Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Literature Roundup: Jabotinsky

In the Times Online, appears a lengthy review by Geoffrey Wheatcroft of no fewer than 6 books on Israeli and her history: Jacqueline Rose's THE LAST RESISTANCE, Colin Shindler's THE TRIUMPH OF MILITARY ZIONISM: Nationalism and the origins of the Israeli Right, David Goldberg's THE DIVIDED SELF: Israel and the Jewish psyche today, Victoria Clark's ALLIES FOR ARMAGEDDON:The rise of Christian Zionism, Yakov M. Rabkin's A THREAT FROM WITHIN: A century of Jewish opposition to Zionism, and Jimmy Carter's PALESTINE: Peace not apartheid
The review is long and rangy, starting and ending with a focus on the complicated and largely unknown major Israeli historical figure Jabotinsky. As he says in the review,

But the conflict in the Holy Land is still more dissonant in this regard. It is the single most bitterly contentious communal struggle on earth today (something which itself casts an ironical light on the aspiration of the first Zionists to “answer the Jewish question” by “normalizing” the Jews and removing them from the pages of history); it must receive more media coverage than India, which has a population a hundred times greater; it inflames acute passions. And yet it sometimes seems that the more strongly people feel, the less they actually know about the story of Zionism. Maybe it should be a requirement for anyone who wishes to hold forth on the subject to write first a few lines each on Ahad Ha’am, Max Nordau, George Antonius – or Vladimir Jabotinsky.

If not many Europeans or Americans know who “Jabo” was, Israelis certainly do. He remains the most charismatic, fascinating and controversial figure in the history of Zionism, and in the state to whose creation he devoted his life, but which he never saw. Born in 1880 in Odessa, he was converted to the Zionist cause as a young man by tsarist persecution, became a tireless publicist and organizer, and helped to create the Jewish Legion which fought with the British against Turkey during the First World War. In the 1920s he broke away to found the uniformed youth group Betar, and then the militantly nationalistic right-wing brand of Zionism he called Revisionism, in opposition to Chaim Weizmann and the general Zionists, and to David Ben Gurion and the Labour Zionists of the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine.

From Betar would grow the Irgun Zvei Leumi, which waged an armed campaign against the British and the Arabs – in British and Arab eyes, a terrorist campaign – in the ten years before Israel was born. When Jabotinsky died in American exile in 1940, he had not seen the murderous horror that engulfed the European Jews, the creation of the Jewish state, or the legacy of his own movement. The Irgun evolved into the right-wing Herut party, which was not merely excluded from office but veritably anathematized in Israel for the first quarter-century the state existed after 1948, but which, now in the guise of Likud, took power at last in 1977 under the old Irgun leader Menachem Begin – and which descends to the present administration.

His reviews cover books that are not only historical, but which also, importantly link that history and Israel's roots in Jabotinsky's vision, to the domination of today's Israeli politics by the heirs of Jabotinsky -literal heirs.

"Almost unremarked in the West, Israel today has the purest Jabotinskian government yet seen."

Generously, he points out the complexities of Jabotinsky's character, acknowledginfg his increible talents as a writer: "From Theodor Herzl – whose gifts as a writer were grudgingly acknowledged by Karl Kraus in Eine Krone für Zion, his 1898 anti-Zionist philippic, and who amplified his political tract Der Judenstaat in a didactic novel, Altneuland – Zionism was always a very literary movement. It has produced no greater writer than Jabotinsky, whose translations as well as his own work helped to create modern Hebrew literature," and seems to consider Jabotinsky more generous and truthful toward the Arabs than many of those who followed. Wheatcroft certainly sees Jabotinsky as more honest with himself. He also, with a few brief quotes shows how peculiar are the modern claims that Israel's origins were not colonialist.

...the only real difference between Jabotinsky and Ben Gurion may have been that the former expressed himself in public with greater bluntness. The record confirms that. Jabotinsky insisted that there could be no foreseeable compromise with the Palestinian Arabs: “The native population, civilised or uncivilised, have always stubbornly resisted the colonists, and it made no difference whether the colonists behave decently or not”.

One of the odder claims made today by some Zionists, more likely American than Israeli, is that Zionism was an “anti-colonial” movement. Jabotinsky never pretended anything of the kind, as he made clear with his gift for vivid phrase-making, “The Iron Wall” being one case in point. When a colleague in the Legion had wondered whether, as Jews, they should be fighting the Muslims, their “uncle Ishmael”, Jabotinsky briskly replied that “Ishmael is not an uncle. We belong, thank God, to Europe and for two thousand years have helped to create the culture of the West”. And he rubbed it in harder still with the words, “The Jews came to the land of Israel to push the moral frontiers of Europe to the Euphrates”.

Indeed, as Jacqueline Rose is astute enough to notice and generous enough to acknowledge, Jabotinsky was in some ways less racist than other Zionists, in his insistence that “the entire country is full of Arab memories” and that the Palestinians naturally believed that it was their land too. We don’t know what he would have said and done in the circumstances of 1948, but ten years earlier he had explicitly repudiated the very idea of transfer: “It must be hateful for any Jew to think that the rebirth of a Jewish state should ever be linked with such an odious suggestion as the removal of non-Jewish citizens”.

The review is worth reading, and in particular, it is interesting to see him simultaneously dismiss as "pious, plodding and platitudinous, its awestruck accounts of meetings with the mighty padded out with what-I-did-in-my-holidays jottings" Carter's book, and also see it as a benchmark of those who criticized it in such shrill tones, similar to that heard over Walt and Mearsheimer's work. He begins with Jabotinsky and ends with him: the figure whose politics and passion runs through Israeli life today in a largely unseen way.

xp Jewschool

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