For Zion's Sake: Embracing Jabotinsky and Begin, but with a condition

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks in front of a poster of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin upon his arrival at the Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks in front of a poster of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin upon his arrival at the Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It has been a good year for that misunderstood and once oppressed Zionist philosophy known as Revisionist- Zionism and the legacy of its protagonists, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin. Aside from left-wing Israeli politicians like Tzipi Livni celebrating the legacies of Jabotinsky and Begin, two books were published this year on these two right-wing figures by centrist authors.
Yet those who still revere the master and teacher and his star pupil may have little to be happy about, since the mainstreaming of these two founding fathers appears to come at the price of the principles they fought for.
Published in May, Hillel Halkin’s concise and highly readable Jabotinsky: A Life analyzes portions of Jabotinsky’s life and thought which other Jabotinsky biographers paid less attention to, such as certain non-political themes in Jabotinsky’s writing and his relationship with his wife. Halkin also touts Jabotinsky’s literary achievements, commitment to individual rights and his interesting personality.
“If I could raise any of the great figures of Zionist history from the dead for an hour’s conversation,” Halkin writes in the epilogue, “I would choose Jabotinsky,” who “would chat affably over a beer... .”
With an emphasis on Jabotinsky the artist, Halkin thus makes the man once called “Vladimir Hitler” more palatable to the liberal American Jewish audience.
While lacking Halkin’s literary talents, Daniel Gordis’s Menachem Begin: the Struggle for Israel’s Soul, published in March, is still enjoyable and provides a more in-depth basic text on Begin as compared with Harry Hurwitz’s short Begin biography.
Gordis similarly proffers a Menachem Begin more acceptable to the American Jewish community that once denounced him as a fascist, by grounding Begin’s decisions, from his granting asylum to the Vietnamese “Boat People” to his fiery opposition to reparations from Germany, in his Jewishness or “Jewish soul.”
In addition, both Halkin and Gordis have another method for making their subjects acceptable to the American- Jewish reader. They minimize or apologize for one of the most controversial planks of Jabotinsky and Begin’s shared philosophy, namely that a Jewish state with a Jewish majority should reign over the land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, if not beyond.
More than just controversial, this was the foundation of the Revisionist-Zionist movement. The truncation of Transjordan from the Mandate was one of the events, at least according to Shmuel Katz and Joseph Schechtman, that led to Jabotinsky’s resignation from the Zionist executive in 1923.
At the founding meeting of Jabotinsky’s Revisionist-Zionist faction, delegates resolved that, “The aim of Zionism is the gradual transformation of Palestine (Trans Jordan included) into a Jewish commonwealth ... under the auspices of an established Jewish majority.”
And the Zionist Congress’s refusal to endorse a similar resolution in 1931 was the ideological trigger for Jabotinsky’s ultimate withdrawal from the Zionist movement in 1935. Jabotinsky reacted to the torpedoing of his resolution by shouting, “This is not a Zionist Congress any more,” and ripping up his congressional delegate card.
Halkin, however, gives Jabotinsky’s territorial maximalism, which Jabotinsky put into song (“The East Bank of the Jordan”), minimal treatment.
In his epilogue, where Halkin imagines a contemporary conversation with Jabotinsky, Halkin erases it completely.
Halkin asks Jabotinsky what Israel should do today. “Get the best deal you can,” Jabotinsky replies. Attempting to avoid political conclusions, Halkin has Jabotinsky add that he cannot be more specific about details like Palestinian statehood, settlements or Jerusalem. Still, if the “deal” itself is the goal, Palestinian statehood is both tolerable and desirable, since that is what the “deal” is all about.
Thus, Halkin tells us, Jabotinsky was no fanatic after all, but a pragmatist. If he could have raised Jabotinsky from the dead for the 2009 Knesset elections, Israel’s last ideological- electoral contest, Halkin probably imagines that Jabotinsky would not have voted Likud, but Kadima.
Halkin lays no foundation for such an ideological reversal in the biography as there is none to be had.
Even if we subscribe to Halkin’s unspoken argument that Jabotinsky’s territorial maximalism was merely a policy aimed at getting the “best deal” (which would contradict Halkin’s observation that Jabotinsky deplored Ben-Gurion’s Machiavellian tactics with regard to partition), there is every reason to believe that were Jabotinsky around today he would be even more adamant in such demands.
In Jabotinsky’s lifetime the Jewish people were weak, unarmed, and reliant on the Great Powers. This was Jabotinsky’s argument against Begin’s suggestion in 1938 to revolt against British rule. Today the Jews have a state, an army, and are the most powerful and reliable actor in the region. Then they were in physical danger, but the true danger was unimaginable; today, after the Holocaust, numerous wars and unceasing terrorism, only fools deny the danger. Then, the Jews ruled no territory and were a minority everywhere; Today, the Jews are a majority in their homeland.
Why would Jabotinsky today abandon his belief that there is room in Palestine for a Jewish majority and Arabs, when it is more true today than ever before? Gordis, on the other hand, does not ignore Begin’s belief in the Jewish people’s right to all its homeland. Instead, he apologizes for Begin’s opposition to Palestinian statehood, describing it as having to do with the times in which Begin lived.
On Begin’s obstinacy on Palestinian autonomy at Camp David: “His was still an era in which all Israeli prime ministers, of both the political left and the right, rejected out of hand the very notion of Palestinian statehood.”
Introducing the war with the PLO in Lebanon: “Palestinian nationalism had been born in revolt against Israel, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in those years had no interest in negotiating with the Jewish state. Its genocidal charter openly called for Israel’s destruction; Mein Kampf was required reading at Fatah training camps.... For that reason, and because he lived in an era long before the Palestinian cause was universally recognized as it is today, Begin simply refused to engage the question of Palestinian autonomy or statehood.”
Thus Gordis imagines that if Begin lived today, when the PLO claims it is willing to negotiate and in which the Palestinian cause was universally accepted, he might have acclimated himself to Palestinian statehood.
But Begin did live in a time in which Palestinian statehood, in part or all of Palestine, was the policy of the relevant foreign powers. Whether it was the partition plans of the late 1930s, the White Paper of 1939, the 1947 UN Partition resolution or the pressure on Israel to withdraw from territory both before and during Begin’s tenure as prime minister, Begin opposed them all.
There is no reason to doubt that if Begin were alive today he would stick to the principles he held throughout his life, especially as Israel’s position has improved considerably since he left office.
The irony of the legacy of Revisionist-Zionism is that the Israeli Left are finally acknowledging that Jabotinsky and Begin were misunderstood and their commitment to the rule of law, individual rights and minority protections were not sufficiently appreciated. But the Left still cannot fathom the fusion of nationalism (the goal of a Jewish majority in the whole country) and liberalism (commitment to individual rights) that is the essence of Revisionist-Zionism.
Though Halkin and Gordis would likely not characterize themselves as left-wing, they and their readers are similarly wed to the two-state solution, and like the Left, are too fearful of what the world will allow, or pessimistic about what the Jewish people can achieve. So they, and all those who support the two-state solution, can only embrace Jabotinsky and Begin by asking them to posthumously check their nationalism at the door.
The writer is an attorney and Likud Central Committee member.