Friday, July 24, 2020

Jabotinsky - a la Beinart

A shortened version of this article appears


In his recent infamous Jewish Currents essay, Peter Beinart, seeking to minimize the element of the demand for a Jewish state amongst Zionist lumanaries, includes this snippet as reflecting the thinking of Ze’ev Jabotinsky as regards the requirement for Jewish statehood:

As Jabotinsky explained in 1909, “The full pathos of our ideal was never focused on sovereignty, but rather on the idea of a territory, a compact Jewish society in one continuous space . . . not a Jewish state but a Jewish collective life.” 

The original Russian text
with thanks to Ira of the Jabotinsky Institute

That excerpt, which he - or rather one of the three research assistants he employed – found in an article by Dmitry Shumsky, would be fairly surprising for those familiar with the Jabotinsky who demanded a Jewish State. Beinart uses it to buttress his agreement with Shumsky that “the demand for a Jewish state did not define Zionism until the 1940s”.(Shumsky, who promotes a historic revisionism focused on "nonstatist Zionism", is problematic and as Alan Arkush notes: "evidence presented by Shumsky the historian seems to be tailored to substantiating the thinking of Shumsky the polemicist"). He could have also referred to a 1918 booklet entitled ‘The Jewish Nation’ in which Jabotinsky proposed a formulation of an administrative government in Palestine, writing,

“our friends as well as enemies…think that we claim an independent Jewish State – which of course, we do not, and most emphatically not … . A “Jewish state” is so premature”.

But, as is obvious, from the wording, Jabotinsky did not reject a Jewish state in principle but rather was expressing his judgment that the time and conditions were not ripe for a declaration of independence. He could have been echoing how David Lloyd George explained the British thinking behind the Balfour Declaration to the Peel Commission in 1937:

when the time arrived for according representative institutions to Palestine, if the Jews had meanwhile responded to the opportunity afforded them by the idea of a National Home and had become a definite majority of the inhabitants, then Palestine would thus become a Jewish Commonwealth.’ 

Statehood surely and always defined Zionism while less-than-statehood defined their pragmatic practical politics to attain that goal.

Without specifically referencing the 1942 decision taken at the Biltmore Hotel Conference, Beinart is suggesting that it was only the Holocaust that tipped the scales, forcing Zionists to pursue statehood rather than other paradigms as here:

The belief that Jews in the land of Israel risk genocide without a Jewish state is central to what it means to be a Zionist today.”

I would suggest, if anything, what galvanized a policy change, not a fundamental political alteration, was the reneging of the British government in its 1939 White Paper and its volte face from the idea of a Jewish state, or homeland, or commonwealth.

He depends on Jabotinsky further on to support his outlook that not only was the Holocaust the catalyst to demand a state but that Arab violence was not comparable to Nazi Holocaust activity and quotes from Jabotinsky’s 1923 Iron Wall article:

prominent pre-state Zionists themselves depicted Palestinian resistance not as genocidal but as understandable. ‘Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonized,’ wrote the hawkish Jabotinsky in 1923. ‘That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing’.

Addressing a convention of the New Zionist Organization in Prague two years ago, Jabotinsky declared that the whole of Palestine, on both sides of the Jordan, had to become an independent Jewish State which would then decide its future connection with Britain.

These are two examples of what I have previously noted is Beinart’s hallmark: arguing with Beinart is frustrating because almost every source to which he refers is corrupted, is incomplete, lacks background and, in addition, he has a sophistic method of argumentation. As Daniel Gordis has observed, Beinart displays “an astonishing array of sleights of hand and misrepresentations” and his ‘piece [is] so intellectually dishonest—and manipulative.” (And CAMERA deals with Beinart corrupting more recent history.)

To return to the quotation from 1909, Jabotinsky’s article from which those words are extracted appeared in seven parts from mid-January to mid-March 1909. In order to grasp the context, one need recall that after several years of struggle, the Young Turks succeeded on July 24, 1908 in forcing Abdul Hamid to restore the constitution. They were nationalists and for all intents and purpose, their rule was nigh martial. Any attempt to propagandize in Turkey for an independent Jewish state would have been the end of Zionism in Turkey in those existing circumstances. 

Jabotinsky had been in Constantinople since 1908. He had been commissioned by a St. Petersburg newspaper to cover the revolution in Turkey and the Berlin Executive office of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) had appointed him its agent there. He became editor-in-chief of a new pro-Young-Turkish daily newspaper La Jeune Turc and other pro-Zionist periodicals including a weekly, L’Aurore, the Ladino El Judeo and a Hebrew weekly, Ha-Mevasser.

As noted by Tudor Parfitt, Yulia Egorova and Jacob Landau [in their studies] there, “Regarding Palestine, [Ha-Mevasser] argued that Zionist settlement to Palestine was economically favourable for the development of the Ottoman empire…[and] rebutted claims circulated by other contemporary press outlets (such as Alemdar), which stated that Zionism was anti-Turkish.

Quite simply, and even more obviously, Jabotinsky realized he needed a more pragmatic approach to the ruling clique to advance Jewish settlement in Palestine. The Young Turk leadership was becoming more sympathetic to Zionism as long as it was still in its practical phase (see p. 75 here). Yet, Jabotinsky came to the conclusion that Palestine could
not become a Jewish state as long as the Ottoman Empire existed and the attitude of the regime was anti-minority. Anyone reading the original Russian would grasp that Jabotinsky, throughout those seven sections, was deliberately avoiding any phrasing of Zionist aims that could prove disastrous for Zionism while yielding on as little as possible for the future development of the growing Zionist presence in then Palestine both demographically and agriculturally.

There is a second backdrop element which was the publication of a book by Jacobus Kann on his impressions of his 1907 visit to Ereẓ Israel. He had sent it to Young Turk parliamentarians and it included a demand for a Jewish autonomous home rule in Eretz Israel. This aroused strong criticism from Jabotinsky who at the time headed of the Zionist press in Istanbul who claimed it had damaged the cause of Zionism in the Ottoman capital. As described:

Jabotinsky had orders from [WZO President David] Wolffsohn to push a very soft line to the new masters of Turkey: Zionism did not mean a Jewish state, only free immigration to Palestine and cultural autonomy. But suddenly, without warning to either Wolffsohn or the Constantinople office, Jacobus Kann, a banker who administered the finances of the Dutch royal family and a member of the Actions Committee, published a travelogue, in German, of his recent trip to Palestine. In it, he reiterated the traditional Herzlian line that Turkey should set up an autonomous Zionist state there.

This affair provides greater insight into Jabotinsky’s thinking contained in the article quoted and it becomes quite clear, as Evyatar Freizel found, that he was agreeable that

For tactical reasons, official Zionism was cautious in explaining its ultimate aims, especially when addressing public opinion. Terms other than ‘state’ were used in diverse political documents and official Zionist utterances: Heimstatte, nationale Heimstatte, Jewish national home, commonwealth, Jewish commonwealth. However, the accepted view is that the ultimate aim of the mainstream Zionist movement was to recreate a Jewish state in Palestine. It remained open how best to reach that goal. A widely accepted position supported an evolutionary path, ‘practical Zionism’, meaning a gradual process of economic, social and institutional development

It had to be clear to everyone that the first and ultimate goal of Zionism was the establishment of a Jewish majority in Palestine. It was yet to be decided what form of autonomy the state should possess. Like Herzl before him, Jabotinsky did not insist on immediate national and political independence…The only legitimate terms to be used were either Jewish majority or an administrative and political self-government. Jabotinsky claimed that the term “national home” was nothing else than an invention of a hostile Mandatory administration…Jabotinsky had a vision with a positive cultural content as well. As the above-mentioned ideas suggest, his vision, unlike the one of Herzl, does not stand in opposition to Ahad Ha’am and his concepts, but in opposition to his self-appointed interpreters, mostly associated with the Brith Shalom group.

Shmuel Katz in Volume One of “Lone Wolf”, p. 100, describing the affair, quotes Jabotinsky from his Autobiography as ruefully admitting that it was ironic that he, of all people, took the position to downplay the demand for statehood but given the time and place. He wrote that despite his “lov[ing] State Zionism…I love logic more”. Was Jabotinsky “guilty” as charged by Beinart? Not really, especially if one does not review and weigh the circumstances of that time and place when the article was written and not subject the article to a close reading of the actual text as opposed to relying on and interpreter such as Shumsky who, as I have shown, mistranslates Jabotinsky.

Later, in 1934, Jabotinsky's definition of Revisionist Zionist was a program that:

"The aim of Zionism is a Jewish state. The territory – both sides of the Jordan. The system – mass colonisation. The solution of the financial problem – a national loan. These four principles cannot be realised without international sanction."

Even then he was still aware of the tension between political goals and practical achievement.

One need not to be sympathetic to Jabotinsky to realize that Beinart was being imbalanced and plainly unfair in how he treated that quotation. Beinart has done this before in his Crisis of Zionism book seeking not to argue with him but rather to mischaracterize him and even demonize him. He didn't like that Jews carried a moral message (p. 100).  He held to a "racist" view (p. 101).  Nationalism, which he "revered", "bred" in him. (p. 103).

On page 101, Beinart, who describes Jabotinsky a page earlier as “brutal” and as one who of the Jews did not like “their belief that they carried a moral message”, quotes a 1910 article of Jabotinsky so:

“Only in the Bible is it written: “You should not wrong a stranger nor should you oppress him; for strangers you were in the land of Egypt”. Contemporary morality has no place for such childish humanism”.

In the first place, the second sentence in that article, “Homo homini lupos”, should more properly be

In our contemporary code of morality there is no room for this type of slobbering love and childish humanism of fellow man it would seem”.

But more importantly, that section is not referring to Jews. Jabotinsky is writing, foremost, about the situation in the United States after the race riots that year and of simply a “hate of one race against another, a devious hate, wide-open for all our eyes, arbitrary, without reason and without cause” which he denounces. It is “a sickness” just like the Kishniev pogrom and anti-Kurdish attacks. He then notes that the same German who sought freedom just a few years later is now persecuting Poles seeking the same goal and observes “Would the same German patriot of 1860 who shed tears when listening to village school pupils singing songs of a united Germany also have taken a strap to the Polish youngsters who refused to study religion in German?” It is here that his “only in the Bible…childish humanism” words follow. No Jews.

In fact, Jabotinsky adds: “the Poles see the Jews – and they do not hide this – as material to be exploited to strengthen their rule in the country” to illustrate how this process goes on and on as those who gain strength from a struggle then seek to stifle other struggles of weaker people, and the Jews are the weakest as he describes there.

That “childish humanism” was written in a rhetorical deprecatory, disdainful fashion. 

A corruption of the original content and intent. Indeed, on p. 104, in opposition to he trying to paint Jabotisnky as not wanting a Jewish state, Beinart writes that the Revisionists, the party Jabotinsky established in 1925, as being "feverently opposed any restraints on the Jewish pursuit of statehood".

On page 102, he returns to this, writing, “whereas Jews mocked the idea that Jews have a special responsibility to the stranger as ‘childish humanism’”. A second time he prevaricates. Indeed, anyone who has read Jabotinsky’s “Arab Angle – Undramatized”, in his Jewish War Front, knows how Beinart has perverted Jabotinsky.

A short excerpt, starting at p. 188, will suffice:

1. Civic Equality

1.1. Providing nothing be done to hinder any foreign Jew from repatriating, and, by doing so, automatically becoming a Palestinian citizen, the principle of equal rights for all citizens of any race, creed, language or class shall be enacted without limitation throughout all sectors of the country’s public life.
1.2. In every Cabinet where the Prime Minister is a Jew the vicepremiership shall be offered to an Arab, and vice versa.
1.3. Proportional sharing by Jews and Arabs both in the charges and in the benefits of the State...
2. Languages
2.1. The Hebrew and the Arabic languages shall enjoy equal rights and equal legal validity...
3. Cultural Autonomy
3.1. The Jewish and the Arab ethno-communities shall be recognized as autonomous public bodies of equal status before the law ...
3.2. Each ethno-community shall elect its National Diet with right to issue ordinance and levy taxes within the limits of its autonomy...

On page 103, Beinart terms Abba Ahimeir and Avraham Stern, who rejected Jabotinsky and who Jabotinsky had to rein in, at times unsuccessfully, as his “disciples”, as if he is directly responsible for their thinking. On the next page, he asserts Jabotinsky sought that the Arabs be “militarily and psychologically crushed”, a misleading use of language. On page 36, he quotes Stephen Wise in 1935 denouncing Jabotinsky’s Zionist Revisionist camps as “a species of fascism”, a charge untrue which, however, political rivals found it convenient to bandy about. But for Beinart, Wise is a divinity and why need he research that calumny?

In fact, in support of his new idea to denude the Jewish state concept, he could have attempted to misinterpret Jabotinsky. As Yitzhak Conforti has highlighted in his 2011 article,

In a draft of a constitution which he proposed at the end of the First World War in 1918, he spoke of complete national equality between Jews and Arabs: ‘Both Jews and Arabs would enjoy from the start a complete autonomy equal to that of an independent nation.’”

However, Jabotinsky

“insisted that Palestine be recognized in a peace conference as the national home of the Jewish people and that emigration to Palestine be allowed for Jews from all over the world, with no limitations.” 

A crucial difference.

Can we trust Beinart to present us unvarnished Zionist history? In his "Crisis of Zionism", he wrote this on p. 51:

"There are to be sure, left-wing activists and Islamist militants who oppose Israel's existence as a Jewish state. But they are marginal compared to the much broader and more influential swath of people who seek to 'delegitimize' not Israel, but its occupation".

Eight years later, Beinart has become part of that swath, no longer believing in a Jewish state.



Liatris Spicata said...

As a casual studnet of history and of Israel, I find it sad that the only place I encounter insight such as this is in a relatively obscure corner of the jblogosphere Sorry, but if the NYT or WaPo covered this, it quite escaped my notice.

Beinart is herein exposed as a disingenuous fraud, or at best as an intellectual lightweight treading well beyond his compass. Moreover, if he is truly unaware of a more honest understanding of Jabotinsky, I suggest it is because he is not interested. For example,Arthur Hertzberg, in his book "The Zionist Idea", reprinted Jabotinsky's 1937 testimony before the British Royal Commission on Palestine, in whichhe said,

Whenever I hear the Zionist, most often a member of my own Party, accused of asking for too much- Gentleman, I really cannot understand it. Yes, we do want a State; every nation on earth, every normal nation, beginning with the smallest and humblest, who do not claim any merit, any role in humanity's development, they all have States of their own. That is the normal condition for a people. Yet when we, the most abnormal of peoples and therefore the most unfortunate, ask only for the same condition as the Albanians enjoy,to say nothing of the French and the English, then it is called too much. I should understand if the answer were, "It is impossible, but when the answer is, "It is too much," I cannot understand it. ...

Peter Beinart, you could have known this too. But you either didn't want to know, or withheld that information from readers of your fishwrap rag.

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