Vladimir Jabotinsky Revisited

“Jabotinsky: A Life” by Hillel Halkin

Vladimir Jabotinsky
Vladimir Jabotinsky / Wikimedia Commons
May 31, 2014

"If I could raise any of the great figures of Zionist history from the dead for an hour’s conversation, I would choose Jabotinsky," writes Hillel Halkin in his new book Jabotinsky: A Life.

The merit of this gracefully written and thoughtful book is that Halkin makes you understand why. Jabotinsky was easily the most talented, versatile, and farseeing of Zionist leaders. Add to this his gregarious, witty, and engaging personality, and it’s difficult not to like Jabotinsky as much as one admires him. As Jabotinsky’s friend and biographer Shmuel Katz once told this writer, "I simply couldn’t find fault in him, and, believe me, I tried."

Born in 1880 in Odessa, Vladimir "Ze’ev" Jabotinsky rose to prominence through his gifts as a writer, speaker, and organizer of Jewish self-defense. His status in the Zionist movement leapt forward with the establishment of the Jewish Legion, which fought on the side of the British in Palestine during World War I. This remarkable accomplishment—remarkable in part because he worked for it alone while everyone opposed it—put him in the top tier of Zionist leaders.

In terms of his political outlook, Jabotinsky today would most resemble a conservative, in favor of free markets, an advocate of individual freedom, a believer in religion in the public square (although not a religious man himself), and convinced that a strong military was essential—in this case, essential for the creation and preservation of a Jewish state.

Halkin gives Jabotinsky credit for being right when others were wrong. Jabotinsky warned the Jews to "Get iron," meaning to build up their military strength, foreseeing that the struggle for Palestine would be decided by an Arab-Jewish war. This seems obvious now. But at the time Labor Zionists saw Arab workers as natural partners in the class struggle. Jabotinsky spoke out against socialism, understanding that a modern economy could not be based on socialist fantasies. Above all, he was prescient in warning eastern European Jews to evacuate Europe before it consumed them. He traveled from town to town exhorting Jews to flee. Unfortunately, few heeded Jabotinsky. He was even vilified, called a "fascist" and an "anti-Semite."

It was not that Jabotinsky lacked persuasive skills. Halkin provides an excellent section on Jabotinsky’s legendary oratory, quoting V.D. Nabokov, the father of the famous novelist, who called Jabotinsky "the finest orator in all of Russia." Yet, Halkin notes, there were no theatrics in his speaking. His style was calm, his body language almost stiff. To unlock Jabotinsky’s secret, he quotes distinguished writer Arthur Koestler, writing of his impression after hearing Jabotinsky: "It was an extraordinary event. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to many political speakers. None of them had [Jabotinsky’s] ability to mesmerize an audience for three hours without once resorting to the orator’s bag of tricks. There was nothing trite in anything he said. … Its power lay in its transparent clarity and the beauty of its logic."

Halkin quotes extensively from Jabotinsky’s most famous speech and the one Jabotinsky himself thought his finest—his address to the Peel Commission in 1937. This was one of the interminable commissions the British appointed to consider the situation in Palestine as they progressively threw off their obligation to create a Jewish national home. Its most famous line is when Jabotinsky compares the Arab and Jewish claims. "[I]t is quite understandable that the Arabs of Palestine would also prefer Palestine to be the Arab State No. 4, No. 5, or No. 6—that I quite understand. But when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation."

A fine literary critic, Halkin is at his best when discussing Jabotinsky’s achievements as a writer.  Halkin considers Jabotinsky’s The Five as one of the best Russian novels of the twentieth century. He quotes Russian author Alexander Kuprin, speaking to an audience of Odessan Jews. "A God-given talent who could have been an eagle of Russian literature had you [Jews] not stolen him from us, quite simply whisked him away. … What a great loss to Russian literature, only a few of whose writers have been blessed with his style, his wit, his insight into our soul!"

Halkin describes Jabotinsky’s translations of Edgar Allan Poe into Hebrew as a "high-water mark of Hebrew translation to this day." Jabotinsky also translated into Hebrew Gabriele D'Annunzio, Edward Fitzgerald, and Edmond Rostand. While imprisoned by the British for helping mount Jewish self-defense against an Arab uprising, Jabotinsky worked on a translation of Dante’s "Inferno."

More than his previous biographers, Halkin makes use of Jabotinsky’s writings—especially his play "All Right" and his novel Samson—to offer insights into Jabotinsky’s complex personality and inner conflicts. Halkin writes: "The tensions in Jabotinsky’s thought between freedom and duty, personal autonomy and authority, and self-fulfillment and social responsibility, already present when his philosophy of ‘individualism’ clashed with his attraction to Zionism in Odessa, were most thoroughly explored by him in his remarkable novel Samson the Nazarite."

Halkin presents Jabotinsky as a conflicted soul, torn between his liberal individualist humanism and the harsh needs of creating a state. In some respects, he makes a good case—for example, Jabotinsky was clearly uncomfortable with some of the acts of the Irgun, the underground organization in Palestine he inspired.

One suspects that this is what makes Jabotinsky an attractive subject for Halkin, whose own political writings (in Commentary, the New York Sun, and elsewhere) reveal a conflicted soul—struggling to integrate his Zionism with his moral rejection of ruling another people. This was not a conflict Jabotinsky suffered from, never once doubting that the Jews should rule Palestine.

Halkin’s own political views are opposed to those of Jabotinsky (unlike his previous biographers, who were acolytes). This gives him a distance from his subject which could be valuable. Unfortunately, for all his efforts at empathy, it prevents him from understanding the most important aspect of Jabotinsky—as political leader and thinker. This is especially apparent in the epilogue, which includes an imaginary dialogue in which Halkin asks Jabotinsky what he would advise, now that Israel rules "millions of Arabs against their will." He has Jabotinsky answer: "Get the best deal you can."

This response is jarring. It misapprehends Jabotinsky’s outlook, sounding more like an answer from Jabotinsky’s opponents, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion. Jabotinsky didn’t reconcile himself to a situation, he looked for ways to alter it. In fact, we can be fairly confident how Jabotinsky would have answered Halkin from a letter quoted in Shmuel Katz’s book that Jabotinsky wrote to Zionist leader Jacob de Haas in 1936 at an especially low point in Zionist fortunes.

Jabotinsky writes: "I frankly admit that for the moment I have lost sight of the little trail which may bring us back to the big main road. It is the first time in my life that such a thing has happened to me. Ever since the Young Turkish Revolution, thirty years ago, in all the cataclysms we have lived through, I have always had the impression, or the illusion, that I could see quite clearly that particular little track winding its ways through bogs and boulders for the special benefit of the Zionist cause … I fervently hope that my blindness is temporary, but that does not matter. Somebody, if not I, is sure to rediscover the trail."

It is not a stretch to imagine Jabotinsky saying something similar today: "I am gone, but that does not matter. You now have what in my time was only a dream: a state, an army, a vibrant economy. Rediscover the trail."

Published under: Book reviews , Israel