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VINE VOICEon June 11, 2014
One day, while I was waiting for my chai latte at the café, a friend noticed Hillel Halkin’s book in my hand and asked, “Who is Jabotinsky?” I should note that my friend is given to reading obscure books by obscurer theologians. But he joked that I had “out-obscured” him this time with my choice of reading.

So, who is Jabotinsky? Why is he worth reading about, especially if you, like me, are a Gentile Christian reader?

The answer to both questions is straightforward: Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky (1880–1940) was the founder and leader of Revisionist Zionism. He is worth reading about because of his influence on the Israeli Right, including Menachem Begin, Israel’s first Likud prime minister, and Benjamin Netanyahu, its current Likud prime minister. (Netanyahu’s father, Ben-Zion, was an aide to Jabotinsky.) And his form of Zionism complicates American Christian support for Israel in interesting ways.

That last point requires explication. Christian Zionists typically believe that the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. But the Zionists whose labors brought this about were not particularly observant Jews. (Religious observant Jews in Israel today tend to lean Right, often forming political alliances with Likud.) Moreover, they vigorously disagreed—occasionally to the point of physical fights—on political and military means and ends.

The dominant form of Zionism in the early years was Socialist and largely secular, the predecessor of today’s Israeli Left. (For anticommunist American Christians, this is always something of a surprise.) They tended to think peace with the Arabs was possible and often agreed with the various partition plans (prior to 1948) of the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations. Revisionists, on the other hand, prepared for battle from the get-go and were territorial maximalists. What united Left and Right was the dream of a Jewish nation in its historic homeland. To a certain extent, they collaborated as the British Mandate in Palestine wound down after World War II and then in the War for Independence against the Arabs. But that collaboration, rare before Independence, rare after it, was tactical rather than strategic. The divisions between Left and Right were bitter in Jabotinsky’s day. They have not become sweeter since. Jabotinsky was denounced by the Zionist Left as a “fascist,” a canard that is regularly applied by the Israeli Left to the Israeli Right in the present day, applied more generally to all Israelis by anti-Semitic streams in Europe and the Arab world.

I mention these things because Christian Zionists often have an uninformed view of Israeli history. I have met many sincere Christians who think they can skip directly from biblical Israel to modern Judaism, seemingly unaware of both the evolution of the religion of Hebrew Scriptures into rabbinic Judaism and of the prevalent secularism of Zionism in its earliest forms. (They are really shocked when they discover that some ultraorthodox Jews are not even Zionists at all!) Christian support for Israel should not be informed by such errors. If you’re going to support the nation, at least understand its history correctly.

There is another reason to read this book, however—aside from the light it will shed on a crucial chapter in Zionist history. That reason is the intrinsic interestingness of Jabotinsky’s life. He was born in Odessa, Russia. Odessa was a relatively new city, filled with all sorts of ethnic and religious minorities. While many other Russian and Eastern European Jews experienced pervasive discrimination, Jabotinsky grew up in a relatively liberal environment. He wasn’t a resident of the shtetl, he was a cosmopolitan. He didn’t become a Zionist out of a reactive mechanism of self-defense. He chose to become one.

Hillel Halkin pays particular attention to the cosmopolitan side of Jabotinsky’s personality through close and regular attention to his journalism, short stories, poems, books, and plays. The Russian author Alexander Kuprin once told a Jewish audience that Jabotinsky had “a God-given talent who could have been an eagle of Russian literature had you not stolen him from us” and drawn him into Zionist political activity. Kuprin went on to say, “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!” Jabotinsky was educated, well traveled, fluent in several languages, and a man of letters who settled into politics, lured by the necessities of his age.

His life should not be reduced to politics, as important as they were to him and as enduring as his political legacy may be. No one’s life should be. The personal is always more than—and more interesting than—the political, even in the life of a man who gave himself to politics for the sake of Zion.
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on June 18, 2014
Hillel Halkin brings to life in a short and very readable biography, the story of Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940), the founder of Revisionist Zionism. Jabotinsky was far from the prototypical Zionist of the early 20th Century. Being born in the cosmopolitan port city of Odessa, he was far from the shtetls of Poland and Russia. He was far from religious and didn’t really like living in the Palestine of the 1920s.

Nevertheless he was extraordinarily clear-eyed about the future of Zionism. Jabotinsky understood:
• The real need for Jewish Legion to assist in the British invasion of Ottoman Palestine thereby establishing the first organized Jewish fighting force in nearly 2000 years.
• The local Arab population would not be passive to a surge in Jewish immigration. He leads in the formation of the Haganah out of the remnants of the Jewish Legion. The Haganah was the forerunner of today’s Israel Defense Forces.
• The Nazi nightmare would wipe out European Jewry and urged the Jewish community to pack up and leave. He supplied chartered steamers to illegally transport Jews to Palestine.
• The Israeli economy organized along the socialist lines of Labor Zionism would not be viable and urged more market oriented policies.

Halkin discusses in great detail Jabotinsky’s long time and very acrid rivalry with David Ben Gurion. They fought each other for control of the Zionist Organization in the 1930s. To put it mildly they did not like each other and Ben Gurion prevented Jabotinsky’s reburial in Israel until after he stepped down as prime minister in 1964.

A failing of the book is that Halkin expends too many words on Jabotinsky the journalist and the writer and not enough on his leading his Revisionist Zionist group and his founding of Betar, its youth group. Menachem Begin was so inspired by Jabotinsky that he joined and became a leader of Betar. Nevertheless I would recommend “Jabotinsky” for those readers who want to go beyond the standard Labor Zionist version of the founding of the State of Israel. A great companion piece would be Daniel Gordis’, “Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul.”
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on July 17, 2014
Author Hillel Halkin introduces the reader to various political movements among Jews. He characterizes the Po'alei Tsiyon [Poale Zion], of which David Ben-Gurion was member, as Marxist. (p. 131). He describes the Revisionist Party as distinct from other forms of Zionism in its paramilitary training and "Zionist monism". (p. 145). The military-style movement was influenced by the Czech Sokol and the Italian fascist Avanguardisti. (p. 145).

The author describes Jabotinsky's travels between European nations and Palestine. One striking feature of this book is its description of massive Arab violence against Jews in Palestine. He also mentions the late 1930's Polish government and its allowance of Betar and Irgun training camps in Poland, albeit with the limitation of not antagonizing Poland's British ally. (p. 214).

Instead of seeing anti-Semitism as entirely irrational and bigoted, Jabotinsky understood anti-Semitism as something that can have understandable causes, such as the economic rivalry among Jews and non-Jews, as in Poland. (pp. 197-198). For more on this, please click on The Jewish war front, and read the detailed Peczkis review.

RIGHT-WING ZIONISM?

The customary distinction between "left wing" and "right wing" is not always informative. The rightist Jabotinsky distanced himself from the socialist views of his youth, but never became an advocate of laissez faire capitalism. He advocated compulsory arbitration of all labor disputes, an extensive welfare state, and active government provision of all the essential needs of every citizen, etc. (p. 161). Jabotinsky always abhorred fascism. (p. 227).

JABOTINSKY ON RELIGION

Jabotinsky did not believe in God, and always supposed that the ethical principles in the Bible, which he highly valued, can function without religion. He did not have the prevalent faith in the goodness of man, and eventually came to believe that, for most people, a firm moral conscience cannot be internalized without belief in God. (pp. 199-200).

JEW ON JEW VIOLENCE

The divisions between the different factions of Zionism led to bitter conflict. Halkin comments, notably among the Jews of Poland. Halkin comments, (quote) Groups of demonstrators interrupted and heckled both men. Violent brawls were frequent. In Warsaw, Ben-Gurion was attacked with Revisionist stink bombs and bricks; in Brisk, Jabotinsky was stoned by a Labor Zionist mob. The level of invective was fierce. Jabotinsky called the Zionist Left "lackeys of Moscow". Ben Gurion referred to him as "Vladimir Hitler", an epithet given resonance by the brown-shirted squadrons of Betarniks who accompanied him everywhere. (It was actually pure coincidence that both Betar and the Nazis wore brown for their marching colors, which had been chosen for the Betar uniform long before Hitler's rise.) Nor did it help that Achimeir and HAZIT HA'AM, in which Jabotinsky frequently published, praised the Nazis for their anti-Bolshevism and cult of the leader while condemning only their anti-Semitism. Jabotinsky was irate over this. (unquote)(p. 181).

Violent conflict also was notable between the different factions of Zionism in Palestine, and this was further aggravated by the mysterious murder of Chaim Arlosoroff. Halkin writes, (quote) Moreover, Achimeir and HAZIT HA'AM had repeatedly defended the use of violence against the Left; the former had even published, that same year, a tract justifying political assassination. The Revisionists were still smarting from an assault by Mapai toughs on a march of theirs in Tel Aviv several weeks earlier. (unquote)(p. 181).
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on May 17, 2014
Israel and it's history are endlessly interesting, but unfortunately too little is known about Vladimir Jabotinsky the great scholar and prophet of Zionism. He was a towering hero and one of the greatest men of the last century. Hillel Halkin has written a wonderful biography of a remarkable and prescient Zionist.
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on June 18, 2014
Hillel Halkin's book makes clear in a lucid, well-written and well-formulated way the compex xharacter of Zeev Jabotinsky. In the Zionist pantheon of the pre-World War II period of hopes and fear, Jabotinsky was a brilliant analyst of the impending doom, probably the greatest orator among them and the most outstanding writer in so many media. To reveal all his tragic flaws and strengths of his charismatic leadership in this brief reaction, would be unfair to the author and to his own brilliant, and readable research anbd understanding of his subject.
Readers of all religious and political persuasions can learn from this excellent book. I truly read it in one go.
--Avraham Avi-hai, author of Ben-Gurion, State Builder.
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on August 1, 2015
I found the book both educational and inspiring, but crucially it's a very good read. This book described the character and surroundings in 3D. Almost felt like I physically touched the world gone by... I do have a bit of a personal interest in the subject - as a young woman my great grandmother crossed Jabotinsky in Odessa. Our family used to have a few books signed by Vladimir, but they had to be destroyed as we lived in the USSR.
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on September 8, 2015
Jabotinsky, a life, explores the life and work of Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880–1940). All too often in Zionist studies, Jabotinsky and the movement he created, Revisionist Zionism, is given short shrift in the official narrative of the creation of the State of Israel. In fact many of his very early pronouncements on the struggle between Jews and Arabs in Palestine have proven to be prophetically true, and his political descendants have more or less ruled Israel since the late 1970s.

Hillel Harkin wants to set the record straight in this biography, showing that Jabotinsky was not quite the Jewish fascist which his opponents claimed. Rather, he was a man of many dramatic and self-contradictory impulses. An ardent Zionist nationalist, he lived in Palestine on and off, but appeared to prefer the cosmopolitan life of Paris to the rustic Holy Land. He fought hard for a robust, military Zionism, one expressed in the armed wing of his movement, the Irgun, but he was against tit-for-tat revenge attaches by Jews upon Arabs and urged restraint. He was not nearly as radical as the organization he helped found.

This is an excellent book to read it you want to get at the bedrock foundation of right wing Israel politics. Jabotinsky is the political father of Bibi Netanyahu, yet, as Harkin points out, it is difficult to say if Jabotinsky, if he was alive today, would have agreed with all the policies and opinions of those on the Israel right. He was far too independent minded and worldly to take narrow or parochial views on most geopolitical. He could embrace the little picture while keeping an eye on the wider field of events. His successors appear to lack this vital trait, to their detriment.
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on July 14, 2014
I thought I knew everything about Jabotinsky. I was pleasantly surprised by this well researched and written book.
I highly recommend reading it.It is a MUST
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on August 29, 2015
I would give this book 5 stars as a historical resource and less than three stars if I was ranking it as an enjoyable read. This book reads as more of an academic dissertation and requires a level of focus to really work your way through it. True, I discovered many new things about Ze'ev that I never knew before including how much he differed from Theodore Herzl and some of the other founders of Israel and how close the Zionist movement came to imploding during it's earlier years. However, I didn't find reading it very enjoyable.

If you have a keen interest of the giants of Israel's foundation and absolutely buy this book. You'll find it well researched and well laid out but beware, it takes effort to read.
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on January 4, 2015
A very well written (but a bit too concise) biography of a man that is discounted in Israel...for the reason that he was correct most of the time and his predictions came true while others dithered and "negotiated". The reader will learn why his body was not allowed to be transferred from the US (where he died) to Israel until a key person's death there. This should be must reading for anyone who has an interest in the history and future of Israel. One of the true founding fathers of the state.
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