Streetwise: My father, Abba

Yossi Ahimeir speaks about his father, the staunch Revisionist Abba Ahimeir.

By
April 16, 2010 16:17
One of the ten streets nationwide named after Abba

abba ahimeir street 311. (photo credit: David Deutsch)

 
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Filial devotion doesn’t get much stronger than this. Yossi Ahimeir, journalist, writer, former director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office and now director of the Jabotinsky Institute, has created a museum in his father’s memory – in part of his home in Ramat Gan.

It’s on the next street along from Rehov Abba Ahimeir, one of 10 streets across the country named in honor of the famous Revisionist leader and disciple of Ze’ev Jabotinsky who played a role in ejecting the British from this country and was the first to call the Mandate a “foreign occupation.” From the pleasant two-story family house, they can look across a park to the street which bears their father’s name. It’s a long winding road in a leafy suburb, a short drive from the National Sports Stadium.

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There’s plenty of information about his father on the Internet, but it seemed that if one could actually talk to his son about the man the results might be more interesting. And chatting with Yossi did indeed bring recent history to life, as he told me about his father’s activities, his work for the party and what it was like growing up as the youngest child of the Herut leader at a time when not to be a socialist and member of the ruling party was almost a mark of Cain.

The house he shares with his wife, Naomi, was the family home where he grew up with his older brother Ya’acov (television journalist and that rare thing – a polite, noninterrupting interviewer). Two rooms on the ground floor have been set aside for the archives of Abba Ahimeir, and Yossi tells me his story.

“My father was born in 1897 in Bobruisk, in what is today Belarus, to a non-Zionist family, but he became a passionate Zionist in spite of his family. At the age of 10 he was reading Hebrew literature and came under the influence of two giants of the movement – the poet David Shimoni, with whom he had private Hebrew lessons, and Berl Katznelson, the labor leader. They were landsmen [from the same town] and friends.”

Ahimeir came to Eretz Yisrael alone at 14 to study at Gymnasia Herzliya, but on a visit back to his parents in 1914 he was stuck and unable to return as war had broken out. His brother Meir was killed in the fighting, and Abba changed his name from Gaisinovich to Ahimeir in his memory.

After studies in Russia where he did agricultural training to be a pioneer, and Belgium, where he gained his doctorate, he returned to Eretz Yisrael in 1924 and worked as a teacher and journalist. Still ideologically on the Left, he split with his old friends from Hapoel Hatza’ir party when they decided to unite all the factions in the country.

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“My father was against it,” says Yossi, “and he joined the Jabotinsky movement. It was a big disappointment to Katznelson, as my father was one of the stars of the labor movement.

“He realized that a people can only be liberated by its leaders being ready to risk their lives and go to jail if necessary,” he tells me. In this he parted company with Jabotinsky, who clung to British promises of Jewish sovereignty, but strongly influenced Menachem Begin, who agreed with his views.

In 1928, Ahimeir wrote a series of articles “From the Notebook of a Fascist,” a fact which was seized on by controversial author Christopher Hitchens to “prove” that this was the ideology guiding Benzion Netanyahu, a disciple of Ahimeir, and consequently his son, Binyamin. Hitchens claims that the Revisionists called Jabotinsky “Il Duce” and paraded in brown shirts.

When I asked Yossi about the shirts he went ballistic.

“Members of Betar which Jabotinsky founded and of which my father was a member, wore brown, which was the color of the movement; it symbolized the land, our homeland and the only goal was to achieve sovereignty and normality for our people. They never paraded and never imitated the Fascists.

“Hitchens is a known anti-Israel writer who takes my father’s writing completely out of context. Fascism in 1928 can’t be viewed in the context of the 1930s. Of course he would not be a fascist in view of how it developed.”

In 1930 Abba Ahimeir founded an underground movement called Brit Habiryonim named for the defenders of Jerusalem (bira, capital) during the Second Temple period. This did not stop his opponents translating it as “thugs’ covenant.”

The group organized protests against the British, and Ahimeir was arrested several times. They took down swastikas flying over German public buildings in Jerusalem and organized a boycott of German goods. When labor leader Haim Arlosoroff was murdered in 1933, Ahimeir was charged with incitement to murder, of which he was eventually cleared. But he was imprisoned by the British for nearly two years for belonging to an illegal organization. Brit Habiryonim disbanded, but its influence was felt in the creation of IZL and Lehi a few years later.


After the establishment of the state, Ahimeir became a writer, and contributed many scholarly articles to the Jewish Encyclopedia.

“[David] Ben-Gurion didn’t let Israel Radio interview my father, so we have no record of his voice,” says Yossi with regret.

“He was a warm loving father and we grew up in a happy environment in spite of all the problems,” recalls Yossi. He shows me some of the family photos lining the walls – including the granddaughter, Ada Zavidov, daughter of his older sister Ze’eva (named for Jabotinsky) who became the rabbi of Israel’s first Reform congregation.

“The Revisionists have always been misunderstood,” he says. “People thought if Herut came to power there would be bloodshed. I was news editor at Ma’ariv in 1977 when Begin came to power, and all my colleagues said that now there would be war. I met Begin that evening at Beit Jabotinsky. He said, ‘We did it, Yossi. What a pity your father didn’t live to see this.’”

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