In an article he published in Haaretz 10 days before the battle of Tel Hai on March 1, 1920, Ze’ev Jabotinsky recommended that the Jewish settlement in the northern Galilee be abandoned. In his reading of the strategic circumstances, attempting to hold the site was a pointless exercise that would lead to the unnecessary deaths of its residents. “What is the purpose?” he asked. “Defense or a show of force?” Jabotinsky asserted that “defending the site is impossible because we don’t have an adequate force.”
David Ben-Gurion, by contrast, came out in favor of remaining at the site, though it was his fellow Laborite, Berl Katznelson, who set the tone on the issue. In a historically important letter, Katznelson laid the basis for the pioneer workers’ movement, regarding both the need to defend and fight for every node of settlement and strategic decision-making in risky situations. On the value of land settlement, he wrote:
“We are sincere people and not demonstrators. … No commanders send us and the loss of a comrade is not an easy thing for us. … We want to live and know what awaits us … and we go because we are fulfilling our mission. Because the main thing is to honor the Yishuv and its soul. Because it is not a question of a plot of land and a little Jewish property, but a question of the Land of Israel. Because abandonment and retreat set an example that proclaims our weakness and futility. And because the only proof of our right to our land, of the oneness of Rosh Pina and Metulla, is an attitude of stubborn resolve, without looking behind us.”
Here was born the struggle over the maintenance of the land, with each node of settlement contributing to overall control of territory and ultimately to the contours of the country’s borders.
During the era of the tower-and-stockade settlements, too, Jabotinsky expressed doubts about the ability of some of the isolated, scattered communities to contribute to creating a Jewish critical mass.
On the issue of territorial presence, Jabotinsky viewed the matter differently from Ben-Gurion and Katznelson. He measured the extent of such presence in de jure terms, having to do with quantity and continuity between isolated points. Ben-Gurion and Katznelson, on the other hand, saw the issue in de facto terms, with a focus on the momentum that dynamically shaped it.
Or as Katznelson put it: “In every strategy it is easy to prove a defeat retroactively and difficult to ensure victory. … Apparently we are in an old argument here, an argument that is not decided by logical assertions. There is ‘practicality’ that makes the calculation retroactively and recommends leaving, and there is another practicality that insists on remaining until the last moment. And then there is the impossible that is turned into the possible.”
Against Jabotinsky’s claims based on rational strategic analysis, Katznelson spoke of the greatness of the thing being struggled for and of the power of faith, believing that with enough resolve even the impossible would become possible. Katznelson’s position was not irrational per se, but rather, in his pioneering outlook faith had a role to play in decision-making. In the atmosphere of our time, such a statement would almost certainly be characterized as “messianic talk” divorced from a sober view of reality.
A century later, the battle between the two approaches remains at Israel’s heart. But as far as its attitude toward the Land of Israel is concerned, the leadership of the Zionist left has distanced itself from the path and vision of Katznelson and the pioneers of Tel Hai. Therein lies a key to understanding the decline of the Israeli left—and also to understanding what Israel needs to do as it faces the challenges of the hour.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen is a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He served in the IDF for 42 years, commanding troops in battles with Egypt and Syria. He was formerly a corps commander and commander of the IDF Military Colleges.
This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.