Netflix has delighted its viewers with a new series about a Jerusalemite family in the style of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” is based on a novel by Israeli writer Sarit Yishai-Levi about a family of Sephardic Jews, once expelled from Spain, who live in early 20th-century Jerusalem under the Ottoman Turks and later the British Mandate.
One of the great merits of the production is that it shows millions of viewers the history of the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel, which was colonized by the Ottomans and then by the British. Even if the aim of the series is entertainment and aesthetic pleasure, this historical perspective is valuable, because it debunks claims made by many critics of Israel that the Jews are not indigenous to the Land of Israel. Indeed, one often hears that the Jews came to Israel only after the Holocaust, and this historical ignorance dies hard even among academics.
However, political correctness has a thousand forms, and the series does not escape it. There are the good guys and the bad guys. The good guys are the nice socialists of the Labor Party. The bad guys are the hooligans of the Irgun “terrorist” gang—a right-wing Zionist defense organization.
The beautiful series offers viewers a very unbeautiful caricature of the organization, which was inspired by Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a Russian Jewish thinker and politician born in Odessa. Jabotinsky was the founder and theorist of the Zionist right-wing and, without him, the State of Israel would not exist.
Jabotinsky became a Zionist after witnessing one of the bloodiest pogroms of the early 20th century in 1905 Odessa, as well as the pogrom in Kishinev the same year. He understood that no one would ever save the Jews from the indifference of the governments under which they lived, and the only way for them to survive was to defend themselves. Thus, he organized one of the first Jewish self-defense groups and formulated the important Zionist idea that the Jews were strangers in every country in the world. The only way to solve this problem, he believed, was to return to the Land of Israel.
This is how the political and philosophical history of right-wing Zionism begins. To make a long story short, Jabotinsky knew all the actors involved in the creation of the Jewish national home in Palestine that became Israel.
He took part in the creation of the Jewish Legion that helped the British drive the Turks out of Palestine, hoping that, in return, the British would respect the promises they had made in the Balfour Declaration. But the British were in no hurry, and this had terrible consequences.
In 1920, the Arabs of Palestine organized a murderous pogrom in Jerusalem and Hebron, killing men and raping women under the largely indifferent gaze of the British. These events gave rise to the creation of various defense organizations, including eventually the Irgun.
The European public is unfamiliar with this history, and even less so with Jabotinsky’s thought. This makes the portrayal of his followers in “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” all the more egregious. Even though Jabotinsky’s name is not explicitly mentioned in the series, the members of the Irgun are presented as parasites, drunks and terrorists who kill innocent people at will.
In fact, Jabotinsky’s ideology was not one of violence but a reaction to violence. He was one of the few Zionist thinkers who understood the meaning of the bloody Arab pogroms of 1920 and 1929, which are shown in the series. Indeed, a year before the 1920 pogrom, Jabotinsky told Louis Brandeis, the leader of American Zionism, “We Russian Jews smell blood from afar, like hunting dogs.”
Though he came from a country where Marxism was becoming the dominant ideology, Jabotinsky did not see the Jewish-Arab conflict as a class struggle, as “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” sometimes implies. He saw it as “a clash of two national claims,” which is precisely what is not seen in the series.
Jabotinsky believed that the Arabs would never peacefully accept Jewish aliyah and the Jewish presence in Palestine, and certainly would not do so in exchange for money, as pacifist Jews naively and even contemptuously thought. He asked the pacifists after the 1929 pogrom how pacifism and non-resistance to violence could save people from savage murder.
By reproaching these left-wing Zionists for preaching morality to the Jews and ignoring the Arab refusal to coexist with them, he introduced a security dimension into theoretical Zionism. He had experienced the pogroms in Russia and the Land of Israel, and saw hundreds of innocent people die under the indifferent gaze of Russian and British governments. So, he understood the need for “pragmatic realism,” which requires deterrence of enemies and the capacity for self-defense necessary for survival.
Exploring Jabotinsky’s thought allows one to escape from the Manichean, simplistic reality of television, whose role is often to reiterate ignorance of history, however aesthetically beautiful that ignorance may be.
Yana Grinshpun is a senior lecturer in language sciences at Sorbonne Nouvelle University. Her research concentrates on media discourse and media manipulation in democratic societies.