Return and Exile
Lone Wolf: A Biography of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky
by Shmuel Katz
Barricade Books. 2 volumes. 1,792pp. $100.00
Reading Shmuel Katz’s two-volume biography of Vladimir Jabotinsky is a haunting experience. One haunting thing is that Jabotinsky, a figure whose ideas and influence were essential, indeed indispensable, to the founding of the state of Israel, was to die in 1940, at the age of sixty, in a far-off place called Hunter, New York, banished from the land and the community to which he had devoted his life.
This banishment, moreover, was not only an official one at the hands of the British authorities then in charge of Palestine who had found him a “nuisance” for his unswervable insistence on the right of Jews to take all they had been given title to under the League of Nations Mandate. It was, far worse, an unofficial one as well, at the hands of many former colleagues who were relieved to have him out of sight and pleased to cooperate in the blackening of his name. The life one follows through this book’s nearly 2,000 scholarly and yet totally gripping pages, then, is a life moving ever more inexorably to just one end: conflict, betrayal, exile.
What is even more haunting—indeed, chilling—is the fact that in the ensuing half-century and more since his death, almost none of the issues with which Jabotinsky was so passionately engaged, issues bearing on the health and security and very survival of the Jewish people, has yet been settled. The Nazi Holocaust, whose possibility he glimpsed, descended as it descended, and has somehow, if feebly, been assimilated within the account of Jewish history, the Jewish state, in behalf of whose establishment he fought so long and bitterly, has been established; and still both the old arguments and the old grounds for anxiety persist. If, as Karl Marx once said, history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce, what are we to say of the third and fourth times?
Some historical passages, to be sure, can never be repeated. Vladimir Jabotinsky was one of those remarkable East European Jews on whose like the world will never look again. Born in Odessa, that city of crime and poetry and prodigies, in the midst of the great cultural explosion known as the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, he was barely a teenager when he became a renowned Russian journalist and an accomplished linguist and translator. Somewhat later, he would add to the list of his accomplishments those of novelist, publicist, organizer, publisher, world-famous orator, political tactician, and party leader. He was without doubt a kind of genius, but also very much the product of a special moment in Jewish history, when the opportunity to break out of the confines of the old community, combined with a long pent-up and overheated literacy, hurled a generation of voracious young intellectuals headlong into Russian and European culture. The result, in more than a few instances, was a quite wonderful, if also in the end very costly, high-mindedness.
Something else was bubbling in that moment as well: an aspiration which might have seemed too earthy to engage the high-flown passions of a young Russian intelligent, but in the case of the young Jabotinsky had the power to set the permanent course of his life. That something was Zionism, the project of providing the Jewish people with a permanent national home and sanctuary in its ancient land, then called Palestine.
In the salad years before World War I, there seemed to the newly enlightened Jews of Europe a variety of ways to put an end to the pogroms and other oppressions before which their fellow Jews had for so long stood passive and helpless. Aside from outright assimilation and disappearance—an illusory solution entertained by only a handful of West European Jews—there was, for example, the socialist revolution with its promise of a radical transvaluation of the order of the world; there was some form of Jewish nationalism, centered in Eastern Europe itself; and there were a number of more moderate schemes centering on the liberal ideal of civic equality.
Whatever the relative distribution of adherents to these movements, it seems likely that Zionism, while perhaps drawing on deep wells of both religious and national sympathy, was in a minority position as a political force. Certainly very few took the return to Zion seriously as a personal alternative, and these few believers and pioneers were looked upon with wonderment or suspicion by their neighbors and with grief and fear by their families.
Yet in the end a Jewish state, the very Jewish state envisioned by Theodor Herzl while sipping his Viennese coffee, would turn out to be not an alternative but the only alternative for the Jews. Bundism—i.e., Jewish nationalism in Europe—would prove a will-o’-the-wisp, liberalism a frail reed, the great socialist revolution a fraud concealing a crime. All this, Jabotinsky foresaw and understood—not he alone, but he most unflinchingly and most fearlessly.
Curiously, Shmuel Katz tells us very little, really, about the process through which this brilliant young journalist discovered himself to be a Zionist—after all, the most important development in his life. We learn that, like many another turn-of-the-century Zionist in the making, he was moved by the pogroms, in particular the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. But the powerlessness of the Jews of Russia can hardly account by itself for his perduring passion, which was fixed not only on a Jewish state in Palestine but on the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language.
And this, incidentally, is not the only matter in Jabotinsky’s life that remains obscure. Although blessedly free of psychologizing, Katz’s narrative sometimes stays rather too strictly within the boundaries of what has been reported and documented. Thus, one does not learn here as much as one would like to know about Jabotinsky’s marriage, which seems almost from the start to have been more a matter of principle and loyalty than of any deep need; about his relations with his only son, Eri, who stood loyally in his father’s shadow and had to endure long years of trial at the hands of medical doctors for a physical impairment, and in a Palestinian-British jail for his political activities; about his long-suffering mother, and his sister, and his sister’s son Johnny (who appears in Katz’s account to have been immaculately conceived). In other words, long as it is, this book might well have been longer still.
But to return to the subject of Jabotinsky in battle: his first full-scale Zionist fight was over his proposal, during World War I, to form a Jewish Legion that would participate in combat with the British army against the Turks in Palestine. In this episode he was to encounter, in one form or another, every kind of resistance that was to bedevil not only the founding but the continued existence of the Jewish state.
There was resistance from within, from Jews already living in Palestine and their supporters in the World Zionist Organization who, failing to see that the Ottoman empire was on its last legs, believed that prudence dictated appeasing the Turks. There was the highly esteemed and influential thinker Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg), who, as the leader of the movement Hibat Zion (Love of Zion), preached that Zion was to be a strictly cultural rather than a political-military affair. There were Zionists in Russia, particularly elderly ones, who were pro-German and thus opposed to any form of Jewish support for the British. And in England itself there were Jewish assimilationists, men named Montefiore and Rothschild, who were strong opponents of the very idea of a Jewish Legion. And this is not to speak of the bitter resistance from without, put up by many powerful British military and political figures, prominent among them Lord Kitchener.
For Jabotinsky, who understood the Turks would collapse, it was essential that a Jewish Legion be present at war’s end to take part in the occupation of Palestine and to exert influence when the Entente powers came to divide up the larger territory then still known as Syria. Whether the opposition of Kitchener & Co. was based on their recognition of and hostility to such a consequence, or whether they simply did not like Jews very much, remains hard to say. In the end, however, Jabotinsky, allied with Chaim Weizmann—then primus inter pares of Zionist leaders and the most highly connected Jew in Britain—was to win this particular battle.
In August 1917, just a few months before Lord Balfour handed to the Jewish community of Britain a letter stating that His Majesty’s Government looked with favor on the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the Jewish Legion became a reality. Although, by the time the Legion arrived in Palestine, it was too late for it to play the kind of decisive political role Jabotinsky had dreamed of, the group would still prove useful to the war effort—and would continue as well to be both a point of controversy and a kind of shadow ambition within the now internationally legitimized Palestinian-Jewish community.
Jabotinsky and Weizmann were to remain allies for a time—until, in fact, the British had completed setting up their Mandatory administration. And then what may have been subliminal differences between the two men remained subliminal no longer. A variety of occasions and reasons offered themselves for contention, but essentially the source of their conflict was this: Weizmann thought the Zionists were weak and thus needed to placate their opponents, whereas Jabotinsky believed the Zionists must stand firm and convince the powers-that-be, especially in Jerusalem and London, of the error of their ways. Viewed from here and now, the struggle between them seems to some extent also a matter of personal character, Weizmann’s having been conditioned by his great ability to keep high connections and Jabotinsky’s by his universally attested powers of persuasion.
As things worked out, in any case, the placatory approach proved about as successful as it ever did for the Jews—namely, hardly at all. From almost the first moment, the British Foreign Office made clear its preference for treating with the Arabs and its intention to disregard commitments made to the Jews. Jabotinsky wanted the World Zionist Organization to protest and demand that Britain keep its promises, but Weizmann refused, insisting rather on temporizing and waiting.
Yet Weizmann’s worry was also justified: the Zionists were weak. They were weak, and their case was weak, because far too few Jews were actually coming to take part in the great return to the now twice-promised land—until, of course, it had grown too late to escape from Hitler’s Europe and the only way for Jews to get to Palestine was illegally. For all that Jabotinsky recognized what might befall them, and for all his ability to mobilize and to persuade, he had not succeeded in inspiring any significant number of European Jews to leave. And he (and others) had certainly failed to kindle an emigrationist spark among the relatively safe and comfortable Jews of America. His desire, then, that the Jews should deal from moral, political, and, when necessary, military strength foundered on demographics.
Nor was Weizmann the most treacherous of Jabotinsky’s internal opponents. That honor belongs to the Histadrut, the Zionist labor organization, and its political arm, the Mapai party, whose leaders did not shrink from bearing false witness in court against people associated with Jabotinsky, or even from betraying them to the British. In the eyes of the Labor Zionists, one of Jabotinsky’s worst crimes was that he favored a mixed economy: although admiring the kibbutzim for achieving something that could only be achieved collectively, he also insisted that the country needed to foster private enterprise if it were to support a growing and healthy population. Nor, unlike the Laborites, was he a committed secularist; instead, he believed it necessary to include among Zionist principles “the implanting of the sacred treasures of the Torah.”
Since Zionist socialism, like every other form of socialism, was less about economics than about power, and since Jabotinsky’s own greatest power was the power to persuade, the upshot was that he had to be extruded—from the established Zionist movement as well as from the country. Thus it was that, long before a Jewish state was to become a discussable possibility, Zionism was torn asunder. Jabotinsky inevitably organized his own movement, known as the Revisionists. This movement would inspire in its followers an almost unmatched degree of loyalty and passion, but it never achieved the kind of strength that would have enabled it by itself to govern the state that was to be.
What, then, did Jabotinsky—or, better, Jabotinskyism—represent in the larger culture, the ethos, of Zionism? For Betar, the youth group of his new movement, Jabotinsky drew up a code of behavior which he labeled “Hadar”—a word that literally means glory but that here may be best translated as magnificence, and was intended to connote a kind of aristocratic higher morality. All this was juxtaposed against the declaratory aim of the Labor party, which was socialist equality and fraternity.
As a political principle, the one was surely no less chimerical than the other. But as a moral and spiritual principle, Jabotinsky’s insistence that behind the Jews of his time stood “some 70 generations of people who were literate, who learned and spoke of God and history, of peoples and kingdoms, of ideas, justice and righteousness . . .” is a startling reminder of something that now tends to get lost: namely, that the goal of Zionism on the part of its true founding fathers was to be the creation not of a “new Middle East” but of a sturdy, dignified, and self-respecting Jewish people.
Certainly it has to be said that, in many ways, the Israelis of today answer to that description. Though they continue to live in mortal danger, unlike their ghetto forebears they also live under the protection of their own brilliant and highly potent armed forces. As for the rest of what Jabotinsky tasked them with, the count is not in yet.
But whatever may be the final outcome of the second return to Zion, we must be everlastingly grateful to Vladimir Jabotinsky for insisting so relentlessly upon what was, beyond the sheer necessity of rescue, the object of the Zionist exercise—and to Shmuel Katz for so masterfully giving his memory fresh life. If books have power, and they do, this one—quiet, calm, and, while certainly partisan, without a single shrill note—may one day help to direct the course of Israel’s seemingly endless argument with itself.