The Spell of Jabotinsky

Jabotinsky Institute, Israel
Vladimir Jabotinsky, 1935

One shouldn’t be judged by one’s friends but by the quality of one’s enemies. On this view, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of right-wing Revisionist Zionism, was lucky. He had formidable enemies, including Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, and Berl Katznelson, the leading ideologue of Labor Zionism and the founder and editor of its daily newspaper, Davar. But he wasn’t so lucky with his friends. Hillel Halkin writes about Jabotinsky with sympathy but with enough ironic distance to rescue him from some of his admirers.

Jabotinsky: A Life is a beautifully written short biography of an exceedingly interesting man: a novelist, translator, poet, playwright, journalist, polemicist, and probably the most remarkable public speaker in modern Jewish life. Halkin’s account of him is credible and vivid. Jabotinsky, with his exceptional charisma, struck his admirers as the epitome of the great man. They were heartened by his revision of the “practical Zionism” that was advocated by Labor Zionism and its ally Chaim Weizmann. Practical Zionism was concerned with building a viable Jewish (Hebrew) society in Palestine before worrying about a Jewish state. Jabotinsky’s grand “Revisionist” Zionism put the Jewish state first and worried about the society later. The Jewish state was to be achieved by aggressive diplomacy and military might.

This contrast between practical and political Zionism is admittedly crude, but the divisions within Zionism were crude. The historical irony is that Jabotinsky got nowhere with his aggressive diplomacy, whereas his rival, the practical Zionist Weizmann, was the one who pulled off a Zionist diplomatic coup in the form of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British promise to establish a national home for the Jews in Palestine.

For some of Jabotinsky’s detractors, he was a man whose sum was less than his talented parts; for others, a faux giant among real midgets. Though the Likud Party still swears by his name, for many of its voters Jabotinsky is only the name of a street.

Yet there is another Jabotinsky: a Russian writer and translator whose name is slowly but constantly growing among the Russian literati. Vladimir, or Volodya, Jabotinsky (his Hebrew name Ze’ev was hardly used by his relatives) was born in 1880 and grew up in Odessa, on the shores of the Black Sea. Odessa was a free seaport, where Jewish life did not resemble the shtetls of tsarist Russia. It was perceived by Russian Jews as a bustling and enjoyable city, evoked by the Yiddish phrase “to live like God in Odessa.” The city’s Jewish community was second in size only to the Russian community, and Odessa became the mecca of a modern Hebrew Renaissance, exemplified by such writers as Ahad Ha’am and Hayim Nahman Bialik, as well as an active center of Yiddish culture, with celebrated writers such as Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mokher Sforim (who wrote in both Yiddish and Hebrew). The local…

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