A state of their own: A new exploration of the life of Ze’ev Jabotinsky

Heller is most adept at analyzing how Jabotinsky held on to the reins of his followers even when they took steps that made him personally uncomfortable.

Zeev Jabotinsky (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)
Zeev Jabotinsky
Daniel Kupfert Heller is drawn to the notion of Jewish strength, resilience and endurance. In the prologue of his impeccably researched and compelling new book, Jabotinsky’s Children: Polish Jews and the Rise of Right- Wing Zionism, he explains the genesis of his strong feelings.
Heller’s grandmother, Eva Kupfert, was born and raised in Warsaw and was 15 when the Germans invaded. She survived the Warsaw Ghetto, Majdanek and Auschwitz, and was the only one left of her family of 10. Heller keeps his grandmother’s picture on his writing desk; it serves as both inspiration and warning about the fragility of Jewish survival. Perhaps that is what drew him to explore the incredible life and passionate followers of Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist Zionist movement and its youth component Betar, in 1925.
Heller works tirelessly to uncover the voices of ordinary Betar members through their letters and diaries and autobiographies in an attempt to understand the distinctively Polish roots of rightwing Zionism and how it developed between the two world wars in Poland under Jabotinsky’s leadership. By the late 1930s in Poland, Betar had more than 50,000 members. Heller is not an ideologue; he is a distinguished scholar and assistant professor of Jewish studies at McGill University. He brings a nuanced sensibility to his examination of Jabotinsky, allowing his own research to guide his perceptions.
Jabotinsky was a complex man. Born in 1880 and raised in an assimilated family in Odessa, he interacted comfortably with gentiles. He spoke several languages, wrote poetry, and was a respected journalist. After witnessing the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, he underwent a transformation that forever changed him. He understood that Jews would never be accepted in the Diaspora and that their only chance lay in securing a state of their own.
As late as 1938, Jabotinsky begged a group of Warsaw Jews to try to escape while they could. He said: “I warn you a catastrophe is coming closer... that you, dear brothers and sisters, do not see the volcano which will soon begin to spit its all-consuming lava... Let anyone save himself as long as there is still time – and time is very little.” Three million Polish Jews would be exterminated by the Nazis during the next few years.
Jabotinsky knew that Jews needed to learn to change their behavior. He felt they had become distorted by life in the Diaspora, where they were continually targeted and marginalized. He envisioned the new Jew as proud and generous but also able to be cruel. His Betar summer training programs in Poland taught young Jews how to fight and defend themselves. They took Hebrew lessons, vocational training and heard lectures about Jewish history – all in preparation for their new life in Mandate Palestine.
Heller describes the rituals undertaken at these training camps where members of Betar would often mimic the displays of Polish militarism they had grown up witnessing. They would lay wreaths at Polish memorials and occasionally march alongside Polish soldiers during the country’s national holidays. The Polish government initially tolerated this, since Betar members made clear their loyalty to Poland, even while preparing for their new lives elsewhere.
Heller is puzzled by their ability to live in two worlds. He writes, “Why would a Zionist movement convinced that Jews were destined for a life of misery and persecution choose the Polish national anthem as their battle cry? What inspired them to include among their changes a call to support Poland’s authoritarian regime?... What was it about the country’s policies and practices – many of which were already the features of right-wing regimes across Europe – that could be credible, logical, compelling, and even instructive to Zionists seeking to build a Jewish state in Mandate Palestine?”
Heller explains that by imitating some of the practices of Poland’s authoritarian regime, young Jews learned to develop their own military expertise and sense of loyalty to one another, as well as their sense of themselves as part of a greater mission. They became aggressive fighters willing to take risks and occasionally go beyond the traditional boundaries of conventional warfare.
Other Jewish groups were often disturbed by their actions; particularly the Labor Zionists in Mandate Palestine, who Jabotinsky felt were hopelessly lost in their utopian socialist dreams and conciliatory gestures towards both the British and the local Arab population. The Labor Zionists spoke out against Jabotinsky and his followers by labeling them fascists and anarchists, and destructive to the dream of a future Jewish homeland. The British banned Jabotinsky in 1930 in response to violent actions taken by some of his Betar followers who had left Poland and made it to Mandate Palestine.
Heller is most adept at analyzing how Jabotinsky held on to the reins of his followers even when they took steps that made him personally uncomfortable. He believes Jabotinsky was by nature a democrat, but intuitively understood that drastic measures had to be taken. He often dreamed about a Jewish state large enough to take in the millions of Jews that he envisioned would eventually come from Europe. He wanted the new state to embrace a capitalistic system, since he believed that would bring forth the most success. He knew early on the Arabs would never waver in their determination to destroy the Jews unless they knew the Jews were there to stay.
Heller studies the motivational speeches Jabotinsky delivered to his troops and shows us how his prose was often constructed with a purposeful elusiveness that allowed his followers ample leeway in interpreting his messages. This covertly gave them permission to commit acts Jabotinsky would never have officially sanctioned.
When Jabotinsky died unexpectedly in 1940, his only son, Eri Jabotinsky, continued his work, successfully arranging to have more than 20,000 Jews brought to Mandate Palestine by boat illegally.
But Jabotinsky did have his moments of doubt. In a letter to David Ben-Gurion in 1935 he wrote: “One short, philosophical note. I can vouch for there being a type of Zionist who doesn’t care what kind of society our ‘state’ will have; I’m that person. If I were to know that the only way to a state was via socialism or even that this would hasten it by a generation, I’d welcome it. More than that: give me a religiously Orthodox state where I would be forced to eat gefilte fish all day long (but only if there is no other way) and I’ll take it. More even than that, make it a Yiddish-speaking state, which for me would mean the loss of all the magic in the thing – if there is no other way, I’ll take that, too.”
But Jabotinsky’s uncertainties never lingered. He let very little distract him. His personal assistant was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, who died a few years ago at age 102, and spent his entire life a loyal disciple of Jabotinsky’s teachings. He taught his three sons Jabotinsky’s message and was irritated with his son, the prime minister, when he wavered in any way from what he had taught him.
Jabotinsky expressed aloud primal truths about Jewish insecurities and fears and self-consciousness. He encouraged all Jews to stop apologizing for imaginary slights. He once spoke these poetic words to a Jewish audience; words that sadly still resonate today:
“Our habit of constantly and zealously answering to any rabble has already done us a lot of harm and will do much more. We do not have to apologize for anything. We are a people as all other peoples; we do not have any intentions to be better than the rest. As one of the first qualities for equality we demand the right to have our own villains, exactly as other people have them. We do not have to account to anybody, we do not have to sit for anybody’s examination and nobody is old enough to call on us to answer. We came before them and will leave after them. We are what we are, we are good for ourselves, we will not change, nor do we want to.”