Historical Inaccuracies Belie the Latest Take on a Zionist Leader's Legacy

Review: 'Jabotinsky’s Children: Polish Jews and the Rise of Right-Wing Zionism' by Daniel Kupfert Heller

Vladimir Jabotinsky / Wikimedia Commons
November 5, 2017

Jabotinsky’s Children is a hatchet job, cloaked in a tone of historical objectivity. The "children" are Betar, the youth movement founded by Zionist leader Vladimir "Ze'ev" Jabotinsky, which boasted some 65,000 members in the 1930s, most of them in Poland. The book's thesis is that Betar youth, whom the author says Jabotinsky originally viewed with "a mix of pity, disdain and suspicion," ultimately shaped his world view, making him open to fascist ideas. The author, Daniel Kupfert Heller, an assistant professor of Jewish Studies at McGill University, further asserts that Jabotinsky deliberately wrote "provocative and ambiguous prose" to allow "Betar activists to interpret their leader’s writings as they saw fit," in line with what the author views as their own authoritarian and violence-prone ideology.

The first hundred pages are devoted to a tedious setup describing Jabotinsky’s growing interest in Poland’s Jewish youth and an overly detailed examination of the various existing Jewish groups that would eventually coalesce to form Betar. That the book originated as a Ph.D. thesis probably explains the minutia of this section. Although the author attempts to explain why Jews were attracted to Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski’s right-wing government (not hard to understand as the situation of Jews under his regime was better than either before or after), he doesn't adequately convey the daunting challenges facing Polish Jews—given the growth of anti-Semitic hatred, the escalating economic hardships, and the progressive closing off by Britain of Jewish immigration to Palestine, one of their few avenues of escape. Neither will the reader learn what the Revisionist movement was about or even what issues preoccupied the Zionist leaders of the day.

That some Betar members flirted with fascist ideas is not in doubt. The question is: So what? It is not surprising that youth movements would be influenced by the politics of the day. Early on, Italian leader Benito Mussolini was not considered anti-Semitic which is why as late as 1934, Zionist leader Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the very face of establishment Zionism, could visit Mussolini as part of a diplomatic initiative without raising eyebrows. Heller admits that in the 1920s and part of the 1930s, fascism was not a dirty word. In the 1920s, Churchill himself wrote that Italian fascism had "rendered a service to the whole world." As late as 1933, Roosevelt expressed his admiration for Mussolini.

What is worth noting—and Heller does not note it—is that Jabotinsky refused to meet with Mussolini when given the chance. The reason: Jabotinsky hated fascism. In a world that still admired it—yes, including some of his followers—Jabotinsky decried the spread of the Leader cult. Indeed, he might have been the first Zionist leader to use the word fascism in a pejorative sense.

Faced with Jabotinsky's many antifascist articles, Heller has his work cut out for him. He nevertheless insists that Jabotinsky's writings were "provocative, elusive, and contradictory." He repeatedly refers to Jabotinsky's devotion to democratic ideals as a "persona," implying that Jabotinsky believed something more sinister in his heart of hearts. He fastens upon a letter Jabotinsky wrote to a follower in 1930. It says: "The cult of the Duce awakens disgust in me"—hardly an "elusive" message. But wait, says Heller, later in that same letter Jabotinsky "tempered" his message, saying, "Fascism has many good ideas." The trouble with treating this as evidence of Jabotinsky's alleged slouch toward fascism, is that we have a clear declaration of his opposition to fascism coupled with a vague statement about fascism's positive aspects. Heller doesn't include the text of the letter so we don't know what were the "good ideas" to which Jabotinsky referred.

In fact, we do know what Betar members admired about fascism. In one of his more cautious moments, Heller himself tells us: "While many Betar leaders admired the fascist calls for discipline, obedience, and military might, and occasionally idealized their economic system, they never celebrated institutions of the fascist state designed to suppress political dissent, whether through censorship, the secret police, or squadristi. Leaders of Betar's parent organization, the Revisionist movement, were especially reticent to identify with a movement that infringed on basic freedoms of association and sought to dictate the attitudes and behaviors of its citizens." In short, Betar rejected those aspects of fascism for which we today judge the political ideology to be so repugnant.

The author is also guilty of serious historical inaccuracies. In his discussion of agreements between Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion in 1934, which the two men were eager to reach in order to unify the Zionist movement with the looming threat of Hitler, Heller says they fell apart due to "members of both the Left and the Right rejecting the initial agreements forged by their leaders … negotiation and compromise could not overcome the hatred that Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion had fomented among their ranks throughout the previous years." What actually happened was the Revisionists confirmed the agreement (after prolonged debate according to Joseph Schechtman's biography of Jabotinsky) while Labor did not. In March 1935, the Labor Zionist trade union Histadrut held a referendum, which rejected the agreement with Jabotinsky by 15,227 votes to 10,187. Ben-Gurion biographer Shabtai Teveth writes: "Ben-Gurion was his own victim, undone by the hard line he had formerly taken against Jabotinsky and his movement." So it was Labor and only Labor that couldn't overcome its hostility. On what then does Heller base his assertion that both sides rejected the agreement? According to the footnotes, on two letters by Jabotinsky. Heller doesn't provide their contents. If Heller has new information, unknown to previous Zionist historians that the Revisionists repudiated these agreements, he ought to produce it, not base this revelation on his interpretation of letters we are not allowed to see.

The passing reference to the hatred fostered by Ben-Gurion is the first inkling the reader will get that such attitudes existed in Labor Zionist ranks. This is a striking oversight. Labor Zionists were responsible for nearly all violence between the two Zionist sides. Presumably Heller doesn't want to speak about this because it would undercut his assertion that Betar "culture made clear the necessity of waging war on socialists," which suggests Betar was the source of violence. But time and again it was the Labor Zionists who responded with physical violence when Revisionist workers wanted to work outside the socialist Histadrut. After an incident in which adult Labor members with sticks attacked 15-year-old Betar youths marching in Tel Aviv, Labor leader Berl Katznelson resigned in protest, writing: "No compromise is possible between my outlook and the slope down which our movement is sliding ineluctably. I am prepared to go down with the movement in its struggle, but I am not prepared to join it on the road of intoxication and suicide."

Heller really goes off the rails at the conclusion where he appears to treat Betar as the fount of Labor Zionist violence against Arabs. He writes that, "When the moment arrived for the 'native born' young Jews of Palestine to join underground Labor Zionist battalions that at times targeted civilians, they had at their disposal an arsenal of thousands of articles from Betar's journals that offered moral justification for employing violence against Palestine's Arab population." It is laughable to think that young Labor Zionists needed Betar reading material—which it is highly doubtful they saw—to finally abandon havlagah, the purely defensive reaction to Arab violence that left the initiative in Arab hands and which the Labor establishment itself was eventually forced to discard.

As with the example above, Heller never bluntly declares anything. Everything is done through suggestion, implication, insinuation. While it seems that Heller would love nothing more than to pin all violence on Jabotinsky and his Betar, he appears equally cautious so that no one should pin on him the accusation that he has done so. It makes his writing appear, dare we say it, "contradictory," even "elusive."

The book does have one interesting section. It is on the autobiographies of young Betar members from far-flung branches in Poland. What emerges is that Betar's largely urban leaders had a tough time communicating their political message to their distant village and small town members. One gets the impression that much as a piece of gossip can change beyond recognition as it gets passed down a human chain, Betar's political ideology also underwent metamorphosis. The most humorous example does not concern Betar, but is told by a Betar autobiographer about his sister, who ran a local Hashomer Hatzair branch. When she received propaganda from Hashomer’s rabidly secular, socialist HQ, she simply stuffed it in a drawer and ran the organization as a religious group, where they debated such matters as how to rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. There are probably lessons here for any organization struggling to keep its people on point.

All in all, this is a profoundly depressing book, dredging up long buried calumnies as if they were historical truths. But Daniel Kupfert Heller can take heart. He has ensured himself a cushy position at his choice of any number of Jewish Studies departments where political uniformity eclipses historical accuracy.

David Isaac is the founder of a Zionist history site,

Published under: Book reviews