Jeffrey Veidlinger on Hillel Halkin’s Jabotinsky: a Life
There is little question that Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist Zionist Movement, was one of the most controversial thinkers and activists among the founders of the State of Israel. Some view him as a proto-fascist, whose militant extremism and uncompromising egoism complicated mainstream Zionists’ attempts to negotiate for statehood. Others regard him in almost mythic terms as a prophet who used his oratory gifts to warn of the Holocaust before Hitler conceived it. When Benjamin Netanyahu appeared before Congress to warn of the threat of a nuclear Iran, you can bet that he was imagining himself as a latter-day Jabotinsky. The victory of Netanyahu’s Likud in the recent Israeli election renders Jabotinsky more relevant than ever.
In one of the birth pangs of the State of Israel, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered the Israeli Defense Forces to fire upon a ship importing arms destined for the Irgun, a rival Zionist paramilitary force led by Jabotinsky’s protégé Menahem Begin. The order for a Jewish army to fire upon other Jews was anathema to many, but the episode sent a strong message that the state was willing to assert its monopoly on the use of force and was unwilling to tolerate paramilitary organizations in its midst. Tellingly, the ship’s name was the Altalena, one of Jabotinsky’s pseudonyms. After the establishment of the state, Ben-Gurion’s Labor government repeatedly won elections and marginalized the militant right; it was not until Ben-Gurion stepped down from office in 1963 that his successor Levi Eshkol was able to bring Jabotinsky’s bones to Israel for reburial on Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl.
But with the rise of Jabotinsky’s protégés — Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and now Benjamin Netanyahu, whose father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, was an aide to Jabotinsky — Jabotinsky’s official image has been rehabilitated. While there are plenty of partisan writings on Jabotinsky (including the two previous biographies of him written by Joseph Schechtman and Shmuel Katz) there have been fewer scholarly works or academic biographies. Hillel Halkin’s contribution to the award-winning Jewish Lives series from Yale University Press is not the exhaustive intellectual biography we have been waiting for, nor is it an innovative analysis of Jabotinsky’s thought and actions. Rather, it is a well-written, passionate survey of Jabotinsky’s life and contributions to political Zionism from the perspective of an admirer who tries — and largely succeeds — to bring to life this multifaceted and divisive figure.
Halkin is at his strongest when describing Jabotinsky at his most active politically. This period began during the First World War, when Jabotinsky campaigned for the establishment of a Jewish legion to assist the British in conquering Palestine. The British agreed only to what would become the Zion Mule Corps, which provided support for the British campaign in Gallipoli. Halkin’s chapters on the interwar period, when Jabotinsky engaged in his sharpest polemics with the mainstream Zionist leadership and eventually established a rival Zionist movement known as Revisionism, are riveting. This stage of Jabotinsky’s activity began in earnest in 1923, the year he authored his manifesto, “The Iron Wall,” in which he argued against any negotiations with the Arab residents of Palestine until a Jewish majority was secured. At this time, he began establishing militant youth groups on the model of Central European dueling fraternities, which would by 1927 coalesce into the Zionist youth movement Betar. In Palestine, Jabotinsky accepted the editorial reigns of the Jerusalem tabloid Do’ar ha‘Yom, which served as a mouthpiece for his fiery rhetoric. When a Betar demonstration at the Western Wall was followed by Arab riots that killed 133 Jews, the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper accused Do’ar ha‘Yom of provoking the violence. The British agreed and banished Jabotinsky from Palestine. Halkin points out that his exile was convenient, as the Zionist leader preferred life among the European and American literati over the hard work of state building in Palestine. He could now claim martyrdom from the safety of Parisian cafes.
With the rise of Nazism, Jabotinsky became more convinced that his dire prognosis for European Jewry was coming to fruition. From the beginning he was adamant that the Nazi brown shirts were not a passing fad. The 1933 elections to the Zionist Congress served as a turning point for his Revisionist movement. During the election cycle, Jabotinsky accused the mainstream Zionist leadership of making too many concessions to the British without adequate gain. Some in his Revisionist Party sought to leave the Congress altogether, but Jabotinsky preferred to see first how well the Revisionists could do in the election. In order to get his way, he carried out a putsch within his own party, single-handedly dismissing the executive committee and declaring himself in full command, a move that his opponents were eager to equate with those taken by the German Führer around the same time. During the election cycle, Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky exchanged vicious barbs that make modern Israeli elections look tame by comparison; Ben-Gurion famously called Jabotinsky “Vladimir Hitler.” Jabotinsky accused his opponents of being “lackeys of Moscow.” When the labor leader Chaim Arlozorov was assassinated in Tel Aviv on June 16, 1933, authorities and the public blamed Betar militants, and Jabotinsky’s electoral chances were ruined.
Embittered by his electoral defeat and unable to renegotiate a position for himself at the table, Jabotinsky and his Revisionists left the Zionist Congress and in 1935 formed their own New Zionist Organization (NZO). The NZO was maximalist in its demands, seeking to evacuate the Jews from Europe immediately. Eventually, the NZO was able to claim its own army, when the Irgun placed itself under Jabotinsky’s command in 1936. Jabotinsky, who was still reeling from the detachment of Transjordan from the League of Nations Mandate, rejected the ensuing Peel Commission’s proposal for the further partition of Palestine, putting him at odds with Chaim Weizmann, the President of the World Zionist Organization. His rejection, though, had nothing to do with a refusal to forsake the biblical Judea and Samaria; like the Likud today, he couched his maximalist arguments in the language of security.
When the Peel plan devolved into violence and another Arab revolt, Jewish extremists met terror with terror. Jabotinsky, from his European exile, played a double game, sending coded approvals to the Jewish terrorists, while issuing public statements condemning them. As the situation for European Jewry became more desperate toward 1939, with the British White Paper limiting immigration to Palestine and Nazi Germany gaining ground, Jabotinsky sought agreements with Poland to allow for the establishment on Polish soil of Zionist military training camps, while he helped coordinate illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine. He died in the Catskills in 1940.
Parts of Halkin’s narrative allow the reader to glimpse Jabotinsky’s complicated personality. For instance, after Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky met in Pinchas Rutenberg’s London hotel room in 1934 to discuss a political compromise, they exchanged a series of sentimental and admiring letters–an odd end to such a nasty political campaign. But ultimately Halkin does little to reveal Jabotinsky’s inner motivations, psychology, and philosophy. Jabotinsky was, as Michael Stanislawski reminded us in his 2001 book Zionism and the Fin de Siècle, a Russian cosmopolitan writer before he became a Zionist politician — his poetry, feuilletons, plays, and novels present insightful observations about revolutionary Russia and the developing post-imperial world. Halkin’s chapters on Jabotinsky’s early life as a man of letters in Odessa pale in comparison to the vividness with which he depicts the Zionist infighting of the interwar period. Certainly Jabotinsky admired Theodor Herzl — another journalist reinvented as a Zionist activist — a point Halkin makes on multiple occasions, but the connection with Herzl is overrated, designed by Jabotinsky’s admirers to situate him as Herzl’s successor. We learn little about his other early influences, about how Jabotinsky fit in with the Odessa literati, or about how his experiences in the declining Russian Empire influenced his Zionist thought. These are matters about which Jabotinsky had a lot to say. In a follow-up piece to “The Iron Wall,” Jabotinsky acknowledged that his views on Palestine were derived from his observations of the Ukrainian independence movement during the Russian Civil War, and his own support for that movement infuriated many of his supporters who blamed the Ukrainian leadership for the pogroms of the period. Halkin’s discussion of Jabotinsky’s two most famous works of fiction, Samson the Nazirite (1926) and The Five (1935), are also patchy and focused primarily on what they reveal about the author’s political philosophy, rather than Jabotinsky the person. Finally, Halkin elides discussion of Jabotinsky’s disdain for religion, a trait that continues to make him an uncomfortable hero for the modern Israeli Right.
In his epilogue, Halkin imagines a conversation with the ghost of Jabotinsky about the future of Israel today. It is only in this section that Jabotinsky wavers and equivocates: “the best possible deal for the Jewish people was all I wanted,” Halkin’s imagined Jabotinsky declares. But Jabotinsky was very clear in what he wanted for the Jewish state: a Jewish majority backed by a strong military. Had he lived to see it, he would have been proud of what Ben-Gurion achieved and, who knows, perhaps would even have admired his erstwhile rival’s attack on the ship named in his honor.