Rebel And Statesman
by Joseph B. Schechtman
Thomas Yoseloff. 467 pp. $6.00.
Zionism from the beginning attracted a type of inveterate “outsider.” But, it also gave its adherents a new sense of community, a feeling of belonging as Jews. Herzl and Brandeis are notable examples of leaders who, though wedded to Zionism above all by intellectual conviction, found themselves also drawn by the warmth of the Zionist community; yet no full union with it was possible for men moved so directly by the logic of ideas. Vladimir Jabotinsky was another of the same type.
The Zionist movement as such, the communion of those who were Zionist by feeling and consensus, admired and supported these men for the brilliance and cogency of their reasoning, but it also showed them an affection all the warmer for their being essentially isolated man. In each case, however, there came a painful parting of the ways, and the outsider found himself once more outside.
What was different in Jabotinsky’s case was that he organized a movement of outsiders. A “statesman” is always, no doubt, an outsider in a political movement, but this was a “rebel statesman.” His quarrel with the Zionists was accompanied not by grief, as in the case of Herzl, but by resentment. It was a resentment, moreover, that, far from being subdued by innate discipline and dignity—as with Brandeis—was elevated into a principle. At the same time Jabotinsky’s rebellion answered a certain current of feeling among the Zionists that was broad enough to provide the base for a new party—the Zionist-Revisionists.
Revisionism denounced as betrayal Weizmann’s policy of cooperating with the British so long as the Mandate did not totally obstruct Zionist work and hopes. And in the name of an exclusive dedication to nationalism, the Revisionists bitterly fought the Zionist labor movement, Weizmann’s allies in building Jewish strength under the Mandate. The conflict grew so violent that, in the 30’s the Revisionists left the World Zionist Organization, never to return during Jabotinsky’s lifetime.
But even in this rebel movement, Jabotinsky remained an outsider; he could not change his essential aloofness. The distance that apparently separated him from even his close friends is nowhere better suggested than in the admirable book under review.
For the Revisionists, Jabotinsky was a leader who represented everything his disciples had to become: the soldierly, single-minded, and totally devoted partisan of a “monolithic” idea. Herzl, on the other hand, was for his followers a new Moses, an elder brother come back to rejoin the fold as well as lead the flock; he was followed for his vision and daring, and loved all the more because he was different and strange and yet sought to come near. It was he who wanted to find himself among them, not they who had to become like him.
Herzl’s was a very Jewish form of leadership, whereas Jabotinsky’s, which made him the idol of the Revisionist movement, was not. But then neither Jabotinsky nor Revisionism was very Jewish in the authentic and classic mode. They were Jewish all right—but only because they reacted so violently against the classic modes of Jewishness.
Such qualification to the above as must be added applies particularly to the time and circumstances of Jabotinsky’s early career, the period covered by this first half of Dr. Schechtman’s projected two-volume biography. The Russian Zionist movement in the first decades of the 20th century welcomed Jabotinsky like a prodigal son. Men like Ben Gurion and Sharett, or the late Hayim Greenberg, who eventually became the sworn foes of his Revisionism, could never in later years regard him with complete hostility. Schechtman’s biography tries to understand this continuing bond, formed in the halcyon days when the “outsider” Jabotinsky became almost completely part of the Zionist community.
An exhaustive biographical study would have to consider three Jabotinskys, each of them important but not always easily combined with the others. First of all, there was his personality: the strikingly ugly man who exercised such a fantastic personal charm; the literary and oratorical Wunderkind, with audiences, male and female, everywhere at his feet; the tender son, husband, and father—so solicitous about his loved ones that he was constantly telegraphing anniversary and birthday greetings from the innumerable way stations of a public career that he allowed, almost from the cradle, virtually to obliterate any continuous private life.
Then there was the writer and thinker; the Russian intellectual who had gotten his European culture not in Germany but, un-orthodoxly, in Italy; the phenomenal linguist who no sooner became a convinced Hebraist than he undertook and carried off with great éclat the translation of Bialik’s poetry into Russian, and even began to write poetry of his own in Hebrew. Jabotinsky’s political career was married to continuous literary activity in every conceivable genre and in an unparalleled variety of languages.
There was, finally, the public figure: the man whose not always consistent attitudes have to be compared and adjudged in terms of his final position and strategy.
We can estimate the degree of Jabotinsky’s aloofness when we note that Dr. Schechtman disposes of the first of these three Jabotinskys in a perfunctory way. We learn hardly the bare details of critical relationships that would have to be explored in depth to grasp so intriguing a character. Of the literary quality or even the intellectual content of Jabotinsky’s writings and general musings, the biography gives us only an external view. But it devotes itself with great care to his public career.
The “Jabotinsky story” here presented is a broad survey of one of the intense and vital areas of modern Jewish history, the political-intellectual life of Russian Jewry just before World War I. Considering how provincial the American intellectual public still remains in its Jewish horizons, this is a contribution of the first order to our general sophistication. Dr. Schechtman’s account is written on the basis of a comprehensive collection of data from scattered sources and a conscientious evaluation of all reports.
Dr. Schechtman has no need to proclaim his resolve to be objective—at any rate, not as far as his method of arriving at and documenting his conclusions is concerned. When he takes pains to stress in his introduction that he intends to be objective, he has something else in mind. As a political adherent of Jabotinsky and, beyond that, one who “has profoundly admired and—not to shy away from the word—loved the man,” Dr. Schechtman feels obliged to tell us that he does not intend his biography as “an act of hero worship.” He intends to be objective in his evaluation not only of Jabotinsky’s statements of fact but of the political meaning of his acts.
This intention is fulfilled: not only does Dr. Schechtman sometimes reject Jabotinsky’s own account of what happened; he also criticizes Jabotinsky for some of the things he did. Nonetheless Dr. Schechtman—as he himself warns us—accepts fully the Jabotinskian political philosophy and manual of tactics, and if he judges unfavorably anything Jabotinsky did in the early part of his career, it is because he has concluded that the action in question failed to conform with the philosophy or tactics Jabotinsky himself formulated later on. Objective as Dr. Schechtman is, one should not assume on that account that this is, in any true sense, a critical account of Jabotinsky’s political career.