Even more than preserving Theodor Herzl’s call for Jewish statehood and
pioneering illegal immigration and rescue efforts, perhaps Revisionist Zionism’s
greatest contribution to Israel’s founding was the thing for which it was most
reviled – the revival of Jewish militarism.
Practical and socialist
Zionists preached that the “new Jew” would be a farmer working the land; Ze’ev
Jabotinsky preached that the new Jew would be a soldier.
More than anyone
else, Jabotinsky made sure that this new Jew would rise.
pogrom of 1903 had a profound affect on Jabotinsky, who visited the city on a
charity mission in the pogrom’s aftermath. Amid the devastation, he found a
piece of Torah parchment on the ground that read, “in a foreign land.” Like the
Dreyfus Affair for Herzl, Kishinev completed Jabotinsky’s conversion to the
Even before Kishinev, Jabotinsky urged the organization of
Jewish self-defense committees and became active in the Odessa Committee. Soon
he would establish himself as one of the foremost advocates for Zionism and
Jewish rights in Russia.
His talents widely recognized, in 1909 he was
appointed to lead the Zionist movement’s press network in Constantinople, where,
like Herzl, he learned that Turkey would never accept a Jewish state in
Early in the war, in March 1915, Jabotinsky and Yosef
Trumpeldor brought a petition to the British military commander in Egypt,
requesting that Britain form “a Jewish Legion” to fight in Palestine. They were
offered a mule transport unit to be sent to another Turkish front – the “Zion
Not content with that, Jabotinsky traveled to London and
waged a years-long campaign that resulted in the establishment of a “Jewish
Regiment,” later known as the “Jewish Legion,” announced in August
Throughout the campaign, Jabotinsky was vilified by his fellow
Jews. He was accused of subjecting Palestinian Jews to possible Turkish
retaliation (though this was already occurring), of breaking the Zionist
movement’s official neutrality, and of siding with anti-Semitic Russia. Back in
Odessa, Menachem Ussishkin told Jabotinsky’s mother, “Your son should be
But when half a battalion of the Jewish Regiment marched though
London before shipping out to Palestine in February 1918, even Jabotinsky’s most
ardent opponents looked on with pride.
Through the legion, thousands of
young Jews – ultimately 5,000 of the approximately 10,000 who registered – were
trained, armed and took part in the conquest of Palestine. While the legion was
overshadowed by the Balfour Declaration, issued in November 1917, its political
benefits should not be underestimated.
Like Chaim Weizmann, Jabotinsky
knew that to have a place at the peace table, the Zionist movement would have to
support the winning side. Jabotinsky also knew that those who would fight would
have a greater stake in the post-war settlement.
Historian Howard Sachar
writes that the legion’s “role in the conquest of Palestine eventually signified
as much as the ordeal of the early Zionist pioneers, and hardly less than the
Balfour Declaration itself, in reinforcing the Jews’ claims to their national
And undoubtedly, the memorandums, letters, negotiations,
conversations, meetings and arguments that went into the legion pulled British
officials deeper into Zionism’s orbit.
AFTER THE war, Jabotinsky
envisioned the legion as being permanently stationed in Palestine. Before, a
Jewish army was needed for conquest. Now it was needed for defense.
Jabotinsky would later write in The Iron Wall, violent Arab opposition to
Zionism necessitated it: “The Zionists want only one thing, Jewish immigration;
and this Jewish immigration is what the Arabs do not want.”
wrote, “means that [Zionist colonization] can proceed and develop only under the
protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an
iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.
“In this matter
there is no difference between our ‘militarists’ and our ‘vegetarians.’ Except
that the first prefer that the iron wall should consist of Jewish soldiers, and
the others are content that they should be British.”
Jabotinsky’s pleadings, the anti-Zionist British military administration in
Palestine demobilized the legion in 1919.
Still, a revolutionary
precedent had been set. Jews could be more than beggars, students, merchants,
bankers or even “watchmen,” they could be soldiers – uniformed, organized, proud
and capable of wielding the military power upon which modern states are
That precedent enabled Jabotinsky and his allies like Pinchas
Ruttenberg to convince leading Zionist personalities, including the Zionist
Commission, that a defense force was necessary to counter the Arab
Jabotinsky was asked to organize and command the force, the
Hagana, to which he quickly recruited several hundreds, including former
legionnaires who led the military training.
Preferring a legal force to a
clandestine one, Jabotinsky asked Jerusalem’s governor, Col. Ronald Storrs, to
deputize the Hagana’s members. The military administration was also asked to
provide the Hagana with weapons. Both requests were refused.
anticipated “Nabi Musa” pogrom struck on Passover 1920, New Jerusalem, patrolled
by the Hagana, was spared of casualties. The Jewish forces, however, were denied
entry to the Old City, even as the violence continued. Adding insult to injury,
Jabotinsky and 19 other Hagana members were arrested for inciting violence and
possessing illegal weapons.
The arrest and imprisonment were met with
Jabotinsky’s legend grew as the “Defender of Jerusalem” and the
“Prisoner of Acre.”
In a move that would characterize his tenure, the
newly appointed high commissioner, Herbert Samuel, amnestied Jabotinsky and his
comrades as well as those who had pillaged, raped and killed, including the
chief instigator, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the founder of Palestinian
Soon after his release, Jabotinsky was invited to join the
Zionist Executive. There he advocated for the reestablishment of the legion as
half of the British garrison in Palestine. When the British refused, he
advocated the legalization of the Hagana, even if it meant being under British
command. Though nothing came of them, Jabotinsky earned executive support for
In advocating a more activist policy towards British
evenhandedness, however, he met opposition and enmity. He was forced to resign
from the executive in January 1923.
FREE AGAIN to follow his own path, in
1925 he convened the League of Revisionist Zionists, which called for the
activist policy Jabotinsky desired. Earlier, in 1923, he founded the youth
movement Betar, an acronym for Brit Yosef Trumpeldor and the name of the
fort-city of Bar Kochba’s last stand.
Through Betar, whose ranks have
been estimated as swelling to as many as 100,000 members, Jabotinsky raised a
generation committed “to die or conquer the mount,” as the climax of Betar’s
anthem went. A Betari was required to be “a soldier and student of military
warfare,” obliged “to prepare [his] hand for the defense of [his] people.”
Betarim were told by the Rosh Betar to “learn to shoot” (their “new alef-bet”)
and were given military training.
Upon immigrating to Palestine, Betarim
effectively graduated to the unofficial military wing of the Revisionist Zionist
movement, the Irgun - the Hagana breakaway of which Jabotinsky was the “Supreme
Jabotinsky’s death in 1940 (during his campaign for a Jewish
army), the war and the Holocaust would leave the Revisionist Zionist movement,
as well as the entire Jewish people, in disarray. But the new generation of
Jewish soldiers he created would “rise from the pit of dust and decay” to remove
the British from Palestine, and clear the way for Israel’s
Part III in a series on the history of the Revisionist
Zionist movement.The writer is an attorney and a Likud Central Committee