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.
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.