Review of Daniel Heller’s Jabotinsky’s Children
The acknowledged founder of the Zionist Right was the assimilated Odessa-born intellectual Vladimir Jabotinsky, whose
abilities were admired by both acolytes and opponents. A hundred years ago he founded the Jewish Legion, which fought in the British campaign in 1918 to take Palestine from the Turks and promoted a more dynamic, militant Zionism compared to his plodding liberal colleagues, who preferred diplomacy and dialogue. In 1925 he broke away from the mainstream and initiated the Revisionist movement, which espoused a back-to-basics approach to Zionism. It opposed the British decision to partition Palestine and to hand the East Bank of the River Jordan – now the state of Jordan – to the Hashemites.
Jabotinsky’s Revisionism attracted those frustrated with the stalled pace of Zionist diplomacy and the British refusal to make
good on their promises to the Jews during the First World War. It also spawned a maximalist wing which promoted military Zionism and flirted with Mussolini’s fascism, before its later anti-Semitic phase. The Revisionists sponsored the formation of a radical youth movement, Betar (originating in Latvia and spreading across Europe), counting among its members the future Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin.
Yet as the Canadian academic Daniel Kupfert Heller demonstrates, in this excellent first book, Jabotinsky’s movement initially exhibited little interest in youth and did not align itself with any streams of radicalism. During his visit to Poland in February 1927, Jabotinsky was feted as almost a messianic figure. In a letter to his wife, he admitted that he was frightened by this reception, that he was seen as some sort of hasidic wunder-rebbe, come to perform secular miracles. “They are beginning
to transform me into a myth.”
The founder of modern Poland, Józef Piłsudski, had only recently staged a coup, and many Jews believed that a similar strongman could offer them salvation in Palestine after years of anti-Semitism and instability. As Heller records in great detail, youth flocked to Jabotinsky’s standard. Led first by Adelbert Bibring, who framed Betar in scouting imagery à la Baden-Powell, then by Reuven Feldschuh, its ideologist, who fanned the flames of a conflict with the Zionist Left, the youth group grew by leaps and bounds.
The destruction of the cultural heritage of his home town, Odessa, by the Bolsheviks, gradually moved Jabotinsky from a non-socialist position to an anti-socialist one. This gelled with an abiding fear in Poland of its powerful Marxist-Leninist neighbour. His article “We, the Bourgeoisie” symbolized Jabotinsky’s political transition and his belief that the Jews were not a nation of workers, but one of merchants and traders – and that socialist Zionism was to blame for the economic crisis in Palestine in the mid-1920s.
In contrast to Begin’s repeated statements years later in Israel, Heller demonstrates that, despite a popular Polish disdain for its national minorities, Betar often participated in Polish nationalist demonstrations. Heller’s meticulous research has uncovered a public loyalty to Poland in the 1930s on the part of many Betar members which Begin also exhibited. Only a few months before the outbreak of war in 1939, a Betar member could proudly entitle an article “Two Fatherlands”.
Yet there were mixed messages. To his colleagues in the Revisionist movement, Jabotinsky spoke about negotiating with Whitehall and the British sense of fair play. To the youth of Betar, he encouraged them to stand up for themselves and “learn to shoot” – as an educational strategy to raise national esteem. Heller writes that “Jabotinsky’s talent as a political writer rested in his ability to situate his bold, provocative claims within an intricate web of contradictions and conditional clauses”.
Jabotinsky’s ambiguity, Heller argues, encouraged his followers to warm to the authoritarianism of the pre-Nazi era. Yet
Jabotinsky himself was disparaging of Mussolini. He wrote: “Buffaloes follow a leader. Civilised men have no ‘leaders’”.
Heller argues that such intellectual fluidity was embedded in Jabotinsky’s identity – an aesthetic choice rooted in the fin-de-siècle cosmopolitan culture of Odessa.
Did Jabotinsky fall naturally into this web of contradictions, or was his stance part of a larger calculation to pull the
appropriate levers to achieve his political ends?Perhaps both interpretations are true.
When he realized that Betar’s accelerating radicalization was out of control he began to respond to the “fashishtlekh” (little fascists).
Given the static situation in Palestine and the darkening of Europe’s skies in the 1930s, Jabotinsky’s attempt to row back from maximalism failed, and was ignored by his followers.
Heller has used rare archival sources in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew to reclaim little known events in Poland before the Shoah
and to produce a highly original work. Jabotinsky’s Children is a tremendous contribution to our understanding of the origins of the Zionist Right.
Times Literary Supplement 10 November 2017