The Lone Wolf

By Elliot Jager
Friday, July 23, 2010


The 70th yahrzeit of Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940) was marked on July 11, at Mount  Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. There was nary a mention of it in the Israeli media—an extraordinary omission given that Jabotinsky was not only a founder of the Haganah and the supreme commander of the Irgun but also a towering Zionist theoretician and leader.

Jabotinsky was born and raised in cosmopolitan Odessa, then a vibrant hub of Jewish intellectual and cultural life. Drawn to journalism, he became an accomplished feuilletonist. His life took a fateful turn in 1903, when, fearing the pogroms sweeping Russia would reach his city, he pulled together a Jewish self-defense group. In the same year, he attended the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basle, which rejected an anguished Theodor Herzl’s plea to consider settling for an autonomous Jewish sanctuary in East Africa.  

During World War I, while the Zionist establishment cautiously maintained its neutrality, Jabotinsky became the driving force behind the formation of a Jewish Legion to fight alongside the Allies. In the early 1920s, as the British mandatory authorities in Palestine capitulated regularly to Arab pressure, he organized defensive measures against Arab rioting, an activity for which he was at first imprisoned by the British and later amnestied and deported.

Jabotinsky was unwavering in his insistence that Zionism’s immediate and uncompromising goal had to be Herzl's original vision of an actual Jewish state. A rupture over the establishment's accommodationist approach toward Britain was inevitable. In 1925 he founded the Revisionist Zionist Organization, and ten years later led it out of the Congress. On Tisha b'Av 1938, he delivered a chillingly prophetic speech in Warsaw imploring the Jews of Poland to "see the volcano which will soon begin to spew forth its fires of destruction"—and to escape while they still could.

Two years later, at the age of fifty-nine, Jabotinsky died suddenly in upstate New York after inspecting an honor guard of his Betar youth movement. In Tel Aviv, the Labor newspaper Davar, which had opposed his every political move, graciously editorialized:  "Jabotinsky has died. That gifted violin has been shattered."  The reference was to his formidable powers as a polemicist and spellbinding speaker, capable of holding an audience in Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, or German.

Jabotinsky's first biographer, Joseph B. Schechtman, described him as a "rebel, statesman, fighter, and prophet." To Shmuel Katz, his definitive biographer, "Jabo" was simply a "lone wolf." His emphasis on ethnic pride and regard for military discipline made liberals uncomfortable and led enemies to slur him as a fascist, an odd charge against a passionate 19th-century liberal and advocate of women's rights. Like others, Jabotinsky may not have fully fathomed nascent Arab nationalism; but he abhorred the idea that Arab and Jew could not live together peaceably.

Jabotinsky's multilingual journalism and literary output are keys, in their own way, to understanding his character and his take on life in general and Jewish life (and the Jewish imagination) in particular. Throughout his hectic political career, he somehow managed to write novels, poems, stories, patriotic songs, essays, and a regular column in New York's Yiddish-language Morning Journal. In reviewing an English translation of one of his novels, Hillel Halkin found a portrait of the author himself in a character inclined by nature to free-spiritedness but committed to a life of duty and self-sacrifice.

Do Jabotinsky's uncompromising views, including on the territorial integrity of the Land of Israel, enjoy a 21st-century constituency in the Jewish state? Not in the Likud, which claims his political legacy, and not in the mostly Orthodox-led settlement movement, which has its own heroes. Even in death, it seems, Jabo remains a lone wolf.


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