A revisionist's history

More streets, parks and squares are named after Ze'ev Jabotinsky than any other Zionist leader, and many factions cite him as inspiration.

Yossi Ahimeir 311 (photo credit: Joanna Paraszczuk)
Yossi Ahimeir 311
(photo credit: Joanna Paraszczuk)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (whose father Benzion was Jabotinsky’s secretary) has dubbed himself Jabotinsky’s disciple, even crediting him with founding the Likud Party (he didn’t – Jabotinsky’s follower Menachem Begin founded the Herut Party, which later merged with other parties to form Likud).
The Kadima Party, formed in 2005 by former Likud members, also claims a historical link with Jabotinsky. The party’s chosen name, which means “forward” in Hebrew, was the name of the Zionist publishing house Jabotinsky founded in 1904, and of the Jewish regiment he founded in 1917.
In January, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni notably cited the Zionist leader in a scathing put-down to Netanyahu: “I quote Jabotinsky: ‘Our sons will be bewildered when they read the biographies of the “leaders,” and will be bewildered when they discover that many of them were spineless,’” she stated.
Even religious Zionist settlers in the West Bank have adopted Jabotinsky as a symbol – although he was an atheist who believed that the Arab minority would share equal rights with Jews in a future Jewish state, famously declaring: “In every cabinet where the prime minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership shall be offered to an Arab, and vice versa.”
So just who was the real Jabotinsky, and what is his legacy? For Yossi Ahimeir, director-general of the Jabotinsky Institute in Tel Aviv, Jabotinsky was far more than just a politician and Zionist founding father.
“It’s simply amazing how creative Jabotinsky was,” says Ahimeir.
“He lived for just six decades, but what didn’t he achieve? He was a politician, a poet, an ideologist. He wrote over 7,000 letters. He wrote books, poetry, gave speeches. One can say that Jabotinsky was a real Renaissance man.”
For over 70 years, the Jabotinsky Institute has painstakingly collected millions of writings, books, speeches, articles and photographs of and by Jabotinsky, and has documented his life and work in a museum.
While the museum offers plenty of historical detail about Jabotinsky’s political activities, it also provides glimpses of the man behind the myth – often via his poetry, and his often-difficult relationships with his son, Ari, and his wife, Johanna.
Most intriguing about Jabotinsky is not the story of his rise to power as a Zionist visionary, but the very fact that he became a Zionist at all.
Born in 1880 to an assimilated Russian Jewish family, Jabotinsky grew up in Odessa, a cosmopolitan port town, and had little, if any, contact with Jewish life. He was, however, a child prodigy: At school, he learned several languages, and at 17 published his first article in the Southern Review, a Russian newspaper.
Perhaps realizing he was prohibited from entering university due to the government-imposed quota on Jews in higher education, Jabotinsky quit school before graduating. Despite his lack of a diploma, he was hired as the Rome correspondent for an Odessabased newspaper. He became known for his witty, elegant dispatches on Italian culture and for his growing reputation as a talented poet and translator, even drawing praise from the Russian literary elite.
Jabotinsky was on the verge of a dazzling career as a Russian writer. But in 1903, something happened to change his life irrevocably.
In April that year, a wave of pogroms swept across the Russian Empire. The bloodiest of all was in Kishinev. Sparked by a rumor that a Jew had ritually murdered a Christian, mobs rampaged through the city’s Jewish neighborhood, looting homes and businesses and slaughtering everyone in their path.
Newspapers reported eyewitness accounts of Jews fighting back against the mobs. But the Kishinev pogrom left 49 Jewish men, women and children dead and more than 500 wounded.
That was April 7. The same afternoon, news of the massacre reached Odessa. Later that day, a young Jewish journalist gave a lecture entitled “Auto-emancipation” at a Jewish literary gathering.
That journalist was Jabotinsky. Shocked by the pogrom, he was now convinced that the only future for the Jewish people was to fight for a national homeland in Eretz Yisrael.
“For the first time in modern Jewish history, the main feeling provoked in the Jewish community was not horror and grief... the period of shame had ended for the Jews,” he wrote after the pogrom.
Jabotinsky wanted to create a new type of Jew, someone who was not a passive victim but who was ready to fight in self-defense – and for his homeland.
“Jabotinsky was a man of action,” says Ahimeir. “Not just words.”
A writer, Jabotinsky might have contented himself with merely expressing his views in newspaper columns and letters. But he didn’t. When World War I broke out, he petitioned the British to create a Jewish Legion, the Zion Mule Corps, which fought against the Turks in Palestine.
After the war, Jabotinsky formed the Hagana in Jerusalem, to train Jews in self-defense against potential Arab violence. In response, the British sentenced him to 15 years’ hard labor in Acre prison. (His sentence was later reduced to one year. He passed the time by translating Dante’s Divine Comedy into Hebrew.)
Jabotinsky was also one of the first leaders of the Irgun Zva’i Leumi, the Jewish underground paramilitary organization.
According to Ahimeir, as Hitler rose to power, an important part of Jabotinsky’s work was trying to alert European Jews to the impending catastrophe.
In 1936, he asked the British government to help Jews escape by opening up immigration to British Mandate Palestine.
When the British refused, Jabotinsky called on Jews to go to Palestine anyway.
“The national sport, which I recommend wholeheartedly to Jewish youth, is called free immigration,” he announced. “This is undoubtedly the noblest sport in the world. [It] helps to win a homeland for homeless masses and transforms these masses into a nation.”
In a clandestine rescue mission codenamed Af-Al- Pi (“nevertheless”), more than 20,000 Jews were brought illegally to Eretz Yisrael by sea as part of the Aliya Bet.
In accordance with his wishes, in 1964 his remains and those of his wife were interred in Jerusalem.