A vindicated life

Hillel Halkin presents Ze’ev Jabotinsky as a political failure, but he doesn’t look past the Zionist leader’s lack of political influence in his lifetime to his prescience regarding the nature of the Jewish state.

Ze'ev Jabotinsky with his wife and son Eri. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ze'ev Jabotinsky with his wife and son Eri.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Was Ze’ev Jabotinsky a political failure? In the epilogue to Jabotinsky: A Life, his exquisitely written and broadly encompassing autobiography, Hillel Halkin claims he was.
“[Theodor] Herzl died young and thwarted, but he had created political Zionism,” writes Halkin. “[Chaim] Weizmann ended as an irrelevance, the figurehead first president of a Jewish state that he had never wanted to fight for; yet he was instrumental in keeping Zionism alive in the years after Herzl’s death and in obtaining the Balfour Declaration, without which it could have gone no further.
“[David] Ben-Gurion more than anyone could claim credit for the establishment of Israel, at whose helm he imposingly stood in its first years; his rupture in old age with a Mapai leadership he had fallen out with was a melancholy postscript to a triumphant career.
“Jabotinsky, apart from his partial success with the Jewish Legion, which did not substantially change Zionism’s course, was a political failure, the perennial leader of the Zionist opposition.”
Is Halkin’s diagnosis correct? It depends on how you define success.
True, Jabotinsky – and his political successors in the Herut party – lacked any real political influence in the years that preceded the creation of Israel, as well as the years after. But looking at the State of Israel today, it has come to be something much more along the lines of Jabotinsky’s vision of a Jewish state than Herzl’s, Weizmann’s or even Ben-Gurion’s.
In all the most important senses, Jabotinsky was right – and has been vindicated by history.
Israel’s economy, for instance, is a far cry from Mapai’s quasi-socialist, centrally planned arrangement that quickly deteriorated into shameless cronyism. It has taken decades for the Israeli economy to break away from the party’s legacy and embrace the sort of free market that Jabotinsky supported, which encourages innovation, personal initiative and creativity.
Even today, the concentration of economic strength in the hands of just a few affluent families can be traced back to the distortions first created by Mapai.
Israel of the 21st century is also a more inclusive society that respects diversity.
Likewise, Revisionism and the organizations associated with it – Betar, the Irgun – had room for the voices of both Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, the secular and religious.
Long gone is Mapai’s autocratic rule, which sought to forcibly erase vestiges of the Diaspora (cutting the sidelocks of Yemenite Jews was the most striking image of this chauvinism), and mold a “new Jew” devoid of all the “neuroses” and “religious superstitions” of exile.
Admittedly, Jabotinsky had his own image of a new Jew. But his focus was more on etiquette, pride of bearing and other outward expressions of well-manneredness – what he referred to in Hebrew as “hadar” – which could be adopted by anybody, without having to undergo a radical revamping of one’s very identity.
Jabotinsky’s prognosis of the Arab-Israeli conflict has also been vindicated. At a very early stage – earlier than Weizmann and Ben-Gurion – he understood that the Arabs would never willingly share their land. Only by constructing a superior, unchallengeable military force, which he referred to as an Iron Wall, could Jews hope to convince Arabs to reconcile themselves to a Jewish state.
This has become the cornerstone of Israel’s military thinking for decades. What Jabotinsky did not foresee was how completely Arabs have become captive to a violently irrational form of political Islam, which seems impervious even to the Iron Wall that Israel has created.
SO WHILE Jabotinsky did fail in his lifetime to influence the direction of Israeli politics, many of his positions were later adopted by Israel. In this sense, he was wildly successful as a political thinker who planted the seeds for a political movement that would end up dominating Israeli politics, whether through the Likud or one of the parties that has splintered from it.
Nowhere does Halkin mention that Jabotinsky’s political opinions were ultimately vindicated, a point which if made would emphasize Jabotinsky’s relevance – and the relevance of Halkin’s book – today.
Nor does Halkin deal sufficiently with the extent to which Jabotinsky and anyone associated with him were pilloried by Labor Zionism’s leaders. As a result, we are deprived of an important historical lesson about Zionism, which remains relevant today.
Indeed, the Zionist Left and those sympathetic to it worked hard, and for a time succeeded, in distinguishing – both in Israel and the world – between legitimate and illegitimate expressions of Jewish nationalism.
While Jabotinsky, a real democrat, individualist and liberal in the classical 19th-century sense of the word, was denounced as a fascist, Mapai, which enforced an etatism that made the individual subservient to the state, and effectively leveraged its control of a large part of the economy to secure political control, was seen as “good” Zionism.
To this day, leftists such as Amos Oz and Ari Shavit are convinced that “their” Israel has been stolen from them by purportedly anti-democratic forces. During the 1983 Lebanon War, for instance, Oz wrote in The New York Times: “Once Israel could have been an exemplary state, a small-scale laboratory for democratic socialism, then came Holocaust refugees, anti-socialist Zionist, chauvinistic, militaristic and xenophobic North American immigrants, groups who cherished bourgeoisie coziness and respectability…” Earlier this year, during a discussion of Halkin’s book at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, critic Edward Rothstein read the above quote from Oz to Halkin.
But Halkin made no comment. Neither at YIVO nor in his book did he say that the old left-wing elites continue to use their tactic of brown-baiting against Jabotinsky’s political descedants.
As such, they accuse Likud members of fascism or passing anti-democratic legislation, without bothering to qualify their claims; they complain that the Zionist dream of the founders is being trampled by chauvinists.
Shavit’s bestselling My Promised Land uses the same tactics. Calling for a return to the good old values of the Zionist Center-Left, Shavit argues that Zionism will lose its “sense of moral superiority” unless it discards its present leadership.
“[Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu is not the sin,” Shavit told Susie Linfield in an interview for Guernica magazine, “Netanyahu is the punishment.”
Never does Shavit or others on the Left bother to explain why supporting the creation of another Arab state on the West Bank – which will inevitably become an autocratic regime that tramples the human rights of Palestinians, and is antagonistic to a Jewish state – is a more moral position than the status quo. Nor does he have to, because Jabotinsky’s politics – and that of his ideological heirs – has been systematically delegitimized. How did this happen? Halkin never tells us.
THIS LEADS to another fault in Halkin’s book: His failure to adequately explain the term “monism,” and its political ramifications.
Central to Jabotinsky’s thought, monism, in Hebrew had-nes (one-flag), means, as Halkin notes in a single sentence devoted to the subject on page 137, “the belief that the goal of a Jewish state must not be compromised or adulterated by admixture with other ideologies.” But Halkin does not provide any further explanations of the term, which does not even appear in the book’s index.
The implications of monism are far-reaching. They are explicated in a letter Jabotinsky wrote to Ben-Gurion a few months after a meeting between the two in 1934, a meeting recently dramatized in a play written by A.B. Yehoshua called Can Two Walk Together? “One short philosophical note. I can vouch for there being a type of Zionist who does not 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 in which I would be forced to eat gefilte fish all day long (but only if there was no other way), and I’ll take it. More 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.
“In the will I leave my son I’ll tell him to start a revolution, but on the envelope I’ll write: ‘To be opened only five years after a Jewish state is established.’” Though Halkin quotes extensively from the letter, he does not connect it to Jabotinsky’s monism. If Halkin had explored the concept more extensively, he might have answered for himself a question he raised in a very creative way at the very end of his book – when he wonders what sort of solution Jabotinsky would suggest to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Would he favor partition, or would he support annexation of Judea and Samaria? To answer the question, Halkin writes a fictional scene in which he brings Jabotinsky back to life for a meeting in a Parisian brasserie. All Halkin is willing to have the imagined Jabotinsky say, however, is, “Get the best deal you can.”
Obviously, we can never be sure. But it seems likely that Jabotinsky, if he lived today, would never condone partitioning Israel, just as he opposed it in his lifetime. Though he recognized more than most Zionist leaders that there was a large indigenous population which would fight bitterly against Zionism, Jabotinsky believed the creation of a Jewish state in the historical homeland of the Jewish people was an eminently moral endeavor that took precedence over all other considerations.
This was the deeper meaning of monism: All other values had to be pushed aside until a viable Jewish state was established.
Adopting an ideology that conflicted with, slowed down or endangered the creation of a Jewish state – no matter how moral such an ideology was – could not be implemented until a Jewish majority had been achieved in the entire Land of Israel.
Jabotinsky believed that the Jewish state must be established on a sufficiently large territory to absorb the masses of Diaspora Jews. On many occasions – most notably, on Tisha Be’av 1938 – Jabotinsky, who died in 1940, warned of the impending disaster facing European Jewry, though he could never have foreseen the extent of the horror.
He was an ardent advocate of democracy and believed that Arabs had to be given equal rights in a future Jewish state, but never compromised his demand for both banks of the Jordan River, despite the huge demographic imbalance. Jabotinsky was willing to postpone the implementation of formal democracy until such time as there was a Jewish majority in a geographic area that included not just present- day Israel, with the West Bank, but Transjordan as well.
With this understanding of monism in mind, it seems highly likely that Jabotinsky would advocate holding onto Judea and Samaria until Jews became a majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. He would then annex the area and extend democratic rights to all Palestinians.
The Left besmirches Jabotinsky’s ideological heirs with epithets like “fascist,” just as the Left besmirched Jabotinsky up until his death over seven decades ago. But can it be said that annexation is any less moral than the Center-Left’s support for the creation of a Palestinian state that would continue to trample Palestinians’ basic human rights, as the Palestinian Authority does today in the West Bank? That it is considered less moral is a testament to how thoroughly the delegitimization campaign launched by the Zionist Left against Jabotinsky, and continues to be deployed against his successors, was successful. Is Halkin guilty of this same bias? Halkin succeeds much more when he treats Jabotinsky’s impressive literary work. He breaks new ground in his illumination of Jabotinsky’s novels, The Five and Samson. Both works are used by Halkin to deepen our understanding of the tension in Jabotinsky’s thought between individualism and commitment.
Halkin is clearly enamored with his subject, and it comes through.
But it is unfair to present Jabotinsky as a political failure, without also noting even in passing that looking around modern-day Israel, Jabotinsky looms large – and not just on the street signs of our major thoroughfares.