We recently attended a lecture sponsored by AACI Netanya. The lecturer was American-Israeli Hank Citron, who divides his time between Manhattan and Netanya. A former history professor in New Jersey, Hank is a colorful character who, among other things, grew up in a Zionist household, the son of European immigrants; attended Hebrew University in the 1950s on a scholarship, after working his way across the Atlantic on a freighter; and boxed professionally to finance his PhD from New York University.
Hank (he and his wife Rebecca are good friends of ours) gave a 1-hour lecture without the need of notes, accompanied by appropriate photos of the life of Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940). One of the first, surprising, things we learned about this great leader, little known today outside of Israel, is that there are more monuments and streets in Israel named for him than for Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, or David Ben-Gurion, all of whom are much better known internationally.
Hank put Jabotinsky’s greatest accomplishment into perspective. He reminded us that the Third Jewish Revolt against the Romans, led by the messianic Simon bar Kochba (132-136 CE), resulted in a horrific defeat for the Jews. As a result, Jews renounced armed revolt or self defense as a nation, losing control their homeland. Jabotinsky, singleminded in his devotion to Zionism, was the one who rekindled the idea of a Jewish army in the first decades of the 20th century, the first step back towards Jewish nationhood.
Born in cosmopolitan Odessa on the shores of the Black Sea, Jabotinsky enjoyed a secular upbringing in what was the fourth largest city in Imperial Russia (now within the borders of Ukraine). While his was not a religious family, Jabotinsky was Hebrew-literate from an early age. His wealthy family rejected socialism, so it isn’t surprising that Jabotinsky wasn’t attracted to Social Zionism, the Zionist stream which later was led by his bitter competitor, David Ben-Gurion.
Jabotinsky was very intelligent, a prodigy in fact, who became a linguist and wrote and orated in eight languages. Initially he was inclined towards journalism and the theatre. At age 17 he went to Rome, quickly learned the language and became a journalist there while earning a law degree. Although he had already become an accomplished author and poet, Jabotinsky soon directed his talents to pursuing his Zionist ideals.
The trigger for this change was the 1903 Kishinev massacre, which aroused universal condemnation and protest, precipitating a major emigration of Jews from Russia. Jabotinsky publicized the pogrom worldwide. By that time, he had already joined the Zionist movement and had become recognized as a powerful speaker and leader. At the Sixth (and last) Zionist Congress in 1903, Jabotinsky met Theodor Herzl, whom he greatly admired.
With more pogroms looming on the horizon, Jabotinsky established the Jewish Self-Defense Organization, a militant group intended to safeguard Jewish communities throughout Russia. A motto of his was, “Jewish youth, learn to shoot!” He became the source of great controversy in the Russian Jewish community as a result of these unprecedented actions.
After the start of the First World War, in Alexandria, Egypt, Jabotinsky met Yosef Trumpeldor, Russia’s greatest Jewish war hero. Jabotinsky fascinated Trumpeldor with his idea to establish the Jewish Legion to be a Jewish fighting force. Their joint plan was rejected by the British; instead, the Zion Mule Corps was formed, with Trumpeldor was an officer. This was the first organized Jewish military force since Bar Kochba, led by the great Christian Zionist, Colonel John Henry Patterson. The Zion Mule Corps was disbanded by Britain after the 1916 withdrawal of the ill-fated Allied Gallipoli expedition from the Dardanelles (the narrow strait dividing Europe and Asia).
Britain recognized Jabotinsky’s abilities and he soon rebounded with his idea of a permanent Jewish fighting force. He organized veterans from the Zion Mule Corps and other Jews to be the “Jewish Legion,” but anti-Zionist forces prevailed against such an explicit name and the unit was instead designated the “38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers,” a part of the City of London Regiment. However, after the victorious end of the Palestine campaign, the name “Royal Fusiliers” was awarded, as promised, to the Judean Regiment. By this time, the Palestinian Jews had been joined by a larger number of North American and British Jews.
Britain’s anti-Zionist military administration was eager to demobilize the soldiers of this specifically Jewish battalion, for its own reasons. Jabotinsky wanted to keep it going, with the intention to create a formidable group of soldiers who would help bring about a Jewish State in Palestine. Unfortunately, although he had urged his fellow volunteers to stay on and had himself registered for further service, Jabotinsky was forcibly demobilized in August 1919. By the spring of 1920 only 300-400 men from the Judean Regiment remained in the British army. (jewishvirtuallibrary.org)
During the 1920 Arab riots in Palestine, Jabotinsky averted a potential Arab pogrom in Jerusalem by organizing a Jewish self-defense militia to defend Jews. For this, the British accused Jabotinsky of starting a riot and sentenced him, and others, to 15-years of hard labor for possession of weapons; they were released after a successful global outcry against this injustice.
While Jabotinsky initially supported coexistence with the Arabs, he later concluded that violence was essential to birth the Jewish State. Cooperation clearly had failed to persuade Arabs to join Jews in building up Palestine.
By 1922, Jabotinsky was a member of the Zionist Commission, then under the leadership of Chaim Weizmann, the immigrant scientist who had become a British war hero by his discovery of the “Weizmann process” to manufacture much needed cordite. But after the British introduced the first White Paper that year, Jabotinsky felt that British policy was inherently anti-Zionist and that the Zionist establishment, led by Weizmann, was too passive.
The White Paper (aka the Churchill White Paper), an attempt to placate the violent Palestinian Arabs, withdrew support for a Jewish national home in Palestine, diminishing it to a mere community within Palestine. Further undercutting the Jews, in July 1922, the British divided the Palestine Mandate by separating the territory lying east of the Jordan River from the Jewish populated area and renaming it Transjordan. (palestinefacts.org)
Consequently, Jabotinsky quit the mainstream Zionist movement in 1923 and established the new revisionist party, the World Zionist Organization. Jabotinsky’s primary focus was that the only way to attain a Jewish State was to proactively prepare for self defense. In 1925, he established the Alliance of Revisionists-Zionists and its youth movement, Betar, to promote pride, strength, and military training, under the aegis of the World Zionist Organization. Five years later, he left Palestine for good. The British seized this opportunity to get rid of a “trouble maker” and outlawed Jabotinsky’s return.
Hank offered interesting insights on Jabotinsky: While Jabotinsky is sometimes depicted as a “fascist,” based on his efforts to militarize Jews, Hank believes that the Betar uniforms (which in fact were common to all youth movements) didn’t make Jabotinsky a fascist. Though he favored military preparation, Jabotinsky always hoped that it would prove unnecessary. Hank also said that, ironically, Jabotinsky didn’t really like Palestine, with its uninviting climate and uncooperative Arabs, or the socialistic Jews who settled there.
During the 1930s, Jabotinsky fully recognized the danger to European Jews. He was a modern day prophet, urging the Jews there to leave Europe immediately and to build up Palestine. Jabotinsky even tried to buy the Jews out of their perilous surroundings (similar to Herzl’s failed efforts). Europe’s Jew-hating leaders partially agreed with Jabotinsky’s proposals, but Britain and most Jews demurred. Nevertheless, 40,000 illegal immigrants were eventually rescued through Jabotinsky’s efforts in promoting “illegal immigration” to Palestine.
Jabotinsky died in in America in1940 while fund raising there for Palestinian Jews’ defense. Spitefully, Jabotinsky’s fierce opponent, Ben-Gurion, refused to allow his body to be interred in Israel. But in 1965, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol fulfilled Jabotinsky’s wish, bringing his body and that of his wife back to Israel for reburial, next to Theodor Herzl, at the Mt Herzl National Cemetery. There were farewell parades in Jabotinsky’s honor in New York and Israel, with crowds exceeding 100,000 people.
Hank gave an interesting take on Jabotinsky’s heritage: he never fully succeeded in his endeavors but he did succeed in sowing the seeds for others to attain his goals; he never attained power, but his disciples did. We can see Jabotinsky’s legacy in the careers of Yair Stern, Menachem Begin, Arik Sharon, and current Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, all followers of Jabotinsky, who in 1937 officially became the supreme commander of the Etzel–the Revisionist underground military organization in Palestine. Bibi Netanyahu has also been inspired by Jabotinsky, especially since his father, Ben Zion Netanyahu, was Jabotinsky’s secretary.
It’s appropriate to say that Hank’s audience learned much about Ze’ev Jabotinsky, including things that they were unlikely to have previously come across. We look forward to another lecture by this accomplished historian.