In 1923 a brilliant Russian Jewish journalist, poet, and soldier published an essay about the Zionist enterprise called “The Iron Wall.” In it he outlined his view of relations between Arabs and Jews living in Palestine. He poured scorn on the notion that there could be anything like a “voluntary agreement” between the two. “Not now, nor in the prospective future,” he wrote. It was childish to think that the Arabs could be brought around to the notion that the Jews did not represent a threat to them. They did. And the Arabs knew it. Cold, hard realism was the way to deal with them. The only road to reaching an accommodation, he said, was to create an iron wall, “which is to say a strong power in Palestine that is not amenable to any Arab pressure. In other words, the only way to reach an agreement in the future is to abandon all idea of seeking an agreement at present.

by Hillel Halkin,
Yale University, 256 pp.

Two years later, yet another talented Russian Jewish journalist and novelist arrived at rather different conclusions. After visiting the Middle East, he wrote an article titled “Flowering of Palestine Depends on the Welfare of the Arabs.” He went on to denounce Jewish “extremist chauvinists,” even temporizing when it came to the idea of an explicitly Jewish state. His essay helped to ignite an impassioned debate among American Jews about the meaning of Jewish identity and Zionism in the twentieth century that continues until today.


The Rise of
Abraham Cahan
by Seth Lipsky,
Schocken, 240 pp.

The first writer was Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of the right-wing Zionist Betar movement and a lawyer, journalist, and orator extraordinaire who was fluent in seven languages. The second, and less well known, author was Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, a fiery socialist and anti-communist daily that was avidly read by much of New York’s immigrant Jewish community. Squint a little bit and you can pretty clearly see the origins of the contemporary divide over Israel’s identity in the disputes that took place eight decades ago between Jabotinsky’s followers: to confront the Arabs with overwhelming force on one side, or try to engage with them, on the other.

At the time, Jabotinsky looked to be distinctly on the losing side of this debate. The founders of Israel were not right-wing Zionist Revisionists like Jabotinsky. They were decidedly men of the left and viewed Jabotinsky with disdain, suspicious of his militaristic views, in which they saw a distinct fascistic bent. (Ben-Gurion even referred to him as “Vladimir Hitler.”) Chaim Weizmann, who was to become the first president of Israel, wasn’t even all that intent on having a separate state for the Jews. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was a socialist and, like Weizmann, didn’t believe that it was prudent to antagonize the British, who had just driven the Ottoman Turks out of Palestine, with demands for a Jewish state. There was also a peculiar cultural antagonism between these leaders: Jabotinsky, who spent his childhood in polyglot and cosmopolitan Odessa, in relative freedom, was somewhat contemptuous of the so-called “shtetl Jews” who lived proscribed lives, filled with fear of the authorities. Ben-Gurion, who grew up in just such a shtetl in Poland, regarded Jabotinsky as a somewhat inauthentic Jew. In a remarkable display of uncharacteristic pettiness, Ben-Gurion even refused permission for Jabotinsky’s remains to be transferred to Israel after the latter’s death in 1940.

But fast-forward to today, and matters look rather different. It is Jabotinsky who seems to be scoring a posthumous victory over his detractors. For now it is the left that is in distinct retreat politically. The peace process is in tatters. And Israel’s prime minister is the son of a man who was a Jabotinsky protégé—historian Benzion Netanyahu. When Benjamin Netanyahu states that it’s premature to have real negotiations with the Palestinians, as he always does, he’s channeling his inner Jabotinsky. The reasoning is circular: the only way to reach an agreement, after all, is to not reach one.

In his recent, excellent biography, Jabotinsky, Hillel Halkin is careful not to freight his study with too much contemporary significance, though he does allude to the present in the form of an imaginary conversation with his subject about the prospects for peace in Israel. Halkin, an award-winning writer, critic, and translator, sets Jabotinsky, who was born in 1880, in the context of his time. Implicit in his book is the contention that Jabotinsky was not a crude fascist but a rather complicated character who was himself sometimes assailed by doubts about his enterprise and whose true talents rested in the literary sphere. (V. D. Nabokov, the father of Vladimir, said Jabotinsky was the finest orator in all Russia.)

Something similar might be said about Cahan. The twentieth century, with its ideological feuds and bloodletting, pushed both men away from literature and toward politics. As Seth Lipsky shows in his erudite The Rise of Abraham Cahan, this indefatigable newspaper editor felt a virtual compulsion to weigh in on the tumultuous years, from the Bolshevik revolution to the rise of Nazism, that were shaking the world. He denounced the 1938 Munich Agreement as a “shameful document” and said that Hitler was a “fascist devil” who had “made a fool of his terrified opponents, of the democratic countries, and of the whole civilized world.” But Cahan’s loathing of Nazism did not prompt him to suppress Stalin’s failings, as some on the left did. On the contrary, he played a key role in forging an anti-communist consensus among New York unions, politicians, and intellectuals. To an extraordinary extent, the most fervent anti-Bolsheviks were former Jewish radicals from the Soviet Union who had watched as their socialist ideals were hijacked by a ruthless and violent revolutionary movement that perverted them. In the 1920s, the Forward was one of the first newspapers in the U.S. to report about the Siberian prison camps. In 1923 the Daily Worker, mouthpiece of the American Communist Party, described Cahan’s remarks as a “compilation of the most loathsome back stairs gossip against Soviet Russia, emanating from the journalistic house of prostitution of the entire capitalist world.”

Despite his prescient opposition to totalitarianism, Cahan recoiled at the idea of a Jewish state before World War II. After Jabotinsky spoke at the Manhattan Opera House in March 1940 to demand “an exodus from Europe and the settlement of six million Jews on both sides of the Jordan,” Cahan attacked him. “How to take care of five million or six million homeless Jews and provide them with homes is a question that is loaded with incredible difficulties and problems,” he wrote. What Cahan did not foresee was just how radical the Nazi movement would become in wartime, as they embarked on a campaign to exterminate world Jewry. Jabotinsky, it would seem, had the clearer view.

Like Cahan, who had to flee Russia in 1882 after his numerous radical connections caught the eye of the tsarist police, Jabotinsky got into hot water as a youth for his connections with revolutionaries. Jabotinsky not only had attacked the monarchy in a variety of Russian newspapers, but also had connections with the Italian radical journal Avanti and was close friends with left-wing figures such as Vsevolod Lebedentsev, a member of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party who was arrested and then hanged in 1908 for plotting to assassinate Grand Duke Nicholas. In 1903 a pogrom broke out in Kishinev, a Jewish town in Moldavia, a hundred miles northwest of Odessa. Close to fifty Jews were killed. Fifteen hundred homes and stores were ransacked. Jabotinsky called for a self-defense force. According to Halkin, “he helped to compose and print proclamations, raise money from wealthy Jews, negotiate with arms dealers for the purchase of revolvers, distribute them to volunteers taught to shoot, plan their deployment, and patrol the city to check for signs of impending trouble.” In 1903, Jabotinsky was asked to serve as a delegate from Odessa to the sixth Zionist Congress, which met in Basel in August of that year.

As Halkin emphasizes, Jabotinsky was more prescient than many of his fellow Zionists, who harbored a somewhat romantic notion about Arab-Jewish comity. In particular, they embraced the idea that socialist Jews would create a kind of economic utopia in the Middle East in which both peoples would live in peace. In his novel Altneuland, Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, had himself forecast that economic prosperity—just as Cahan later argued and, most recently, Shimon Peres maintains—would be the solution to overcoming any lingering animosity among the Arabs toward the Jewish presence.

Jabotinsky, by contrast, did not believe this. The failure of liberal reform in Russia and the nationalism of the warring minorities in central Europe, Halkin writes, had “convinced him that in the growing turmoil of the early twentieth century it was every people for itself.” In the age of Great Power imperialism, when nation vied with nation for predominance, whether in Europe, Asia, or Africa, it was imperative for the Jews to be able to create a personal balance of power by establishing a state rather than be ruthlessly swallowed up by their enemies. In a 1910 essay, he sketched out his lupine credo: “He who puts his trust in a neighbor, be it the friendliest and most kindhearted, is a fool. … Separateness, distrust, vigilance at all times, a club in one’s hands at all times—there is no other way to survive the wars of the wolves.”

This was the credo that animated Jabotinsky in coming decades. Together with the legendary Zionist pioneer Joseph Trumpeldor, he set about creating a “Jewish legion” that would be ready to fight after World War I to assist the Zionist cause once the Ottoman Empire had disintegrated. Trumpeldor established the Zion Mule Corps, whose soldiers fought at Gallipoli, among other battles. But Jabotinsky had his eye on a greater prize—he wanted, in effect, to militarize Zionism. In July 1917, after much bureaucratic stalling on the part of the British, the 38th Service Battalion, City of London Regiment, with about eight hundred Jewish soldiers, complete with a rabbi and kosher food, began training for combat. In July, the British government also issued the Balfour Doctrine, promising a Jewish “national home.”

But the declaration, of course, only intensified rather than alleviated the tensions surrounding the future of the former Ottoman territories. Jabotinsky’s own views continued to harden after the death of Trumpeldor, who had attempted to defend several settlements that were attacked by Bedouins in 1919. He asked for reinforcements but did not receive them. Jabotinsky believed that the Jewish left, by refusing to allow Trumpeldor to evacuate the settlements and failing to supply him with aid, had betrayed his friend.

In the 1920s, Jabotinsky sought to carry on Trumpeldor’s militant spirit by founding the Betar movement, whose very name, Halkin writes, was a “Hebrew acronym for B’rit Trumpeldor, ‘the Trumpeldor League.’ ” Betar had its origins in the Jewish dueling fraternities of Latvia and Jabotinsky’s Jewish Legion. Indeed, with its ethos of submission to the state and blind fealty to a leader, Betar had a whiff of fascism about it, which is what would prompt Jabotinsky’s old adversary, Abraham Cahan, to censure him for, in his words, imitating “the outward forms of Hitler and Mussolini’s forces by instituting in his organization the brown-shirt uniform, with certain Nazi-like ceremonies included.” Cahan added, “[O]n inexperienced young people, such comedy sometimes works like a charm.”

The British, however, were not amused by Jabotinsky’s efforts to stir up trouble. One of his causes was the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Second Temple compound. Muslim religious authorities claimed, as they do today, that the Wall belongs solely to Islam. In 1929 several hundred young Jews, a goodly number belonging to Betar, held a demonstration, raising the Zionist flag and singing the Hatikvah. Riots broke out, lasting for a week. The liberal newspaper Haaretz said that Jabotinsky’s propaganda had “poisoned the atmosphere.” The British ended up expelling him from Palestine permanently. As Halkin shows, Jabotinsky became more radical as the 1930s went on and the Arabs resorted increasingly to violence against the Jews. In 1938, a young Betar and Irgun member, Shlomo Ben-Yosef, along with two comrades, fired on an Arab passenger bus, and was later hanged by the British. A furious Jabotinsky began to endorse Jewish terror, referring to Ben-Yosef as an example of a “new spiritual race.” “If you don’t want to die,” said Jabotinsky, “shoot and don’t blabber.”

Unlike Cahan, who became a powerful and revered figure, Jabotinsky has long been viewed with mixed feelings. It’s not hard to see why. Jabotinsky was quite correct to argue that the left-wing Zionists lacked a sufficient sense of urgency about establishing a homeland for the millions of Jews who would end up being murdered by Hitler and his accomplices in World War II. Current events seem to suggest that he was also right to maintain that it was a comforting chimera to think that Jews and Arabs could live easily side by side—though had the Israeli left managed to negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza years ago, they might have had the better of the argument.

Jabotinsky’s insistence on the need to employ brute force against the Arabs is fast becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as Israel remains locked in seemingly permanent combat with the Palestinians on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. (One cannot help but wonder if he would still have been right if Israel had returned Gaza and the West Bank to Palestinian control after the Six-Day War.) But now, like Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Professor Moriarty grappling with each other as they plunge into the Reichenbach Falls, the two sides seem unable to disentangle themselves from one another. More than ever, Jabotinsky’s spirit hovers uneasily over the state whose creation he fervently espoused but never got to witness.

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Jacob Heilbrunn

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.