The Jabotinsky Legacy

Democracy and Individual Freedom for Israel

by Jerry Gordon (Oct. 2008)

On September 14th, the 68th annual yahrzeit (memorial) for Ze’ev Jabotinsky z”l (of blessed memory) was held at the Edmund Safra Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The event was co-sponsored by American for a Safe Israel (AFSI) and the Nordau Circle. Former Israeli Likud Defense and Foreign Minister Moshe Arens gave an impassioned yet nostalgic speech about what Jabotinsky stood for and represented.  Arens was a young member of Betar who knew Jabotinsky before his untimely death in New York in 1940. The current edition of the Jewish Press has an article by Fern Sidman about the memorial and Minister Arens speech.

Jabotinsky, born in 1883, was the scion of an assimilated Russian Jewish family from Odessa in then Czarist Ukraine. He left at age 18 went to Switzerland and Italy to become educated in the law and journalism. He was a talented multi-lingual writer, journalist and propagandist. His transformation into a leading Zionist figure began with the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 led by the Czarist Black Hundreds. He realized that the Jewish people needed to return to their ancestral homeland.

Anyone who has read the two volume Jabotinsky biography, “Lone Wolf,” by the late Shmuel Katz and “The Political and Social Philosophy of Ze’ev Jabotinsky” will discover not only a Zionist visionary, but a man of action. Jabotinsky was instrumental in creating the first Jewish fighting unit in over 1,800 years. He was involved in the effort that created the Zion Mule Corps (ZMC) that participated at the pyrrhic Battle of Gallipoli in 1915 in Turkey. The ZMC was led by Lt. Col. John H. Patterson (legendary lion killer of Tsavo in East Africa).  It was founded by heroic, valiant  one-armed (he lost it due to shrapnel received at the siege of Port Arthur during the Russo Japanese war in 1905) Joseph Trumpeldor, a decorated Jewish officer who served in the Czar’s Army.  Trumpeldor, a fervent Zionist, settled in Ottoman-occupied Palestine in 1911 and died in a Shiite Arab attack on the Jewish settlement of Tel Hai in March, 1920. 

After the debacle at Gallipoli, Jabotinsky went to England to work with leading British Zionist, later first President of Israel, Chaim Weitzmann and Christian Zionists in the wartime government of Prime Minister Lloyd George to create the Jewish Legion, ultimately composed of the 38th, 39th and 40th ,  41st and 42nd Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers. A number of the founders of the State of Israel served in the Legion. It was a furtherance of the Balfour Declaration issued in November, 1917 that indicated that the British government “looked with favor” on the re-founding of the Jewish Homeland.  The Jewish Legionnaires fought in Palestine during WWI despite much opposition of Lord Field Marshall General Edmond Allenby and the British High command in Palestine. Jabotinsky aroused enthusiasm among Jewish Zionists with his call to arms to support the allied cause and free Palestine from the yoke of Turkish oppression. With the military leadership of Christian Zionist, Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, Jabotinsky and others forged an impressive fighting force composed of more than 4,000 British conscripts, American, Canadian, Russian  and Palestinian Jewish volunteers. 

Following the allied victory, Jabotinsky brought his wife Anya and young son Eri, who had courageously crossed Russia and Norway to find refuge in England during WWI, to settle in Jerusalem. He also brought his aging mother, sister Tanya and her son Johnny to live in Palestine.

Jabotinsky strived to keep all of the Jewish Homeland promised in the Balfour Declaration and affirmed in the San Remo Convention and Treaty of Sevres, 1920.   At virtually the same moment duplicity and connivance by the British Mandatory Military Administration led by General Allenby with the rabid support of Arab notables like the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, who served as an officer in the Turkish Army and later was to become Hitler’s house guest in Berlin during WWII, erupted in the Arab riots and pogrom in Jerusalem in 1920. Jabotinsky and former Jewish Legionnaires formed a Self Defense Corps, and hid arms to defend the New City of Jerusalem. For his efforts, Jabotinsky and his 19 comrades were tried by British Authorities, convicted on technical grounds and imprisoned at Acre. Through pressure brought by Christian Zionists, the charges were overturned at a trial in England. Even with the appointment of Jewish Viscount Sir Herbert Samuels, as first British High Commissioner for the Palestine Mandate, Zionist aspirations and immigration was suppressed. The ‘eastern bank’ of the Jewish Homeland, granted in the Treaty of Sevres, was severed by the pragmatic judgment of the British Foreign and the Colonial Offices that created the Kingdom of Jordan as a reward to Hashemite King Abdullah for his ‘assistance’ in the Arab revolt in the Hejaz during WWI. Jabotinsky’s trials and exile from the New Yishuv and antagonism with the oligarchic leaders of the World Zionist Organization, including his former ally Weitzmann, and the newly formed Jewish Agency, were the stuff of legends. Jabotinsky early on in the 1920’s and 1930’s saw the looming threats of Fascism and Nazism to the European Jewish community and urged their mass immigration to Israel. Often accused of being a Fascist by leaders of the Yishuv and Zionist leaders in America, he was anything but that, as we shall shortly see.

Herb Zweibom President of AFSI at the Edmund Safra Synagogue memorial noted:

 “nobody can deny Jabotinsky a place in Zionist history” and hailed him as the “epitome of greatness in terms of his exemplary standards of personal behavior and for his high standards for the nation of Israel.” He called Jabotinsky a realist who “rejected delusion” when it came to dealing with the bellicosity of the Arabs.

The Jewish Press article by Sidman noted this from Minister Arens recounting of his last memories of Jabotinsky.

Arens waxed sentimental, as he recalled the final hours of Jabotinsky’s life at Camp Betar in Hunter, New York.

 “I remember the line of Betarim in their uniforms, assembled for misdar [inspection] and to greet Jabotinsky. He looked drawn and tired, yet we had no idea that he would suffer a massive heart attack,” said Arens.

Referring to the fact that Jabotinsky’s prophetic words about the fate of European Jewry had largely fallen on deaf ears, Arens said “the tragedy of it all is that in reality Jabotinsky died of a broken heart.”


One the smears against Jabotinsky’s character was that he and the Revisionists were Fascists. American Zionist Leader Rabbi Stephen Wise suggested that: “To the Revisionists, like the Fascists, the State is Supreme – the individual nothing.” Jabotinsky replied in Answer to Rabbi Wise in The Jewish Call, May 5, 1935:


Where, in what resolution or declaration, or authoritative article have you read it? Personally, I hate the very idea of a ‘totalitarian state,’ whether Communist or Fascist, call them all Polizei-Staat and prefer old fashioned parliamentarism, however clumsy or inefficient; and 99 percent of my hardy comrades share this attitude…the fact that we maintain and will go on maintaining – that the striving for the creation of a Jewish state should be, to all these who accept it as their ideal, miles above any class or individual interest…. So did the unity of America, which does not mean [Lincoln] wanted an America where the State would be everything and the Individual nothing.


At a recent Fordham University forum, reported in the Jerusalem Post, on the failure of Wise and other American Jewish leaders during the Holocaust, Rabbi David Ellenson, President of the Reform Movement, Hebrew Union College in Manhattan commented on how vitriolic the opposition to Jabotinsky and the Revisionists was:


He said part of the explanation lies in Wise’s “absolute and complete love” for president Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as his antipathy toward the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and toward the Bergson Group, whose leaders were followers of Jabotinsky, something that “helped blind him” to the need for more activism.


As regards the current corrupt political system in Israel, Jabotinsky presciently had this to say:


The only way to create leadership – is that old and wonderful universal privilege of the direct vote.


Democratic governments were created under the banner of the struggle against different types of minority governments. The sense of the mainspring of democracy should rather be sought in the science of agreement and compromise.


Yet within a year of Jabotinsky’s untimely death, five young Palestinian Revisionist Jews led by Hilel Kook (Peter Bergson) came to America to recruit a Jewish Army to fight the Nazis but stayed to raise the conscience of Americans, Jews and Non-Jews, to save the remnant of European Jews. The same Jews Jabotinsky had urged to migrate to Palestine. The Bergson Group became ‘unsung Heroes’ of the Shoah.


Alas, Jabotinsky did not live to see the formal establishment of the State of Israel. If he had, perhaps it would have been a more democratic, mixed market economy that would have rewarded individual initiative. The Revisionist tradition founded by Jabotinsky is reflected in the tenets of the Likud and National Union Parties in the Knesset. Their opposition has endeavored to militate against the tendencies of Israeli governments to give away the ancient covenant between Ha Shem and the Jewish people, the land of Israel.

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