The Zionist Imagination | The Nation


The Zionist Imagination

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Jabotinsky believed in the power of words. "Many an observer shares the view," he wrote in his introduction to an English translation of the famous Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, "that among the impulses which have determined the Jewish revival since 1896, the personalities of Herzl and Bialik were the two main factors, more powerful than any 'objective' event of those days." Jabotinsky had translated into Russian Bialik's most famous poem, "In the City of Slaughter," written in response to the Kishinev pogrom: "The self-defense organizations which sprang up everywhere in Russia to meet the new pogrom-wave two years later, the 'Yeomanry' movement in Palestine, even the Jewish Legion which fought for the Holy Land in 1918--they are all Bialik's children." To Bialik's poem he attributes almost mystical, telepathic powers. Stanislawski recounts how, in Jabotinsky's rendering--retitled "Tale of a Pogrom"--the original is stripped of its heterodox, subversive, not to say blasphemous, content (the speaker of the poem is an impotent, self-castigating God) as well as of its biblical and Judaic lexicon, to re-emerge as a diatribe against the Jewish people's passivity in the face of suffering, and an invocation to revolt: "Bialik revolts, and becomes a singer of triumphant, invincible, rebellious Manhood, of the arm that wields the sword, of muscles of granite and sinews of steel." "The main lesson of the pogrom was shame." In his 1920 "Letter to the Jewish Community," one of two proclamations issued by the "Prisoners of Acre," he lambastes the criminal conduct of Weizmann and "our own Zionist administration" for turning a blind eye to slaughter, condemning the Jewish people to "moral shame": "He had stifled the outbursts of protest until the impudence of our enemies grew and ripened and took deep roots, and we became hefker [ownerless property] in their eyes."

About the Author

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

For Jabotinsky, therefore, as for many Zionists, militancy was the answer not only to persecution and injustice but also to humiliation. It is a recurrent theme throughout Zionist writing and, I believe, the key to much of Zionism's own ruthlessness toward the Palestinians, that persecution of the Jews was experienced as moral disgrace. What is short-circuited in this logic is grief. "I will harden My heart," God addresses his "mournful and slinking" followers in Bialik's poem. "I will not let thee weep!" "Thy tear, son of man, remain unshed!/Build thou about it, with thy deadly hate/Thy fury and thy rage, unuttered,/A wall of copper, the bronze triple plate!" Bialik has laid on the Jewish people an injunction from which the new nation will not recover--redemption of the people on condition of an inability to mourn. Echoing Bialik at the end of The Five, the narrator rages at the funeral of Marusya against the prayers in praise of "God-the-offender": "I'd cast a stone at You, oh Lord, if You weren't hiding so far away."

Marusya dies when her dress catches fire in the kitchen. In a truly heroic moment, which looks forward to the vision of self-sacrificing Zionist motherhood, she locks her son outside the door and, to avoid any temptation of fleeing and thereby endangering him, throws the key from the window, barring all escape. In an extraordinary hallucinatory passage, the narrator--who insists that he never dreams--responds to a strange request she had once made, that he should "dream me." He relives her last moments, shedding their heroic content and entering her tunnel of pain, where, we are now told, there was no time to think of her son because pain is such "a terribly nasty, completely insane thing": "Has it ever entered your head that 'pain' is a repulsive, demeaning concept? It's the most passive suffering on earth, somehow servile: you mean nothing at all, no one asks you, someone's mocking you." On the other hand, Marusya's father, in response to the tragedy, claims to understand the book of Job--which the narrator has never read--for the first time: Better to submit to suffering than rebel against God, otherwise your pain is worthless. Does suffering ennoble or debase? In the pages of the novel, this is not a question that has to or can be settled. But as with George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, which also fails to bind the loose ends of its own drama, the reader is led to understand that the only future out of an intolerable impasse will be the journey to Zion.

The end of The Five suggests that the question of how to respond to suffering was something Jabotinsky was never able to answer. It is as if the only options he could imagine were impotent, humiliating self-sacrifice or militant, invincible rage. But unless this deadlock can be broken, with all its dire consequences for Palestinian Arabs and Israel as a nation, the conflict in the Middle East has no chance of being resolved. To recall, finally, Weizmann's letter to Jabotinsky of 1915, in which Weizmann asked him how he could bear to be so hated: Jabotinsky seems to have thrived on such hatred, risen to it, as we might say. The Five tells the other story. It allows us to watch his love traveling elsewhere--back to Odessa, in a last fleeting gesture to a world that he helped put the seal on for all time.

In Jabotinsky's writing, Zionism both affirms and doubts itself. What would Israel look like today if the modern leaders who have claimed to take their inspiration from him--Begin, Netanyahu, Sharon and now Olmert, who referred to Jabotinsky in his speech to the first session of the new Knesset at the beginning of May--had shown themselves capable of such radical self-questioning?

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