Books: In his own words

Vladimir Jabotinsky’s autobiography has been translated into English for the first time.

Vladimir Jabotinsky with his wife and son (photo credit: CENTRAL ZIONIST ARCHIVES /WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Vladimir Jabotinsky with his wife and son
Eighty years since Vladimir Jabotinsky originally published his Hebrew autobiography, an English-language version has made his life story available to a wider audience.
The original manuscript was found in the Jabotinsky Institute archives in Tel Aviv by the Russian scholar Leonid Katsis, who co-edited it with his Canadian colleague, Brian Horowitz. The work depicts Jabotinsky’s early life in czarist Russia and complements his Story of the Jewish Legion, which was published in 1945.
However, this is no ordinary account of reminiscences and stories of the good old days.
Horowitz has written an excellent explanatory essay which teases out the meaning behind the words. A probable model for this work was the memoirs of Jabotinsky’s friend and mentor, the Russian writer Vladimir Korolenko, who emphasized the events of the period rather than concentrating on the individual in question.
Moreover, this is very much part of a Russian genre that mixed fiction, memoir and autobiography which Tolstoy, Gorky and Pasternak all employed.
This book was written during a period in the 1930s when Jabotinsky’s political fortunes were at a low ebb. The Revisionist movement had split during the Katowice Conference in 1933, with all his longtime colleagues leaving his orbit. Well into his 50s, he was left with the impressionable, radicalized youth of Betar. His account of his own youthful days was therefore geared toward the joys of youth – the disdain for authority, the love of women, the worship of outrageous behavior and his discovery of Zionism, the ideological shaper of his destiny. And it did make a considerable impression on Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and that generation of “Betarim.”
Jabotinsky at this time was under attack from his Mapai opponents, who accused him of being little more than a dyed-inthe- wool fascist – despite his many statements to the contrary. The Story of My Life thereby promotes liberalism – albeit of the pre-1914 Italian variety. It highlights his assault on assimilation – “moral gangrene” – at a time when communism was attracting hordes of Jewish youth to its banner.
He vigorously proclaimed his estrangement from mainstream Zionism. The very thought of having to participate in future Zionist congresses was pure “mental torture.”
He regarded many members of the Jewish national movement as suffering from “an excess of philosophizing and an absence of action.” All this was music to the ears of many a discriminated Jewish youth in eastern Europe in the 1930s.
Jabotinsky thus elevated Josef Trumpeldor, Jabotinsky’s comrade-in-arms in the Jewish Legion, as an exemplar and deliberately reimagined the Jewishness of his own Russified roots.
His opponent and rival, Chaim Weizmann, was either airbrushed out of existence or labeled as a facilitator of appeasement of the British. Jabotinsky attempted to portray a different, parallel interpretation of Zionism – in contradistinction to David Ben-Gurion’s social democracy and Weizmann’s liberalism. He saw himself as a successor to Herzl rather than his rivals. After all, Herzl was a Viennese liberal and a General Zionist.
Unlike other autobiographies such as Weizmann’s Trial and Error, Jabotinsky’s account, written in this Russian genre, is sometimes economical with the facts. His conversion to Zionism during the 1903 congress, he says, involved an interaction with Herzl.
Columbia University’s Michael Stanislawski – having checked the times of sessions and the names of speakers – concluded that this was a measure of mythmaking.
Yet this does not make the work superficial.
As Horowitz points out, this is “one of the most intriguing books” about Russian Zionism. It uncovers new layers of understanding about this most remarkable of figures and also produces a “greater uncertainty about him as well.”
The factual information still fascinates.
In his Russian youth, Jabotinsky states, he identified with socialists in Russia and wrote for the daily Avanti, the organ of the Italian Socialist Party. He even wrote a pacifist play, Blood, about the Boer War.
Moreover, unlike the situation today, he appeared to argue that one should negotiate with enemies of the Jewish people to achieve a rational end. He negotiated with Maxim Slavinsky in 1921 to avert a repetition of mass murders of Jews by Ukrainian nationalists if their army initiated a new offensive to dislodge the Bolsheviks.
Yet it was the Zionist Left that raised a hue and cry to reflect the widespread view that there should be no negotiations with pogromists.
Jabotinsky was clearly not the one-dimensional figure often portrayed today.
The complexity of his character and his teachings have been diluted by lesser figures and demoted to being no more than a plaything of politicians – to be wheeled out when necessary. By contrast, President Reuven Rivlin has stated on numerous occasions that he is a genuine disciple of Jabotinsky – and acted accordingly. 
Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London. His latest book, The Rise of the Israeli Right, has been published by Cambridge University Press.