Jabotinsky the leftist?

Around the German Colony neighborhood where I live in Jerusalem, I recently noticed a sticker reading “Jabotinsky is a leftist.” Anyone who has been following Israeli politics for the past decade will know that thanks primarily to the aggressive speeches of Likud MKs and especially PM Benjamin Netanyahu, the word “leftist” has transformed from a legitimate political opinion to a curse word within the political discourse of the Jewish State. Aside from Meretz, which barely crossed the political threshold at the April 2019 election, no Zionist party in Israel calls itself “leftist” anymore, even though there are a range of parties that are guided by progressive and liberal values of the left. 

Therefore, seeing Jabotinsky described as a leftist, given how revered he is by the right wing Likud part of today, would come as a surprise to many. However, for those familiar with his original writings, there is some truth to the statement, 

Consider the writings of  Ze’ev Jabotinsky, which almost reads like a word for word critique that the PA raised in response to the Trump “Prosperity to Peace” plan launched in Bahrain. The father of revisionist Zionism wrote about the Arabs of Palestine in 1923, “To imagine that they will voluntarily consent to the realization of Zionism – in return for the moral and material conveniences which the Jewish colonist brings with him – is a childish notion, which has at bottom a kind of contempt for the Arab people; it means that they despise the Arab race, which they regard as a corrupt mob that can be bought and sold, and are willing to give up their fatherland for a good railway system.”

Jabotinsky explained that “There is no justification for such a belief. It may be that some individual Arabs take bribes. But that does not mean that the Arab people of Palestine as a whole will sell that fervent patriotism that they guard so jealousy, and which even the Papuans will never sell. 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.”

Moving into modern times, in 2012, after former Likud MK Danny Dannon referred to asylum seekers in the Jewish State as a “national plague” Betar Australia wrote an open public letter to him suggesting Jabotinsky would have strongly disapproved of his racist statement.  In condemning Dannon, who is now the Israeli envoy to the UN, Betar Australia said that “when Jabotinsky wrote ‘in the beginning, God created men’ he was referring to mankind as a whole, to our shared origins and our shared humanity. This aspect of humanity is unequivocally expressed in our ideological principle of Hadar, that all people should treat themselves and others in a ‘princely’ manner.”

Danny Danon speaks at anti-african rally in Tel-Aviv. (Facebook)

In 2018, during the heated debate about the Jewish Nation State bill that was heralded as an essential Zionist law by the Likud lawmakers who fought for seven years to make it a Basic Law in Israel, the New Israel Fund, whose flagship civil rights grantee ACRI was leading the fight against the bill shared a quote from Jabotinsky on their facebook page to show how the Likud had perverted the ideals of their founder. The first draft of the bill put forward would have given legal justification to segregate communities in Israel, a move that was publicly opposed by President Rivlin, who sees himself as a follower of Jabotinsky’s Zionism.

Likud MK Oren Hazan takes a selfie with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and MK David Bitan, right of Netanyahu, after the passage of the so-called Jewish State law at the Knesset on July 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Olivier Fitoussi)

The quote shared by NIF Australia from Jabotinsky read, “”[Even] after the formation of a Jewish majority, a considerable Arab population will always remain in Palestine. If things fare badly for this group of inhabitants, then things will fare badly for the entire country. The political, economic and cultural welfare of the Arabs will thus always remain one of the main conditions for the well-being of the Land of Israel.”

Moving from the subject of Arab rights to women’s rights, Jabotinsky writings were again remembered favourably recently in contrast to a recent statement from several prominent religious Zionist rabbi’s about the suitability of females as MKs. In reference to Ayelet Shaked, one of the signatories, Rav Shlomo Aviner, who has major political and spiritual influence in the Habayit Hayehudi party, said that the “complicated whirlwind of politics is not for women.”

There are echoes of this debate that go back in 1919, during the endless discussions about the regulations and composition of the Assembly of Representatives of Palestine’s Jewish community, where a stormy debate erupted over voting by women and the possibility of their being elected as delegates. The ultra-Orthodox circles were adamantly opposed to either possibility, and the Mizrachi movement of religious Zionism also objected to the latter.

Jabotinsky fiercely opposed preventing or downscaling voting by women. “For some years our adversaries have been shouting that a Jewish regime in the Land of Israel must be a clerical one that subordinates life to the burden of religion,” wrote Jabotinsky in Haaretz. “We told the people of the wide world that Judaism is a nation and not a religious community, and that among us, as in every other enlightened nation, one can be counted a member of the nation even if he has nothing to do with religion.”

“But what has happened lately?” he continued. “We have wiped out this defense, we have surrendered to clericalism in its darkest form, to bans by sages whom no one in the world outside of Mea She’arim has even heard of, or to the scientific essay by Rabbi Kook, the chief rabbi, a typical piece by an external student with half an education that’s half-digested. We have capitulated to clericalism that fights against equality for women.”

Even though Jabotinsky passed away in 1940, based on his writings, its seems likely that he would have opposed much of the anti-arab legislation of the Likud and anti-feminist  outlook of certain Haredi and Religious Zionist MKs that form a core part of Netanyahu’s coalition today no less than he would have opposed the two state solution so longed for by the left. In 1923, he wrote the following about the prospects for peace with the Palestinians. “The only way to obtain such an agreement, is the iron wall, which is to say a strong power in Palestine that is not amenable to any Arab pressure. In other words, the only way to reach an agreement in the future is to abandon all idea of seeking an agreement at present.”

This line of thinking, which is still very much at the heart of the Likud and nationalist mindset, is the opposite of what a leftist believes in Israel today. 

It was directly rebuked by one of the leading thinkers of the Israeli left, author David Grossman who shared the following idea at a joint Yom Hazikaron memorial in 2018. Acknowledging the many successes of Zionism, 70 years after the birth of Israel, the bereaved father lamented how Israel has become a fortress and is “not yet a home.” Grossman’s summed up his solution to the great complexity of Israeli-Palestinian relations in one short formula: “if the Palestinians don’t have a home, the Israelis won’t have a home either. The opposite is also true: if Israel will not be a home, then neither will Palestine.” 

צפו ושתפו: הנאום החשוב, הכואב והמרגש של הסופר דוד גרוסמן בערב הזיכרון הישראלי-פלסטיני המשותף >>

פורסם על ידי ‏דב חנין Dov Khenin‏ ב- יום רביעי, 18 באפריל 2018

What Grossman was calling for in essence, was for Israel to breach the iron walls it had created between us and our neighbours, in order for Israel to truly be home for all who live between the river and sea. He was calling for Israel to see a partner for peace in the faces of the millions of Palestinians who want nothing more than to raise their children in prosperity and harmony in their own homeland side by side with Israel.  This recognition of the Palestinian right to self determination as a nation in their homeland is something Jabotinsky never acknowledged. 

When Knesset held a special session in 2016 to commemorate Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Netanyahu argued that modern Israel under his rule vindicates Jabotinsky’s hallmark “Iron Wall” thesis explaining that the Jewish state today is “an advanced, prosperous and strong country, that refuses to bow its head before its enemies,” adding that “the weak does not survive in our region… [while] the strong survives and forges alliances.”

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His speech was followed by Isaac Herzog, who was Opposition leader at the time. He announced that Israel needed “many more Jabotinskys,” and embarked on a tirade accusing today’s Likud of betraying Jabotinsky’s values—and by implication presenting himself as the leader true to those values. “If he were here today, he’d have torn you to pieces,” he said, listing  anti-democratic legislation—such as the Expulsion Law —that Jabotinsky would have allegedly despised. Herzog then observed that Jabotinsky “shared similar role in the Zionist movement” to his own as leader of the opposition “a decade or so before the state’s establishment,” and relished the irony that his Zionist Union supposedly had “more in common with Jabotinsky’s democratic philosophy than the Likud party and its leader.”

All of these complexities and contradictions make it hard to determine which political party a Jabotinsky of 2019 would find himself most at home. His liberal, secularist and rights orientation could make him quite at home in the Democratic Camp led by Nitzan Horowitz. On the other hand, his hardline stance against socialism and a Palestinian State could make him very much at home in the Likud of Netanyahu or even the New Right of Naftali Bennett. 

Coming back to the sticker near my home, I’m not sure what the goal of the person who put it there was, but I feel privileged to now live in state where a three simple words on a bumper sticker can make such a fascinating historical and political statement. 

A version of this article was also published in ‘Haderech – The Betar Australia annual Iton 2019” where it was distributed in synagogues throughout Melbourne and Sydney over Rosh Hashana.

About the Author
Ittay Flescher is a freelance journalist and educator in Jerusalem.
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