by Janet Tassel (June 2014)
Jabotinsky: A Life
By Hillel Halkin
Yale University Press,
246 pp. $25.00
Amazingly, the last biography of Vladimir Jabotinsky in English appeared close to twenty years ago: Lone Wolf, a two-volume doorstop by Shmuel Katz (1996), which at almost 2,000 pages, deserves its reputation as “compendious.” Now, in this new biography, Hillel Halkin has done the impossible: He has gracefully condensed the story of this complex tragic figure into a page-turner that is at once concise and a rattling good read.
Jabotinsky, known principally as Zionism’s most polarizing and bellicose crusader, was also a cultured, indeed aristocratic, polymath— multingual, a prolific journalist, lawyer, translator of Poe and Dante, playwright, poet, playwright and author. (His novel Samson the Nazarite (1926) was later made into a Cecil B. DeMille movie with Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature.) That he may also have been a lover of women seems probable, given his early bohemian life in Rome and elsewhere, and his lifetime of traveling so much without his wife. Not that he embodied le beau ideal
How a protean genius of Jabotinsky’s talents and superhuman energy arises among “normal” people is always a mystery, but Halkin suggests that the place of his childhood—Odessa, “carefree, contented Odessa,” Jabotinsky called it—may provide some clues. Born there in 1880, he left for the bohemian life abroad when he was only 17, and “said a last goodbye to it before World War I,” but “a part of him always remained there,” this intoxicating, cosmopolitan city where he studied, worked as a young journalist, and played the rascal as a boy.
Odessa, Halkin writes, was the only large Russian city in which Jews were not barred. A city with no established Jewish institutions, the thousands of Jews who flocked there were thus “less traditional and less subject to rabbinical influence” than other Jewish communities. A sophisticated, international city, Odessa’s lingua franca was for a time Italian before yielding to Russian. It was in Russian that Jabotinksy was raised, and his widowed mother kept a minimally observant home, perhaps engendering his lifelong laxity in Jewish ritual and his dedicated secularism.
But at the same time Odessa attracted some of the most influential Hebrew, Yiddish—and Zionist thinkers of the age: think Ahad Ha’Am, Bialik, Tchernichovsky, and Meir Dizengoff, future mayor of Tel Aviv. And as to writers of fiction, consider among others Mendele Mocher Seforim and Sholem Alecheim.
This “vibrant Jewish cultural life,” says Halkin, of course had to affect the intellectually voracious young Jabotinsky. “Only in Odessa could an Eastern European Jew feel both deeply Jewish and totally at ease among non-Jews,” mixing in “truly neutral spaces.” Perhaps that is why “to other Eastern European Zionist leaders of his generation like Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky [seemed] a kind of half-breed. The Weizmanns and Ben-Gurions were products of the shtetl,” reared in Yiddish, educated at heder. “Their world was divided into Jews and non-Jews, the latter viewed as alien and hostile.” Jabotinsky, wrote Weizmann later, had something “not at all Jewish” about him. The traditional suspicion of Ostjuden toward their more acculturated brothers (and vice versa) would color Jabotinsky’s relations with his fellow Zionists all his life.
Nothing would be harder to imagine than Ben-Gurion, say, taking off at the age of 17, as did Jabotinsky, without even waiting to receive his diploma, and decamping, a newly hired young correspondent for an Odessa newspaper, to become a law student, writer, and all-around hell-raiser in Bern and then, for three years, in his beloved Rome.
Rome was the real thing. It was the beating heart of a country that had been freed in a long struggle for independence led by the intrepid figure of Garibaldi, whose Italian nationalism was tempered by a democratic humanism, and it left Jabotinsky with a lifelong vision of what a decent, free, and pleasurable society could be like—the society he was to want for another former and future people of the Mediterranean: his own.
Then, in June 1901, Jabotinsky returned to Odessa, thinking it would be a vacation, but when he was offered a substantial job as a columnist at Odesskaya Novosti, he moved back. Writing under the pen name “Altalena,” Italian for “see-saw,” he found himself a celebrity, with newsboys crying, “Extra! Read Altalena today!” and with a reserved seat at the theater with his name in bronze letters. He also became known as an anti-Marxist, an anti-collectivist, a celebrator of individual freedom, and therefore an anarchist, which is why the Tsarist police ransacked his belongings and hauled him off to jail– his first, though hardly his last, arrest.
Though Jabotinsky over the years had thought about his Judaism, and had nourished a pseudo-romantic attachment to Zion (while experiencing revulsion at the sight of actual Jews “with their queer dress and manners, living in poverty and seeming abjectness”), it wasn’t until his return from Rome that his interest became serious. Halkin tells of his meeting at the opera with a young Zionist activist named Saltzman, during which Saltzman offered to lend Jabotinsky the writings of, among others, Theodor Herzl.
Interest in a Jewish state soon became less an abstract concept for Jabotinsky. The Russian skies were turning blood-red. A regime “threatened by a revolutionary movement in which Jews were disproportionately represented was seeking to divert public anger into anti-Semitic channels with the help of the pulpit and the press. Russian Jewry was targeted as the subversive rule of all evil; bey zhidov, spasai Rossiyu, ‘beat the Jews and save Russia,’ became a popular slogan.” Pogroms became more common. Even in Odessa, wrote Jabotinsky in his novel The Five, “it became uncomfortable.”
“Ever since his return to Odessa,” writes Halkin, “he had been laboring to reconcile a belief in the radical freedom of the self with the increasingly powerful pull of Jewish nationalism.” This was “the central paradox of his life—that of a partisan of the right, even the obligation, to be one’s own self who nevertheless chose to dedicate this self to a people and ultimately to create a political movement that demanded from its followers an iron discipline….” The deeper debate about Jabotinsky, says Halkin, starts here.
Then, on April 6, 1903, came the infamous Kishinev pogrom, inspiring Chaim Bialik’s great Hebrew poem, “In the City of Slaughter,” which Jabotinsky translated into Russian, reaching a larger audience than Bialik’s original. What both Bialik and Jabotinsky took away from this massacre above all was the indignity of Jewish fear, passivity, and cowardice, the shame of Jewish men hiding under beds while their women were raped and killed.
After Kishinev, Jabotinsky began crusading for the establishment of a Jewish self-defense force, and immediately threw himself into the effort. Jabotinsky’s “belief in Jewish activism in Russia no less than in Palestine,” the call for Jews “to take their destiny into their own hands,” marked his formal conversion to militant Zionism.
His growing fame led to his being invited to the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel in 1903. It was here that Theodor Herzl unveiled his Uganda Plan, an issue that Halkin admirably summarizes. Despite Jabotinsky’s esteem of Herzl, the Uganda Plan was completely unacceptable to him: “Zionism,” he wrote, “leads only to Palestine.” Jabotinsky was by now a full-time, passionate Zionist.
Alas, this meant being a passionate pilgrim. Having married his Odessan sweetheart Ania in 1907, he soon left on his frenetic crisscrossing of the world, from Turkey to Egypt, from Spain to Africa, from England to America that would take the rest of his life, augmented by his stint during World War I as a war correspondent. “The next time I marry,” remarked Ania, “it won’t be to a Zionist—they’re never at home.” He traveled with a “Nansen passport,” a document for stateless persons. His only state, he insisted, would be Palestine. How fascinating, and tragic, then, is the irony that eventually—in 1930—Jabotinsky was banished by the British from ever returning to Palestine. Even more interesting is the fact that Jabotinsky was—at least outwardly—unperturbed. In Halkin’s telling, the real, versus the concept of, Palestine, seemed to exert upon him little emotional pull.
Readers will find in Halkin’s book a lucid explanation of Zabotinsky’s alienation from Ben-Gurion and his socialist Labor Zionists, leading to charges of fascism directed at Jabotinsky. Halkin also includes the famous “omelette summit,” the 1934 meeting between the two giants in London, which resulted in a cordial, if tentative, modus vivendi. But to many readers, perhaps the most absorbing aspect of Zabotinsky’s muscular form of Zionism was his focus on Jewish militarism. Which brings Halkin to arguably the most compelling figure in the book, apart from Jabotinsky himself—the handsome, one-armed decorated veteran, Yosef Trumpeldor. The concept of a fighting Jewish legion was one Trumpeldor enthusiastically shared with Jabotinsky.
From this historic meeting arose such milestones in the history of Zionism as Trumpeldor’s Zion Mule Corps, and Jabotinsky’s own debut as a soldier in the London 38th Battalion—800 “East End tailors” and a rabbi—in which Jabotinsky saw duty as a second lieutenant in Palestine. The 38th was the result of Jabotinsky’s unflagging one-man campaign of twisting British arms, pulling strings, negotiations, arguments, and speeches. Ultimately, the 38th was joined by a 39th and a 40th, and Jabotinsky could write that this was “the Jewish legion I had dreamed of and sacrificed so much for.” He compared it to a “fairytale.”
Then, in April 1920, the Jewish legion having been demobilized by the British, Arab riots broke out in Jerusalem. Jabotinsky’s experience as an officer with combat experience led him to be chosen by former legionnaires as leader of a new group, “the defense,” or ha-haganah. The British, unwilling to fire on the rioters, accordingly threw nineteen of the new group, plus Jabotinsky, into the old Turkish prison in Acre. Early in the summer, as Halkin writes, the prisoners were pardoned, and Jabotinsky “emerged from the episode a national hero.”
Somewhat later, Jabotinsky broke with the Zionist left, “among whom are the most bitter opponents of anything having to do with the sword and the gun,” and founded his own youth movement, which he called Betar, a Hebrew acronym for B’rit Trumpeldor. He was to refer to Betar as a firmly disciplined “machine,” but one that was “cultivated, ceremonious, and gracious.”
It was at a Betar summer camp in the Catskills that Jabotinsky died of a heart attack in August 1940, two months before his 60th birthday.
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