For Zion's sake: The rise of the Jewish soldier

Upon immigrating to Palestine, Betarim effectively graduated to the unofficial military wing of the Revisionist Zionist movement.

'Altalena' 370  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
'Altalena' 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Even more than preserving Theodor Herzl’s call for Jewish statehood and pioneering illegal immigration and rescue efforts, perhaps Revisionist Zionism’s greatest contribution to Israel’s founding was the thing for which it was most reviled – the revival of Jewish militarism.
Practical and socialist Zionists preached that the “new Jew” would be a farmer working the land; Ze’ev Jabotinsky preached that the new Jew would be a soldier.
More than anyone else, Jabotinsky made sure that this new Jew would rise.
THE KISHINEV pogrom of 1903 had a profound affect on Jabotinsky, who visited the city on a charity mission in the pogrom’s aftermath. Amid the devastation, he found a piece of Torah parchment on the ground that read, “in a foreign land.” Like the Dreyfus Affair for Herzl, Kishinev completed Jabotinsky’s conversion to the Zionist cause.
Even before Kishinev, Jabotinsky urged the organization of Jewish self-defense committees and became active in the Odessa Committee. Soon he would establish himself as one of the foremost advocates for Zionism and Jewish rights in Russia.
His talents widely recognized, in 1909 he was appointed to lead the Zionist movement’s press network in Constantinople, where, like Herzl, he learned that Turkey would never accept a Jewish state in Palestine.
Early in the war, in March 1915, Jabotinsky and Yosef Trumpeldor brought a petition to the British military commander in Egypt, requesting that Britain form “a Jewish Legion” to fight in Palestine. They were offered a mule transport unit to be sent to another Turkish front – the “Zion Mule Corps.”
Not content with that, Jabotinsky traveled to London and waged a years-long campaign that resulted in the establishment of a “Jewish Regiment,” later known as the “Jewish Legion,” announced in August 1917.
Throughout the campaign, Jabotinsky was vilified by his fellow Jews. He was accused of subjecting Palestinian Jews to possible Turkish retaliation (though this was already occurring), of breaking the Zionist movement’s official neutrality, and of siding with anti-Semitic Russia. Back in Odessa, Menachem Ussishkin told Jabotinsky’s mother, “Your son should be hanged.”
But when half a battalion of the Jewish Regiment marched though London before shipping out to Palestine in February 1918, even Jabotinsky’s most ardent opponents looked on with pride.
Through the legion, thousands of young Jews – ultimately 5,000 of the approximately 10,000 who registered – were trained, armed and took part in the conquest of Palestine. While the legion was overshadowed by the Balfour Declaration, issued in November 1917, its political benefits should not be underestimated.
Like Chaim Weizmann, Jabotinsky knew that to have a place at the peace table, the Zionist movement would have to support the winning side. Jabotinsky also knew that those who would fight would have a greater stake in the post-war settlement.
Historian Howard Sachar writes that the legion’s “role in the conquest of Palestine eventually signified as much as the ordeal of the early Zionist pioneers, and hardly less than the Balfour Declaration itself, in reinforcing the Jews’ claims to their national home.”
And undoubtedly, the memorandums, letters, negotiations, conversations, meetings and arguments that went into the legion pulled British officials deeper into Zionism’s orbit.
AFTER THE war, Jabotinsky envisioned the legion as being permanently stationed in Palestine. Before, a Jewish army was needed for conquest. Now it was needed for defense.
As Jabotinsky would later write in The Iron Wall, violent Arab opposition to Zionism necessitated it: “The Zionists want only one thing, Jewish immigration; and this Jewish immigration is what the Arabs do not want.”
This, he wrote, “means that [Zionist colonization] can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.
“In this matter there is no difference between our ‘militarists’ and our ‘vegetarians.’ Except that the first prefer that the iron wall should consist of Jewish soldiers, and the others are content that they should be British.”
Yet, against Jabotinsky’s pleadings, the anti-Zionist British military administration in Palestine demobilized the legion in 1919.
Still, a revolutionary precedent had been set. Jews could be more than beggars, students, merchants, bankers or even “watchmen,” they could be soldiers – uniformed, organized, proud and capable of wielding the military power upon which modern states are based.
That precedent enabled Jabotinsky and his allies like Pinchas Ruttenberg to convince leading Zionist personalities, including the Zionist Commission, that a defense force was necessary to counter the Arab menace.
Jabotinsky was asked to organize and command the force, the Hagana, to which he quickly recruited several hundreds, including former legionnaires who led the military training.
Preferring a legal force to a clandestine one, Jabotinsky asked Jerusalem’s governor, Col. Ronald Storrs, to deputize the Hagana’s members. The military administration was also asked to provide the Hagana with weapons. Both requests were refused.
When the anticipated “Nabi Musa” pogrom struck on Passover 1920, New Jerusalem, patrolled by the Hagana, was spared of casualties. The Jewish forces, however, were denied entry to the Old City, even as the violence continued. Adding insult to injury, Jabotinsky and 19 other Hagana members were arrested for inciting violence and possessing illegal weapons.
The arrest and imprisonment were met with outcry.
Jabotinsky’s legend grew as the “Defender of Jerusalem” and the “Prisoner of Acre.”
In a move that would characterize his tenure, the newly appointed high commissioner, Herbert Samuel, amnestied Jabotinsky and his comrades as well as those who had pillaged, raped and killed, including the chief instigator, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the founder of Palestinian terrorism.
Soon after his release, Jabotinsky was invited to join the Zionist Executive. There he advocated for the reestablishment of the legion as half of the British garrison in Palestine. When the British refused, he advocated the legalization of the Hagana, even if it meant being under British command. Though nothing came of them, Jabotinsky earned executive support for both proposals.
In advocating a more activist policy towards British evenhandedness, however, he met opposition and enmity. He was forced to resign from the executive in January 1923.
FREE AGAIN to follow his own path, in 1925 he convened the League of Revisionist Zionists, which called for the activist policy Jabotinsky desired. Earlier, in 1923, he founded the youth movement Betar, an acronym for Brit Yosef Trumpeldor and the name of the fort-city of Bar Kochba’s last stand.
Through Betar, whose ranks have been estimated as swelling to as many as 100,000 members, Jabotinsky raised a generation committed “to die or conquer the mount,” as the climax of Betar’s anthem went. A Betari was required to be “a soldier and student of military warfare,” obliged “to prepare [his] hand for the defense of [his] people.” Betarim were told by the Rosh Betar to “learn to shoot” (their “new alef-bet”) and were given military training.
Upon immigrating to Palestine, Betarim effectively graduated to the unofficial military wing of the Revisionist Zionist movement, the Irgun - the Hagana breakaway of which Jabotinsky was the “Supreme Commander.”
Jabotinsky’s death in 1940 (during his campaign for a Jewish army), the war and the Holocaust would leave the Revisionist Zionist movement, as well as the entire Jewish people, in disarray. But the new generation of Jewish soldiers he created would “rise from the pit of dust and decay” to remove the British from Palestine, and clear the way for Israel’s establishment.
Part III in a series on the history of the Revisionist Zionist movement.
The writer is an attorney and a Likud Central Committee member.