By David Isaac
Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky died 79 years ago this Sunday. Other than an official event to mark the great Zionist leader’s passing at the Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday, which the prime minister attended, and a few newspaper articles, few Israelis were aware of the memorial.
It’s a pity more people aren’t familiar with Jabotinsky. He was a unique combination of talent, character and political wisdom. He was the earliest of the Zionist leaders to warn Jews to flee Europe before the Holocaust, telling them, “Eliminate the Diaspora or the Diaspora will surely eliminate you.”
In this, he followed Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s founder, who foresaw still a generation earlier that disaster for the Jews was on the horizon. In this, both were head and shoulders above other Zionist leaders.
Jabotinsky’s greatest contribution was in reviving the Jewish military tradition. He founded the Jewish Legion in World War I, which served in Palestine against the Turks. And he established Jewish defense in Palestine, setting up both the Haganah and the Irgun. (A 3-volume History of the Haganah put out by the IDF Archives in the 1950s completely ignores Jabotinsky, not surprising given his political opponents ran the country at the time.)
Jabotinsky also understood the Arabs and that they would never give up their dream of driving the Jews from the Land of Israel as long as they held the slightest hope of success. This was in contrast to the Zionist leadership at the time, which tried to appease the Arabs by watering down the Zionist purpose, sinking to the point where they even denied they wanted a state. Jabotinsky fought this process, publishing his famous Iron Wall essay in 1923.
He wrote, “Zionist colonization must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it 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.” Only when Jews established a strong state would the Arabs “drop their extremist leaders, whose watchword is ‘never!’ and pass the leadership to the moderate groups.”
A great literary talent, Jabotinsky put his ideas about defense into his famous novel Samson, (1927). Set in biblical times, the judge and warrior possessed of supernatural strength tells his people to “get iron.”
What also set Jabotinsky apart was his political philosophy, which at its core put the individual ahead of the state, (a 1993 book on Jabotinsky’s ideas was titled Every Individual, A King). His philosophy (which was very American in fact) went against the grain of his times, certainly among Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia where socialism was the political default position.
Jabotinsky was also concerned for the Jewish masses, something he explicitly stated. Perhaps this explains the admiration in which he was held by his followers. They felt he was concerned about their future. He cared for ‘the little guy’ one would say today.
Many years ago, at a Nefesh B’Nefesh event in Los Angeles (Nefesh B’Nefesh is a U.S. group that promotes immigration to Israel) Israeli representatives made it clear they were eager for software engineers. I remember then thinking to myself that Jabotinsky would have recoiled at such an approach. In the case of immigration to Israel, he would have argued against anything that smacked of elitism or preferences.
This is only a smattering of thoughts on Jabotinsky, who was “an ocean” as one biographer said, that is, a man of great depth and breadth.
No doubt Jabotinsky will be remembered. Pity it’s not more broadly. That goes for all Zionist leaders, many of whom opposed one other.
It’s the clash between them where political lessons are found.
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Photos: The Jabotinsky Institute