Jabotinsky’s Russian Years

Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Russian Years 1900-1925

by Brian J. Horowitz, published by Indiana University Press 2020, pp.271

The surprising interest in Vladimir Jabotinsky, the so-called ‘Father of the Israeli Right’ during the last twenty years is due less to his well-known Zionism, but more to the mystery of his inner beliefs and outward contradictions. For some he personified the liberal perceptive writer, for others the rabid populist, attracting multitudes of impressionable youngsters by his incendiary, yet magnetic, rhetoric. His colleagues regarded him as ‘the Danton of our day’ — after the French revolutionary.

The American academic, Brian Horowitz, has attempted in the past to incisively get behind the public face which greeted all-comers. In his latest absorbing book, Horowitz examines Jabotinsky’s Russian years, drawing on detailed Russian and Hebrew sources.

During the 1930s, Jabotinsky wrote his autobiography, full of ambiguity and illusions — and often economical with the truth, to cement his support amongst his followers including Menahem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Netanyahu’s father, Benzion.

The end of the nineteenth century was very much ‘a faceless epoch’ whereby rootless Russified Jewish intellectuals could not discern a pathway for themselves. Jabotinsky was attracted by individualism and the Decadent movement before he discovered Zionism. His sudden awareness about his Jewishness coincided with his premonition that there would be a pogrom in his hometown, Odessa. The major pogrom broke out instead in Kishinev in 1903 and as Horowitz convincingly points out, affected Jabotinsky so deeply that he outwardly turned away from Russian culture towards a redefinition of himself as a national Jew. He distanced himself from the Russian intelligentsia and disdained their apologies for the anti-Semitic Beilis Affair. Jabotinsky used the term ‘asemitism’, coined by the Russian thinker, Pyotr Struve, regarding the indifference to accusations of racism (it seems a much better fit for many in the UK today). Yet as part of the two million strong, ‘inconsolable’ Russian exodus which left after the October revolution, he remained a Russian man of letters wherever he lived.

He modelled himself on the Russian polymath, Mikhail Lomonosov and later on Theodor Herzl — and regarded himself as Herzl’s rightful successor and not Chaim Weizmann. His early Zionism was influenced by the now forgotten thinker, Avraham Idelsohn.

There are still many lacunae in Jabotinsky’s odyssey. Horowitz points out that he visited Palestine for the first time in 1909, yet there are unusually no letters or articles which reflect his feelings during a stay of many months.

With the opening of the archives after the collapse of the USSR, many of Jabotinsky’s early writings were published. While academic detective work has peeled back several layers, there are still questions about the enigmatic and controversial Jabotinsky. Brian Horowitz’s excellent and fascinating account places yet another brick in the wall.

Jewish Chronicle 2 July 2020

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