A Giant of Jewish History

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[The following is a lecture delivered by Douglas J. Feith at the Park East Synagogue in New York City on August 18, 2010.]

There are few men or women who are remembered, let alone honored, 70 years after they’ve died.  But we do remember Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky – and for good reason. Or, I should say, for good reasons. I’ll name three:

First, he played an instrumental role in the success of a great cause — the reconstitution of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.

Second, in addition to his remarkable accomplishments, he was a man of remarkable character and ideas.

And third, Jabotinsky’s thoughts on the Arab-Jewish conflict over Palestine are not merely of historical interest; they contain insights applicable today.

I appreciate the work that Herb Zweibon, Rael Isaac, Ruth King and others in Americans for a Safe Israel have done to keep alive Jabotinsky’s memory and mentality.  They and I were good friends of Shmuel Katz, a formidable historical figure in his own right.  Shmuel was a colleague of Jabotinsky, a leader of the Irgun, a Herut member of Israel’s first parliament, and eventually Jabotinsky’s biographer.  Shmuel died two years ago and he is sorely missed.

  1. Accomplishments

Shmuel Katz’s superb two-volume examination of Jabotinsky’s life, entitled Lone Wolf, catalogues the long and multifarious list of Jabotinsky’s contributions to Jewish history.  Reviewing that list brings to mind the Passover song “Dayenu” [“enough for us”].

Jabotinsky would occupy a place of honor in history if he’d done nothing other than pen his writings and deliver his celebrated multilingual orations on Jewish nationalism.  He described the misery and vulnerability of the Jews in exile, especially in Europe.  He made the case for what he called humanitarian Zionism, setting out the moral, legal, historical and practical arguments in favor of a Jewish state in Palestine.  In the 1930s, he foresaw and warned over and over again of the catastrophe to which Europe’s Jews were heading if they didn’t move themselves by the millions to the Land of Israel.  Before the Nazis invaded Poland, he famously (and, alas, vainly) told the Jews of Warsaw that they should liquidate the diaspora or the diaspora would surely liquidate them.

Jabotinsky would deserve grateful remembrance from the Jews even just for his role in promoting Hebrew.  In the early years of the 20th century, as Zionists contended over whether Hebrew or Yiddish should be the language of the eventual Jewish state, Jabotinsky helped ensure that Zionism would bring about the miraculous revivification of the Hebrew tongue.  Though he loved Yiddish, he recognized it as “sectional.”  He warned repeatedly that the Yiddishists risked excluding from the Zionist cause the Sephardim and the Jews of the Caucasus, Turkistan, Persia and elsewhere.

He made the work of the great Zionist poet Bialik available to the mass of Russian Jewry by translating the poems from Hebrew into Russian.  Jabotinsky also translated into Hebrew the poetry of Dante and Edgar Allen Poe.  And he promoted new forms of Hebrew instruction and Jewish education.  He can fairly be described as a father of what we in America call the Jewish day-school movement.

Jabotinsky would have a secure place in Jewish memory simply for his leadership of the Zionist Revisionists, the political movement based on his secular liberal philosophy of Jewish national rights.  His political influence was widespread in his day and remains potent even now.  Though Ben Gurion is admired by many Israelis, no political leaders in Israel anymore describe themselves as Ben Gurionites.  None describe themselves as Weizmannites.  But many proudly think of themselves as Jabotinskyites, followers of this rational, pragmatic, unapologetic, security-minded, non-socialist Jewish nationalist.  Dayenu!

But I haven’t yet mentioned his chief contribution to Jewish history. That was his role as exponent and organizer of Jewish self-defense.  He invented Jewish military organization in the modern world.

Jabotinsky understood that the physical vulnerability of a people or a nation has both physical and metaphysical effects.  To protect their lives and property and for the sake of their personal dignity and aspirations for national independence, Jabotinsky instructed the Jews, scattered and unarmed, on the indispensability of resistance, military power and self-defense, with special emphasis on the word “self.”

This was a paramount theme of his life.  In his early manhood, he organized a Jewish group to fight violent antisemites in his home city of Odessa.  During World War I, he was the prime mover for the creation of a Jewish Legion in the British army that would help conquer Palestine.  After that war, as the Arabs in the Jerusalem area prepared their first major anti-Jewish progrom, Jabotinsky put together a Jewish defense organization known as the Hagana, a forerunner of the underground militia of the same name.  Jabotinsky created Betar, the Zionist youth organization that trained its members in military discipline and skills.  Jabotinsky provided inspiration and leadership to the Irgun, one of the underground military organizations in Mandate Palestine.  And when he died in New York seventy years ago, he was laboring to the point of exhaustion to create a Jewish army to fight Hitler.

The effort to create the Jewish Legion during World War I deserves a few more words.  Jabotinsky had the strategic insight that Britain might take Palestine from the Ottomans, that the Zionist cause could be made or broken by British policy and that the Jews should take an active part – politically and militarily – in effecting Palestine’s liberation.  He often quarreled in later years with Chaim Weizmann, but Jabotinsky and Weizmann saw eye-to-eye that the then top officials of the World Zionist Organization were wrong to adopt a policy of neutrality in the war.  Though merely a journalist at the time, Jabotinsky led an effort over several years to persuade British officials to create a Jewish fighting force for use in a Palestine campaign.

The first fruit of that effort was the Zion Mule Corps, which fought for the British not in Palestine but in the bloody battle for Gallipoli.  Then, in the summer of 1917, just three months before the Balfour Declaration, the British government agreed to create a Jewish Legion for use in Palestine.  Thirty-seven years old, Jabotinsky joined as an enlisted man and was eventually promoted to lieutenant.

In his book, The Story of the Jewish Legion[1], Jabotinsky describes how the first Jewish battalion, soon to be deployed abroad, marched through London behind its British commander, Colonel John Henry Patterson.

There were tens of thousands of Jews in the streets, at the windows and on the roofs. Blue-white flags were over every shop door; women crying with joy, old Jews with fluttering beards murmuring, ‘shehecheyanu’; Patterson on his horse, laughing and bowing, and wearing a rose which a girl had thrown him from a balcony; and the boys, those “tailors,” shoulder to shoulder, their bayonets dead level, each step like a single clap of thunder, clean, proud, drunk with the national anthem, with the noise of the crowds, and with the sense of a holy mission, unexampled since the day Bar-Kochba, in Betar, not knowing whether there would ever be others to follow and to take up the struggle, threw himself upon his sword.

Jabotinsky concludes:

Long life to you, my “tailors” of Whitechapel and SoHo, Leeds and Manchester! You were good tailors: you found the torn rags of Jewish honor in the street and you sewed them together—to make a beautiful, whole and everlasting flag.

In 1981 an Israeli historian, lecturing on Jabotinsky’s place in Jewish history, said:

[W]e see that one supreme principle guided him throughout: resistance to subjugation. Along with this he advocated a multi-faceted force, including military force, to serve as the instrument of that resistance.

We can now appreciate the depth of the revolution which Jabotinsky, by his preaching of resistance, effected in our thinking, our moral values and the way we were to conceive our problem as a nation among the nations. He taught resistance to a people who, for many generations, had lost the capacity and the will to resist.[2]

Few people today can see the novelty that all this represented.  Is it not natural for any people to resist subjugation and forge the instruments of its defense?  It is; but for the great majority of the Jewish people this was a dubious proposition until the turn of the [20th] century. That it has ceased to be so since that time testifies to the revolution that Jabotinsky brought about in our thinking on these matters.


The Israeli historian who wrote that is Benzion Netanyahu, the father of the prime minister.

  1. Character and philosophy

As interesting as Jabotinsky was for his accomplishments I find it equally fascinating to consider his character and his thoughts.  He was an intellectual and a man of letters, but by no means an academic, much less a luftmensch.  He combined erudition and action.  He combined a profoundly humane liberalism with the blunt acknowledgement of the indispensability of military power.  He combined unapologetic defense of the interests of the Jewish people and generous appreciation of the interests, motives and cultures of other peoples, including those in conflict with the Jews. His political advocacy was plain-spoken and intense, but carefully reasoned and respectful in tone.  He was charming and bighearted.  And he delighted in humor.

One of his most salient traits – if it’s right to call it a trait of his – is the peculiar malignancy of the condemnations he elicited in his day and even now from his political opponents on the left.  Remarkably and admirably, he did not respond in kind.

Jabotinsky has often been smeared as a fascist.  Israeli socialists routinely threw the term at him.  The epithet proved plausible for various reasons – because he opposed Marxist policies and Bolshevik practices; because he argued that the Zionists would be unsuccessful in trying to buy off the Palestinian Arabs with marginal political concessions; and because he insisted on the importance of Jewish military power.  Also, because the Labor Party leadership controlled the major organs of the Jewish community in Palestine – they owned the megaphones, as it were – and they continued to do so for decades after the State of Israel came into being.

But Jabotinsky was decidedly no fascist.  Rather, he was part of that far-too-small community in inter-war intellectual circles that had no sympathy for the fascists or the communists.  Over and over again in his publications and speeches, he promoted emphatically liberal and democratic views.  He wrote movingly of the sovereignty of each individual.  One of his most famous pronouncements was that every man is a king and every woman a queen.  He traced the idea to the Bible, but stressed that it applied not only to Jews but to all human beings.  He wrote: [3]

When I look for the kernel of that new Jewish mentality of which the Betar movement is, so far, the most advanced expression, I find it in the idea of Man’s Royalty.  In so far as it applies to the Jew it is expressed in our Betar anthem:

I who wrote it meant it apply to any man, Grecian or Bantu, Nordic or Eskimo.  They were all formed in God’s image:  that is what we have learnt from the Bible’s first chapter.

Even in distress the Jew is a prince.
No matter if a slave or a tramp,
You were created son of kings,
Crowned with the diadem of David …

“[T]he first consequence of ‘every man a king’ is, obviously, universal equality,” Jabotinsky wrote, and “the second consequence [is] individual liberty.”

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  • PAthena

    A fine speech! However, Jabotinsky did not refer to the Arabs of the Palestine Mandate as "Palestinians" because "Palestinian" was always synonymous with "Jew" and "Palestine" with "land of the Jews" since the Roman Emperor Hadrian changed the name of Judea to Palestina in 135 A.D. after defeating the last of the Jewish rebellions led by Bar Kochba. That is why Jabotinskyy and the Zionists wanted the "Palestine Mandate" and why Great Britain was awarded the "Palestine Mandate" after World I to be the "homeland of the Jews."
    Calling Arabs, "Palestinian" is a consequence of Soviet propaganda, the Soviet Union and Nasser in Cairo in 1964 having invented the "Palestine Liberation Organization" with phony history, etc. As Jabotinsky said, there is no reason to have yet another Arab state, based in Judea and Samaria, the land of the Jews, with its propaganda name of "West Bank," in a so-called "two state" solution. The one and only goal of the Arabs is to destroy Israel, for religious reasons.

  • AL__

    A short footage of the great man : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MEAVVroxZ6Y

  • Elliott

    Forgive the nitpicking, but "Dayenu" is more accurately translated as "it would have been sufficient for us".
    "Shana Tova" (Happy New Year) to all.

  • rrebell

    Jabotinsky was the greatest Jewish leader of modern times, and the future will prove it even more than the past. Even if he was not religious, he respected adored Judaism.
    He was a Giant among midgets.

  • suzanne

    If only our leaders today were more like him!

  • http://nodhimmitude.blogspot.com DagW

    I wrote somewhat recently on Jabotinsky and Trotsky, on the influence both have on today's world. Google "Pick your Jew" to see interesting comparisons and contrasts that affect us today.

    Aside from that, Jabotinsky is a personal hero for me. Thanks for the essay.