Exploring, debunking ‘Hebrew fascism’

Historian Dan Tamir uncovers controversial trends in the pre-state era, but exonerates Jabotinsky.

THEN-PRIME MINISTER Ariel Sharon in 2002 in Tel Aviv sits under a picture of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a key founder of what became the Likud. The book exonerates Jabotinsky from accusations of fascism.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
THEN-PRIME MINISTER Ariel Sharon in 2002 in Tel Aviv sits under a picture of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a key founder of what became the Likud. The book exonerates Jabotinsky from accusations of fascism.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Beginning in 1925, the Zionist movement broke into two main camps: 1) that of the socialist pioneering Histadrut-led variety, which sought to dominate via economic, social and cultural instruments, and 2)  the Revisionists, who were fixated on achieving statehood first and foremost, together with a forceful defense policy and more appreciation for the middle class. It was only in 1977, with Menachem Begin’s election, that a researched history of the face-off in that competition for hegemony came to the attention of the public in a fair, comprehensive and objective fashion by non-Revisionist historians.
Among the breakthrough volumes were Anita Shapira’s 1977 The Futile Struggle, which in part detailed Mapai’s anti-Revisionist violence, and Yaacov Shavit’s, From Majority to Statehood: Revisionism’s Settlement and Social Idea Program, published a year later. Until then, there was a virtual smothering of any of Zionism’s right-wing camp’s history.
Dan Tamir states his research conclusion quite clearly on page two, his main argument being that there developed a “most profound expression of a genuine fascist movement which had gradually evolved during the 1920s and 1930s in the Hebrew society in Palestine in general, and within the Revisionist Zionist movement in particular.” In his conclusion, however, he writes, “It never went beyond the initial stage of forming a small political movement.”
A reviewer is challenged by such questions that arise, such as: Did a movement actually exist? Was it profound? Was its fascist character genuine? Did it evolve amidst the Yishuv’s general Jewish society or was it an oddity? What was its influence within Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement? And does the book present a rigorous case?
What makes Tamir’s study a challenge is his two assumptions: 1) “If fascism is present in any given modern society during times of political crisis, and 2) if a modern Hebrew society in Palestine was experiencing a deep political crisis during the 1920s and 1930s, one may expect a fascist movement to have emerged within that society at the time.”
But do we know fascism was present? Was it fascism or ultra-nationalism? Or was it just another phase of uncomplicated extremism that the Revisionist movement developed, in part, due to the circumstances in Mandate Palestine and the conflict with an increasingly unsympathetic British regime and the terrorism of the Arab opposition the Yishuv faced?
This is not just a matter for historians. In 2013, Jerusalem District Court judge Refael Yacoby ruled that the Im Tirzu group draws influence from fascist ideology, and if one implies that the group is fascist, it is not an act of incitement. While one could forgive the judge for employing what would seem to be elastic semantics, that privilege cannot be extended to an academic who has been engaged with the subject for some 15 years.
For Tamir, the link that permits him his categorization is his identifying a “drive for closer integration of the national community” that was manifested in the writings of seven Revisionist activists which reveal “a strong drive for social integration, similar to that manifest in other fascist movements of the interwar era.”
Fascism was a well-employed term in the Yishuv. David Ben-Gurion used it often and would refer to Jabotinsky as “Vladimir Hitler,” and the Marxist Hashomer Hatzair’s Warsaw bulletin carried a caricature of Jabotinsky captioned: “Adolf Jabotinsky.”
For Hashomer Hatzair, the later Irgun and Stern Group undergrounds were always fascists. Tamir’s suggested hypothesis, based on the two assumptions I noted above, that there Hebrew fascism appeared, is one I do not think he has proved. I am reminded what Alain-Gérard Slama wrote about another fascism authority, Ze’ev Sternhell: “Some of his interpretations may occasionally be questioned, but one cannot doubt [his] intellectual courage.”
In his concluding chapter, after presenting nine “mobilizing emotions” upon which his study is built, he notes that there is “a quantitative and a qualitative imbalance among the various figures mentioned,” and that “no formal fascist party was established in Palestine,” but that “activists did create together a political-intellectual-social network,” and there were “fascist tendencies.” I am not sure that this justifies his book’s title but nevertheless, I am happy the book was published.
He draws out of the hidden-away Zionist historical record figures such as Abba Ahimeir, Wolfgang Von Weisl, Yehoshua Yeiven, Uri Tzvi Greenberg and others who have been relegated to forced obscurity, as were their actions and thinking. For example, it was the “fascist” Ahimeir who ordered his followers to pull down the Nazi flag flying over Germany’s two consulates in the country. It was Jabotinsky who in 1933 demanded Ahimeir cease seeking any positive value in Nazi Germany.
To his credit, it is important that Tamir notes that “pro-fascist sentiments among Arabic-speaking societies, as well as outright Arabist fascisms, were (and in some cases still are) active in the region.” However, he awards them a reduction in that while they were quite admiring of Nazi Germany, they were not of a generic character but rather supporting an enemy of an enemy, Great Britain. Could Yair Stern’s turn to Germany’s ambassador in Lebanon, with which he opens his book, not be of the same character?
A good deal of Tamir’s interpretation of the writings he presents in abundance, and again, thanks are due for that, can be challenged. But a careful reading will lead the reader as far as the main charge Zionism’s right-wing faced, that it was Jabotinsky himself who was the fascist, was simply wrong. One thing that flummoxed me is Tamir’s spelling of the name of the Revisionist youth movement. In every publication since the late 1920s, it appears as “Betar” but in this book, it is “Beytar.”
The book, the price of which is quite steep, is nevertheless a critical contribution to Zionist historiography, as long as one is aware that his main assertion of a “Hebrew Fascism” is more of a teaser than a proven fact.