Book Review: ‘Jabotinsky,’ by Hillel Halkin
Last night, I listened to a Tikvah Foundation podcast, featuring Yossi Klein Halevi discussing Valdimir Jabotinsky’s famous essay, “The Iron Wall.” It made me think of Hillel Halkin’s excellent biography of Jabotinsky, and I thought I would post my review of the book, which was written for an American audience.
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Even if you know something about Zionist history, and are therefore familiar with the name Vladimir Jabotinsky, you would likely identify him as a territorial maximalist who sought a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River and in what is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. You would also probably associate him with the Irgun, a militia guilty of its share of terrorist atrocities, including revenge murders of innocent Arabs. You might even brand him with that overused epithet, “fascist.”
Although none of this, except the last, is inaccurate (and even that calumnious label is not entirely without at least some impressionistic basis), it is incomplete to the point of caricature.
A multifaceted genius, Jabotinsky might have been a major literary figure had he not felt compelled to devote himself to Zionism, which he regarded as the only possible salvation for a European Jewry whose catastrophe he prophetically foresaw. He was fluent in eight or nine languages, a facility he employed as a spellbinding orator, prolific polemicist and widely-read journalist. He was the founder and commander of a Jewish Legion in the British armed forces during World War I, a novelist of the highest rank (one of whose works was made into a movie by Cecil B. DeMille that grossed $11 million in 1949), a playwright, a publisher, an insurance executive and a lawyer. And, hardly congruent with his image as a radical firebrand, Jabotinsky was impeccably courteous, self-deprecating in his humor and a convinced democrat who, though he saw war with the Arabs as inevitable, was determined that they have completely equal rights in the Jewish majority state that he was ready to fight them to establish.
All of these aspects of a fascinating and remarkable figure are vividly portrayed in Hillel Halkin’s short and engaging biography, “Jabotinsky.” As Halkin shows, Jabotinsky was a man not only of manifold talents, but sharp contradictions.
Living as a free-spirited youth in the relaxed atmospheres of Odessa and Italy, mixing easily with both Jews and Gentiles, Jabotinsky strongly believed in the primacy of the individual. But in the historical circumstances in which he lived, he found it a moral imperative that he and others devote themselves single-mindedly to the collective of the Jewish people. Halkin quotes him writing to a friend: “I had two gates in me, one to my people and one to culture, literature, my writing. To keep it from hindering my work for the Jewish people, I locked the second gate with my own hands, took the key and threw it as far into the depths as I could.”
Incongruities also marked what Jabotinsky made the center of his life – his political work to realize Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state. While others believed that the native Arab population of Palestine could be persuaded to accept an influx of Jews by showing them they would benefit economically, Jabotinsky regarded this as a pipe dream. No people, he wrote, would willingly accept being made a minority in their own land by the large-scale immigration of “colonizers.” To think otherwise of the Arabs was indicative of condescension and disrespect.
But the conclusion Jabotinsky drew from this was not to drop the quest for a Jewish state, but rather to recognize that it would have to be brought about by military force. He urged his fellow Zionists to recognize that reality and prepare for it. He was not plagued by moral doubts about effecting the Zionist enterprise militarily. The Jews were in desperate straits and had no other place to go; they were his people and he was prepared to do the necessary to save them.
Still, Jabotinsky was a strong proponent of democracy, and once the Arabs were forced to accept a Jewish majority state, they were to have strictly equal rights within in it. Further, he found the idea of population transfer to be both impractical and morally unacceptable.
In an epilogue imagining how Jabotinsky might respond today to an objection that a dual-nationality state with a narrow Jewish majority could not possibly remain both Jewish and democratic, Halkin has Jabotinsky responding that even the narrowest Jewish majority – 51 percent – would trigger such massive Jewish immigration as to make this possible. Today’s democratic Israel, notes Halkin’s imagined Jabotinsky, has evolved to having an eighty percent Jewish majority. Met with the argument that, given the losses of millions of Jews in the Holocaust, that could not now happen with respect to a state “on both sides of the Jordan,” Halkin envisions Jabotinsky scaling back his outsized territorial ambitions to “the best deal Israel can get.” What might that be? Jabotinsky demurs, saying his only advice is “never take advice from a dead man.”
More seriously: Did Jabotinsky condone terrorism? Although Jabotinsky was in London during the “Arab Revolt” of 1936-39, having been exiled from Palestine by the British, he had been made the nominal head of the Irgun as a result of an agreement between a number of affiliated organizations. (The on-the-ground commander was Menachem Begin, a later prime minister of Israel.) Halkin says Jabotinsky knew little or nothing in advance of the specifics of attacks carried out in reprisal for Arab terrorism, although he generally approved their scope and timing. Though he first reacted to indiscriminate attacks with denial and discomfort, reportedly saying at one point there was “nothing heroic about shooting an Arab peasant in the back for bringing vegetables on his donkey to Tel Aviv,” as the cycle of violence wore on and escalated, he defended such attacks as a necessary part of war, much as civilians would be killed in air attacks on German cities. Although Jabotinsky was not directly involved in planning or carrying out these attacks, his polemical defense of them remains a stain on his record.
Hillel Halkin writes that if there was a common denominator in Jabotinsky’s contradictions, “it was of someone who became what he did by acting against his deeper instincts – or rather, whose deepest instinct was to overrule all his other instincts in the name of a single willed goal.” For all his brilliance and self-denial, he did not live to see that goal realized.