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A Brief Literary Biography of Vladimir Jabotinsky

This essay was prepared by Daniel Radosh for a presentation at The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism as part of a Shavuot program on the literature of Zionism. All quotes are edited for space and clarity. Links within the text are to the complete passages.

Vladimir (Zev) Jabotinksy was born in Odessa in 1880. On a trip to Italy, he was inspired by Italian romantic nationalism, and grew passionately opposed to socialism. “Neither an ant's nest nor a beehive can be model for a human society,” he wrote. “For you,” addressing socialists, “the government is the policeman's club. And this club only differs from other clubs in the sense that you will be who will wave it. For you, the aim justifies the means, and hence everything is permissible. For you the war of classes is a sanctified idea, even if it will lead to bloodshed.”

Jabotinsky found Zionism in the wake of the pogroms of the early 20th Century, and was dismayed that Zionism was usually practiced in the name of socialism. He believed that Zionism was primarily a movement not of social justice, but of Jewish pride and strength. Liberalism, he wrote, is “a universal dream, a belief in the basic goodness and righteousness of man. Only the Bible says, 'thou shalt not oppress a stranger, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' Contemporary morality has no place for such childish humanism. Stupid is the person who believes in his neighbor, good and loving as the neighbor may be; stupid is the person who relies on justice. Justice exists only for those whose fists and stubbornness make it possible for them to realize it. Do not believe anyone, be always on guard, carry your stick always with you — this is the only way of surviving in this wolfish battle of all against all.”

While many resisted Jabotinsky’s militarism his calls for Jewish nobility struck a chord. “We constantly and very loudly apologize,” he wrote in 1911. “Every accusation causes among us such a commotion that people unwittingly think, 'why are they so afraid of everything? Apparently their conscience is not clear.' We think that our constant readiness to undergo a search without hesitation and to turn out our pockets, will eventually convince mankind of our nobility; look what gentlemen we are--we do not have anything to hide! This is a terrible mistake. The real gentlemen are the people that will not allow anyone for any reason to search their apartment, their pockets or their soul.”

Jabotinsky believed that Jews need a homeland not as a refuge where they could be safe from oppressors, but because a nation can only flourish within its own borders. “A preservation of national integrity is impossible except by a preservation of racial purity, and for that purpose we are in need of a territory of our own.”

Nor did he mean “racial purity” as a figure of speech. “The source of national feeling lies in a man’s blood, in his racio-physical type, and in that alone. There can be no assimilation as long as there is no mixed marriage. The ideal nation would have to possess a racial appearance of marked unique character, an appearance different from the racial nature of that nation's neighbors. It would have to occupy from time immemorial a continuous and clearly defined piece of land; it would be highly desirable if in that area there would be no alien minorities, who would weaken national unity.”

In 1923 Jabotinsky founded Revisionist Zionism, to counter the moderate voices of mainstream Zionism who sought gradual gains and peaceful coexistence with Arabs. Revisionism’s founding document was Jabotinsky’s Iron Wall essay. It is echoed to this day in the policies of Revisionism’s successor, the Likud party.

“The author of these lines is considered to be an enemy of the Arabs. This is not true. My emotional relationship to the Arabs is the same as it is to all other peoples – polite indifference. There will always be two nations in Palestine – which is good enough for me, provided the Jews become the majority. We will never attempt to expel or oppress the Arabs. Our credo, as the reader can see, is completely peaceful. But it is absolutely another matter if it will be possible to achieve our peaceful aims through peaceful means.”

Jabotinsky pointed out that native peoples always resisted when outsiders attempted to settle their land. “Furthermore, how the settler acted had no effect whatsoever. The Spaniards who conquered Mexico behaved like plunderers. But those great explorers, the English, Scots and Dutch who were the first real pioneers of North America, were people possessed of a very high ethical standard; people who in all sincerity and innocence believed that in those virgin forests and vast plains ample space was available for both the white and red man. But the native resisted with the same degree of cruelty.

"We can talk as much as we want about our good intentions; but the Arabs understand as well as we what is not good for them. They look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervor that any Aztec looked upon his Mexico or any Sioux looked upon his prairie. Colonization itself has its own explanation, integral and inescapable, and understood by every Arab and every Jew with his wits about him. Colonization can have only one goal. For the Arabs this goal is inadmissible.

"If it were possible (and I doubt this) to discuss Palestine with the Arabs of Baghdad and Mecca as if it were some kind of small, immaterial borderland, then Palestine would still remain for the Palestinians not a borderland, but their birthplace, the center and basis of their own national existence.

"Their voluntary agreement is out of the question. Zionist colonization must be carried out in defiance of the will of the native population. This colonization can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population – an iron wall which the native population cannot break through.

"If anyone objects that this point of view is immoral, I answer: It is not true; either Zionism is moral and just or it is immoral and unjust. We hold that Zionism is moral and just. And since it is moral and just, justice must be done, no matter whether Joseph or Simon or Ivan or Achmet agree with it or not. There is no other morality.

"All this does not mean that any kind of agreement is impossible, only a voluntary agreement is impossible. As long as there is a spark of hope that they can get rid of us, they will not sell these hopes, not for any kind of sweet words or tasty morsels, because they are not a rabble but a nation, perhaps somewhat tattered, but still living. A living people makes such enormous concessions on such fateful questions only when there is no hope left. Only when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall, only then do extreme groups lose their sway, and influence transfers to moderate groups. Only then would these moderate groups come to us with proposals for mutual concessions. And only then will moderates offer suggestions for compromise on practical questions like a guarantee against expulsion, or equality and national autonomy.

"I am optimistic that they will indeed be granted satisfactory assurances and that both peoples, like good neighbors, can then live in peace. But the only path to such an agreement is the iron wall. In other words, for us the only path to an agreement in the future is an absolute refusal of any attempts at an agreement now.”

The realpolitik side of Jabotinsky went hand in hand with an aesthetic ideology that found expression in the Revisionist youth movement, Betar. The Betari were distinguished by their striking brown shirts. “The duty and aim of Betar is to create that type of Jew which the nation needs in order to better and quicker build a Jewish state,” Jabotinsky wrote.

Among the principles of Betar were:

The primacy of Hebrew. Though he professed “respect” for Yiddish and Ladino, Jabotinksy believed a national language “cannot be a language which the nation has derived from a strange people and then suited it for its own purposes. A Jewish child who is ignorant of Hebrew is not entirely Jewish.” Equally important, he noted, “Our language is being revived but without that marvelously harmonious enunciation which it apparently possessed. Hebrew was as musical a language as Latin or French. Today, on the other hand, Hebrew is spoken vulgarly, and the accents are ill-sounding and foreign, even in Eretz Yisrael.”

Discipline. “It is the highest achievement of a mass of free men, if they are capable to act in unison, with the absolute precision of a machine. When we listen to an orchestra, a hundred participants of which follow implicitly one conductor and so create an impression of absolute unity, it is a certain proof that each individual gave his best efforts to achieve such a result. Of course, it was not the conductor who forced things: it was the artist himself who desired a complete unity of tone. Discipline is the subordination of a mass to one leader. It does not signify, however, that one subordinates to a stranger's will - for the leader is but the executor of your own will, your representative whom you freely empowered to conduct your "orchestra".”

Hadar. Jabotinksy wrote: “Hadar is a Hebrew word which hardly is at all translatable into another language: It combines various conceptions such as outward beauty, respect, self-esteem, politeness, faithfulness.” Jabotinsky taught that Jews were all ‘princes,’ descended from King David. He himself was known to click his heels and bow from the waist upon meeting someone.

Finally, there was a role for, “The Girl in Betar. Woman is a born "organizer". Since ancient times, she has always played the organizing part in every family. Of course, not every woman is a queen. There is also the type of empty headed, flapperish girl; but nonetheless, every one of the latter too has this inclination to orderliness, to quiet systematization. The progressive woman of my generation hated household management and it was quite natural for them to feel so, because they reacted against the old viewpoint that "House-wifeliness" is the only affair women are capable to undertake. Today, women-suffrage is generally acknowledged and consequently, there is no reason for hating a field of endeavor upon which is founded both family and society.”

Jabotinksy died in 1940, just after World War II broke out. Although he thought Nazism would collapse in on itself before too much damage was done, a legend arose that he predicted the Holocaust in a speech in Warsaw, 1937. He was actually speaking here of the kind of inherent threat to a nation in exile that he had spoken about before, but his words became chilling in hindsight:

“ A catastrophe is coming closer. I became grey and old in these years, my heart bleeds, that you, dear brother and sisters, do not see the volcano which will soon begin to spit its all-consuming lava. Whoever of you will escape from the catastrophe, he or she will live to see the rebirth and rise of a Jewish state. I don’t know if I will be privileged to see it, but my son will! I believe in this, as I am sure that tomorrow morning the sun will rise. Eliminate the Diaspora or the Diaspora will surely eliminate you.”