An honest evaluation of Zionist pioneer Ze’ev Jabotinsky

By Rabbi Jack Riemer/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Credit: Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

I confess that I came to Hillel Halkin’s “Jabotinsky: A Life” with some suspicion. First, Daniel Gordis wrote a book about former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin with a rave review by Halkin, and then Halkin wrote a book about Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Begin’s mentor, with a rave review by Gordis—so I suspected that Halkin’s new volume would be a work of fluff. But it turns out to be both a serious work of scholarship and an honest evaluation of Jabotinsky and his place in Zionist history.

Halkin has tracked down almost everything that Jabotinsky ever wrote, whether it was in Russian, German, Yiddish, Italian, English, or French. Jabotinsky was a controversial figure in Zionist affairs, demonized by the left and worshipped by the right, yet Halkin has drawn an honest portrait of the man, warts and all.

Four things emerge from this portrait. One was that Jabotinsky was prescient. He was one of the first to anticipate that England would win World War I and that it would drive the Turks out of Palestine, and therefore that Zionism’s future depended on it. He foresaw ahead of others that England would betray the Balfour Declaration—a British expression of support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine—unless enough pressure was exerted on them not to. He understood from the start that Socialism could not develop the economy of Palestine soon enough to attract massive Jewish immigration. He grasped early on that European Jewry was on the brink of catastrophe. And he understood long before others that the interest of the Jews and the Arabs in Palestine were irreconcilable, that they could only be resolved by war, and that in the end there could only be one winner.

The second truth emerging from this book is that Jabotinsky never had much real success. He was never able to win a significant number of delegates to the World Zionist Organization or to command much respect for the break-off group that he formed. He was able to form a couple of companies of Jewish soldiers within the British army, but they had little impact on the war and none afterwards. Most of his plans were fantasies that never materialized. He was not even able to control his own people in Palestine from a distance. His one lasting achievement was the creation of Betar, the movement that centered on creating a new kind of Jew, one who had self-discipline and a deep sense of honor. There are still streets in every large city in Israel named for him, and prime ministers Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Benjamin Netanyahu are each in their own way his disciples. But it is Betar, and its vision of a new kind of Jew who has sloughed off the ways of the ghetto, that remains his memorial.

Halkin’s third truth is that Jabotinsky was a man of many contradictions. He had enormous literary talent, but never sat still long enough to develop it. He dedicated himself to a people and to a land that he never felt comfortable in. He believed in individualism, but he developed a philosophy that called upon the individual to subordinate himself to the group. He abhorred fascism, but created a party and a youth movement that had all the trimmings of it.

The fourth truth Halkin learns is that Jabotinsky was a different kind of Jew than Chaim Weitzman, David Ben-Gurion, and other heroes of early Israel. He grew up in cosmopolitan Odessa, not in the shtetl, and had almost no Jewish education or involvement in Jewish tradition. He could very well have become a participant in the general culture, and not a Jewish spokesman. He was a poet, a novelist, a journalist, a translator, and a playwright, who was proficient in many languages and at home in many cultures. The tension between his Jewish patriotism on the one hand and his attachment to European culture on the other struggled for supremacy within him for all his life.

Halkin has not done a work of uncritical adulation. Instead, he has analyzed one of the most romantic and controversial figures in the entire Zionist story, in all of his complexities. At the end of the book, he relays a wonderful scene in which he imagines interviewing Jabotinsky in a Parisian café, some 60 years after the establishment of the State of Israel. He tells Jabotinsky: “You were a man of the right. You believed that there was no way to peace except through strength, but what would you say if you could speak to Israelis today? Would you advise us to hold on to all the territories or to give them back for the sake of peace? Would you advise us to go on ruling over millions of Arabs against their wishes and against the will of the world or would you tell us to work for a settlement of some kind?”

“Make the best deal you can,” Jabotinsky replies. “I am sorry that I can’t be more specific. The settlements, Jerusalem, the borders—the details are everything, but I can’t speak about the details from where I am now. All I can tell you is that you have to be smart and you have to be tough in order to negotiate, and you have to be smart and you have to be tough in order to live in this world. So make the best deal that you can.”

And with that, Jabotinsky gets up, pays the waiter, and goes back into history. The last lines with which he leaves readers not only provide a good summary of the way he tried to live in his own time, but are important words to consider as we struggle with the challenges Israel faces today.

“Jabotinsky: A Life,” by Hillel Halkin, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., May 2014, 246 pages, $25.

Rabbi Jack Riemer

Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.

Posted on May 11, 2014 and filed under Book Review, Arts.