Vladimir Jabotinsky, Riga and the Legacy of Revisionist Zionism

Isaiah Berlin and Vladimir Jabotinsky

In his ‘personal impression’ of Chaim Weizmann in 1958, Isaiah Berlin made a passing reference to Vladimir Jabotinsky as ‘the leader of the extreme right wing Zionists’.1 In one sense, such a comment presupposes that a leader must hold the same opinions as his followers. In the case of Jabotinsky, it was more complex for he was no simple rabble-rouser. It can be argued that the Betar youth group which he inspired and headed moved much further to the Right and that it had become radicalised by its coming of age in Pilsudski’s Poland and the ¾tatist regimes that arose in the interwar years in Europe. While it is true that Jabotinsky himself moved further to the right under the sway of the new nationalisms and the desire to retain influence within Betar, his projection of a new Jew and a future Jewish State fashioned an entire generation. He promoted self-esteem, self-dignity, the discipline of ritual and the idea that even the poorest Jew was a prince, the bearer of the crown of King David. Yet he, himself, was a product of a previous age. Indeed, Jabotinsky declined the efforts of his radical followers to install him as a Zionist Il Duce and condemned youthful advocacy of dictatorship.

I believe in the ideological patrimony of the nineteenth century, the century of Garibaldi and Lincoln, Gladstone and Hugo.2

Despite this, Jabotinsky had been highly influenced by the exemplar of Pilsudski’s Poland. There was a symbiotic relationship between resurgent Polish nationalism and the growing Revisionist Zionism. Between 1931 and 1935, the Polish members of Jabotinsky’s movement more than doubled to over 60000. From the Revisionist standpoint, there was something to be learned from Pilsudski’s political and military odyssey. His desire to create a Polish legion to liberate Poland; his advocacy of a Polish underground and military strikes against Tsarism; his willingness to work with ‘the enemy of my enemy’ Austro-Hungary; his desire to create a Greater Poland to reverse the 1772 partition. Pilsudski’s coup d’état in 1926 also suggested that there was an alternative to the ballot box.

Isaiah Berlin would have been at odds with Jabotinsky in the manner in which he utilised his great talents to mould his youthful followers. In his last essay My Intellectual Path, Berlin warned against the power of the Romantics and the dangers, which it unleashed:

I never for a moment accepted the idea of these super-egos (the German Romantics) but I recognised their importance in modern thought and action. Slogans like ‘Not I but the Party,’ ‘Not I but the Church,’ ‘My country right or wrong, but my country’ have inflicted a wound on the central faith of human thought – that the truth is universal, eternal, for all men at all times – from which it has never recovered. Mankind not as an object but as a subject, an ever-moving spirit, self-creating and self-moving, a self-composed drama in many acts, which, according to Marx, will end in some kind of perfection – all this issues from the Romantic revolution3

Jabotinsky vigorously opposed any conjugation of Zionism with socialism or indeed liberalism. ‘Betar’, Jabotinsky wrote, ‘seeks to do away with the ‘sha’atnez of the soul’.4 There could be no impure mixing of Zionism and other ideologies.

Isaiah Berlin regarded monism as ‘at the root of every extremism’.5, but Jabotinsky regarded it as central to his education of Betar to achieve the breakthrough to a Jewish state through prolonged struggle and an iron will. Although they disagreed with him over the need to instigate a policy of military Zionism after 1938, the generation of Begin, Shamir and Benzion Netanyahu was fashioned by Rosh Betar, Jabotinsky. As a publicist and propagandist of the Zionist cause, Jabotinsky rivalled only the charismatic drama of Herzl. In a letter to Ben-Gurion in 1935, Jabotinsky was clear about the Betar generation and the direction in which he wished them to go.

There seems to be a new characteristic among our present-day youth, Jewish and Gentile alike, who refrain from delving into matters, and seek a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, primordial and brutal. Of these two threads they see the thicker and shiny one; and that love which in the past moved you to measure again and again those proportions in the blend, they look upon as compromise and weakness or even worse.

With what then will you fight this brutality, with which blend? Will you attempt to teach them your convictions? I have grave doubts as to whether this generation is capable of understanding it, or even desirous of understanding it. This generation is very ‘monistic’. Perhaps this is no compliment, but it is definitely a fact.’ 6

The Birth of Betar in Riga

Trotsky once commented that those who desired a quiet life were unfortunate to have been born into the twentieth century. Yet following his resignation from the Zionist Executive in January 1923, Jabotinsky decided to forsake public life and to retire to his literary activities. It had been stimulated by his belief that the Zionist movement had too easily accepted British backtracking on the Balfour Declaration, but also that it had become ossified and was far removed from its Herzlian legacy of diplomatic activism. His sole commitment to the Zionist cause was to contribute to the failing Russian language weekly Rassviet. To save it from extinction, Jabotinsky agreed to undertake a speaking tour of the Baltic States. However, it was in Riga in November 1923 that proved to be a turning point in Jabotinsky’s career and perhaps a significant crossroads on the journey to the Jewish State. Only two states in Eastern Europe, according to Jabotinsky, showed a semblance of tolerance towards the Jews. One was Czechoslovakia, the other Latvia. The Latvians, Jabotinsky reasoned, were a serious people with an efficient government and they were not subject to ‘an hysterical national zealotry’ about ethnic minorities and foreigners.7

Even so, he warned that there would be a clash between a rising Latvian entrepreneurial class and Jewish economic interests. In the autumn of 1925, just before departing for Riga, he witnessed a demonstration of thousands of people in Vilna, Lithuania. They were, he noted, smartly dressed and well turned out, but they still shouted ‘Juden Raus’.

There had already been a Zionist presence in Riga such as the youth group Ha’Techiya.8 Many were now students and advocated an activist approach. As many have testified, both adherent and opponent, Jabotinsky was a charismatic, mesmerising and powerful speaker. The student group, Hasmonea in Riga was no exception. He cast a spell over his youthful audience with his address ‘Activism and Zionism’.

Yet they reproached him afterwards

And what now? How can you propagate such views and stir up young people if you don’t intend to call them to action. Either shut up or set up a party’. 9

After a lot of drinking, singing songs in Hebrew, German and Latvian, the students took a sword and tapped it on the table three times to confirm their pledge that together with Jabotinsky they would ‘roll up their sleeves and straighten out the Zionist movement.’

The eldest student was twenty-two and the others younger. Hasmonea boasted a membership of eighty while another eighty had been rejected. Although the Jewish intelligentsia was more orientated towards German culture than Russian culture in Riga, Jabotinsky believed that for these students this was a vanishing veneer. ‘Now’ he wrote ‘there is more space for Bialik and Peretz than Chekhov and Hauptmann.’10

In addition to the student group, Jabotinsky met a group of high school students and spoke to them about Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and Joseph Trumpeldor. This led to the establishment of the Joseph Trumpeldor group of Zionist Activist Youth, which became Betar – Brit Yosef Trumpeldor – but spelled with a tav rather than a tet to create a link with the fortress of Betar that was the last stronghold of the Jews in their war against the Romans. Aaron Propes, its chairman became the first Betari.

On his return to Berlin, Jabotinsky wrote:

this impression (of the Riga students and youth) has sealed my fate. I have decided to turn from mere writing to action i.e.. to take the necessary steps in order to create some kind of movement out of activists who are now scattered all over the world.11

In April 1925 the Union of Revisionist Zionists was established in Paris. Most of the delegates at the founding conference were émigré Russian Jews but Propes came from Riga to represent the youth. Six months later Jabotinsky returned to the Baltic States on another speaking tour – this time to propagate a programme of oppositional Zionism.

‘The Jewish State is the purpose of your own life’12 Betar informed its members and Riga was the first international headquarters, but gradually the centre of political gravity moved to Poland. Originally Betar had defined itself in activist non-conformist terms without ideological labels, but Polish Jewish youth had embraced the nationalist mood of the times. Moreover, Jabotinsky required a vibrant youth arm for his movement. In the formal founding conference of Betar in Danzig in 1931, Jabotinsky accepted the title of Rosh Betar – the head of Betar. He explained the role that he expected from his youthful acolytes at the conference.

Many asked me: ‘Do you really want to turn people into machines? Modern culture strives for the freedom of the individual and fights against mechanisation.’

But there is a difference: If in the days of Tsar Nicholas we were forced to do things – that was bad. But today, when our youth realised the necessity to organise by itself, and 10000 people execute a simple move as if they were one – yes that too is a machine. But if a people does not know how to be a machine by itself – it is not a nation….a nation knows how to act in unison born of a single desire.13

Thus while preserving its autonomy, it became linked albeit indirectly with the Revisionist movement per se.

In the early 1930s, Jabotinsky attempted to persuade his followers to leave the Zionist Organisation and to establish a new organisation. After encountering considerable opposition, Jabotinsky suspended the institutions of the Revisionist movement in 1933 and personally took charge. While still wishing to leave the Zionist Organisation and not attend the next Zionist Congress, he adopted his opponents’ position of remaining within – albeit for the time being – and calling for a referendum to effectively sack him or back him. Although this caused a split in the Revisionist movement with the secession of the Jewish State Party, 93.8 % of Betari, raised in the shadow of Pilsudski, voted to support him. But what sort of people showed Jabotinsky such total allegiance?

In his memoirs ‘From Riga to Jerusalem’, Professor Benjamin Akzin comments:

At various times, I formed part of the very top leadership group (of the Revisionist movement). And yet in some ways, I always belonged to the periphery rather than to the core of the movement. Besides the analytical, rational considerations, which brought people to espouse the Revisionist cause, it also attracted many who were drawn to it by temperament because of their inclination to assume extremist positions or were non-conformists by nature. Jabotinsky’s own personality, uniting a first rate logical mind to the soul of a poet dissatisfied with daily humdrum, reflected these two aspects. Many of my Revisionist co-workers shared both characteristics, and with quite a number of them it was the second aspect that counted especially.14

On the eve of World War II, Betar stated that their membership was 80000.15 The Betari of Poland and the Baltic States required a forceful, dynamic, authoritarian figure to mould them and guide them. Indeed, on the death of Jabotinsky in 1940, Revisionists in Soviet controlled Latvia in 1940 were informed in a cryptic telegram from London, which stated: ‘Tell relatives that father has died’.

Jabotinsky, however, was not the only mentor for Betar. The radical right in the Yishuv – intellectuals such as Abba Achimeir, Uri Zvi Greenberg and Yonatan Ratosh were highly influential amongst Jabotinsky’s youthful followers. The person of Jabotinsky was the common denominator for a plethora of groups on the Right and the far Right. The differences between these groups surfaced at the third world conference of Betar in Warsaw in September 1938, which criticised Jabotinsky for continuing to follow the diplomatic path, and despite all the militant rhetoric had actually downgraded the military option. Indeed it led to a severe disenchantment by some such Avraham Stern who formed Irgun B’Yisrael later Lehi, which was post-Jabotinskyian. Stern referred to Jabotinsky as ‘Hindenberg’ – yesterday’s man. Other sceptics included Menachem Begin who remained within, but Jabotinsky in death became an icon for both ideological inspiration as well as political machinations on the right.

Betar in Latvia

Following the Ulmanis coup in May 1934 and Pilsudski’s death in 1935, both Latvia and Poland began to project a different attitude towards their Jews. Jabotinsky interpreted this as Nordau’s unavoidable ‘antisemitism of things’ and while warning against this in private to Polish and Latvian diplomats, concentrated effectively on ensuring that the authorities assisted in the process of permitting their Jews to emigrate to Mandatory Palestine. Poland thus pressed for an easing of restrictions on immigration into Palestine in international forums and often questioned British compliance with the terms of the Mandate. There was effectively a quid pro quo. As Lawrence Weinbaum has suggested, Jabotinsky’s movement did not overtly interfere in Poland’s internal Jewish problem while everything would be done to facilitate emigration.16 This augmented Jabotinsky impassioned calls for mass immigration.

Similarly in Latvia after the Ulmanis coup, although the Revisionist Party was banned, the authorities turned a blind eye to the pioneering work of Betar and other youth groups in an effort to decrease the Jewish population. Indeed Jabotinsky visited Latvia in the late 1930s and solicited the agreement of the Latvian Foreign Minister to allow Jewish participation in Zion-Sjem – a Jewish Parliament to propagate the tenets of a revamped Nordau Plan which proposed an immediate immigration of one million Jews from Eastern Europe.17

In June 1940, following the Red Army’s entry into Latvia, the Zionist movement was once more allowed to operate openly. Unzer Vort was allowed to be published and seemingly Zionists were encouraged to raise their heads above the political parapets. All this was done to solicit Jewish support for the pro-Soviet list in the July elections. Jewish communists attempted to gently entice the Zionist left into the Communist camp. Betar and the Revisionists however were regarded as reactionaries and were warned to abandon their ideas or be labelled as enemies of the people. ‘An action group of Zionist Revisionists’ did actually believe the Jewish Communists and along with many other Zionists voted for the pro-Soviet list on 14 July. Six days later the Revisionist Party, Betar, the student association Hasmonea and other Zionist groups were closed down. In August 1940 the head of Betar in Latvia was arrested and a week later the chairman of the Revisionists. While underground Zionist activity continued, it was focussed in part on securing ways of escaping from Latvia.18 On the night of 13-14 June 1941; the entire leadership of Latvia’s Betar was deported along with the mainstream Jewish leadership. This ironically saved their lives. Many discovered that Nazi Germany had invaded the Soviet Union by peering through cracks in their wagons on the long journey into the Gulag some weeks later.19 In 1935, there were 93,479 Jews in Latvia – some 43,672 in Riga. It is estimated that at least 6000 Jews were deported. 70000 remained behind to perish at the hands of the Nazis.20

Even in the Gulag, it is clear that many Betari held onto their convictions in the most adverse of circumstances. Returnees from Siberia in the 1940s testified to slogans on walls and boardings such as ‘Remember Jabotinsky’.21 Some recited Kaddish on the kaf tet tammuz in the Gulag, the anniversary of Jabotinsky’s death, others carried his photograph with them – serious and punishable offences.

Yehezkel Pulerevitch, the de facto head of Betar in Lithuania who spent nearly a quarter of a century in Soviet exile, including seventeen in the Gulag, before being permitted to emigrate to Israel through the intervention of the Danish Prime Minister with the Kremlin in 1965.22 He recalled meeting young Moscow Jews in 1949, members of the Komsomol, fired by the establishment of a Jewish State, who had discovered Jabotinsky’s early writings in Russian. Older Jews also remembered Jabotinsky the Russian writer.

I didn’t know the ‘Russian’ Jabotinsky personally. I came to know him afterwards in the 1920s. I had not met any living witnesses from Russia until then, and here was one sitting in front of me. His face was not visible in the dark. I could only hear his voice. Who, I thought, was this speaking? It was not only he, the Jewish prisoner. An entire generation of Russian Jewry was speaking through him.

I had prepared myself that night to tell this Jew about Jabotinsky. Instead I sat and listened in reverential awe and didn’t utter a word.23

After the Flood

It is difficult to estimate how many Latvian Jews eventually returned to Latvia after the war, but there existed a national consciousness which was considerably different from other parts of the USSR. Latvia had only recently been sovietised and therefore at least in theory was less susceptible to assimilationist policy. Moreover, the works and legacy of Jabotinsky were still remembered in the Baltic States.

In the early 1950s, a small ulpan existed and a shooting club organised by Iosif Schneider provided the cover for clandestine Zionist activities.24 In 1957 Schneider and several other members of the club were arrested and sentenced. David Garber’s attempts to establish a Jewish choir and drama group in 1957 25 and the attempt to organise the building of a Jewish monument to the murdered at Rumboli in the early 1960s were evidence of the desire to maintain a national and cultural life in Latvia.

In the 1950s the KGB sentenced several individuals and small groups of young Jews from all over the USSR to several years in strict regime labour camps. They made the mistake of often placing them in the same camp and thereby creating a future network of Zionists, which provided the basis for the renaissance after 1967. Through Riga based former prisoners such as Schneider and Boris Shperling, the activists in Riga were able to maintain contact with small groups of Jews in many other cities. The International Youth Festival in 1957 also provided a coordinating ground for such future activity. The Riga activists because of their often-deeper knowledge became teachers of newer more assimilated activists from other parts of the USSR. 26 Significantly, the resurgent Jewish national movement in the USSR after 1967 was focussed not only on Moscow – as would be expected – but also on Riga. Indeed activists from both cities met to discuss the dangerous precedent of issuing collective appeals in 1969. Between 1968 and 1970, Riga provided 25% of all signatories to open letters for the right to emigrate even though they consisted of only 1.7% of the Soviet population. Riga provided 110 petitions – 24 collective and 86 individual – far more than any other Soviet city.27 Many of the appeals asked to reunite with family in Israel, but many told a common story of the sufferings of Latvian Jews this century. For example, in an appeal to British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Yitzkhok-Aizik Gamza declared:

In 1914 my mother’s family were sent out of Latvia as refugees by order of the Tsar Nicholas II to Russia where the larger part of the family perished. They returned to Latvia in 1921.

In 1941 I, together with my mother and sister, were exiled to Siberia to the Krasnoyarsk region. My father was exiled separately to Kirov province where he perished in a camp in 1942.

On our return in 1958 from Siberia to Latvia we found none of our relatives. All our near ones had been brutally tortured and killed by the Fascists. At present we have relatives only in Israel.28

The family connections between Israel and Latvia proved to be vehicles for the conveyance of Jewish and Zionist material. This included the writings of Vladimir Jabotinsky. Former Betarniks in Israel and the Herut party in general encouraged the revival of the Revisionist tradition in the Baltic States through the import of Jabotinsky’s works in Russian in publications such as Domoi.29 His article on Trumpeldor, for example, was published in Iton Aleph, a samizdat publication which was published in January 1970 by activists from Riga, Leningrad and Moscow. Jabotinsky’s literary bravado, written decades previously, complemented the rising tide of Jewish nationalism in the USSR and facilitated it in Riga especially. Such material including Jabotinsky’s writings were utilised by the prosecution to indict Jewish activists in the trials of refuseniks in the early 1970s.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, individuals such as Joseph Mirelman, the former Riga activist Leah Slovina and Ann Shenker’s News Bulletin on Soviet Jewry provided a more militant and open approach to the problem of Soviet Jewry. All sympathised politically with Begin’s Herut. This, in turn, placed them in direct confrontation with the official approach of the Israeli government, which was certainly more cautious. The government of Golda Meir did not wish to appear either ideologically or tactically anti-Soviet and anti-Communist in its attempts to help Soviet Jews. It also understood that the Soviet superpower was a dominant factor in the Middle East and that the diplomatic option had to be maintained. Ironically even within the campaign to free Soviet Jewry, Jabotinsky was both a source of inspiration and a source of division.

As Jabotinsky concluded in his description of the Hasmoneans of Riga in his article in 1926:

Two years ago we started to cook porridge – and something came out of this. Now we are starting to cook another dish (the Union of Revisionist Zionists) – let’s see what happens.29

 4 April 2003 based on Riga conference 2001












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