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

Share
Related Topics
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)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness