Fm the Jerusalem Post:
Jabotinsky’s place in history
By DANIEL TAUBER
The occasional spatter of articles don’t do justice to the lasting impact of Jabotinsky’s words and deeds.
He was called the next Herzl, the next Dostoyevsky, the Jewish Garibaldi, the Jewish Churchill, the Prisoner of Acre, the Defender of Jerusalem, the Father of the Revolt, and the Father of the IDF. He wrote books, poems and articles. He founded armies and organizations. He was the voice of the downtrodden and was considered by some to be a modern day prophet, travelling around the world warning the people of impending destruction but never doubting their ultimate redemption. Yet, most Jews don’t know much about him or understand his impact on Jewish history.
In much of the Zionist literature, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and his Revisionist-Zionist movement are treated as an afterthought. Where discussed at all, they are often mentioned as a fringe faction, which happened to be correct on a number of issues. In Walter Laquer’s History of Zionism, Jabotinsky gets one chapter.
In Howard Sachar’s tome, Jabotinsky is mentioned in a few scattered instances.
True, Jabotinsky’s legacy gets a boost every now and then with the election of a Likud prime minister or the death of a Revisionist- Zionist figure, such as Benzion Netanyahu or Yitzhak Shamir.
But the occasional spatter of articles don’t do justice to the lasting impact of Jabotinsky’s words and deeds.
Jabotinsky wasn’t just the head of a fringe faction, an influence on two or three prime ministers, or the spiritual father of the leading party in Israel. Every chapter of Zionist history after Herzl’s death was colored by Jabotinsky’s personality. He stands among Herzl, Ben-Gurion and Weizmann as one of the founding fathers of the Jewish State.
JABOTINSKY FOUNDED the Jewish Legion and the Hagana and renewed the Jewish military tradition which was and remains essential to Jewish statehood. His concept of the “Iron Wall,” with its implications for Jewish military strength, defeating violent Arab opposition to Zionism and achieving peace with our neighbors, has become embedded in Israeli society.
He fathered and fostered the organizations and philosophy which expelled the British from the country, without which the state would not have been founded. (Even Lehi, which split from the Irgun after Jabotinsky’s death, was composed of former members of Betar and the Irgun).
He led the effort for illegal immigration, saving thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.
Despite active opposition from the Zionist leadership, the Betar and Irgun saved at least 24,000 Jews, in what they called “Af Al Pi” (despite it all) immigration, which was the forerunner to Aliya Bet.
Until his death, Jabotinsky was the primary Zionist leader who carried the torch of Jewish statehood, while both Weizmann and Ben- Gurion shamefully denied that a Jewish majority and Jewish statehood were the goals of the Zionist movement.
This is not to mention his contribution to the revival of the Hebrew language, his founding of Jewish self-defense groups, his propaganda (hasbara) and fund-raising work for various Zionist causes, or his inspiring thousands to come to Israel and help build the Jewish state. His Zionist propaganda for the Jewish Legion in Britain has been said by many, including Chaim Weizmann, to deserve “half the credit for the Balfour Declaration.”
Nor is this to mention Jabotinsky’s failures, which also speak to his greatness as well as to the shortsightedness of his opponents. He failed to convince the Zionist leadership, the world, even European Jewry itself to evacuate Europe (his warnings were cast down as fear-mongering).
He died before he could convince the Allies to establish a Jewish army to fight in World War II, which would have created a sizable Jewish military force, enabled Jews to fight the Nazis on their own terms, and strengthened their claim to statehood after the war.
(Several years after his death, a less politically useful “Jewish Brigade” was formed which provided military training to thousands of Palestinian Jews). He also died before he could prevent the partition of the already diminished territory of Palestine.
It’s no wonder that multiple Israeli political parties now say they follow in his tradition, that more streets and public places in Israel are named after him than any other figure, or that Israeli legislators debate what he would say about this or that bill or policy.
UNFORTUNATELY, OUT of ignorance and political bias of various shades, our historians, intellectuals and educators have relegated Jabotinsky to the sidelines of Jewish history, especially in the Diaspora.
The result is a monolithic history in which our leaders were in general agreement and made essentially the best choices they could have made given the circumstances. In this history the two-state solution (or partition) was supported by all; it was the United Nations which founded the State of Israel; and our leaders never risked our security in fear of international opinion.
The true history is one of a minimalist-leftist coalition (Weizmann, Ben-Gurion and the socialist factions) rejecting the policies of Jabotinsky’s maximalist-rightist movement with disastrous consequences for the Jewish nation. Partition was criticized severely; it was Jewish arms which founded the state; and the leadership was cautious of international opinion to the point of being suicidal.
The danger of this historical cover-up is not merely the denial of a great man his place in history, but the prevention of generations of Jews from learning from the failed decisions of the past.
A Jew who is denied the opportunity to read Jabotinsky’s testimony before the Peel Commission, his article the “Iron Wall,” his warnings of “H-U-R-B-A-N,” or the plethora of other classic writings and speeches he produced is robbed of the realization that the issues we face today are essentially those we have faced for almost a century.
He is denied Jabotinsky’s eternal, prophetic and awe-inspiring message: We are not consigned to our fate. We need not concede our national interests in search of the ever-elusive moral high ground. Our cause is indeed just and if we have the courage, even in the 11th hour, we can redeem ourselves.
Before he was a political figure, he was in his native Russian a novelist, an essayist (as a feuilletonist for an Italian paper, writing in Italian, he wrote under the pseudonym "Altalena," which in 1947 was the name given to the ship that was famously used by the Irgun to attempt to smuggle in weapons to Mandatory Palestine, a ship which was sunk by a detachment of the Haganah). He translated Dante, Longfellow, Edgar Allen Poe into Russian. He translated Bialik from Russian into Hebrew. He gave speeches. . The uncle of Vladimir Nabokov, then the Russian ambassador to Great Britain, heard Jabotinsky give a speech in London; he later declared Jabotsinky to be the greatest orator he had ever heard.
Jabotonsky was forbidden to return to Mandatory Palestine, by the British, in 1930, and spent his last years in Europe, where he understood what was coming and tried to warn the Jews of eastern Europe. In Warsaw, in 1937, this is what he said to a gigantic crowd gathered at the time of a Jewish holiday:
"It is already THREE years that I am calling upon you, Polish Jewry, who are the crown of World Jewry. I continue to warn you incessantly that a catastrophe is coming closer. I became grey and old in these years, my heart bleeds, that you, dear brother and sisters, do not see the volcano which will soon begin to spit its all-consuming lava. I see that you are not seeing this because you are immersed and sunk in your daily worries. Today, however, I demand from you trust. You were convinced already that my prognoses have already proven to be right.
If you think differently, then drive me out of your midst! However, if you do believe me, then listen to me in this twelfth hour: In the name of God! Let anyone of you save himself, as long as there is still time, and time there is very little.
What else I would like to say to you on this day of Tisha B’Av is whoever of you will escape from the catastrophe, he or she will live to see the exalted moment of a great Jewish wedding - the rebirth and rise of a Jewish state. I don’t know if I will be privileged to see it, but my son will! I believe in this, as I am sure that tomorrow morning the sun will rise."
Jabotinsky was always a believer in Jewish self-defense, and nothing he experienced disabused him of that idea. With the celebrated Trumpelor (later murdered by Arabs at Tel Hai), he founded the Zion Mule Corps, and then, in 1917, the Palestine Legion.
And here is something about Jabotinsky that I find indelibly winning. The word in Russian for "regiment" is "polk." "Polk" an also be used, loosely, for other kinds of military units and undertakings. The most famousa appearance of the word "polk" in Russian is in the title of tbe national epic, that dates either from the 12th century, if it is genuine, or from the late 18th centur yif it was a later forgery produced, as some have argued, by a Bohemian Czech who was linguistically gifted and historically astute enough to fool such Russians as Count Musin-Pushkin and lots of of other Russians since. This was, after all, the great century of literary forgeries, with George Psalmanazar and Thomas Chatterton. For more on this matter see Roman Jakobson, Andre Mazon, Vladimir Nabokov, Dmitri Likhachev, and Edward Keenan.
The full title of that Russian epic is "Slovo o polku Igoreve." It is now known as "The Song of Igor's Campaign." The word "slovo" was more capacious once, but its meaning has etiolated over the centuries so that it now applies not to a "lay" or a "song" and has come to mean "word." But when Jabotinsky wrote his memoir about the founding of the Palestine Legion, a Jewish military force that helped Allenby during World War I, he chose to kalemburit' and gave the book this brilliant punning title:
Slovo o Polku. (or, "The Song Of The Legion").