Friday, February 22, 2008

Jabotinsky in the Times Literary Supplement

The TLS is one of the world's premier book review/magazine publications and Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Zionism figure prominently, along with others in this week's issue.

Here are some extracts from the article by Geoffrey Wheatcroft who wrote "The Controversy of Zion" published back in 1996 and wrote this in the Guardian back in March 2007:-

An influential coterie of Tory MPs is bent on a foreign policy driven not by Britain's interests, but those of the US and Israel

but let us return to the current piece of his, a review of several books (*):-

the conflict in the Holy Land is...the single most bitterly contentious communal struggle on earth today...And yet it sometimes seems that the more strongly people feel, the less they actually know about the story of Zionism. Maybe it should be a requirement for anyone who wishes to hold forth on the subject to write first a few lines each on Ahad Ha’am, Max Nordau, George Antonius – or Vladimir Jabotinsky.

If not many Europeans or Americans know who “Jabo” was, Israelis certainly do. He remains the most charismatic, fascinating and controversial figure in the history of Zionism, and in the state to whose creation he devoted his life, but which he never saw. Born in 1880 in Odessa, he was converted to the Zionist cause as a young man by tsarist persecution, became a tireless publicist and organizer, and helped to create the Jewish Legion which fought with the British against Turkey during the First World War. In the 1920s he broke away to found the uniformed youth group Betar, and then the militantly nationalistic right-wing brand of Zionism he called Revisionism, in opposition to Chaim Weizmann and the general Zionists, and to David Ben Gurion and the Labour Zionists of the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine.

From Betar would grow the Irgun Zvei Leumi, which waged an armed campaign against the British and the Arabs – in British and Arab eyes, a terrorist campaign – in the ten years before Israel was born. When Jabotinsky died in American exile in 1940, he had not seen the murderous horror that engulfed the European Jews, the creation of the Jewish state, or the legacy of his own movement. The Irgun evolved into the right-wing Herut party, which was not merely excluded from office but veritably anathematized in Israel for the first quarter-century the state existed after 1948, but which, now in the guise of Likud, took power at last in 1977 under the old Irgun leader Menachem Begin – and which descends to the present administration.

Almost unremarked in the West, Israel today has the purest Jabotinskian government yet seen. Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister, has been called “one of Likud’s princes from a prominent Revisionist family”, which makes his rather fetching Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, a princess. Both their fathers were militants in the Irgun; the governing party is now called Kadima or “eastward”, the telling motto that Jabotinsky chose for the Jewish Legion; a picture of Jabotinsky hangs at party meetings; and Livni likes to quote him regularly, as Olmert did in his first speech to the Knesset as Prime Minister. Jabotinsky has never cast a longer shadow.

He is discussed in several recent books, including The Last Resistance by Jacqueline Rose. Professor of English at Queen Mary in London, literary critic and student of Freud, Rose is obliged by events to stray from letters to real life at its bloodiest. This deeply absorbing collection of essays ranges from Walt Whitman to Simone de Beauvoir and Nadine Gordimer, but Rose keeps coming back to matters Jewish, and to that Question of Zion. The title essay deals with Freud and his correspondence with his fellow Viennese Stefan Zweig, who spent some years in Palestine and proposed to write a novel about Zionists there, but thereafter Rose modulates from resistance in the psychoanalytic sense to a different kind of resistance, by the Palestinians to Israeli rule.

Not that Zweig’s fictional ambition was unusual. From Theodor Herzl – whose gifts as a writer were grudgingly acknowledged by Karl Kraus in Eine Krone für Zion, his 1898 anti-Zionist philippic, and who amplified his political tract Der Judenstaat in a didactic novel, Altneuland – Zionism was always a very literary movement. It has produced no greater writer than Jabotinsky, whose translations as well as his own work helped to create modern Hebrew literature. He commanded at least eight other languages, beginning with Russian – Maxim Gorky said that Zionism’s gain was Russian literature’s loss – and his novel The Five inspires Rose’s remarkable essay “The Hidden Life of Vladimir Jabotinsky”.

How Jabotinsky challenged the Zionist establishment, and was challenged in turn by fiercer young disciples, is the enthralling story told in The Triumph of Military Zionism by Colin Shindler, a former Editor of the Jewish Quarterly who now teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Although this is one of the most illuminating books in its field for years, a work of scholarship largely based on Hebrew sources, not least Jabotinsky’s voluminous writings, it has received nothing like enough attention: one more illustration of that truth that no one wants to know anything about Zionism.

After Weizmann’s triumph in securing the Balfour Declaration from the London government ninety years ago, in November 1917, and the establishment of British rule over Palestine in the form of a League of Nations mandate, the Zionists suffered a series of setbacks. Balfour was succeeded at the Foreign Office by Curzon, who deplored Zionism and had opposed the Declaration; the original huge territory carved out as Mandatory “Palestine”, stretching far to the east of the Jordan, was partitioned to make a separate kingdom of Transjordan (still with us, less the “Trans”); Arab violence erupted against Jewish settlers; and, in June 1921, Sir Herbert Samuel, the High Commissioner, himself Jewish and a Zionist sympathizer, was obliged to suspend Jewish immigration and assure the Muslim and Christian populace that “their rights are really safe”.

Despite all this, and the growing realization that the British were in an impossible predicament, albeit of their own making after their mutually contradictory promises to Zionists and Arabs, Weizmann stuck to his principles of conciliatory diplomacy and verbal restraint. The Declaration had promised only “a homeland”, not even “the”, certainly not a Jewish state, and official Zionism was decidedly reticent on that subject: everyone knew that this was the goal, but to say so publicly was deemed most impolitic; so much so that, instead of the electrifying words “Jewish state”, Weizmann would only murmur shem hamforas, the ineffable name of the Almighty that the pious must not utter.

And so in 1923, Jabotinsky resigned from the Zionist Executive in protest at what he called “the superfine docility” of its leadership, and in 1925 – already “the symbol of dynamism within the Zionist movement, the founder of the Jewish Legion, the brilliant orator, the cosmopolitan littérateur and the inspirer of downtrodden youth”, in Colin Shindler’s words – he founded the Union of Zionists-Revisionists thought that “the Zionists should not remain silent on their aims or use coded language”, as Shindler writes, and there were Palestinian Arabs who would thank him personally for his honesty. He defied the leadership by simply saying what he meant, which was perhaps what they thought: just as in general the antithesis of Left and Right is so often misleading, the differences between Jabo and his antagonists were sometimes more apparent than real, and although a bitter enmity developed between Jabotinsky and Ben Gurion, it is a mistake to suppose that they always stood in truly opposite corners.

Born the day after the Balfour Declaration, and a strong supporter of Israel, Conor Cruise O’Brien once said that, when it came to what Zionists unhappily called “the Arab question”, the only real difference between Jabotinsky and Ben Gurion may have been that the former expressed himself in public with greater bluntness. The record confirms that. Jabotinsky insisted that there could be no foreseeable compromise with the Palestinian Arabs: “The native population, civilised or uncivilised, have always stubbornly resisted the colonists, and it made no difference whether the colonists behave decently or not”. For that reason it was “utterly impossible to obtain the voluntary consent of the Palestine Arabs”, and the Zionists must be ready to use physical force to secure their base and protect it with “The Iron Wall”, the title of his famous 1923 essay. Or to put it another way, “The conflict between the interests of the Jews and the interests of the Arabs in Palestine cannot be resolved by sophisms . . . . I don’t know of any Arabs who would agree to Palestine being ours. We want the country to be ours. The Arabs want the country to be theirs” – which was what Ben Gurion had already said in 1919.

After bitterly denouncing that first partition, Jabotinsky launched his movement on the intransigent slogan “a Jewish state with a Jewish majority on both banks of the Jordan”. The Jewish share of the population of cis-Jordanian Palestine – the Holy Land between river and sea; which is to say the whole territory, both pre- and post-1967, controlled today by Israel – had risen from less than 5 per cent at the time of the first Zionist congress in 1897 to a little more than 10 per cent in the early 1920s, while Transjordan had scarcely any Jews at all, though in Jabotinsky’s view it was ripe for colonization. His programme was thus nothing if not ambitious, and it implied a huge and rapid immigration. A “Greater Israel” remained the goal of Betar and its successors; “The Jordan has two banks”, a marching song went, “This one is ours, and this one is ours”; and if you want to see the old Revisionist map of a Jewish state stretching far to the east of the Jordan, you will find it carved on the gravestone of Tzipi Livni’s father.

With the Yishuv so precariously placed in numerical terms, Jabotinsky could scarcely oppose British rule as yet, and he insisted that “a decent European administration” was necessary to support colonization. That was the word he continually used. One of the odder claims made today by some Zionists, more likely American than Israeli, is that Zionism was an “anti-colonial” movement. Jabotinsky never pretended anything of the kind, as he made clear with his gift for vivid phrase-making, “The Iron Wall” being one case in point. When a colleague in the Legion had wondered whether, as Jews, they should be fighting the Muslims, their “uncle Ishmael”, Jabotinsky briskly replied that “Ishmael is not an uncle. We belong, thank God, to Europe and for two thousand years have helped to create the culture of the West”. And he rubbed it in harder still with the words, “The Jews came to the land of Israel to push the moral frontiers of Europe to the Euphrates”.

In that spirit he wrote to The Times to say that, while Jewish “military and constabulary” units were needed, so was British tutelage for the “colonization regime”. But this was in 1929, which saw further savage bloodshed, with scores of Jews killed in Jerusalem and Hebron. Jabotinsky’s followers had organized demonstrations at the Western Wall and, much as Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000 precipitated the second intifada, the Revisionists had “deliberately seized on the Wailing Wall incident”, in the view of Sir John Chancellor, the High Commissioner for Palestine, “and worked it for all it was worth, and converted a religious question into a political one”. After one fiery oration, another British official ruefully said that “Jabo’s speech is eloquent and logical, but certainly dangerous in its tendency so far as law and order are concerned” (not a bad description of his whole career). It was decided not to prosecute him, but he was refused further admission to Palestine while he was out of the country. He never saw Jerusalem again.

His last ten years were spent in exile, travelling, speaking and writing ceaselessly, denouncing the “pusillanimous” Weizmann – but also fending off a growing challenge from within his own ranks. These were the “Maximalists” who favoured more drastic courses, younger men like Begin and Abba Achimeir. Soon Achimeir was openly advocating terrorist violence and assassination, and practising what he preached: he was widely suspected of having had a hand in the murder in Tel Aviv in 1933 of Chaim Arlosoroff, a union leader and colleague of Weizmann.

While these twists and scissions within the Revisionist movement defy summary, Shindler dissects them deftly, even if he is not helped by his publisher. I. B. Tauris has made a name for books which are nicely turned out as well as worth reading, but The Triumph of Military Zionism is a mess, clumsily designed, with an inadequate index, and some passages where the typesetting is so wayward that the reader has to be his own textual critic and infer the sense. A paperback edition putting right as much of this as possible would be no more than the book’s due.

As the decade wore on, the rise of National Socialism, growing anti-Semitism in Poland, and the fullscale Arab Revolt which broke out in 1936 in Palestine conspired to overwhelm moderate Zionists – and by now Jabotinsky himself was seen as too moderate by those young zealots. “Practical Zionism” had been succeeded by “political Zionism”, Achimeir and Begin argued, but it must give way in turn to a third phase: military Zionism. One more splinter group was formed by the unapologetic terrorists Avrham Stern and David Raziel, while the Irgun itself turned to violence. In March 1937 Irgunists threw a bomb into an Arab coffee house outside Tel Aviv, followed by “Black Sunday” on November 14, when Arab buses were shot at and cafés bombed.

Among the Yishuv there was “a deep sense of disbelief that Jews could have been behind the attacks”, Shindler writes; and yet, while Jabotinsky hadn’t known about them beforehand, his own attitude to violence was equivocal. A young Betar member was arrested while trying to attack an Arab bus, tried, and executed, to Jabotinsky’s rage. Having warned Malcolm MacDonald, the Colonial Secretary, that the Jews “would never get reconciled to a situation which first drives them to the verge of madness and then hangs them” (forgetting the many young Palestinian Arabs also hanged by the British during the Revolt), he then gave coded permission for Irgun reprisals, although their ferocity in the event – seventy-six Arabs, forty-four Jews and twelve British killed – dismayed him.

And so to the riveting climax at the Betar conference in Warsaw in September 1938. Revisionism had a wide following in Poland, where news of the Irgun actions was greeted with open enthusiasm, and it was now that Begin confronted Jabotinsky. The Arabs were waging “a national war”, Begin said, with which there could be no compromise at all; no more could be expected from England; “we have had enough of renunciation; we want to fight – to die or to win”. Jabo replied “as your teacher”, saying that it was folly for the Jews in Palestine to imagine that they “could do something like Garibaldi and de Valera”. If they followed Begin they would be “committing suicide”, and he told his former disciple that if he couldn’t see reason he had better drown himself in the Vistula.

Even as he spoke, he must have known that he had lost much of his audience. And yet what makes the story the more intolerably poignant is its dramatic irony, in the original Athenian sense: as we read about these ardent spirits debating in Warsaw a year before the Wehrmacht invaded, we know, as they do not, the appalling fate that awaited many of them. It was that which would persuade many Jews that the Zionists had been right all along about the hopelessness of life in the Diaspora, and plenty of Zionists that the Irgun was right about the need for violence. By 1943, Yitzhak Tebenkin would say that the times had shown, “in a terrible light, the fundamental truth of Zionism, which is that the Jewish person cannot exist in the Diaspora”

Was Jabotinsky a fascist? With some historical figures that might be what’s called an academic question, but it takes on far greater significance when Israel is governed by his conscious heirs. No doubt the word is both inflammatory and largely empty when it has been so overworked: more than sixty years after Orwell said that he could think of almost no party or tendency to whom he hadn’t seen the name applied, “Islamo-fascism” is now widely denounced, Tony Blair calls the Iranian regime fascist, and John Banville, at least as plausibly, describes Sinn Fein as “neo-fascist”.

But then the term has often enough been used about Zionism, and not just by its inveterate enemies. In The Divided Self, David Goldberg, the former rabbi of the Liberal Synagogue in London, calls Jabotinsky a “proto-fascist”, and he is far from the first to speak of Jewish fascism. In 1946, for random example, the composer Kurt Weill (scion of a line of rabbis and cantors) visited Palestine, where his German parents had found refuge, and wrote to his wife Lotte Lenya from Tel Aviv, “a very ugly city with a jewish-fascist population that makes you vomit”. Even while Jabotinsky was alive, Weizmann had privately said that the more extreme Revisionists displayed “Hitlerism all over in its worst possible form”, and the Labour press in Palestine had sometimes used Ben Gurion’s contemptuous tag “Vladimir Hitler”.

Although Jabotinsky denied the label, and could use it pejoratively, calling Achimeir “too much of a fascist”, there were undeniable contemporary echoes in the verbal and visual rhetoric of Revisionism. It might be some of Jabotinsky’s phrases –“The greatest achievement of a free mass of people is the ability to operate together as one with the absolute precision of a machine” – or the uninformed phalanxes of Betar, whose name survives not least at Jerusalem Betar, the football club Olmert supports. So do other fans with a reputation for noisy bigotry, which they demonstrated again last year by jeering throughout a one-minute’s silence for Yitzhak Rabin, and singing songs in praise of the man who assassinated him in 1995.

In 1934, the exiled Jabotinsky said that he could see “only three solutions: to conquer the Zionist Organisation, or to convert the Revisionist Organisation into something very ‘wrathful’, or to retire and write novels”. He didn’t retire, but he did write The Five, completed in 1935 and only recently translated into English – a strange, haunting book set in Russia. One of the characters in The Five faces tragedy by citing the Book of Job. In fact rather than fiction, one thing Jabotinsky had in common with his Zionist adversaries was his rejection of Judaism. Like other nationalists he could invoke religion in patriotic terms: “The Torah and the sword were both handed down to us from heaven” (cf. “To keep the Faith that Luther preached, / The laws that Billy won, / The Orangeman relies upon / His Bible and his gun”). But that didn’t alter the fact that Zionism was a very pure case of invented tradition, which had no roots at all in existing Jewish life, least of all religious tradition, of which it was a radical rejection [??!!].

On that last bit, I submitted this comment:

Wheatcroft, who already has come dangerously close himself to a bit of rabid racism in his March 2007 piece in The Guardian on "the Jews" directly Blair's foreign policy, denounces Zionism thus: "Zionism was a very pure case of invented tradition, which had no roots at all in existing Jewish life, least of all religious tradition, of which it was a radical rejection." This is all so very wrongheaded. Abraham was the first "Zionist" being commanded to leave Ur and go to Moriah, i.e., Jerusalem. The Torah commands the Jewish people to live in the land and treat it with a unique religio-ethnic sacredness so much so that the fruit grown thereof was awarded a special sancity (tithes, etc.). Idol worshippers and idols were to be banned from the territory of the Land of Israel. Ezra leads a Zionist return from Babylon. Talmudic and Midrashic literature is chock full of Zionist imagery and instructions. Need I go on?

...The Torah teaches clearly that the people should never claim for itself the role of historical actor in place of the Almighty, and that was just what Zionism proposed to do. There are those who now call themselves religious Zionists, and who have very much made the running in the West Bank settlements, but they would appear to have dealt with that traditional teaching rather in the spirit of the Welsh minister preaching on a knotty theological problem: “And here my friends, we meet a difficulty. Let us look it firmly in the eye, and pass by”.

Such problems would not much have troubled Jabotinsky, although more generally, his intellectual honesty as well as intellectual stature are attractive, even to someone as remote from him politically as Rose. It was that honesty which alarmed his contemporaries, and in its way arouses alarm still. A persistent attitude – what may not unfairly be called the bien-pensant consensus – holds that the Revisionists were fanatics who damaged the Zionist cause; that the Jewish state was virtuous once in its early years – what Sir Gerald Kaufman calls “the beautiful democratic Israel” he first knew in the 1950s – but is vicious now after three decades in which Jabotinsky’s heirs have ruled more often than not; and that in general the Zionist–Israeli Left is nicer than the Right. But there are Israelis very far politically from Jabotinsky who dispute those comfortable prejudices...

...Indeed, as Jacqueline Rose is astute enough to notice and generous enough to acknowledge, Jabotinsky was in some ways less racist than other Zionists, in his insistence that “the entire country is full of Arab memories” and that the Palestinians naturally believed that it was their land too. We don’t know what he would have said and done in the circumstances of 1948, but ten years earlier he had explicitly repudiated the very idea of transfer: “It must be hateful for any Jew to think that the rebirth of a Jewish state should ever be linked with such an odious suggestion as the removal of non-Jewish citizens”. Interestingly enough, those words were spoken in 1938 in Dublin. Did Jabotinsky notice the following year – and does anyone now remember this? – when Eamon de Valera publicly advocated the transfer or bodily removal of the Protestants as the answer to “the Ulster question”?

Things change. Quite apart from the fact that few politicians in recent times in Israel – or anywhere else – have matched Jabotinsky’s brilliance and leonine personality, his recent heirs have too often displayed his intransigence without the humanity. And it may be understandable that a distaste for Begin and the other Likud leaders Jimmy Carter had to deal with can be detected in Palestine: Peace not apartheid. The book is all of Carter: pious, plodding and platitudinous, its awestruck accounts of meetings with the mighty padded out with what-I-did-in-my-holidays jottings (“all of us experienced the extraordinary buoyancy as we swam in the Dead Sea . . .”).

...It is possible that if Jabotinsky’s vision had been accomplished in his lifetime, and massive immigration had established a Jewish majority without any removal or transfer of the existing inhabitants, those Palestinian Arabs might have become a minority, decently treated as he hoped. But the annihilation of the European Jews deprived Zionism of its essential raw material, and led to a feverish population contest, with the new state forcibly exporting Palestinians while importing Jews from Arab countries and, later, from Russia...

...In his day, Jabotinsky’s intellectual honesty was always a challenge to the evasion or denial of other Zionists, and yet he too was a Luftmensch. “When the Lord turned again the captivity of Sion: then we were like unto them that dream”, the Psalmist said, and Zionism was always a dream, as its apostles continually showed in the language they used. “If you want it, it’s no fairy-tale”, was Herzl’s epigraph to Altneuland; in a hallucinatory passage in The Five, the narrator remembers how the dead heroine had once asked him “to dream me”; “For two thousand years our people dreamed”, went a Habonim resolution in 1947; “It has happened and is happening in our time . . . . How happy we all are!”.

If the dream meant establishing a Jewish state, then it came true, but Jabotinsky’s more grandiose vision did not, and it may be that his followers have at last been cured: while in his day he seemed the honest realist, realism now requires abandoning his vision. “When I was a child”, Tzipi Livni has told Der Spiegel, “all I ever heard about was that we Jews have the right to a state on both sides of the Jordan”; but now, so far from having a Jewish state with a Jewish majority on both banks of the Jordan within the borders of that map on her father’s grave, Jews will before long be once more in a minority even between Jordan and sea.

As Livni says, the old Jabotinskian creed of a Greater Israel on which she was reared “had no provisions for a Palestinian state, but instead envisioned our living together with the Palestinians in one state”, but she now sees that “My goal is to give the Jewish people a home, and that’s why I must accept a Palestinian state. I had a choice, and I chose two states for two peoples”. Whether or not she has ever read The Five, is it possible that she has grasped a truth best conveyed by imaginative literature?



Books under review

Jacqueline Rose
256pp. Verso.
Colin Shindler
Nationalism and the origins of the Israeli Right
272pp. Tauris.
David Goldberg
Israel and the Jewish psyche today
256pp. Tauris.
Victoria Clark
The rise of Christian Zionism
331pp. Yale University Press.
Yakov M. Rabkin
A century of Jewish opposition to Zionism
224pp. Zed Books.
Jimmy Carter
Peace not apartheid
288pp. Simon and Schuster.

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