REVIEW: Writing and reading about Jabotinsky

Vladimir Jabotinsky
Ze’ev Jabotinsky

Jabotinsky, A Life, by Hillel Halkin
By Hillel Halkin
Yale University Press 2014

Reader beware: At the suggestion of Seth Lipsky of the New York Sun, for the past four years I have engaged in intensive research efforts to recover unknown articles by, memoirs about, interviews with and correspondence from Vladimir Jabotinsky, with the aim towards writing a biography of the pre-state Zionist leader. While the esteemed literary critic and translator Hillel Halkin includes a fair share of his own new material in the recently published Jabotinsky: A Life in just six chapters, he has convinced me that there is more than one way to write a biography.

Halkin’s book begins with the author’s trip to the Ukraine in search of the Odessa-born Jabotinsky, and early on confronts two of the myths about the Zionist leader that have emerged in the decades since his death in New York in 1940. One is the theory propounded by Columbia Professor Michael Stanislawski that Jabotinsky’s autobiographical writings intentionally offered a “distorted portrait of their author,” and that the Zionist leader’s account of his 1903 meeting with Theodore Herzl, was a “retroactive creation of his own myth” largely written to satisfy his political needs. Halkin in contrast considers Jabotinsky’s memoirs to be generally reliable accounts, and that the meeting with Herzl may very well have occurred.

Halkin’s corollary argument, that there is little basis for the popular belief that Jabotinsky came from an “assimilated” or “partially assimilated” Jewish background, while equally fascinating, is more open to debate. Halkin argues that this myth arose because to Zionist leaders who were raised in the shtetl like David Ben Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, Jabotinsky seemed like a “half breed.” In reality, Halkin claims, Jabotinsky was not an assimilated Jew but rather an “anomaly” of the Central or Western type Jew in Eastern Europe. Still, it might be noted that the novelist Arthur Koestler, the quintessential assimilated Central European Jew, and one time secretary to Jabotinsky, was drawn to the Revisionist leader precisely because of his assimilated background, while the Zionist leader Martin Rosenbluth noted that when in 1915 he asked Jabotinsky to deliver a speech in Yiddish, the future Rosh Betar said he didn’t know the language, and was only able to do so after spending many hours each day for several weeks studying the language!

The second chapter of Halkin’s biography, “Jabotinsky the Zionist,” reveals the author’s amazing depth as a translator, as he presents Jabotinsky’s dispatches as a foreign correspondent for the Russian newspaper Russkaya Vyedomosti during the First World War, as well as letters to his wife, Ania, while serving as commander of the Jewish Legion. On the eve of the September 1918 British offensive against the Turks, Jabotinsky wrote a letter to his wife with instructions that it be forwarded to her in case he was killed at the front, noting that he had put her through a great deal but that “if you receive this letter, at least I’ll have left you and Eri (his son) a name to be proud of, one that will one day cause hats to be doffed to you in the street.”

Halkin’s exquisite translation strikingly reveals the personal side of a man so often vilified in the press for his uncompromising political stands. In a similar way, Halkin’s literary criticism offers unparalleled insights into little known aspects of Jabotinsky’s career, and his discussion of the Jabotinsky’s novel, The Five, a story of the destruction of a turn of the century Russian Jewish family, written in the mid-1930’s, is probably the best analysis of the novel to date. Halkin reiterates the fascinating observations he first made in the New Republic after the 2004 publication of the English translation of the novel, that the tragic plot parallels Sholom Aleichem’s “Tevya Stories”, and that the book’s heroine, Marusya, who dies a tragic death while trying to save her child, is a metaphor for Jabotinsky himself.

Halkin’s political psychology is weaker. Halkin suggests that Jabotinsky who was banned from Palestine by the British in 1930 after making a controversial speech in Tel Aviv, chose — consciously or not — to refrain from vigorously contesting the ban because he did not feel at home in Palestine. While the theory is intriguing, the evidence that exists would seem to suggest otherwise. Equally curious is Halkin’s strong conviction that Avraham Stavsky and Tsvi Rosenblatt, members of Jabotinsky’s party who were accused of the 1933 murder of labor Zionist leader Chaim Arlosoroff, were innocent. Though there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Rosenblatt who was found innocent after a trial and Stavsky who was acquitted on appeal, were indeed innocent, it is rare for someone outside of the Zionist right to espouse this position, and Halkin’s stance begs one to ask the question, why?

The answer I think can be found in the book’s last full chapter, “Racing the
Clock,” where Halkin argues that Jabotinsky went from condemning political violence resulting in the death of an innocent Arab peddler, to condoning such action, a moral flaw which Halkin uses to pass judgement on the Zionist leader in his epilogue. By siding with Jabotinsky on one controversy, Halkin is freed (perhaps subconsciously) to condemn him on another level, though Halkin’s evidence that Jabotinsky actually advocated such violence rests on few short excerpts from a speech that is open to interpretation.

Similarly, Halkin labels Jabotinsky a failure because of his inability to achieve his political goals or emerge from his position as perennial leader of the Zionist opposition. Halkin ponders whether Jabotinsky, had he been in the shoes of Weizmann or Ben Gurion during the late 1930’s, could have done something they were unable to accomplish. But Jabotinsky’s political success can not be measured solely by events which transpired during his lifetime. Jabotinsky was a charismatic leader whose symbiotic relationship with his followers was so intense that in the words of Pierre Van Paassen, a Canadian journalist who was one of Jabotinsky’s closest observers, that they “made him, so to speak, their better self…” Halkin’s book says relatively little about Jabotinsky’s relationship with his followers, but it is their loyalty which prompted the Eshkol government to transfer his remains to Israel twenty four years after his death, and which pushed Menachem Begin to a cataclysmic victory in the 1977 Israeli elections, and ultimately the reason why Jabotinsky is remembered today.

One other unique aspect of this book that needs to be examined is Halkin’s fictional “interview” with Jabotinsky, which is contained in the epilogue. Here Halkin asks Jabotinsky how he would deal with the contemporary Israeli impasse with the Palestinians, a question he has been thinking about since at least the late 1990s. It should be noted that the official collection of interviews with Jabotinsky were destroyed in the bombing of London. Some of them have been recovered, others like the purported Ladino interview remain to be found, while still others are undoubtedly lost forever. Halkin’s interview pays both literary homage to those lost conversations while at the same time is the most intriguing fictional insertion into a biography since Dutch (1999), Edmund Morris’ study of Ronald Reagan. While the fictional Jabotinsky is considerably more ambiguous and indecisive (“Get the best deal you can…the details are everything. I just don’t have the head for them anymore”) than the direct and to-the-point leader who emerges in the recovered interviews, Halkin’s effort to reach back to the early Zionist leaders to learn how to deal with the current conflict is only to be praised.

About the Author
Louis Gordon, J.D./Ph.D., teaches Middle Eastern Politics at California State University at San Bernardino, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He is co-author with Ian Oxnevad of the forthcoming The Constructivist’s Guide to Middle East Politics (Lexington Books). He can be reached at