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The bitter road to Hebron: Geoffrey Wheatcroft on the father of militant Zionism who urged Jews to arms

FOR more than a hundred years a battle has been waged for the soul of the Jewish people. It has been fought over the idea of Zionism, over what sort of country the Jewish state should be, but also over what sort of people the Jews should be. The most controversial figure in this story is Vladimir (in Hebrew, Ze'ev) Jabotinsky. The Hebron massacre nine days ago was part of that battle, and can only be understood in the light of Jabotinsky's life and teaching.

Theodor Herzl was the first to see Zionism in political terms. In 1896, in the shadow of the Dreyfus Affair and the rise of a savage new anti-Semitism in Austria and Germany, he wrote The Jewish State. Although he envisaged other possibilities - the Argentine, or Uganda - this state was ideally to be established in Palestine, 'our unforgettable historic homeland'.

Many Western Jews were hostile to Zionism because it threatened their position as assimilated members of their own societies. So the Zionist movement adopted certain compromises or evasions. One was that any Jew could be a good Zionist merely by supporting the movement, rather than by actually migrating to Palestine. There could, as it were, be justification by faith as well as deeds. Another was that a homeland (which might in time become a state) could be established in Palestine without force.

It was Jabotinsky's task to expose this pretence. He was a natural leader, a brilliant writer and orator in half a dozen languages, and one of the fathers of modern Hebrew literature (the translator of the Sherlock Holmes stories among others). He was born in 1880 in Odessa, then one of the great Jewish cities of Europe.

Like so many Zionists he was a secularist.

But like others he was forcibly reminded who and what he was - in his case by anti-Semitic riots in Odessa in 1906. The traditional Jewish reaction to persecution was passivity and patience: keep your heads down and wait for trouble to pass. Jabotinsky broke with tradition by organising Jewish self-

defence units. All Zionists wanted to change the image of the Jew. From tradesman or usurer to farmer and artisan, the dominant Labour Zionists said. To soldier also, Jabotinsky added. As he memorably put it, he wanted Yids to become Hebrews. He admired the Italian nationalist movements, both the Risorgimento and Mussolini's New Age.

In the 1914-18 war, Jabotinsky helped organise a Jewish Regiment to serve with the British Army, and to fight the Turks. When one of his colleagues remonstrated, saying 'the Muslims are kin to the Jews, Ishmael was our uncle', Jabotinsky replied: 'Ishmael is not our uncle. We belong, thank God, to Europe and for 2,000 years have helped to create the culture of the West.'

Labour Zionists were evasive about whether the Jewish 'homeland' should become a state. Jabotinsky was clear that a Jewish state with a Jewish majority must be established by force if necessary in Eretz Israel - the Land of Israel - not only all of what is today Israel and its occupied territories but the east bank of the Jordan as well.

He split the Zionist movement, founding his own Revisionist party, and a uniformed youth movement intended to protect European Jews from their persecutors. But in London in 1937, three years before his death, he said the Jews of Europe were 'facing an elemental calamity', and he was to be proved appallingly, unimaginably right.

His followers, in reaction, turned to more and more violent courses. Two Revisionist offshoots became Irgun and the Stern gang, terrorists unashamed of the name, who blew up the King David Hotel and hanged captured British sergeants during the British mandate in Palestine in the 1940s, and massacred Arab villagers.

Respectable Zionists were horrified. Jabotinsky's bitterest enemy, David Ben Gurion, called him 'Vladimir Hitler'; the visit of his follower and Irgun leader, Menachem Begin, to New York in 1948 was denounced by Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt. And, for nearly three decades, Israel was governed by Labour prime ministers like Ben Gurion and Golda Meir, who enjoyed the good opinion of European social democrats and American liberals. But Jabotinsky's heirs bided their time and in 1977 the Likud party, headed by the same Begin, came to power, determined not to return to the Arabs the territories conquered in the Six Day War of 1967.

The Jabotinsky mantle was also claimed by Jewish-American zealots. Just before his death Jabotinsky stayed in Brooklyn with a Revisionist follower, Rabbi Charles Kahane. His son Meir also became a rabbi, and a still more extreme right-wing Zionist. Meir launched the Jewish Defence League with the slogan 'every Jew a .22'. Before his assassination in 1990, he advocated the expulsion of all Arabs from Israel, including the West Bank.

Many American settlers there are devoted to the memory of Rabbi Kahane; their movement is called Kahane Chai ('Kahane Lives'); one of their number was Dr Baruch Goldstein, another zealous Zionist from Brooklyn.

So was Jabotinsky responsible for the Hebron horror? It would have appalled him. But he cannot be entirely exonerated, any more than the earlier Irish republicans like Patrick Pearse, with his talk of 'cleansing bloodshed', can be entirely dissociated from what today's IRA does. What Baruch Goldstein did at Hebron in the name of Zion was not so much the consequence of Jabotinsky's revisionism as its nemesis.

(Photograph omitted)