The Zionist Imagination | The Nation


The Zionist Imagination

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In 1917, after the British conquest of Palestine, the Jewish Battalion, which Vladimir Jabotinsky had campaigned for since the outbreak of World War I and which had participated in several of the battles, was allowed to rename itself the Judean Regiment. The regiment chose as its insignia a menorah with the Hebrew word "kadima," meaning "forward" or "eastward." This was not the first time Jabotinsky had used the word. Kadima was also the name of the Zionist publishing house he had founded with a group of friends in Odessa in 1904, which marked the beginning of Zionist activity throughout Russia. When, at the end of last year, Ariel Sharon left Likud to form a new party of the center-right, Kadima, a move widely welcomed as creating a fresh middle ground in Israeli politics, he was therefore paying the profoundest tribute to Jabotinsky--Likud's forefather, founder of militant Revisionist Zionism, visionary of the Jewish radical right.

About the Author

Jacqueline Rose
Jacqueline Rose teaches at Queen Mary, University of London. Her books include On Not Being Able to Sleep:...

After Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky is perhaps the most renowned figure in Zionist history, although he remains more controversial. For the Labor Zionist founders of the State of Israel, he was a pariah. He split with the Zionist Organization on the issue of Jewish self-defense (he was imprisoned by the British in 1920 for possession of firearms and for provoking disorder) and of armed struggle against the British in Palestine. He had also proclaimed that the goal of Zionism was the creation of a Jewish state, at a time when Zionist leaders preferred to keep quiet about their aims. "I, too, am for a Jewish state," one of his closest collaborators commented, "but I am against using the words." Jabotinsky was ostracized for speaking the truth. Because he recognized Arab national aspirations as legitimate, he had no interest in denying that the Zionist struggle would be violent. According to Jabotinsky, a group of Arabs approached him in 1926: "You are the only one among the Zionists who has no intention of fooling us," Egyptian intellectual Mahmoud Azmi is reported as having thanked him for not disguising the true nature of his aims.

As I write, Israel is faced with a democratically elected Hamas government, the legacy of its own brute military policies toward the Palestinians. Behind Hamas's statement that it will not recognize Israel--for which it is isolated and financially starved--we can ironically detect the shade, and perfectly logical consequence, of the ethos of Jabotinsky, who famously ended his 1923 essay "The Iron Wall": "The only path to an agreement in the future is an absolute refusal of any attempts at an agreement now." There could be no agreement or even negotiation with the Arabs until they accepted that Zionism was invincible. For Jabotinsky inflexibility was political doctrine.

Jabotinsky is most famous for creating the militant youth organization Betar, which he founded in 1923. Members of Betar saw themselves as warriors opposed to the laboring, agricultural spirit of the first socialist Zionist pioneers. In his book on Revisionist Zionism, The Jewish Radical Right, Eran Kaplan describes how the members of Betar took their inspiration from the early Zionist poet Ya'acov Cohen, who wrote:

In blood and fire Judah fell
In blood and fire Judah will rise!
War! War to our country, war for freedom--
And if freedom is forever lost--long live revenge!

Although Betar eventually embraced a vision even more radical than that of Jabotinsky, and though his position proved too moderate for the founders of the Jewish underground movement Irgun, nonetheless Zionist militarism can fairly be described as starting with him. Jabotinsky was a fighter. His last, posthumously published book, The Jewish War Front, also published as The War and the Jew, recounted his attempt to persuade the Allied powers to allow the formation of a Jewish Army in World War II (creation of a Jewish state would then, he believed, acquire the status of an Allied war aim). "A nation in our position," he famously wrote in response to the 1936 Arab rebellion, "must know the ABC and acquire the psychology of shooting and the longing after it." Yet long before his belligerence was directed toward the Arabs, the target of his rage was the official Zionist leadership, which he disdained as insufficiently militant in relation to the British. In 1929 he described the "hatred" between himself and Labor Zionism as "organic": "It is not dependent on our will, and nothing can be done about it." Jabotinsky's first enemies were other Jews.

Strangely enough, it was a Labor Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, who arranged for Jabotinsky's remains to be interred in a state ceremony on Mount Herzl in 1964. Full memorialization would have to await the election of Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1977, a watershed event in Israel's recent history. Celebrations for the 100th anniversary of Jabotinsky's birth were to match the commemoration of the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion. Held in major cities across the country, the events were, as political scientist and anthropologist Myron Aronoff puts it, a "near deification" of Jabotinsky, marking his definitive return to the official Zionist fold. The afterword to a late edition of The War and the Jew cites Begin as he recalls the moment he issued the order for the revolt in 1937 against the British authorities in Palestine: "It was as though I heard the voice of Jabotinsky commanding me to give it. That is how we all felt. It was under his leadership, even after his death, that the Revolt was carried out." (Despite the eulogies, Begin found Jabotinsky too moderate, proclaiming at Betar's 1938 World Conference that Zionism had to pass through an era of military struggle, whereupon Jabotinsky turned his back, comparing Begin's speech to the sound of a screeching door.)

Jabotinsky's ability to inspire devotion in his followers is legendary. Members of his camp were known as Khoveve Jabotinsky (Lovers of Jabotinsky). Each one of them, writes Jabotinsky's biographer Joseph Schechtman, had his own "intimate and captivating romance with the man," a romance whose unwritten formula was "Jabotinsky belongs to the Jewish Nation and to me" or, more personally, "Jabotinsky belongs to me and to the Jewish Nation." Jabotinsky provides a perfect illustration of that strange process described by Freud whereby an intimate and potentially competing claim to possess the leader on the part of each of his followers nonetheless works to secure the cohesion of the group. According to Schechtman, when Jabotinsky moved from his luxury hotel in Alexandria, Egypt, into the quarantine quarters of Jewish exiles expelled by the Syrian leader from Jaffa during World War I--an uneasy group of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews including Georgians, Bukharians and Spaniards, with twelve languages among them--"as if by magic, everything changed and the mixed crowd...became a single unit, giving the impression of a group which had been educated in the same orderly way. We called this order among exiles, 'the Jabotinsky régime.'"

Jabotinsky expected no less. "The greatest achievement of a free mass of people," he wrote with reference to Betar, "is the ability to operate together as one with the absolute precision of a machine.... We would like to turn the entire nation into such an orchestra." Dedication must be absolute: "Two ideals are an absurdity--like two gods, like two altars, two temples. I do not want to insult anybody, but a soul that can swallow two ideals and be content is a flawed soul.... An ideal excludes everything peripheral, however beautiful, however pure."

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