Jabotinsky: the man and his legacy

Hank Citron, who is a retired Professor of History at NYU, spoke at AACI Netanya on “Jabotinsky as a Prophet.”   Hank started by pointing out that his family name in France was Citroen, as in the cars, and his relative was Bernard Citroen, the head of the company, who was murdered by the Nazis.  He then discussed the story of Zeev Jabotinsky and this is my summary.

The Bar Kochba revolt of 132-135 ce was a catastrophe for the Jews.  It resulted in the death of an estimated 580,000 Jews and the dispersion of the remainder.  Its long-term consequence was that the Jews developed a passive and obsequious approach (the so-called “Court Jews”) to those in power and avoided any form of military resistance to persecution.  It was only in WWI in 1915 when Zeev Jabotinsky with others formed the Zion Mule Corps that Jews took up arms again after ca. 1,783 years.

What distinguished Zeev Jabotinsky from all the other Zionist leaders was that he foresaw the catastrophe that was to come for the European Jews and realized that they would have to fight for survival and for independence in Palestine.  Unlike the others also, he was not a socialist and early on realized that the concept of good relations with the Arabs would not bring any benefit for the Jews. Because of his differences with the established Zionist organizations he was widely reviled and formed the Revisionist movement.

Jabotinsky was born in Odessa, then in Russia, in 1880, into an upper middle class Jewish family.  From an early age he showed literary brilliance and wrote articles in Russian newspapers as well as books and plays and Hebrew poetry, eventually becoming an editor. He was fluent in many languages and went for a year at the age of 18 to Rome and wrote articles in Italian there.  He returned to Odessa and in 1903 personally experienced the Kishinev pogrom.  This was a tuning point in his life and from then on he was obsessed with trying to persuade Jews to take up arms to defend themselves.  He founded a Jewish Defense force in Odessa.  His views were strengthened when he met Yosef Trumpeldor, the one-armed Russian Army Officer (the first Jewish officer in the Russian Army) who had formed Jewish defense units in what was then the Turkish Empire, later to become British Palestine.

In 1917 Jabotinski and Trumpeldor helped form the Zion Mule Corps of the British Army and in 1918 he was instrumental in the formation of its successor the  Jewish Legion in which he was an officer and saw active service.. He moved to Palestine in 1920 and remained for 10 years until his activities led to his being expelled by the British Mandate authorities.  He did not trust the British and returned to Europe. In 1923 he formed the Betar youth movement in Riga, Latvia, that was the only Zionist youth movement that trained its members in military activities.

Given the dire situation in Europe in the 1930’s Jabotinsky developed a ten-year plan, the so-called Jewish Evacuation Plan, for the transfer of the majority of Eastern European Jews to Palestine, which he discussed with the leaders of some Eastern European countries (Poland, Romania) some of whom although anti-Semitic were sympathetic.  However, this plan was vetoed by the British and not supported by the World Zionist Organization.  It is estimated that Jabotinsky was responsible for bringing ca. 40,000 Jews from Europe to Palestine, only a fraction of those who could have been saved.

In 1940 he was on a tour of the USA trying to collect funds to form a Jewish Army to fight the British when he died of a heart attack and was buried in Brooklyn.  His wish to be buried in Eretz Israel was only granted in 1965 after David Ben Gurion, who was his mortal enemy, no longer had veto power.  He is buried on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem near the grave of Theodor Herzl.

Jabotinsky had a much larger legacy than his achievements in his life time would indicate. His disciples included Avraham Stern of Lehi  (the famous “Stern Gang”), Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun Zvai Leumi and subsequent Likud PM of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir, also IZL and Likud PM, Ariel Sharon Likud PM and Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest serving PM in Israel’s history.  The headquarters of the Likud Party in Tel Aviv is named Jabotinsky House.  There are more streets and places named after him in Israel than after any other Zionist leader.

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