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Lone Wolf: A Biography of Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky, 2 vols.


"Everybody is wrong, you alone are right?" This daunting question was hurled at the militant Zionist leader Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky throughout his career, by challengers who demanded that he bow to public opinion. Jabotinsky's retort was simple yet powerful: "You cannot believe in anything in the world, if you admit even once that perhaps your opponents are right, and not you. There is but one truth in the world, and it is all yours. If you are not sure of it, stay at home; but if you are sure, don't look back" (pp. 195-96). This credo, to which Jabotinsky clung passionately, may have been the secret of his success in weathering the storms of controversy that surrounded him both within the Jewish world and on the battlefield of international diplomacy. Lone Wolf, Shmuel Katz's comprehensive new biography of Jabotinsky, chronicles the tumultuous life of the Zionist firebrand and, through his eyes, follows the trials and tribulations of the Zionist movement during its formative decades.

For a number of years, scholarly interest in the Zionist right focused less on Jabotinsky than on his followers, most notably Menachem Begin, especially in the wake of Begin's election as prime minister of Israel in 1977. Several studies of Begin's Jewish underground army, the Irgun Zvai Leumi, have appeared, as has a growing body of memoir literature by veterans of the movement.(1) Only recently have a handful of historians - Yaakov Shavit, Lawrence Weinbaum, Chanoch Rosenblum - begun to examine the political career of Jabotinsky himself and the impact of his movement, the Revisionist Zionists.(2) Katz's Lone Wolf follows appropriately. Although himself an admirer of Jabotinsky and a Revisionist alumnus, Katz approaches his subject with scholarly detachment. Unlike Jabotinsky's only other biographer, Joseph Schechtman (his two-volume study, Rebel and Statesman and Fighter and Prophet, was published in 1961),(3) Katz does not refrain as a matter of principle from acknowledging Jabotinsky's flaws or occasional miscalculations, although he does not find many of them. Also unlike Schechtman, Katz had access to a rich variety of recently-opened archival sources that shed light on Jabotinsky's actions, the era in which he moved and the individuals - friend and foe - with whom he interacted. Katz utilizes them well to provide appropriate background and context.

Jabotinsky was a rare combination of intellectual, orator, and charismatic leader. He might spend an afternoon translating Edgar Allen Poe into Hebrew, then in the evening deliver a riveting Zionist lecture that would bring an audience of thousands to their feet. When one thinks of Chaim Weizmann, the scientist and diplomat, or David Ben-Gurion, the farmer and politician, Jabotinsky's uniqueness as a Zionist leader is apparent. In common with his rivals, however, the young Jabotinsky embraced Zionism in response to the rising tide of anti-Semitism in his native Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. The Kishinev pogrom in particular did more than anything else to convert Jabotinsky from acculturated intellectual to committed Jewish nationalist. His extraordinary skills as a multilingual essayist, poet, and translator were now put to use in the service of Zionism, and it was not long before he added speechmaking and diplomacy to his arsenal.

Jabotinsky's first major success as a Zionist leader was the establishment, under British auspices, of a Jewish Legion that helped liberate Palestine from the Turks during World War I. For the first time in countless centuries, a Jewish army went forth to capture the ancient Jewish homeland. By day, they fought for the Holy Land; at night, "the officers' mess, after meals, often had the appearance of a discussion-evening of the good old days in Minsk or Kishinev. Are the Jews a nation? What is nationality? Can one be a Zionist and a British patriot at the same time?" (p. 340).

Katz's account of the lobbying efforts that brought the Legion to fruition does not paint a flattering portrait of Chaim Weizmann's role. Citing internal British government memoranda and Weizmann's own letters, Katz concludes that in some instances, Weizmann deliberately undermined the lobbying for a Jewish Legion in order to strengthen his own position in bargaining with British officials over the text of what was to become the Balfour Declaration. Katz's findings differ from those of Jehuda Reinharz, who (in his multivolume biography-in-progress, Chaim Weizmann: The Making of a Statesman) characterizes Weizmann as having "favored the idea of a Jewish fighting force from the very beginning" (p. 168).

The tangible value of the Jewish Legion likewise remains the subject of controversy among historians of Zionism. Walter Laqueur (A History of Zionism), for example, accused Jabotinsky of having "grossly exaggerated" the Legion's role; Laqueur contended that it played a "not very significant part" in the Palestine campaign (p. 341-342). Howard Sachar (A History of Israel from the Rise of Zionism to Our Time), by contrast, maintained that the Legion "was distinctly more than a token or symbolic force." He believed that "its role in the conquest of Palestine eventually signified as much as the ordeal of the early Zionist pioneers, and hardly less than the Balfour Declaration itself, in reinforcing the Jews' claims to their national home" (p. 115). Katz agrees with Sachar, calling the Legion "the only practical and relevant symbol, in a warring world, for the reality of the Jewish people's striving for its country" (p. 727). In the midst of World War I, the phenomenon of a Zionist army on the battlefields of the Middle East made a profound impression upon some British cabinet ministers, helping to pave the way for the Balfour Declaration and the awarding of the Palestine Mandate to England.

Almost as soon as the era of modern Zionist development under British tutelage had been ushered in, however, Arab violence cast a dark shadow over Jewish aspirations. The unexpected eruption of Palestinian Arab mob assaults upon Jews in Jerusalem in 1920, set the Arabs, Jews, and British on a deadly collision course. Jabotinsky's hastily-assembled self-defense militia, the Haganah - consisting primarily of former Jewish Legionnaires - fought valiantly against the rioters, only to be jailed by the British for unauthorized possession of weapons. As he languished in his prison cell in Acre, Jabotinsky's fame as defender of Palestine Jewry spread throughout the Jewish world, and anger over his imprisonment triggered a veritable tidal wave of protests. Probably no other Zionist leader could have inspired the chief rabbi of Palestine, Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, to stand before his congregation that Passover and, in violation of halakhic strictures, sign a petition demanding the prisoners' release and order his congregants to do likewise.

What had caused the Arab violence in the first place? Here again Katz takes issue with some conventional interpretations. After thoroughly documenting the anti-Semitic sentiment that was prevalent among British administrators in Palestine during the 1920s - and chiding Jabotinsky for underestimating the pervasiveness of such bigotry (p. 466) - Katz argues that senior officers of the British military government were not merely Arab sympathizers, but actually were "the initiators" of the organized Arab opposition to Zionism (p. 417). Other recent scholarship, by contrast, has downplayed the notion of a foreign hand manipulating the Arabs, viewing Palestinian Arab violence as an authentic expression of the Arabs' resentment of the Jewish influx into the country. Katz points out, correctly, that during the early 1900s, "very few Arabs had any sense of nationality at all; the whole area of their attachment was to their village or their town" (p. 407). But loyalty to a village need not preclude religious, cultural, or political hostility. Their lack of a specifically Palestinian identity did not diminish the Arabs' resentment of the Jewish newcomers. Interestingly, Jabotinsky himself gave no credence to the idea that the Palestinian Arabs were being manipulated into committing violence or would give up violence if they enjoyed economic progress. Jabotinsky criticized "the naive assumption that the desire of the Palestinian Arabs to keep the country for Arabs only can ever be paralyzed by such means as subsidies, economic advantages, or bribes. . . . His instinctive patriotism is just as sure and noble as our own; it cannot be bought. . ." (p. 847).

The imprisonment of Jabotinsky and his Haganah men for their self-defense actions during the 1920 riots was a harbinger of difficult times to come. Each outburst of Arab violence stimulated a further British retreat from the Balfour Declaration's pledge to facilitate the establishment of a "Jewish national home" in Palestine. Temporary restrictions were placed on Jewish immigration; the eastern two-thirds of the Mandate territory were arbitrarily severed and turned into an Arab kingdom (Transjordan); and pleas for the creation of a legal Jewish defense force were repeatedly rejected. How should the Zionist movement respond? Weizmann counseled caution, insisting that the British policy shifts were aberrations. A militant faction within the Zionist hierarchy, led by Jabotinsky, argued that only a more aggressive stance could prevent England from altogether abandoning the dream of Jewish statehood. By 1925, Jabotinsky established his own wing of the Zionist movement, the League of Zionist-Revisionists, so named because of their determination to revise the Zionist position vis-a-vis London. Katz offers an amusing description of the early days at the tiny, penniless Revisionist headquarters in Paris, where Jabotinsky, as the only one in the office who could type (and even then with just two fingers) would take dictation from underlings, letters were late being mailed because there was not always enough money to buy stamps, and "to send a telegram was a major, sometimes insoluble problem" (p. 1042). But success was not long in coming. Jabotinsky's message of Jewish pride resonated in particular among East European audiences. In the bleak interwar atmosphere of economic crises and rising anti-Semitism, Jabotinsky offered hope.

Along with the emergence of the Revisionist party and its youth movement Betar as a significant force in the Jewish world, came the burdensome responsibility of leadership, which fell almost entirely upon Jabotinsky's shoulders. For all the many talented and dedicated men and women in the Revisionist hierarchy, the movement inevitably focused, as successful mass movements usually do, on one charismatic leader. He shuttled back and forth from Jerusalem (until the British barred him from returning to Palestine in 1930) to Paris to London, to press the Zionist case in the halls of international power. Then it was back to his real constituency, in Eastern Europe, with occasional forays into farther-flung corners of the Diaspora, such as South Africa and the United States. His wife and son followed along, more or less, but there were long periods of agonizing separation, as one might expect the family of an international statesman to endure. The less frequent references in the latter parts of Katz's study to Jabotinsky's personal life perhaps reflect the dwindling amount of time he had left for personal matters as the crises in Palestine and Europe multiplied during the 1930s.

A correlation between the worsening Jewish situation worldwide and the growth of the Revisionist movement is apparent. From 21 delegates to the 1925 World Zionist Congress, the Revisionists won enough votes in the 1931 elections to send a delegation of 52 (out of 254) to that year's Congress, an increase of some 150%. The Revisionist surge came on the heels of the 1929 Arab pogroms in Palestine and the 1930 report by the British government's Shaw Commission that sought to pin blame on the Jews for allegedly provoking the Arab outbursts. Arab violence, British complicity, and, in 1933, the Nazis' ascension to power in Germany seemed to confirm the Revisionist view that the Jewish people were trapped in a hostile world where survival depended upon strength and assertiveness. Katz believes that if elections to the 1933 World Zionist Congress had been held early in the year Jabotinsky and his followers might well have garnered as much as 30% of the vote.

But fate intervened. On a June evening in 1933, Labor Zionist leader Haim Arlosoroff was assassinated, apparently by two Arab criminals, on the Tel Aviv beach front. The arrest of several young Revisionists ignited a firestorm of Labor Zionist accusations that Jabotinsky had incited the murder, although the evidence against the suspects was flimsy at best. The allegation of incitement served as a pretext for numerous incidents of physical violence against Revisionists by Labor Zionist hotheads. (Katz offers only a brief analysis of Labor Zionist attitudes toward the use of violence; a more detailed discussion may be found in Anita Shapira's Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force 1881-1948.) Although the trial was marred by irregularities and the prosecution's case fell apart so the defendants were eventually set free, not all the damage could be easily undone. Jabotinsky's name had been severely tarred, families had been tom apart by the controversy, Revisionists had been hounded from their jobs. Relations between the Zionist left and right, already tense prior to the Arlosoroff affair, would never be the same.

Quarrels over economic issues in Palestine added another contentious dimension to the Labor-Revisionist rivalry. Labor Zionists fought for an uncompromising brand of socialism, as embodied in their domineering trade union, the Histadrut, while Jabotinsky rejected the socialists' concept of class war as a threat to Jewish national unity, insisting that labor disputes be subjected to compulsory arbitration. This was more than a literary battle; there were more than a few instances of Histadrut toughs assaulting non-union Revisionist workers. Contemporary disputes between Israel's socialists and free-market advocates cannot be said to have originated entirely in the struggles between Labor Zionists and Revisionists in 1930s Palestine, but the echoes are apparent.

Lingering resentment against the Revisionists because of Arlosoroff and labor issues explains the decision by the Histadrut rank and file, in 1935, to vote down a peace pact secretly negotiated between Jabotinsky and his Labor Zionist counterpart, David Ben-Gurion. The voters' rejection put an end to any hope of reconciling Zionism's two major camps. That autumn, the Revisionists formally withdrew from the World Zionist Organization to establish their own movement, the New Zionist Organization.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Jabotinsky's final years was the extent to which his direst warnings were borne out by events and Revisionist positions were adopted by his rivals. During the 1920s and early 1930s, he had contended that neither economic progress nor British concessions would deter Arab violence; from 1936 through 1939, Palestine was engulfed by Arab riots and terrorist attacks. The Revisionists were the first to bring unauthorized boatloads of European refugees to Palestine in defiance of British restrictions (Jabotinsky urged the adoption of extra-legal immigration as the "Jewish national sport"); later, the Labor Zionists did likewise. Jabotinsky had implored European Jewish audiences to immigrate to Palestine, "to liquidate the Exile before it liquidates you," anticipating that they would be crushed by anti-Semitism and economic discrimination; neither he nor any other Jewish leader could imagine that his forecast would come true a thousand times over. Jabotinsky had been skeptical that Britain would fulfill its pledge to facilitate the creation of a Jewish national home, although he too would probably have been surprised had he lived to witness London's total abandonment of the Zionist enterprise.

Jabotinsky had always insisted that the declared goal of Zionism should be Jewish statehood, something other Zionist leaders refrained from advocating, either because they believed an entity with less than full sovereignty would suffice or because they considered it a tactical error to articulate such a demand. Chaim Weizmann referred to the term Jewish state as the shem hamforash, the traditional Hebrew phrase for the unpronounceable name of God. After the Holocaust, Jewish statehood became the rallying cry of the mainstream Zionist leadership.

The question of how to achieve statehood was yet another area in which a Revisionist position began as the minority viewpoint but was later adopted by the mainstream. When Jabotinsky's disciple Menachem Begin launched his armed revolt against the British in late 1943, the Zionist leadership was horrified. Two years later, the Labor Zionists' militia was fighting side-by-side with Begin's men as part of the United Hebrew Resistance army whose efforts helped drive the British out of Palestine. Jabotinsky died too soon to witness that extraordinary battlefield unity; he was felled by a heart attack while visiting a Betar camp in upstate New York in the summer of 1940 at the age of 59.

Surveying the Zionist scene in 1972, Walter Laqueur argued that Jabotinsky "left no clear message to be readily applied in the world of the 1970s" (p. 383). Laqueur spoke too soon. Five years later, one of Jabotinsky's most faithful students was elected prime minister of Israel. Indeed, the Likud, which continues to insist that it represents the ideology of Jabotinsky, has been in power for 16 of the past 20 years, prompting Yaakov Shavit to write, in 1996: "No Zionist leader continues to be as relevant for his followers as does Jabotinsky."(4) Shmuel Katz's intriguing, thorough and well-written biography confirms Shavit's point. Perhaps, then, the "lone wolf" was not so alone, after all; the continued prominence of his disciples and their progeny demonstrate the longevity of an ideology, and a movement, whose impact is still felt throughout the Jewish world.


1. The best known studies of the Irgun in English are J. Bowyer Bell, Terror Out of Zion: Irgun Zvai Leumi, LEHI, and the Palestine Underground, 1929-1949 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977) and Thurston Clarke's more narrow By Blood & Fire: The Attack on the King David Hotel (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1981). A good reference volume is Eli Tavin and Yonah Alexander, eds., Psychological Warfare and Propaganda: Irgun Documentation (Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, 1982). Also of interest are Daniel Levine's David Raziel, The Man and The Legend: The Birth of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, A Jewish Liberation Movement (Jerusalem: Gefen, 1991) and Giveon Cornfield, Zion Liberated: The Life and Times of Max Seligman, Defender of Jewish Underground Fighters (Malibu, CA: Pangloss Press, 1990). The most recent example of memoir literature is Eliahu Lankin, To Win the Promised Land: Story of a Freedom Fighter (Walnut Creek, CA: Benmir Books, 1992)

2. Yaakov Shavit, Jabotinsky and the Revisionist Movement 1925-1948 (London: Frank Cass, 1988); Laurence Weinbaum, A Marriage of Convenience: The New Zionist Organization and the Polish Government 1936-1939 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993); Chanoch Rosenblum, "The New Zionist Organization's Diplomatic Battle Against Partition, 1936-1937," Studies in Zionism 11 (1990): 154-181 and "The New Zionist Organization's American Campaign, 1936-1939," Studies in Zionism 12 (1991): 169-185.

3. Joseph B. Schechtman, Rebel and Statesman: The Early Years (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1961); and Fighter and Prophet: The Last Years (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1961). Schechtman also wrote, with Yehuda Benari, History of the Revisionist Movement, Volume One, 1925-1930 (Tel Aviv: Hadar, 1970).

4. Shavit actually first made the point in 1981, but when the essay was reprinted in 1996, he chose not to alter it. See Yaakov Shavit, "Fire and Water: Ze'ev Jabotinsky and the Revisionist Movement," in Essential Papers on Zionism, edited byJehuda Reinharz and Anita Shapira, 544-566 (New York University Press: New York, 1996), p. 564.

RAFAEL MEDOFF is Visiting Scholar in the Jewish Studies Program at Purchase College, the State University of New York.
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Author:Medoff, Rafael
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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