Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky—the iconoclastic founder of Zionism’s right-wing Revisionist party and the scourge of David Ben-Gurion—died eight years before Israel’s birth, left to history as his peers went on to glory. But now Jabotinsky is back in the headlines thanks to pundits who see his philosophy reflected in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies.
The argument goes something like this: Beyond the obvious political lineage—the Likud party is the successor to Herut, which was the successor to Jabotinsky’s revisionist faction—Netanyahu’s personal history traces directly back to Jabotinsky. Benzion Netanyahu, the prime minister’s father, was Jabotinsky’s disciple and private secretary. The elder Netanyahu said as recently as 2009 that the Arabs’ existence “is one of perpetual war” and argued that Israel should beat back any hint of Palestinian nationalism with the threat of “enormous suffering.” He passed these beliefs on to his son, and, ergo, Bibi Netanyahu, like Jabotinsky, is a brutal, racist, territorial maximalist who brooks no compromise in his desire to protect the Jewish state by crushing the Arabs.
In February, Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times that Netanyahu was “raised in the Jabotinsky strain of Zionism by a father who viewed Arabs as ‘semi-barbaric.’ ” Andrew Sullivan, in his review of Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism, argued that Netanyahu’s policy in Gaza and the West Bank, seen in light of Jabotinsky’s influence, “makes more sense … it’s a conscious relentless assault on the lives of Palestinians to immiserate them to such an extent that they flee.”
But these critics must have forgotten their history. Even a glance at Jabotinsky’s writings suggests that the Zionist pioneer was not the warmongering bigot that these pundits make him out to be. Consider the three main charges commonly brought against him:
1. Jabotinsky was a racist.
Most early Zionist leaders either did not recognize or refused to publicly acknowledge the depth of Arab nationalism and opposition to a Jewish state. They dismissed Arab violence as isolated rabble rousing and thought that adequate jobs and money would quell it. In 1921, for example, Ben-Gurion said that Arab rioters were “wildmen” and “thieves” not driven by anti-Zionist ideology, but by their leaders. Fifteen years later—likely for strategic reasons—he wrote that “the majority of the Arab population knows that Jewish immigration and colonization are bringing prosperity … their self-interest … is not in conflict with Jewish immigration … but in perfect harmony with it.”
Jabotinsky thought that this view was nonsense. “To think that the Arabs will voluntarily consent to the realization of Zionism in return for the cultural and economic benefits we can bestow on them is infantile,” he wrote in 1923 in “The Iron Wall,” his most famous essay. This fantasy, he argued, “comes from some kind of contempt for the Arab people,” a paternalistic belief that they were “ready to be bribed to sell their homeland for a railroad network.” Jabotinsky understood that the conflict between the Jews and Arabs was not about dollars or land, but about ideology and said that Zionists harmed their cause by failing to address that fact head on. That’s why the leftist Israeli historian Avi Shlaim called Jabotinsky “the first major Zionist leader to acknowledge that the Palestinians were a nation and that they could not be expected to renounce their right to hold on to their patrimony.”
What’s more, Jabotinsky was a classical 19th-century liberal who championed full civic equality. Although he would later flirt with the idea of voluntary transfer of Arabs out of Palestine, he firmly opposed their mandatory expulsion—unlike Ben-Gurion, who, according to historian Benny Morris, hailed the notion of compulsory transfer in his diary in 1937 and, later that year, suggested in a speech that the Jewish community could “carry out the transfer [of Arab peasants] on a large scale.” In a 1940 essay, Jabotinsky laid out a systematic program of rights for the Arabs, proposing, among other things, that every Cabinet led by a Jew in the future Israel should offer the vice-premiership to an Arab. In the very fight song of the Revisionist youth organization that he founded, Betar—which declared that “Two Banks has the Jordan: This is ours, and that is as well”—Jabotinsky also wrote: “From the wealth of our land there shall prosper The Arab, the Christian, and the Jew.” Even at his most militant, he called for fraternity. Far from being an out-and-out racist, Jabotinsky was one of the only Zionist leaders to take the Arabs seriously and promote a significant role for them in the future Jewish state.
It’s true that Jabotinsky did not hold Arab culture in high regard. In the “Iron Wall,” for example, he wrote that “culturally, [Palestinian Arabs] are 500 years behind us.” But in many ways, Jabotinsky openly respected Arab aspirations far more than most Labor Zionists under Ben-Gurion.
2. Jabotinsky’s racism toward Arabs informed his maximalist demand for a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River.
There is no doubt that Jabotinsky insisted on both sides of the Jordan River—not only today’s Israel and the Palestinian territories, but Jordan as well. But he did not do so out of a desire to punish the Arabs or a belief that they didn’t deserve their own state.
Instead, Jabotinsky justified his demand by invoking the need to save European Jewry from extermination. Years before the Holocaust, he sensed an “elemental calamity” approaching for the Jews of Europe. In a tragically prophetic speech in Warsaw on the Ninth of Av in 1938, he begged the crowd to listen to him and immigrate to Palestine at what he saw as “the very last moment” before catastrophe: “For heaven’s sake! Save your lives, every one of you, as long as there is time—and time is short!” Jabotinsky tirelessly carried this message with him across the continent, a desperate, would-be rescuer of its Jews.
It was Jabotinsky’s obsession with sheltering millions of European Jews, not some anti-Arab bigotry, that drove his territorial claims. Even as he expressed “the profoundest feeling for the Arab case,” Jabotinsky argued that it simply could not compare to the Jewish need for refuge. “When the Arab claim … [for] Arab State No. 4, No. 5, or No. 6 … is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved,” he said, “it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation.” Yossi Klein Halevi, a Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, told me, “You can’t understand [Jabotinsky’s] thinking on the Arab-Zionist conflict, his maximalism, without understanding his role as the lone Jewish voice for emergency rescue.” To Jabotinsky, Arab desire, however legitimate, could not measure up morally to Jews’ existential crisis.
3. Jabotinsky called for never-ending war against Palestinian Arabs until they succumbed.
In referring to Jews “crushing” and “immiserating” Palestinian Arabs with military might until they break, writers like Peter Beinart and Andrew Sullivan are offering a shallow interpretation of Jabotinsky’s iron wall.
Jabotinsky first proposed the iron wall in 1923 less as a literal buffer than a demonstration of strength meant to convince the Arabs that the Jews were there to stay. Given the natural defiance of the native population to Jewish settlement, Jabotinsky understood that as long as a “spark of hope” remained that the Arabs could expel the Jews, they would not relent. Only when “there is no hope left … when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall,” he wrote, would “extremist groups lose their sway” and moderates rise to “offer suggestions for compromise.” When that happened, Jabotinsky said later, he was prepared “to let even Kalvarisky [a founder of the Brit Shalom peace movement] lead the orchestra.” But until then, any true peace would need to wait for the necessary psychological shift.
The iron wall was not meant to be an excuse for ruthless force, but a display of resolution and permanence that would eventually lead to reconciliation. According to Avi Shlaim, Jabotinsky “was not opposed to talking with the Palestinians at a later stage.” But the danger of the concept of the iron wall, in his view, was that “that Israeli leaders less sophisticated than Jabotinsky would fall in love with a particular phase of [the wall] and refuse to negotiate even when there was someone to talk to on the other side.” Sallai Meridor, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States and Betar youth member, told me that, contrary to conventional wisdom, “the iron wall article suggests that Jabotinsky was ready for significant compromise under certain circumstances. He was strongly against offering it as long as the Arabs had not given up completely on the desire to get rid of the Jews, but he foresaw that [if they did so], there could be an agreement based on mutual concessions” on the major issues for both sides. As eager as Jabotinsky was to establish Jewish sovereignty, he was just as eager to make peace with the Arabs once they recognized the inevitability of the Jewish state.
Of course, you wouldn’t know any of this from recent critics, who, by reading history backwards from the present, have demonized and simplified Jabotinsky’s legacy to attack their current political foe, Netanyahu. But if Jabotinsky really is central to Bibi’s thinking, then perhaps those critics are as wrong about the present as they are about the past.
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Jordan Chandler Hirsch is staff editor at Foreign Affairs.
Jordan Chandler Hirsch is staff editor at Foreign Affairs.