A Giant of Jewish History

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Some of his opponents cited Jabotinsky’s exaltation of the idea of a Jewish state as evidence of a fascist mentality.  But it is clear that Jabotinsky was committed “above all” to the creation of such a state because he viewed it as a matter of life and death for millions of people.  Without a state, he correctly predicted, millions of Jews in Europe would be killed.  This naturally made issues of individual liberty and equality secondary to the issue of national survival.  His concept of a proper state, however, was a thorough repudiation of all totalitarian practices.  He praised what he saw as the ancient Jewish tradition that “detests the very idea of state power, and only tolerates it in so far as it is indispensable and inevitable.”  Jabotinsky declared:

In every-man’s life and activity—in his individual ‘kingdom’—as much as possible should be left outside of the state’s interference; the best rule would be that as long as one ‘king’ does not encroach upon his neighbour’s ‘sovereignty’, he should be left alone; if that is really impossible, for there unfortunately are dangers without and needs within which compel a collective effort, let it be strictly limited to the really inevitable minimum.[4]

He asserted that the best Jewish tradition produced “a mentality to which a ‘totalitarian’ state would be anathema.”  His common sense was charming:  “Of course, since we haven’t got it, [a Jewish state] is our ideal to which we are prepared to sacrifice everything else.  But it does not mean that we want that future state to be a cage, a nuisance and a nightmare of do’s and don’ts.  We want it to be as unencumbered by do’s and don’ts as possible; but of course, above all, and first of all, we want it to be.”[5] It undoubtedly infuriated his Marxist opponents that he identified communism as well as fascism as totalitarian poison.

  1. The Arabs vs. the Jews in Palestine

Nowhere did Jabotinsky display his contrarianism more stunningly than in his discussion of Arab opposition to the Jewish state.

To understand his views we must first appreciate the context.  WWI destroyed the Ottoman Empire, ending hundreds of years of the Turks’ rule over their so-called Asiatic provinces, which included Syria and Lebanon, Palestine, Mesopotamia and Arabia.  The allies, as victors, had the right under international law to annex the land they conquered.  They didn’t do so, however.  Instead they recognized Arab sovereignty right away in Arabia.  And they agreed to hold Mesopotamia and Syria and Lebanon in trust, under formal legal instruments called mandates, for the benefit of the inhabitants.  After building the capacity for self-government, the Arab nation from the Tarsus mountains to the Indian Ocean would achieve independence within several sovereign states.  Given their rights as conquerors, acquired at the cost of much blood and treasure, the victorious allies considered these arrangements to be generous to the Arabs, especially as the vast majority of the Arabs fought in the Great War on the Ottomans’ side – the enemy side, the losing side.

Palestine also would come under a mandate, but the named beneficiary was not the Arabs; it was the Jewish people.  Many new states were born on the ruins of empires after World War I and the allies decided that Palestine should be held open for the return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland.  Britain’s foreign secretary described Palestine as a small notch of land in the vastness of the Middle East.  If the Jews resettled in Palestine in large enough numbers to become a majority, the idea was that they would eventually be permitted to establish a Jewish state there.  This could help solve the world’s long-running humanitarian disaster known as the Jewish Problem – and it would fulfill the promise of the Balfour Declaration, which the British government issued during the war to win international Jewish support for the allied war effort.  Zionist leaders – Jabotinsky, Weizmann and others – had contributed valuably to that effort and key British officials at the time felt a strong sense of obligation to the Zionists.  After allied officials drafted the Palestine mandate, the League of Nations endorsed it.  It became the legal framework for Palestine.

Supporters of the Palestine mandate did not believe they were wronging the Arabs of Palestine, though they understood that those Arabs opposed the plan for a Jewish state.  The mandate made an important distinction between the Arabs’ rights as individuals and their collective rights as a nation.  Arab nationalist leaders at the time insisted that there was but one Arab nation.  So supporters of the Palestine mandate argued that the postwar settlement would vindicate collective Arab rights amply in Syria, Mesopotamia, Arabia and elsewhere.  As for individual rights, the Palestine mandate aimed to ensure that the Arabs of Palestine, even when a minority, would have their personal civil and property rights respected.  The Arabs would of course prefer to remain the majority in Palestine, but if the Arabs were to be the majority everywhere they lived, then the Jews could be the majority nowhere in the world.

Anyhow, soon after the Palestine mandate was drafted and Britain accepted the role of mandatory power, British officials divided Palestine east of the Jordan River from Palestine west of the Jordan River and excluded the eastern part – called Transjordan – from the Jewish national home.  Britain created an Arab administration for Transjordan, which remained under the Palestine mandate until 1946.  So the Arabs retained their majority status – and eventually won national independence – even in three quarters of Mandate Palestine, which was originally expected to be part of the Jewish national home.

Arab opposition to Zionism remained strong in western Palestine, which in time came commonly to be referred to simply as Palestine.  In the 1930s, Arab violence against the Jews there moved the British government to create a royal commission to propose a new policy.  Jabotinsky was one of the people who gave testimony.

It was known that the commissioners were considering a proposal to partition western Palestine between the Arabs and the Jews.  They were also considering British proposals to expel the Arabs from the portion to be allocated to the Jews.  Jabotinsky reminded the commission that Jews were already banned from settling in Transjordan and he argued against any further partitioning of Palestine.  It is ironic that Jabotinsky was considered a hardliner and his opponents in the Zionist movement were considered moderates.  (Jabotinsky joked about being called a “militarist” by the “vegetarians.”)  Yet leading “moderates” in the Zionist leadership were open to the idea of a forced population transfer, while Jabotinsky rejected it categorically as a violation of the principle of individual rights.

Jabotinsky insisted on respect for Jewish rights and opposed various proposals to compromise them.  What is fascinating is that he justified his position not by denying the claims of Palestine’s Arabs but by acknowledging those claims, paying respect to the Arabs’ tenacious attachment to them and warning proponents of compromise against believing that the Arabs can be bought off cheaply.  Jabotinsky was not against compromise in principle, but he opposed compromises that would damage the Jews’ position without satisfying the Arabs and ending the conflict.

In his testimony, he said he has “the profoundest feeling for the Arab case, in so far as that Arab case is not exaggerated.”  He stated that there was no “individual hardship to the Arabs of Palestine as men” deriving from Jewish settlement; indeed the economic opportunities created by the Jews had induced many Arabs in surrounding countries to immigrate to Palestine.  He stressed that, in his view, “there is no question of ousting the Arabs.”  He said that Palestine was big enough for the Arabs and “many millions of Jews.”

What I do not deny [Jabotinsky declared] is that in that process the Arabs of Palestine will necessarily become a minority in the country of Palestine.  What I do deny is that that is a hardship.  It is not a hardship on any race, any nation, possessing so many National States now and so many more National States in the future.  One fraction, one branch of that race, and not a big one, will have to live in someone else’s State:  well, that is the case with all the mightiest nations of the world.

He made his point with a stunning analogy:

So when we hear the Arab claim confronted with the Jewish claim; I fully understand that any minority would prefer to be a majority, it is quite understandable that the Arabs of Palestine would also prefer Palestine to be the Arab State No. 4, No. 5, or No. 6—that I quite understand; but when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation.[6]

Jabotinsky had a concept of the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine that was fundamentally at odds with that of the would-be peacemakers throughout the twentieth century down to the present day.  His concept was that the Arabs were serious about their claims and their interests, opposed Zionism in principle for nationalistic and religious reasons and were as dedicated to upholding their principles as the Jews were in defending the idea and then the fact of a Jewish state.

From the earliest days of the Palestine mandate forward, peacemaking efforts were premised on the idea that the conflict was not fundamental, was not about principles.  British officials thought they could persuade Arab enemies of Zionism to make peace by limiting Jewish immigration, restricting Jewish land purchases or creating Arab political bodies.  Jabotinsky told the British that they were missing the Arabs’ point.

In recent decades, it has been U.S. not British officials who have taken the lead in trying to engineer Arab-Israeli peace and they have done so in similar fashion by focusing on practical questions – the so-called “final status” issues – rather than recognize the profound nature of Palestinian Arab opposition to Israel.  Hence for forty years or so, U.S. officials have repeatedly banged their heads against a wall.  Time and again, they push the parties to discuss boundary lines, water rights, Jewish settlements, security arrangements, Jerusalem, etc., etc.  The discussions go round and round and never achieve peace.  This would not surprise Jabotinsky.

Jabotinsky said there will be peace only if the Arabs become persuaded that Israel is truly indestructible and the Arabs realize that they cannot get their first choice, which is Arab control of all of Palestine.  Only then might it be possible that Palestine’s Arabs will compromise with the Jews and conclude peace.

The current campaign to delegitimate the Jewish state – to depict Israel as a nation born in aggression against the Arabs, lawless and immoral, deserving of contempt, denunciation and isolation – shows that Israel’s enemies retain the view that Israel is vulnerable.  They hope Israel will go the way of the Soviet Union or the regime of apartheid South Africa.

U.S. officials should heed the lessons of history.  After so many years of fruitless diplomacy, they should recognize that Jabotinsky had a point when he argued against condescending to the Arabs and failing to take their words, principles and interests seriously.

Peace may some day come to Palestine.  But it will not result from the current diplomacy conducted by officials who learn nothing and forget nothing.  It may come if the Palestinian people finally get good leadership, forward-looking men and women who are persuaded that Israel is here to stay and who believe that Palestinian nationalism should be more than persistent, debilitating, hateful opposition to Zionism.  But Israel’s enemies include not just Palestinians and not just Arabs.  The Iranian regime is an important element in the conflict.

I’m afraid I have to end on a rather sober note.  But that’s not really inappropriate in a talk about Jabotinsky.  Peace is a great blessing and it is worth pursuing.  But U.S. officials should become realistic about the nature of the conflict and the prospects for diplomatic progress.  And Israelis cannot expect soon to be relieved of the necessity to maintain the military defenses that Jabotinsky pioneered.


*   Douglas J. Feith, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, served as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy during 2001-05 and is the author of War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism (Harper 2008).

[1] Vladimir Jabotinsky, The Story of the Jewish Legion (New York:  Bernard Ackerman, Incorporated, 1945), p. 104.

[2] Benzion Netanyahu, “Jabotinsky’s Place in the History of the Jewish People,” reprint of address delivered at the University of Haifa on January 13, 1981 marking the 100th anniversary of Jabotinsky’s birth.  Faculty of Humanities, University of Haifa.

[3] From the Pen of Jabotinsky (Capetown:  Unie-Volkspers BPK, 1941), pp. 60-61.

[4] Ibid., p. 64.

[5] Ibid., p. 65.

[6] V. Jabotinsky, Evidence Submitted to the Palestine Royal Commission, House of Lords, London, February 11th, 1937 (London:  New Zionist Press, 1937).

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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.