Jabotinsky’s race against history

A new book tells the story of the Revisionist leader’s efforts to save Jews and form a Jewish army in 1940.

Zeev Jabotinsky (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)
Zeev Jabotinsky
RIGHT AFTER the start of the Second World War, Zionist Revisionist leader Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky spoke with his friend Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson about the former’s idea to form a “fully mechanized Jewish Army” to fight as part of the allied forces against Nazi Germany. John Henry Patterson had been commander of the Jewish Legion during the First World War, which helped to liberate Palestine from Ottoman Turkish rule.
Patterson enthusiastically agreed to work with Jabotinsky for such a military force to fight against Nazi Germany. Jabotinsky had served under Patterson in the Jewish Legion during the First World War. If Jabotinsky was confident that he could create a Jewish Army, it was because of his principal role in creating, inter alia, the Jewish Legion, the Haganah, the multi-nation Zionist youth movement Betar, and the New Zionist Organization. So with British, and ultimately, United States support, he could probably have created a Jewish army of 100,000 soldiers, or at least 50,000 troops to fight against Nazi Germany. This is a major theme in “Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler” by Rick Richman.
John Henry Patterson, an Irish Protestant who served as a career officer in the British Army, said that Chamberlain’s reason for rejecting Jabotinsky’s proposal was the lack of need for Jewish assistance. Churchill’s reason for rejecting the support of Jabotinsky’s Jewish fighting force, according to Patterson, was a lack of military equipment.
If Britain would not help to create a Jewish army, perhaps the United States would.
What did Weizmann, Jabotinsky, and Ben-Gurion encounter in 1940 America? As a background to the narratives of Weizmann’s, Jabotinsky’s and Ben-Gurion’s 1940 campaigns in America, Richman discusses the historical division in America between Jews, who basically considered themselves Americans of the Jewish religion, versus those with a primary Jewish consciousness. The book narrates the rise of historical anti-Zionism, assimilationism, and the discarding of many religious practices in Reform Judaism. Rabbi Stephen Wise emerges as a pro-Zionist, Jewishly conscious, and politically effective rebel within the Reform Movement, who also became one of the main Jewish leaders in America. Unfortunately, eventually Rabbi Wise also became effective against Jabotinsky.
Richman left out the extensive Jewish labor movement. Richman illustrates both the extent and viciousness of antisemitism in 1930s and early 1940s America. He shows just how frightening it was.
Although Jabotinsky emerges as the biggest hero in “Racing Against History,” part of the merit of Richman’s book is that he does not deal exclusively with Jabotinsky’s leadership, but gives Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion their great historical due.
Chaim Weizmann proposed a military unit from pre-state Israel to fight as part of the British military, and he enthusiastically offered then British prime minister Neville Chamberlain all Jewish assistance at the beginning of the Second World War. He was turned down by Chamberlain and the next prime minister, Winston Churchill.
David Ben-Gurion proposed a 60,000 Jewish strike force from pre-state Israel to lead Allied forces in the North African war effort.
Journalist Gerold Frank said that this information was censored in British Mandate Palestine. But the ideas of Weizmann, Jabotinsky, and Ben-Gurion could not be censored in the United States, nor in Britain itself. Richman writes: “On May 12, 1940, Weizmann published a proclamation in The Times of London announcing the readiness of the Jewish people to assist Britain, urging that the Jews be allowed to fight as a nation. He proposed a 50,000-person volunteer force in Palestine, to be backed by Jewish chemists, engineers, doctors, and other scientists, as well as conversion of Jewish Businesses in Palestine to a war industry.” During David Ben-Gurion’s activities in America, he demonstrated his belief in the obligation to support British resistance to Nazi Germany, by, among other things, his statement that “The desired British Victory will be won by fighting, and if we want to make this victory our own, we must do our part in the fighting.”
Richman gives a brief résumé of Weizmann’s earlier accomplishments for Zionism, including, securing the Balfour Declaration, and his 1919 meeting with Emir Feisal where an agreement for unity of the two Middle Eastern national movements (Jewish and Arab) was achieved, “later repudiated by Feisal’s followers.”
Present at that meeting was T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), who believed that Palestine could absorb 5,000,000 Jews. Elsewhere in his book Richman relates how Weizmann was one of the few original Zionists leaders to support Jabotinsky’s idea of a Jewish Legion during the First World War. He tells the story of how Weizmann desperately contacted almost all of the influential people he knew in an effort to stop the White Paper of 1939. Only Churchill responded favorably. He gave an eloquent speech in the House of Commons against the White Paper, but the House of Commons voted in favor of the White Paper. U.S. Senator Harry S. Truman saw the White Paper as part of Britain’s policy of appeasing Nazi Germany.
In America, Weizmann, as recorded in his autobiography Trial and Error, found an isolationist and anti-war mood. He surrendered to that and did not want to challenge this mood. Also, Ben-Gurion did not have much success in America during the crucial year of 1940. By contrast, Jabotinsky vigorously campaigned for a Jewish army while in America. Jabotinsky firmly and correctly believed that the United States would enter the Second World War. Many Christians and Jews wanted to volunteer for his proposed Jewish army.
Richman has also written an interesting and informative article, published online, about Jabotinsky’s efforts to create a Jewish army. “Jabotinsky’s Lost Moment: June 1940” clearly demonstrates that Jabotinsky had a lot of support in the Jewish American community for this noble undertaking. The article illustrates how Rabbi Stephen Wise and Louis Lipsky sabotaged Jabotinsky’s vital efforts. This Internet article should be read, but it is no substitute for reading Richman’s book.
The highlight of Jabotinsky’s last stay in America was the June 19, 1940 speech at Manhattan Center. Over 5000 people attended.
The New York Times reported on his pending speech. As with speeches he gave in Poland, pre-state Israel, South Africa and elsewhere, he held the audience spellbound.
Manhattan Center had been booked for him by Benzion Netanyahu, one of his most active and faithful American followers.
Jabotinsky’s stays in America culminated with his death on August 4, 1940 in upstate New York’s Camp Betar, a camp for the American branch of this youth movement.
The previous day he reviewed the “military”-like formation of these idealistic youths. One of the accusations against Jabotinsky was his “militarism.” But Jewish physical preparedness and weapons knowhow would be one of the few ways to defend the lives of Eastern European Jews against what Otto D. Tolischus, The New York Times correspondent, reported in the February 7, 1937 Sunday Edition, was an unprecedented growth of antisemitism in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, and Latvia. This was, as Richman demonstrated, displayed very prominently in The Times.
Concomitant with this growth of antisemitism were, as reported by The Times, the policies of the governments of these countries to impoverish their Jewish populations.
An avenue of life for these people would be mass Aliyah to pre-state Israel. Jabotinsky was vilified for advocating emergency and massive Aliyah from Eastern Europe. Pierre Van Paassen’s evacuation idea was more radical – he wanted all European Jews to go to Palestine in the shortest possible time, because he foresaw the Holocaust. People in Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionist Movement were among the pioneers of Aliyah Bet. Two of the major Revisionists involved in “illegal” maritime defiance of the British blockade were Avraham Stavsky and William Perl. Agudath Yisrael and Hashomer Hatzair were also involved in the rescue efforts around the beginning of World War II, and, at times, collaborated with the Revisionists in these rescue efforts. The Revisionists called these rescue efforts “Despite It All” or in Hebrew Af-Al-Pi.
There were so many things the Revisionists were engaged in doing during this period of racing against death, including the “illegal” Aliyah, the struggle for independence in Eretz Yisrael, and the struggle for a Jewish army. Where did Jabotinsky think the men for the Jewish army would come from. First of all, there was the Land of Israel where up to 200,000 people where possible soldiers. There were still stateless Jewish refugees. There was the United States.
There were Jews living in neutral countries.
Finally, Jews in Nazi occupied countries could be organized by soldiers parachuting in the way Britain did with about 50 Jews from pre-state Israel. Hannah Senesh was the most famous of them.
“Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler” by Rick Richman is incredibly well researched and thoroughly documented from published and unpublished sources, including letters.
It is a great aid for people wanting to do additional research, including Internet research.
Yet, it is eminently readable. I found it hard to put down. This book fills gaps that exist in many standard Middle Eastern and Second World War histories. It adds new dimensions to historical scholarship about pre-state Israel, the United States, and Great Britain before and during World War II. It is written with the excitement of a journalistic human interest story, and the insight of a historian. The book clearly shows Vladimir Jabotinsky as a Churchillian leader. As Richman says, at the beginning of the book, its lessons must resonate with us today. This is a seminal book. Richman’s book tells the story of tragedy, depravity, and evil; but also of what good can be accomplished by good people with keen insight who are highly motivated.
As noted by Richman about a press conference announcing Jabotinsky’s pending June 19, 1940 speech at Manhattan Center, John Henry Patterson said that if he was a Jewish youth he would join the proposed Jewish army, and he recalled the men of the Jewish Legion under his command during the First World War: “I saw Jewish youth fighting in the Zion Mule Corps in Gallipoli, and in the Jewish battalions in Palestine. They came from every corner of God’s earth, from America, Canada, Britain, Russia, Eastern Europe, and Palestine, all animated by the great ideal of their national redemption. I saw them facing death courageously for they believed that their sacrifices would not be in vain. I have no words to praise their bravery and valor.”
Patterson hoped that once again Jewish youth would, with the help of God, gather from around the world – this time to defeat Nazi Germany, save the Jews of Europe, and finally secure the Hebrew state.
Among the periodicals that have published articles and reviews by Raymond S. Solomon are The Jewish Press, The Jewish Spectator, Journal of Psychology and Judaism, and The New York Page. Solomon has been active in the struggle for Soviet Jewry.