Re-reading Our History

Christopher Hitchen’s articles in the Evening Standard, Barbara Amiel’s reply in The Daily Telegraph and Malcolm Palmer’s reply in the last issue of LJN all show a highly selective reading of the history of the Revisionist Zionist movement and its main protagonists, Jabotinsky and Begin.

Amiel was right to condemn Hitchen’s depiction of the politics of the right-wing Zionist leader, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, as solely Fascist. Yet she fell into the same trap in suggesting that “when it came to notions of democracy and human rights, Jabotinsky was a European liberal”. Although he was a liberal Conservative in that he believed in the free market, his views in other areas were decidedly influenced by the Fascist regimes of the 1930s. He espoused a policy of economic corporatism which proposed a non-elected ‘parliament of professions” to control economic life. He advocated no strikes, no employment of Arabs and compulsory national arbitration to settle industrial disputes. These ideas mirrored the corporate order of the regimes of Mussolini, Franco and Salazar.

Although he placed great emphasis on ritual and discipline, he was never religious. His book Samson exuded a paganism, and he hardly ever refers to Talmudic sources in any of his writings.

Amiel was also incorrect when she suggested that Jabotinsky broke contact with a militant group of far-Right intellectuals led by Abba Achimeir.

While he distanced himself from their espousal of total Fascism, he did not dare oppose them openly because of their strong influence among the Betar youth – which is what Netanyahu’s father testified to in his recent speech when he praised Achimeir, Menachem Begin and Avraham Stern, Netanyahu’s father, all of whom were influenced by the far-Right, meaning that Jabotinsky had his work cut out to exert political control.

Indeed, they did not dismiss the idea of attaining power through a coup d’etat as well as through the ballot box; Pilsudski, the leader of their country of origin, Poland, had done just this. All this partially explains why Jabotinsky became more authoritarian in the 1930s; when he dismissed his moderate executive in 1934, his opponents in the Revisionist Zionist movement accused him of Bonapartism.

There was undoubtedly an ‘understanding’ for Mussolini in Betar – as is self-evident by Jabotinsky’s admiration for the fact that there was no state anti-Semitism in Fascist Italy (before 1938) in his article “Jews and Fascism” (May 1935).

Jabotinsky attacked Begin at the Third World Conference of Betar in Warsaw in 1938 for wishing to implement a policy of military Zionism. Despite his mesmerising speeches, he always felt that diplomacy no matter how unglamorous, was always more likely to achieve a Jewish state. Indeed, at that conference, Jabotinsky compared Begin’s rhetoric to the creaking of a door that needed a good dose of oil.

When the Second World War broke out, Jabotinsky immediately declared his strong support for the British war effort and advised his followers to enlist. Begin, who had just escaped from Warsaw, was not sure. He did not see the war as a Jewish war and cautiously engaged in discussion with fellow Betari to investigate whether British weakness at that time could be exploited.

Another follower of Jabotinsky, Avraham Stern, became severely disillusioned with his mentor – he referred to him as ‘Hindenberg’, yesterday’s man. Stern broke with Jabotinsky to form the Irgun b’Yisrael – otherwise known as the Stem Gang by the British. Stern fervently believed that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

So, in his desire to establish a Jewish state, he advocated contact with the Italians and later with the Germans. Stem’s proposal for a volkischnationalen Hebraertum allied to the Reich, and his request for 40,000 Jews from occupied Europe was rejected by the German Legation in Beirut His quotation from one of the Fuhrer’s recent speeches and advocacy of a New Order did not impress.

Begin, on the other hand, did not formally abandon Jabotinsky, even though he disagreed with him on the crucial issue of military Zionism versus the niceties of diplomacy.

Begin was both more cautious and shrewder. Although similar ideological streams influenced him, he believed that the enemy of my enemy was not automatically `my friend’. Unlike Jabotinsky, he abhorred the British, but hated the Germans ,  even more. He resurrected Jabotinsky as an icon and proclaimed the Revolt in 1944 as head of the Irgun. Jabotinsky, who favoured diplomacy, was declared to be the Father of the Revolt, while Stem, the real initiator, was never mentioned. – Begin, as Palmer suggests, did not regard himself as a terrorist. Shamir, on the other hand, did. He joined the Stern Group (later Lehi) when its leader was attempting to negotiate with the Nazis. He espoused the principle of hisul’ (elimination) and individual terror, and was responsible for numerous assassinations. His name in the underground was `Michael’, after Michael Collins, the progenitor of the JRA. Lehi, although far smaller than Begin’s Irgun, carried out 71 per cent of all political assassinations between 1940 and 1948. Moreover, 48 per cent of Lehi’s killings were of fellow Jews who were thought to be working for the British.

Palmer deifies Bibi and his predecessors as if they were not mere mortals, as if everything followed a preordained plan. History is not mythology. For example, why did Begin give up part of Eretz Israel in 1982 when Sinai was returned to Egypt? Why did he return Mount Sinai to Mubarak, where the Torah was given to the Jewish people, the cradle of Jewish civilisation? Why did Sharon destroy the settlement of Yamit and expel the settlers? Why did Bibi return Hebron, despite the opposition of Likud and Betar in this country?

If Jabotinsky foresaw the Shoah, why did he advocate his Ten Year plan in 1935? If Begin was Jabotinsky’s true heir, why did Jabotinsky’s Revisionists and the Fighters’ Party of Lehi stand against Begin’s Herut in the 1948 election?

None of this fits in with Mr Palmer’s narrative nor the imagery he uses to describe his heroes – and there are many more questions which could be asked. Nothing is black and white. And it is only through a recognition of this, a stepping outside preconceived ideas, that a compromise solution between Israelis and Palestinians will be achieved.

London Jewish News 22 May 1998

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