In her last, powerful little book, The Question of Zion (reviewed in the TLS, April 21, 2006), Jacqueline Rose perceptively observed that, “while Israel barely leaves the front page of the daily papers, Zionism itself is hardly ever talked about”. That’s quite true, though not quite unique. Think of the column inches and radio and television time that have been devoted to the small island of Ireland and its smaller province of Ulster, and of the vehement polemic they have inspired, and then ask how often the origins or meaning of Irish Republicanism or of Ulster Unionism are ever talked about, or how many of those commentators could write so much as a paragraph each on Arthur Griffith, Colonel Saunderson or General O’Duffy.
But the conflict in the Holy Land is still more dissonant in this regard. It is the single most bitterly contentious communal struggle on earth today (something which itself casts an ironical light on the aspiration of the first Zionists to “answer the Jewish question” by “normalizing” the Jews and removing them from the pages of history); it must receive more media coverage than India, which has a population a hundred times greater; it inflames acute passions. And yet it sometimes seems that the more strongly people feel, the less they actually know about the story of Zionism. Maybe it should be a requirement for anyone who wishes to hold forth on the subject to write first a few lines each on Ahad Ha’am, Max Nordau, George Antonius – or Vladimir Jabotinsky.
If not many Europeans or Americans know who “Jabo” was, Israelis certainly do. He remains the most charismatic, fascinating and controversial figure in the history of Zionism, and in the state to whose creation he devoted his life, but which he never saw. Born in 1880 in Odessa, he was converted to the Zionist cause as a young man by tsarist persecution, became a tireless publicist and organizer, and helped to create the Jewish Legion which fought with the British against Turkey during the First World War. In the 1920s he broke away to found the uniformed youth group Betar, and then the militantly nationalistic right-wing brand of Zionism he called Revisionism, in opposition to Chaim Weizmann and the general Zionists, and to David Ben Gurion and the Labour Zionists of the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine.
From Betar would grow the Irgun Zvei Leumi, which waged an armed campaign against the British and the Arabs – in British and Arab eyes, a terrorist campaign – in the ten years before Israel was born. When Jabotinsky died in American exile in 1940, he had not seen the murderous horror that engulfed the European Jews, the creation of the Jewish state, or the legacy of his own movement. The Irgun evolved into the right-wing Herut party, which was not merely excluded from office but veritably anathematized in Israel for the first quarter-century the state existed after 1948, but which, now in the guise of Likud, took power at last in 1977 under the old Irgun leader Menachem Begin – and which descends to the present administration.
Almost unremarked in the West, Israel today has the purest Jabotinskian government yet seen. Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister, has been called “one of Likud’s princes from a prominent Revisionist family”, which makes his rather fetching Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, a princess. Both their fathers were militants in the Irgun; the governing party is now called Kadima or “eastward”, the telling motto that Jabotinsky chose for the Jewish Legion; a picture of Jabotinsky hangs at party meetings; and Livni likes to quote him regularly, as Olmert did in his first speech to the Knesset as Prime Minister. Jabotinsky has never cast a longer shadow. [complete article]