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The Iron Wall

Lenni Brenner

The Iron Wall

1. Jabotinsky: the Early Years



Odessa was and is beautiful: located on a high plateau, it looks across its bay into the Black Sea. Taken from the Turks only in 1792, Tsarist Russia’s southernmost port was ice-free except for five weeks each winter, and it soon became the empire’s thriving grain exporter, its character a cosmopolitan extension of the Mediterranean trade lanes.

There were no Jews in Russia until the late 18th Century. In 1471, two Jewish merchants in the retinue of a Kievan noble had “corrupted to Judaism” two prominent clergymen of Novgorod. A heresy, known as the Judaizers, began to spread among the Russian Orthodox monks, using passages from the Old Testament as the basis of a critique of the established social order. Eventually, in 1504, their leaders were burnt at the stake and the sect disappeared; but the Holy Synod always remembered the deviants and from thence forward Jewish merchants were forbidden entry to the “Russian earth”. It was only in the 18th Century, with the conquest of vast territories from the moribund Polish and Turkish empires, that the regime in St Petersburg was confronted with an internal Jewish population.

There were only five Jews in Odessa in 1792 when the Turks were finally driven completely out of the Ukraine. Despite intense distrust of the Jews and their religion, St Petersburg realized immediately that the scattered Jewish merchants were vital to the economy of their new acquisitions. Indeed, Jews were encouraged to migrate down from the former Polish lands into the sparsely populated Euxine hinterland. By the last quarter of the 19th Century, Odessa held the second largest Jewish community, after Warsaw, in the empire; the town was already 25% Jewish by 1880. Most shops were Jewish-owned, and the centrepiece of Odessa’s prosperity, the grain trade, was in Jewish hands. Although most migrants spoke only Yiddish on arrival, Russian rapidly became their home language. Odessa Jewry was by far the most modernist Jewish community in the so-called Pale of Settlement, the area to which the Autocrats of All the Russias confined the vast bulk of their over five million Jewish subjects.

Parents and Schooling

Vladimir Yevgenievich was born on 5 October 1880, the third child and the second son of Yona and Khava Jabotinsky. Yona, orYevgenni, to use the Russian version of his name, was a high bureaucrat in the semi-official Russian Company of Navigation and Commerce, in charge of wheat procurement along the Dniepr river; Khava was the daughter of a wealthy Chassidic merchant. The Jabotinskys were well-off and contented at the time of Vladimir’s birth, but in 1884 disaster hit the family. Yevgenni became seriously ill and had to go to Berlin for treatment. The family followed and Vladimir Yevgenievich was enrolled in kindergarten and soon speaking German. He remembered little of Germany in later years beyond encountering Kaiser Wilhelm I in the Bad Ems gardens, and exchanging salutes, Eventually the Jabotinskys ran out of money and could no longer afford the expensive specialists – who immediately got rid of them, telling them to consult doctors in Russia – and they returned to the Ukraine, where Yevgenni died in 1886.

The widow soon set up a small stationery store across from their local synagogue. Her brother, a wealthy businessman, helped financially and, while reduced in circumstances, Khava gave her son violin lessons – almost obligatory for Jewish boys of his day and class – and sent him off to a private preparatory school. His first encounter with anti-Semitism was when he was eight, and it took his mother a year before she could place him in a government school – Jewish students fell under a numerus clausus and several schools turned him down before his family was able to place him. But anti-Semitism was not a preoccupation of the Odessa authorities; Vladimir’s childhood was placid and to the end of his life he looked back at Odessa with the deepest feeling of fondness.


Khava was from Berdishev, a Ukrainian city so Jewish many of the goyim (gentiles) spoke Yiddish, and she had difficulty with Russian. German was her cultural language; she had only learnt Russian to speak to the servants her husband had provided for her. Later, Jabotinsky could not recall if she and Yevgenni spoke Yiddish to each other, but they spoke only Russian to their children. Although his gentile nurse knew Yiddish, common among servants, she was forbidden to speak to him in it, but Jabotinsky soon picked up the language. Later, in his teens abroad in school, he wrote to his mother in Yiddish, but he insisted he never spoke it either at home or in the street. Khava sent him to learn Hebrew from a tutor when he was six. He learned a smattering of grammar and they translated the Bible but he was not very interested and, at 13, as with millions of Jewish boys then and since, he gave it up as a dead language. Apart from some poetry, he had no interest in Jewish culture-he found it sad, musty and uninteresting.

It was at the onset of his Hebrew lessons, he later recalled, that he had his first “Zionist” thoughts, asking his mother “Will we Jews, too, some day have a state of our own?” In the way of mothers everywhere, who know everything a seven-year-old needs to know, Khava replied, tenderly: “Of course we will, you little fool!” Jabotinsky never again doubted this self-evident truth; from that day he “did not ask any more: this was enough for me”. [1]

Russian was his language: to the end of his life, in 1940, 25 years after he last saw his native land, he thought in Russian when alone. He had learnt the alphabet from his sister Tamar when the family returned from Germany. As he grew up, literature became his passion. Though not a good student, he learned to recite much of Puskin and Lermonlov by heart. He and his friends started their own newspaper; at nine he found a Spanish grammar and started teaching himself.

A first contact with English came via his sister’s school lessons; French from a cousin; Latin and Greek he studied in school but they bored him – he never look to dead languages. Between his twelfth and fourteenth years he taught himself Esperanto, even writing poetry in the new international language. His interest in languages attracted the attention of some of his Polish schoolfriends and soon he was reading Adam Mickiewicz’s epic Pan Tadeusz.

Early Career

His literary career began when he was ten years old with some poetry; by 13 he was translating the Song of Songs and other poems from the Hebrew. He did a youthful translation of Poe’s Raven which later, in an improved version, became a standard of the anthologies. By 16 he was submitting articles to the local newspapers. In 1898 he decided to go abroad to complete his education, and he convinced the local Odessky Listok to take him on as a foreign correspondent. They stipulated that he could write only from European capitals where they did not already have one of their own men. He chose Berne and enrolled in the law school there.

One of the very first things Jabotinsky did in Berne was to declare himself a complete vegetarian; this lasted exactly two weeks – he was constantly hungry and socially isolated. He soon spoke politically for the first time; Nachman Syrkin, a pioneer Socialist-Zionist, had come to lecture and in the discussion period the Zionists and Marxists were soon engaged in lively debate. The 17-year-old Vladimir Yevgenievieh startled the squabbling Russian student colony: he confessed himself unfamiliar with socialist ideas and was not prepared to declare himself on the question, but he knew for certain that he was a Zionist as:

the Jewish people is a very bad people; its neighbours hate it, and rightly so. Its end in exile is a general “St Bartholomew’s Night”, and its only salvation lies in a general immigration to the Land of Israel. [2]

His words infuriated the Marxists, who were determined to defeat the Tsarists and other anti-Semites. But Jabotinsky was simply repeating what he had heard in his youth.

The “Odessa Committee”, the Society for the Support of Jewish Agriculturalists and Artisans in Palestine and Syria, had been authorized by the Winter Palace in 1890, and even before the First World Zionist Congress in 1897 had over 4,000 members. It was to be years before Jabotinsky joined the movement. Palestine was still only a romantic image. He had a poem, Gorod Mica (City of Peace), published in 1898 in Voskhod (Sunrise), a St Petersburg Jewish magazine. His old Bedouin sheikh told how of old, God had promised that, after centuries of exile without honour, the Jews would return to Zion.


Jabotinsky did not stay very long in Switzerland: he never was a routine student, law had no appeal and he disliked German. By the autumn of 1898 his paper let him move on to Rome. It was an unusual place for a Russian student to go, as they were notorious for being gregarious and garrulous, always clustering together. There was no colony in Italy but, unlike so many others, Jabotinsky was not then political, and felt little compulsion to convert the company. He also enjoyed learning new languages; he had already studied Latin and he started to learn Italian six months before he left for Rome.

The city was cheap and, if one knew the language, cheaper still – one did not have to pay “alla Inglese”. It is no exaggeration to say that he fell in love with Italy: within six months he was Vladimiro Giabotinsky, fluent in the language on all levels. He immersed himself in Dante but did not neglect the popular dialects he encountered and, even years later, he could precisely reproduce 12 of them. No Italian, he said, ever thought he was from his own home province, but they were always astounded to discover that he was not Italian.

Giabotinsky found the University of Rome stimulating: he attended the lectures of Antonio Labriola, Italy’s first Marxist academician, and was soon converted to socialism, although he never joined any organization. Nor was his freshly minted socialism incompatible with his Zionism – neither was a practical consideration for him. He believed in them only in the sense that he had his opinions on literature. He was still very much the literary gent and he felt no urge to involve himself in Italian affairs. His scant organizational contact with the local labour movement consisted of writing a few articles for the socialist daily Avanti, defending Russian students from an attack in a rightist sheet which had called them hooligans and troublemakers.

For millenia Jews have known, as if by instinct, never to walk under the Arcus Titi, with its triumphal has-relief of captive Judeans carrying as spoils the seven-branched sacred candelabrum or menorah, taken from the destroyed Temple of Jerusalem in AD 70. Vladimir looked alit, of course, but it made little impression on him – like the old ghetto quarter on the Tiber, it was from the dead past. Except for a handful of die-bards who identified Jewish emancipation with the overthrow of the temporal power of the Papacy, there was no anti-Semitism in Italy. On the contrary, Italians were proud that it had been the people of Rome, led in 1848 by the legendary republican Angelo Brunetti Ciceruacchio who had torn down the ancient ghetto walls. There was no discrimination, social or legal, against the 40,000 Jews of Italy. One, Luigi Luzzali, rose to be prime minister only a few years later, in 1910. The Jewish question was not central to Jabotinsky’s existence when he left Russia and it virtually disappeared from his consciousness in Italy. He wrote later that he did not recall hearing the word “ebreo” once in his three-year stay in his new “spiritual fatherland”. To the last days of his life he was a student of the Risorgimento. Italian nationalism, and particularly the great Garibaldi, became – as he understood them – the image which guided him in his later Zionist life’s work.

Return to Odessa

Jabotinsky was never poor in his youth. Khava’s people were substantial business folk and his journalism – mostly light feuilletons – permitted him to visit Khava each year until his Italianate period finally ended with a voyage via Venice and Constantinople, in the summer of 1901, to register for the draft. He returned with a favourite pen name, “Altalena”. He had thought it meant elevator, but it meant swing. When he realized his mistake he rather liked the image – he really knew himself well enough to see that he was not yet “stable or constant”. He was still tacking and weaving. Jabotinsky soon became totally devoted to his intense version of Zionism, but “Altalena”, “swing”, became his lifetime tribute to his carefree student days.

The government decided it could dispense with his services and he settled down in Odessa. He visited Italy later, several times, on Zionist concerns, and he watched from afar as Mussolini eventually look over, but he never understood, or really even wanted to understand, why the more or less liberal order there collapsed.

A Psychoanalytic Interpretation

The psychoanalytic interpretation of a politician, particularly from the meagre literature about his childhood, is tricky at best. But there was nothing ambiguous about Jabotinsky’s oral fixation. Khava surrounded her family with prayers, and his childhood story is an endless litany of “he learned this language, read this book, wrote that poem”. We are further told that he hated mathematics and was always undisciplined as a student: the infallible signs of oral fixation. Such types become preoccupied with those aspects of culture which their unconscious identifies with the mouth. Orally fixated individuals tend tube poor at mathematics and lack a strong sense of order. His brief vegetarianism was, again, an obvious symptom of orality. He had other stigmata of the fixation: he collected curses from many languages and loved swearing contests; he became hopelessly addicted to detective stories and westerns. Later, in his thirties, political requirements – he was to become Zionism’s foremost exponent of militarism – converted him into an absurd martinet, even in civilian life clicking his heels and bowing from the waist upon introduction. [3] Such exaggerated personal mannerisms, so latterly acquired, frequently occur in intellectuals when finally, ideologically – i.e. verbally – they grasp the need for severe discipline.

Whether Jabotinsky could have been anything but a Zionist, given his family and class background, is a moot question, but it can be said categorically that for him to have been anything other than a writer and linguist was simply an impossibility. The word was central to his character, not only in his childhood, but throughout his entire life. Jabotinsky at 60 was still the Vladimir of six.

Jabotinsky, years later, answered a follower’s detailed questionnaire on his private life, particularly his youthful memories. He did not recall his father with clarity, the older Jabotinsky was often out of the house on grain purchasing trips when Vladimir was a child at home, and his illness naturally distracted his attention from his young son. But obviously the death of a father when a boy is six years old is bound to have an effect psychologically. A boy will – unconsciously – wish for the death of the father so that he can “take care of mummy”. In his teens Vladimir rejected the Jewish religion, never praying or following the ritual commandments of the faith with the one great exception that, to please his mother, he always recited the kaddish, the prayer for the dead, on the anniversary of his father’s death. Perhaps his punctiliousness in this regard was a hypostatis, via reaction-formation, of his infantile Oedipal death-wish towards his father.

In general, Vladimir was markedly devoted to Khava as well, always writing, visiting her frequently, often from great distances, even celebrating her birthday in her absence. Biographer Joseph Schechtman stresses that, after the death of her older son Milla, when Vladimir was two, she transferred her favouritism to him rather than to Tamar, his older sister. This is not at all strange in Orthodox Jewish homes where sons are religiously paramount. As with all Zionists, Eretz Yisrael was “the land of our forefathers”, but for this paragon of devoted sons, his Zionism could only be personally fulfilled when he brought his mother to Palestine after World War I, while he still remained abroad, working for the movement. The ultra-right everywhere proclaims filial piety to be a cardinal virtue and on that score Jabotinsky was a caricature of the authoritarian profile.


1. Joseph Sehechtman, Rebel and Statesman, p.47.

2. Joseph Nedava, Jabotinsky and the Bund, Soviet Jewish Affairs, vol.III, no.1,(1973), p.40.

3. Pierre Van Paassen, Vladimir Jabotinsky: A Reminiscence, Midstream, Winter 1958, p.55.

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Last updated on 20.8.2006