The Zionist Imagination

The Zionist Imagination

As the founding father of the Zionist right, Vladimir Jabotinsky rejected Diaspora existence. Yet in his 1935 novel The Five he tenderly evoked it, offering a glimpse of something darker.


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.

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.”

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.”

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.

The Five tells the tragic story of the Milgroms, a successful Jewish grain merchant’s family with five children, whose disintegration, helplessly watched and recorded by the narrator, chimes with the outbreak of revolution in Russia in 1905. From Potemkin Day onward, this family “that had become like my own family” is surrounded by a “dark plague.” The star of the family, the beautiful, flirtatious Marusya–“I’ve yet to encounter any young woman better than Marusya”–dies in a careless domestic fire. Serezha, the “scamp,” is disfigured by acid when his liaison with a semi-incestuous mother-daughter couple is discovered by the former’s husband. Marko, who loves Nietzsche but is viewed by his father as a fool, dies when he tries to rescue a woman he wrongly believes to be drowning in a frozen lake. Lika, arrested for anti-czarist agitation and sent into exile, becomes an agent for the secret police, although the intimation at the end of the book is that she is a Bolshevik and Cheka executioner. Studious Torik, the ideal child in the eyes of his parents, whose library includes Grätz’s History of the Jews–“the single book with Jewish content in the entire household”–shockingly converts at the end of the novel, although not before graciously warning his father in case he should wish to disinherit him. “My diagnosis is established irrevocably: disintegration,” Torik explains to the narrator. “The Jewish people is dispersing every which way, and it won’t ever return to its previous state.” For Torik, Zion will not exist and Zionism is simply hastening the Jews on their path to assimilation, with “conversions, mixed marriages, and the complete annihilation of the race”: “only one thing will remain–the desire ‘to be like all other peoples.'” This is in itself heavily ironic, since the desire to be like other peoples, not through assimilation but through entry into the world of nations, was central to the Zionist drive to become a mono-ethnic Jewish state.

The tragedy of the Milgrom family is therefore the tragedy of assimilation and incipient Bolshevism. Although as a young man, Jabotinsky called himself a socialist, and in The Five he is clearly on the side of anti-autocratic sedition, he came to loathe the Russian Revolution for tearing the Jews away from other, nationalist ideals (remember, only one ideal). A revolution in another nation was not, as he saw it, worth “the blood of our old men, women, and children.” If the novel is in praise of revolt, nonetheless the Milgroms make the fundamental error of believing they can lead a fully Russian life. In his 1908 article “Jews in Russian Literature,” Jabotinsky addressed an assimilated socialist writer of Jewish origin “who enthusiastically pledged allegiance to the Russian people and Russian culture…. You went over to the rich neighbor–we will turn our backs on his beauty and kindness; you worship his values and have left our little patrimony to rot…. We will exaggerate our hatred to make it help our love.” Once again, such violent repudiation can only be suspect. Placing love in such proximity to hatred is a risky game. Sadism, as Jabotinsky wrote on the subject of anti-Semitism in The War and the Jew, cannot bear to lose its object, never lets go. Repugnance is a binding tie. In 1935 the result of such exaggerated, fondly nurtured hatred would be to return him to the assimilated Jews of Odessa with a passion.

Everyone in czarist Russia “except the tsar himself,” writes Yuri Slezkine in The Jewish Century, belonged to a group that was in some way the target of discrimination; nonetheless, the Jews were “first among nonequals.” At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Russian Empire was home to most of the world’s Jews, who formed the largest and most urbanized group of those who could make no claim to a national home. Although Jabotinsky eventually saw the education he had interrupted (and subsequently completed) as the Jewish ticket out of the Pale, he had in fact, like many of the Jews in Odessa, never been there. He was typical as a literary-minded Russian-speaking Jew with virtually no ties to Jewish tradition or culture. According to Stanislawski, it was far from abnormal for an upper-middle-class Russian Jew to be raised with no knowledge of Yiddish, Hebrew or Judaism. Before he discovered Zionism, Jabotinsky could therefore be described as a Jew who “passed.” When he eventually introduced a “religious plank” into the Zionist Organization at the Vienna Congress of 1935, the move was as much political as sacred (or rather the two combined). By this stage Jabotinsky’s explicit revolutionary aim was to make his organization the embodiment of the totality of the Jewish people; for this it would be folly to ignore a “factor of such magnitude as thirty centuries of religious inspiration and thought.” “We need,” he wrote to his son two days after the Congress, “religious pathos as such.”

But Jabotinsky did not believe in the veracity of the Bible and, as Ya’acov Shavit has related, in all his writings there is not one reference to God’s covenant with Abraham, the Exodus, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai or indeed the conquering of Eretz Israel by the Israelites. Jabotinsky’s Zionism is shorn of Jewishness even when he appeals to sacred tradition as having a part to play in the forging of the national (racial) mind. To this extent it is arguable whether the demise of the Milgroms in The Five can be traced to their betrayal of their Jewish identity and spiritual legacy, or whether Zionism itself–or rather Jabotinsky’s Zionism–arose at least partially not just out of the desire to be free of an increasingly violent anti-Semitism but paradoxically also from a longing to leave the Jewish legacy and world behind. Better get out, if a family as beautiful and talented as the Milgroms–carrying the forlorn hope for the Jews of a civilized European life–cannot survive. The novel does not judge; it laments. Seen in these terms, Jabotinsky’s Odessa is less a prelude to Zion than its rival–as the publication of this novel in the year he founds the New Zionist Organization suggests–one that persists in his mind even when its world has vanished. The city rises up as a counter-utopia to his own chosen destiny, a lost paradise rather than a mistake. This gives an added dimension to the acknowledged role in Zionism of contempt for the Diaspora Jew, as it does to the Zionist fantasy of creating an outpost of Western civilization in the East. It was because the Jews could not fulfill the true dream–to assimilate in Europe–that they were so determined to travel as Europeans to Palestine.

Might there be inside Jabotinsky’s project, therefore, a core of hatred, as much as love, for the Jews? (“We will exaggerate our hatred to make it help our love.”) When the narrator takes up a career in public service (“Secretary in the Temporary Administration of the Society of Sanatorium Colonies and Other Hygienic-Dietary Institutions for the Treatment and Education of Students Suffering From Bad Health From the Indigent Jewish Population in the City of Odessa and Its Surrounding Areas”), Marusya offers to accompany him to visit these impoverished, indigent Jews. “Would you like to get away from all these Jews?” she asks at the end of a visit that has at once dismayed and exhilarated her, “both rich and poor?” And accompanying her sister Lika into exile in Volgoda, she writes home to the narrator: “Don’t forget to remind me when I return to join some political party or other, just as long as there are no Jews in it” (remember, she is the best woman he has ever known). Slezkine tells the story of Esther Ulanovskaia, who came to Odessa from a shtetl in the Ukraine and joined the Young Revolutionary International: “The Jews represented the world I wanted to get away from.”

In his autobiography, Jabotinsky cites his first “Zionist” speech, delivered in Bern in 1898: “I am a Zionist, without a doubt, since the Jews are a very terrible people, its neighbors justly hate them” (not surprisingly, it was received as anti-Semitic). According to Schechtman, Count Michael Lubiensky once said to him: “You know that I hold Jabotinsky in highest regard and that my opinion of Weizmann is trimmed accordingly…. Dr. Weizmann has all the chances to retain the allegiance of the majority of the Jewish people. Because his entire mentality is identical with that of an average ghetto Jew, while the mentality of Jabotinsky is spiritually nearer to me, a Gentile. I understand him better; he evokes in me a kindred response.” Jabotinsky turned to the assimilated Jews of Russia in 1935 because he still belonged to them. As with his Odessa, so with his Zionism, there was no trace of Pale or ghetto.

If The Five tells the other story of Jabotinsky’s official Zionism, to read this novel is nonetheless to be struck by how closely these seemingly contrary visions are intertwined, not just in the sense that the failure of assimilation was in some sense the cause of Zionism but rather because the question of assimilation was carried over to the issue of the rights of indigenous peoples, which Zionism was confronting in relation to the Arabs of Palestine. It is often asked how a people who suffered such persecution could become the oppressors of another people. Faced with Lika’s exile, her father, Ignats Albertovich, “found many quotations in Heine and Borne to prove that it’s more shameful to be an oppressor than a victim.” But despite the barely concealed irony at Albertovich’s expense, Jabotinsky showed his own awareness of the link when he proposed for the Arabs the same minority rights that he had promoted at the Helsingfors Third All-Russian Zionist Convention of 1906 for Russian Jews: Zionism was ready “to grant the Arab minority in Eretz Israel every possible right that the Jews claimed for themselves, but had never achieved in other countries.”

For Jabotinsky Arab national aspirations, like those of the Zionists, were legitimate. Hence his acknowledgment of the inevitable violence of the struggle. Antagonism between Jew and Arab therefore veiled a latent identification. Unlike those Zionists who blithely predicted, with a barely concealed racism, that the Arabs would relinquish their land when they saw how the Jewish pioneers made the desert bloom, he insisted that they were a people of dignity who would not be bought: “The entire country is full of Arab memories.” National groupings cannot, therefore, but be at war with each other. In The War and the Jew, he makes a key distinction between the “Anti-Semitism of Men,” based on irrational, visceral hatred (“a subjective repulsion, strong enough and permanent enough to become anything from a hobby to a religion,” “a constant urge to harm the hated race”), and the “Anti-Semitism of Things” (“steady, constant and immutable, and therefore much more formidable”), which follows from the natural desire to protect, and foster, the interests of one’s own kind: “an instinct which cannot be criticized because, after all, it is as natural as preferring one’s own children to one’s neighbor’s offspring.” Zionist and Arab therefore share a natural hostility to each other. Once again the fiction tells another story. “It is a good thing that you should live for a time among the Philistines,” Samson says to one of his followers. “They are our neighbors, and if men come to know each other, there is no more enmity between them.”

In Jabotinsky’s future, Arab and Jew would not be neighbors so much as carefully differentiated groupings within the body politic of the new state. We are a far cry from The Five‘s “good-natured fraternization of nationalities,” the “Babylonian diversity of our common forum” in which the narrator took such naïve but wholesome delight. Arabs might be citizens, they might even participate in government (once they had submitted, there could even be an Arab vice president), but only the Jews would fully belong to the nation. Behind the apparently liberal demand for Arab minority rights lies a plea for the separation of peoples. Jabotinsky has transposed to Palestine the exact arrangement whose utter nonviability for the Jews he knew only too well: “every possible right that the Jews…had never achieved in other countries.” “The Helsingfors utopia has, of course, never been attained either in Russia or anywhere else,” he wrote in his 1930 essay “Binational Palestine.” “I trust that the first country where they will, some day, be fully applied will be our own Palestine–that is, when we Jews shall have become its masters.”

If there is an affinity between Arab and Jew, such a form of recognition shows its darker side. The line from Odessa to Tel Aviv, from failed assimilation to national identity, can be run more ways than one. For if there can only be one sovereign people, why would the Arabs, any more than the Jews in Russia, want to stay? Slowly, as Jewish emigration to Palestine from Europe increased throughout the 1930s, Jabotinsky’s vision turned toward the transfer of peoples. Not forcibly–he was outspoken against forcible transfer–but nonetheless as the consequence, ironically, of his own belief in Arab nationhood. As Shavit points out, there was an inherent contradiction in the official Revisionist position, which rejected the idea of a pan-Arab nation while maintaining that the Palestinian Arabs could be effortlessly absorbed into the larger Arab world (a contradiction all the more intense in that they refused to recognize the Hashemite regime in Transjordan, and hence the Transjordanian nation that was meant to receive them). Somewhat at odds with his own movement, Jabotinsky had no such problem with the larger pan-Arab vision–and, if there was a greater Arab nation, why should they not leave? According to Edward Norman, recording a conversation about a possible transfer of Palestinian Arabs to Iraq, Jabotinsky made the truly “original suggestion” that

it would be wise to have the Zionist Organization openly oppose Arab emigration from Palestine, and then the Arabs would be sure the scheme was not Jewish and that the Jews wanted them to stay in Palestine only to exploit them, and they would want very much to go away to Iraq.

This is a deadly repetition of Freud’s famous joke of two Jews at the railway station: “If you say you’re going to Krakow, you want me to believe you’re going to Lemberg. But I know in fact you’re going to Krakow! So why are you lying to me?” (The standard edition of Freud’s works indexes this joke as “Truth a lie.”)

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.”

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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