militia, which had broken away from the Haganah in opposition to its policy of havlagah (self-restraint) in the face of Arab violence, became the military arm of the NZO and accepted Jabotinsky as their supreme commander (although he did not always approve of their methods). Unlike the Haganah, which merely protected settlements and warded off Arab gangs when attacked, the Irgun sought to deter terror attacks by making the Arabs suffer a high price for their actions. Under the command of David Raziel, the Irgun brought terror into the heart of Arab neighborhoods, thus giving them a taste of their own medicine.
The three bodies headed by Jabotinsky – the New Zionist Organization, Betar and the Irgun Zvai Leumi became three extensions of one ideological movement. The NZO was the political arm that maintained contacts with governments and other political factors, Betar educated the youth of the Diaspora for the liberation and building of Eretz Yisrael and the Irgun was the military arm that fought against the enemies of Israel. These separate bodies cooperated in the organization of Af Al Pi illegal immigration to thwart British quotas (and discrimination from Labor Zionists who withheld immigration certificates from the Revisionists). Jabotinsky declared that the Israeli national sport should be illegal immigration and that all efforts should be made to disregard the British White Paper. Within this framework, more than 40 ships sailed from European ports bringing to the Land of Israel tens of thousands of illegal immigrants.
Since his arduous questions following the Kishinev Pogrom, Jabotinsky discerned two types of anti-Semitism – the anti-Semitism of man and the anti-Semitism of circumstances. He considered the anti-Semitism of man to be an expression of racial prejudice, similar to other forms of racial prejudice that must be fought against in the sane manner. The anti-Semitism of circumstances, in contrast, was not the product of hate but the result of an objective situation – the Israeli nation was in exile without a country. Jabotinsky viewed this second type of Jew hatred as a structural phenomenon due to the absence of territory in which the Hebrews are a majority. During his university years in Rome, he had seen how a healthy nation lives in its homeland. He was convinced that the absence of a country made the Jewish nation foreign and strange to other peoples. After all, even other minorities in other countries had a homeland that they could call their own. Therefore Jabotinsky continuously advocated mass migration to Eretz Yisrael.
But as Hitler rose to power and dark clouds enveloped Europe, Jabotinsky began to employ a new word – “evacuation”. He now saw the exile as a volcano preparing to erupt and warned that the Jews must evacuate before time ran out. He began fervently writing articles and lecturing to Jewish communities throughout Europe. On Tisha B’Av of 5697 (two years before the Nazis invaded Poland), Jabotinsky addressed the Great Synagogue of Warsaw saying, “it has been three years now that I have been talking to you, Polish Jewry, the crown of world Jewry. I have been warning you without respite that a catastrophe is approaching. My hair has gone white and my heart is bleeding blood because you, my dear brothers, do not see the tremendous volcano ready to emit lava in your midst. I see a terrible vision today. Time is short but you can still save yourselves. I know you are busy with your everyday concerns but listen to my words at the twelfth hour! Let each of you save your own soul while there is time. One last thing I wish to say today on Tisha B’Av – those who will succeed in escaping this catastrophe will merit to experience the exalted moment of great celebration – the rebirth and rise of an independent Hebrew state. I do not know if I will be privileged to see it, but my son will! I believe in this, as I am sure that tomorrow the sun will shine. Liquidate the exile or the exile will certainly liquidate you!”
Jabotinsky repeated these forebodings again and again in articles and public speeches, calling for the evacuation of European Jewry home to Palestine. Local Jewish leaders began to fiercely denounce him, calling him “Adolph Jabotinsky”. They charged him with assisting anti-Semites by undermining the unique Jewish existence in Europe built up over centuries. They accused him of having a political interest in stirring up trouble as it was well known that he strove for a Hebrew majority in Eretz Yisrael. They reasoned that his fiery speeches of doom throughout Europe were designed to frighten people into migrating to Palestine. Because their hearts were numb to their reality surrounding them , these leaders could not recognize the truth in Jabotinsky’s emotional message. They were cynical of his sensitivity and perceived him as a threat to their communal prestige. Utilizing impressive rationale, they justified their continued presence in Poland and dissuaded other Jews from heeding Jabotinsky’s warning. This irresponsible leadership would share eventual accountability in the loss of six million.
Unlike many of his students, Jabotinsky never despaired of Great Britain or the morality of the Western powers. He believed that by exerting moral pressure, civilized nations could be persuaded to honor their commitments. The problem, as he saw it, was that the Zionist leaders refused to demand what was rightfully theirs, allowing Britain to behave with duplicity towards Hebrew aspiration. Jabotinsky may not have imagined that his students would eventually engage the British in an open war of liberation for their country. During the initial years of World War II, he was active in England and the United States in the hope of establishing a new Jewish Legion to fight alongside the Allies against Germany. He called upon the Irgun Zvai Leumi to cooperate with the British and even enlist in their army to fight the common foe. This lead to a schism within the Irgun that would send powerful ripples through history.
In the summer of 5700 (1940), while visiting a Betar camp in upstate New York, Jabotinsky suffered a massive heart attack. His will requested that his remains be interred in Eretz Yisrael only at the express order of the Hebrew Government of the Jewish state that would surely arise. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion maliciously refused to honor this wish, still threatened by his rival even after death. But Jabotinsky’s will was eventually fulfilled by Levi Eshkol, Israel’s third Prime Minister. In 5724 (1964), Jabotinsky’s remains and those of his wife Jeanne were re-interred on the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky never quite fit in with the Jewish leadership of his generation. Unlike most Zionist figures, who by and large saw the gentile world through a sheltered ghetto perspective, Jabotinsky understood the outside world through first hand experience. He lived among and worked alongside gentile intellectuals and was fully accepted in Russian literary circles. Prior to his “conversion” to Zionist activity, he was a celebrated Russian journalist and playwright. Perhaps herein lies the explanation why, throughout his activities, Jabotinsky felt like a stepchild among his own people. “I am a stranger within Israel” without a home on the Jewish street. Chaim Weitzman tended to attribute Jabotinsky’s traits to his “goyishness”, as if “Jabotinsky, the enthusiastic Zionist, was very un-Jewish in his bearing, approach and manners”. All his qualities “were imbued with something of a theatrical knight, an odd sort of gallantry, not at all Jewish”. But Jabotinsky was in many ways more authentically “Jewish” than the Zionist leaders themselves. He resurrected Hebrew traits and concepts buried since the destruction of Bar Kochba’s army at Betar. He educated the youth to be dignified, chivalrous, principled and courageous. He taught his people to be proud, generous and fierce after a long and bitter exile of humiliating persecution.
Before his Zionist activity, there is no record of Jabotinsky ever being personally challenged by anti-Semitism. Throughout his years in Odessa and Rome, doors seemed to open wide for him and the literary elite eagerly accepted him as their own. What then prompted Jabotinsky to sacrifice the assimilationist dream for the sake of restoring the Hebrew nation on its soil? Like Herzl, Jabotinsky was sensitive to the suffering of his people. Although he enjoyed personal success and his literary career was flourishing, he could not bear the notion that his brothers were in pain. When the brutal Kishinev Pogrom subsided, Jabotinsky could not rest. He needed an answer as to why it took place – as to why his nation could find no rest from persecution. And when he found the lone parchment in the street with two simple words, Eretz Nokhria – “a strange land”, his life was forever transformed.
“In a day of service I am like a bar of copper, like a mass of iron, in the hands of the blacksmith whose name is Zion, mold me as you please, a sickle, a machine wheel or a sword and a dagger.”
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