The Zionist Imagination | The Nation


The Zionist Imagination

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Yet for all his rhetoric about the need for a single ideal, Jabotinsky was driven by more than one. In a 1934 letter, on the eve of his split with the official Zionist Organization, he wrote to a friend: "There are only three solutions: to conquer the Zionist Organization, or to convert the Revisionist Organization into something very 'wrathful,' or to retire and write novels." Conquering the official Zionist Organization was, he acknowledged, impossible. The second two turned out, however, not to be alternatives. In 1935 Jabotinsky created his "wrathful" organization--the Independent, or New Zionist Organization. That same year he completed his last novel, Pyatero, or The Five (it had started appearing in installments in Paris in 1933), which has recently been translated into English for the first time by Michael Katz. The Five is the lovingly rendered account of the decline of Russian Jewry in cosmopolitan, turn-of-the-century Odessa, told, as the Russian literature specialist Alice Nakhimovsky observes, with "irreproducible careless grace." In his book Zionism and the Fin de Siècle, Michael Stanislawski, who provides the introduction to this edition, describes The Five as "the most literarily successful and the most psychologically revealing of Jabotinsky's adult writings."

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

What, we might ask, led Jabotinsky, at the precise moment he cast the die for violent Zionist activism, to turn to his own past (the narrator is clearly a self-portrait), into something "peripheral," "beautiful," thereby revealing the division or "flaw" in his own soul? Jabotinsky's Odessa is a utopia in decline, where "ten tribes converged" speaking "one hundred different languages," "each and every one so fascinating, one more interesting than the next," whose customs "gradually...rubbed up against each other" until they "ceased regarding their own sacred altars in such a serious manner." The reference to language is important. Throughout his life, Jabotinsky harbored a complex passion for languages. Although he is reputed to have spoken at least nine, he also devoted a significant part of his career as a Zionist to promoting the revival of Hebrew--one language for one people--in both the Diaspora and Palestine. In The Five, on the other hand, it becomes at least an open question whether the drive of history is toward the purity or the confusion of tongues. The narrator who tenderly records this world is a self-doubting Zionist. "Of course," he muses, "I'm in the camp that struggles against disintegration; I don't want neighbors; I want all people living on their own islands; but--who knows?"

Like Herzl, Jabotinsky was a journalist and literary writer before he became a Zionist at the start of the new century. One of the most renowned of such figures in Odessa, he was also a translator of Poe into Russian. Although his Zionist conversion predated the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, it was nonetheless a turning point. "Once I felt strongly the beauty of a free-lance," he wrote, "a man above and beyond the rank and file, having no allegiance, without obligation toward anyone on earth, impartial toward his own people and to strangers alike, pursuing the way of his own will over the heads of kin and strangers." But his newfound Zionist "faith," like the betrothal of a Jewish woman, required him to follow the "cruel but profound" custom of cutting off his hair: "Perhaps I too could...sing songs of beauty, bathe in the cheap favor of your applause. But I do not want it. I cut off my hair." Once again the rhetoric was undermined by his literary writing. In his first novel, Prelude to Delilah or Samson the Nazarite, published in 1926, cutting off one's hair brings vengeful retribution and is no act of pure self-enlightened grace, as if such a gesture were too brutal a repudiation, something that would not finally settle in the author's mind. According to Schechtman, to the end of Jabotinsky's life writing remained his greatest pleasure, the activity in which he felt most contented and at ease. On receiving the first copy of The Five, Jabotinsky wrote to his brother-in-law that he was so happy he "spent the whole day going from one movie house to another."

Jabotinsky did not, therefore, give up a literary career for politics, or relinquish the false path of fiction for the true Zionist faith. There is more at stake here than the fact that literature was Jabotinsky's first and abiding passion. Nor is it only a matter of the symbiotic relationship of Zionist literature and politics, the way that for Jabotinsky, as for Herzl, political reality is summoned to meet the dream. "Sometimes, the era produces the poet. Sometimes one creates the other," Menachem Begin wrote in his foreword to the 1986 edition of Schechtman's Jabotinsky biography. "But the poetry and the literary works of Ze'ev Jabotinsky preceded an era--he created it." Lacking the financial resources and institutions of official Zionism, Revisionism was always an ideological, cultural and literary enterprise. Revisionist Zionism can also be described, as Eran Kaplan details in The Jewish Radical Right, as an aesthetic project, steeped in the ceremonial and symbolic molding of the mass mind (it conducted what can be described at the very least as a flirtation with Italian Fascism). Even more crucially, as The Five so clearly shows, fiction trails Jabotinsky's political acts and rhetoric, belying their conviction, allowing us a glimpse of something darker that the rhetoric will not or cannot afford to let us see. For such a diagnosis, Jabotinsky himself provides the terms. "Every project presents a dark side," he wrote in The Story of the Jewish Legion, "every important remedy contains within itself an element which, under other circumstances, would be poisonous." The note that opens The Five, "Instead of a Preface," concludes: "I'm a child of my age.... I love all its blemishes, all its poison." Like a confessional, literature became the place where Jabotinsky could diagnose the ills of his own life's work.

Seen in this context, The Five is a discovery. In moments of startling prescience, Zionism appears not as immutable goal but as cause for warning or fear. Roughly halfway through the novel, the narrator, a detached cosmopolitan littérateur who moves, like the author, between Odessa, Rome and Bern, suddenly understands "the venomous curse of the emigrant's existence," which uses up the "soul's juice" in torment. "But," he continues, "the soul's juice is not reabsorbed; it accumulates, hardens, and burns the consciousness forever; and if fate ever wills it thus and the exiles en masse suddenly return to their homeland and become its sovereigns, they will pervert all paths and all measures."

In Jabotinsky's lexicon, even iron, we discover, is a mixed blessing, or curse. At the end of Samson, the blind imprisoned hero sends a message to his people: "Samson thought for a while, and then said slowly: 'Tell them two things in my name--two words. The first word is iron. They must get iron.... The second word is this: a king!'" But in 1925, the year before this novel was published, Jabotinsky had written a collection of short stories, A Pocket Edition of Several Stories Mostly Reactionary, which includes the tale of Tristan da Runha, a penitentiary colony of exiled convicts, the most atavistic representatives of the human race, who slowly turn their island into a model of human dignity and survival, in the words of the observer telling the story, "a superior, better world than the one left behind." No metal ores or coal deposits are allowed on the island; when the buildings evacuated by the previous population are destroyed, "especial care had been taken to remove any trace of metal even such as old nails." Tristan da Runha is an "ironless civilization"--remember, this is only two years after "The Iron Wall" and "The Ethics of the Iron Wall," both published in 1923. It lacks "the only materials over which man is absolute master, which he can mold into any shape, and link together into infinite combinations to do his will." In this lies the colony's superiority to the civilized world: "Metal is the cause of all evil.... It is dangerous for man to become so absolute a master of Nature. It is unnatural, and will be avenged.... We who were born in the world of iron shall soon die; and the generations conceived on this island will never know the morbid ambitions, the lust of pawing new things which poison that world." And then, in lines it is hard not to read once again as Jabotinsky's caution against his own hardening faith (in a letter written as he resigned from the Zionist Organization, he suggested that Chaim Weizmann was on the path to "apostasy"): "The field of the spirit is the only field where man has the right to conquer, to advance over hedge after hedge.... However high he may soar in the spirit, his daring will not be avenged, he will not degenerate--so long as he does not attempt to transform spirit into matter, in the shape of more acres or more power." Iron and power are destructive; together they corrupt the spirit of mankind. Jabotinsky, we could say, knew exactly what he was doing, although perhaps not in the way usually assumed, when he evoked the metaphor of the iron wall as the surest path--more acres, hedge after hedge--to the conquest of Palestine.

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