FOR ZION’S SAKE: A ‘Revisionist’ history of Zionism

THE FIRST hero of Revisionist Zionism is not Ze’ev Jabotinsky, but the founder of the modern Zionist movement itself – Theodore Herzl.

jabotinsky 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
jabotinsky 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
The Zionist narrative most often told is typically one which does not critically judge leaders like Chaim Weizmann or David Ben-Gurion. Instead, their concessionist policies – which included denials that Jewish statehood or a Jewish majority in Palestine were goals of Zionism and acquiescence to limits on Jewish immigration even in the late 1930s – is glossed over or presented as having been the only practical option available to Zionism leading up to the creation of the State of Israel.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky and his Revisionist Zionist movement, Menachem Begin, the Irgun, Lehi, the policies they advocated and pursued, which saved lives and were necessary to creation of the State of Israel, are treated, even today, as interesting and too often as regrettable asides, if they are mentioned at all.
Even Theodor Herzl and his brand of “political Zionism,” which contrasted with “practical,” “cultural,” “socialist” or “synthetic” Zionism, and whose “revisionist” mantel Zionism took up, is not sufficiently taught and explained.
What follows is an attempt at a summary of a different version of Zionist history – the Revisionist version – as told through a short, and far from complete, list of books available in English relating to the Revisionist Zionist movement.
THE FIRST hero of Revisionist Zionism is not Ze’ev Jabotinsky, but the founder of the modern Zionist movement itself – Theodore Herzl.
Part of the reason why Herzl deserves so much credit for the establishment of the Jewish state, though it was only realized decades after his death, is due to his ideological contribution to Zionist thought – the fact that he desired and called for such a state.
In the The Jewish State (first published 1896), billed as “an attempt at a modern solution to the Jewish question,” Herzl put forward innovative arguments for the nationality of the Jewish people, the need for a Jewish state, the legal basis for our right to statehood in our ancestral homeland, and a plan for accomplishing what for two millennia was relegated to heaven. That plan meant using modern political means to convince governments as well as the masses to endorse the cause of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine.
That political idea clashed with the preconceptions of many of his Jewish contemporaries, from assimilationists and communists who opposed Jewish statehood to other Zionists, including socialist Zionists, cultural or spiritual Zionists, and practical Zionists, who saw Herzl’s political Zionism as putting the cart (diplomacy and statehood) before the horse (the slow development of Jewish settlement by practical and charitable means).
To press the cause of Jewish statehood (or “political” Zionism) forward, Herzl had to not only unite each of these factions into the Zionist movement and wage a years-long political war both for them and against them, a struggle captured in Theodore Herzl: A Biography (first published in 1945) by Israel Prize winner Alex Bien.
Bien shows Herzl’s “conversion” to Zionism – making clear that Herzl always had national-Jewish feelings which were merely unleashed by the Dreyfus Affair – Herzl’s appeals to Jewish leaders, to the Jewish masses, his diplomatic forays with heads of state like the Turkish Sultan and the German Kaiser, English officials, his creation of the modern Zionist movement, and the debates within the Zionist movement, particularly over the Uganda affair, which was the central issue of the last Zionist Congress he was to attend.
Bien demonstrates how Herzl gave himself over completely to the cause of the Jewish people, at great personal cost – to his family, his finances, and his health – and succeeds in showing why it was only this unique personality that could forge a movement that could unite a disparate people and create a state in a distant land.
HERZL’S EFFORTS, however, were just the beginning of the struggle for Jewish statehood.
Though Herzl’s vision of a public charter had been achieved with the Mandate for Palestine, in the years following World War I, the Zionist movement, led by Chaim Weizmann, took up an increasingly concessionist approach in dealing with the British and Arab opposition to Zionism, with regard to the fulfillment of that charter.
The whittling down of the Mandate, the anti-Zionism of the British military government, the even-handed policy toward Arab violent opposition to Zionism by the civil administration, the limitations on Jewish immigration, and the various White Papers beginning with the White Paper of 1922 and culminating in the 1939 White Paper, were hardly objected to.
Weizmann feared “asking for too much,” and while even Jabotinsky admitted he was “a diplomatic genius,” by censoring Jewish demands, Weizmann sacrificed the major aims of Zionism – including statehood.
In response, opposition arose which became the Revisionist Zionist movement. The movement was so-called because it sought to “revise” the aims of Zionism and return them to those envisioned by Herzl, making Jewish statehood and the creation of a Jewish majority in the country the unconcealed goal of the Zionist movement.
Revisionist Zionists thus traced their ideological heritage to Herzl and often referred to themselves as “political Zionists.”
The clash between Weizmann and his supporters from the Labor faction and Jabotinsky and his Revisionist Zionists, was essentially the same as the clash between Herzl and the various other Zionist factions, but in a newer set of circumstances.
That contest, which engulfed two decades of Zionist history and precipitated even more bitter divisions to come, is told in the massive two-volume biography of Jabotinsky by Shmuel Katz, Lone Wolf: A Biography of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky (Barricade Books 1996).
Lone Wolf, which might be called the Revisionist Zionist bible and which superseded an older Jabotinsky biography by Joseph Schechtman, relates the bulk of the Revisionist Zionist story through its dynamic leader and founder.
As Katz writes, though many of Jabotinsky’s warnings were ignored, especially regarding the need to evacuate European Jewry, he and the Revisionist movement inspired hundreds of thousands and made significant contributions to Israel’s establishment, including reviving the Jewish military tradition – both in word and deed, leading the struggle for illegal immigration, opposing class struggle promoted by the socialist Zionists, opposing the shrinking of the borders of the Jewish state, and keeping Herzl’s vision of statehood alive.
HERZL AND Jabotinsky, however, were not the only Zionist “founders” to grasp the truth of “political Zionism.”
Leo Pinsker, the author of Auto-Emancipation, who preceded Herzl, but in his own words was too much of an eastern Jew to forge an effective Jewish national movement, grasped it, but was forced to chair the Hovevei Zion, who could not see beyond minimal settlement activity and charity collection as the means to Jewish redemption.
Herzl’s ally Max Nordau grasped it and, sharing Herzl’s fears for Jewry, proposed immediately transferring 500,000 Jews to Palestine, which Jabotinsky later picked up and called the “Nordau Plan.” Herzl’s other ally, Israel Zangwill, also adhered to political Zionism, so much so that he left the movement after Herzl’s death, in opposition to Herzl’s defeat at the Uganda Congress and the ascendance of “cultural” or “spiritual” Zionism which aspired for a Jewish intellectual center in Eretz Israel, but not statehood.
The Founding Fathers of Zionism (Gefen/Balfour Books 2012) by Jabotinsky disciple Benzion Netanyahu, which had been previously available in Hebrew, covers each of these personalities, including Herzl and Jabotinsky, in five distinct essays which aim, in large part, at emphasizing the importance of political Zionism as well as highlighting those who conceived of it and carried its torch. The collection begins with Pinsker and ends with Jabotinsky and the latter’s prophetic call to Polish Jewry on Tisha Be’av, 1938: “For God’s sake: May each one save his life while there is still time. And time is short.... Those who will succeed to escape from the catastrophe will merit a moment of great Jewish joy: the rebirth of a Jewish state... I believe in this just as I am sure that tomorrow morning the sun will shine once again. I believe in this with total faith.”
This article is Part I in a series on the history of Revisionist Zionist movement.The author is an attorney and member of the Likud central Committee.