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The Iron Wall

Lenni Brenner

The Iron Wall

3. Jabotinsky in Constantinople

It was inevitable that Jabotinsky would attract the attention of the leaders of the WZO. His journalism gave him tremendous mobility. In 1907 he was able to spend a year in Vienna studying the literature on nationalism. He was fluent in several languages and could write in others. Marriage was not an obstacle to his political activities. But the most important of his assets was that, as a convinced opponent of popular revolution, at least for Jews, he shared their central conviction that there was only one route open for Zionism: diplomatic intrigue with the powers that be.

The Importance of Turkey

In the winter of 1908-9 he was able to convince the editors of the daily Rus to send him to Constantinople. The Young Turks’ military coup naturally created immense interest in Russia, long the enemy of the tottering Ottoman Empire. As a Zionist, Jabotinsky had his own reasons for wanting to do an in-depth study of Palestine’s new suzerains. Whilst in Turkey he took the opportunity to make a trip to Palestine; it was his first visit there and, strangely enough for one so involved with Zionism, the trip had little impact on him from either a personal or political standpoint. He barely touched on ibis his writings – throughout his life his emotions were more involved with Odessa than Palestine. The intense concern for being Jewish was what directly evolved from his childhood family drama and it was Zionism, Jewish nationalism, that was injected with his emotions rather than Palestine. Palestine in 1908-9 could not provide him with a livelihood as a litterateur, certainly nothing that would satisfy his wife Anna, and he had no choice but 10 return to Constanlinople. He liked two things about Palestine: Hebrew was an on-the-ground reality, and the colonialists were not afraid of the Arabs and were prepared to defend themselves against the banditry that plagued the countryside.

The Young Turks were eager to convince the outside world that better limes were ahead for their Christian subjects and he had no difficulty supplying his paper with interviews. His articles impressed the Russian Zionist leaders. They decided he was the ideal person to propagandize the Zionist cause among the new ruling circles, and they persuaded Wolffsohn to employ him in June 1909 as the director of a greatly expanded Zionist press campaign at the Golden Horn.

Herzl’s Tactics in the Ottoman Empire

From the beginning Herzl knew Zionism’s destiny was intertwined with the fate of the Osmanlis. It was the obviously terminal illness of the “sick man of Europe” that gave Zionism its initial air of plausibility. He simultaneously sought to convince potential European imperial patrons that Zionism would be their cat’s-paw in Palestine, come the partition of the relic Islamic domain while, at the same time, he tried to show the Yildiz Kiosk that he and his movement could help prop up the ramshackle Turkish state. Scheming with Europe had to be secret if his pro-Turkish ploy was to succeed but his Ottomania had to be strident for him to hope to gull Abdul Hamid II. What he proposed reduced Jewish nationalism to the level of a Shylock operation: if Abdul Hamid would give Palestine to the Zionists as an autonomous vassal statelet, Jewish high finance would, tie assured the Caliph, solve the problems of his imperial exchequer by paying off its crushing foreign debts.

The Sultan was not the least bit interested: autonomy, he knew, was bound to lead to eventual independence. If he granted it to the Jews who were a tiny minority in Palestine, he could hardly deny it to the Christian nations in his imperial museum. Through an intermediary he told his Zionist supplicant that the Jews should save their money: “When my empire is divided, perhaps they will get Palestine for nothing. But only our corpse can be divided, twill never consent to vivisection.” [1]

The Armenian Massacres

Before long, Turkish diplomacy realized that Herzl could be put into harness; they had what he wanted. Could they play on his naivete, tempting him with future possibilities? Could they get him to prove his devotion to their cause in the here and now? In 1896 the Caliph’s prime concern was to get the European powers, and their press, to took the other way while he continued butchering the Armenians. Compared to the Armenian massacres the Russian pogroms were amateur theatricals. Very few Jews had actually been killed in the pogrom years 1881-4 [2] while an Armenian atrocity often ran to thousands killed. In 1896-7 it is estimated that Abdul Hamid put to death between 80,009 and 200,000 of his helpless subjects. Could Herzl get Jewish-owned papers and Jewish journalists to turn a blind eye to his treatment of the Armenians? Would he be willing to try to get the Armenians to call off their struggle for life and freedom? In June 1896, Herd went to Constantinople hoping to have an audience with Hamid. He was informed by an agent of the Sultan that this would be impossible – Herzl worked for the Neue Freie Presse which had just attacked his exalted person. But, wrote Herd in his Diary,

he could and would receive me as a friend – after I had rendered him a service. The service he asks of me is this: For one thing, lam to influence the European press (in London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna) to handle the Armenian question ins spirit more friendly to the Turks: for another, lam to induce the Armenian leaders directly to submit to him, whereupon he will make all sorts of concessions to them ... I immediately told Newlinski that I was ready à me mettre en campagne [to start my campaign]. [3]

Herzl went to London to meet Avetis Nazarbekian, the leader of the Henshags, the Armenian Social-Revolutionaries. The Zionist told their go-between:

I want to make it clear to this revolutionary that the Armenians should now make their peace with the Sultan, without prejudice to their later claims when Turkey is partitioned. [4]

On 13 July Herzl met the Armenian:

I promised I would try to get the Sultan to stop the massacres and new arrests, as a token of his good will. But he would hardly release the prisoners in advance, as Nazarbek desired. I explained to him in vain that, after all, the revolutionaries could watch the course of the peace negotiations without disarming, with their guns at their feet. [5]

The War with Greece and Efforts in Italy

Herzl’s failure with the Armenians did not discourage him. On 17 April 1897, Turkey went to war with Greece in retaliation for Athens having backed the liberation struggle of their co-nationals on Crete. He jumped at the chance to publicly show the Porte that Zionism could be of assistance to Turkey. He wrote to Mahmud Nedim Pasha on 28 April:

I beg to congratulate Your Excellency on the splendid victories of Turkish arms. The desire of several Jewish students to attach themselves voluntarily to the armed forces of His Majesty the Sultan is a small token of the friendship and gratitude which we Jews feel for Turkey. Herr and in several other places I have organized committees to initiate collections of money for wounded Turkish soldiers. [6]

Herzl was wasting his time. Nothing could convince the Turks to give him Palestine, but officially Herzl maintained his open pro-Sultan policy. Behind the scenes, however, he showed no such loyalty. He met King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy on 23 January 1904, and asked him to personally intervene with Abdul Hamid on behalf of an autonomous Zionist Palestine. In return he offered to help the Italians take Libya:

And finally I broached my Tripoli scheme also: “to channel the surplus Jewish immigration into Tripolitania under the liberal laws and institutions of Italy”.

Ma e ancora casa di altri” (But that again is someone else’s house), he said.

“But the partition of Turkey is bound to come, Your Majesty.” [7]

Zionist Policy with the New Regime

The ascension to power of the Young Turks rekindled all the old Zionist illusions of gaining their aspirations through patient work with the rulers at Constantinople, and their Political Bureau there worked hard. For Turkish officialdom and the educated Jews, they took over a French daily, the Jeune Turc, and a weekly, L’Aurore. For Ladino-speaking Jewry they set up El Judeo – ha-Hehudi, and though there were no Hebrew speakers in the empire outside Palestine, for prestige reasons they set up a Hebrew weekly, Ha-Mevasser. Jabotinsky wrote in French and Hebrew and supervised the entire operation. He lectured tirelessly; he won over two Jewish members of the Turkish parliament and his efforts were successful in all respects except the most important, the Turks were still not interested in handing over Palestine to the World Zionist Organization. Jews would be welcomed as immigrants in Macedonia where the Turks, hard pressed by the Rum, the Christian Bulgarians, Greeks, Macedonians and Serbs, were eager to see more non-Christians, but the Turks had no interest in encouraging Jews to settle in Palestine. The Jews who did in fact emigrate to Palestine were, in theory. only admitted for a three-month stay and newcomers were forbidden to buy land. In reality, the local administration looked the other way, bribery ensured that there was no enforcement of the time limitations. The Turks had real problems and Zionism was not seen as a serious danger. Zionism was really in a limbo in Turkish politics but it hardly mattered. They could always assume that the empire would continue to disintegrate and that one day they would come into their own through machinations with the other imperialists.

Jabotinsky had orders from Wolffsohn to push a very soft line to the new masters of Turkey: Zionism did not mean a Jewish state, only free immigration to Palestine and cultural autonomy. But suddenly, without warning to either Wolffsohn or the Constantinople office, Jacobus Kann, a banker who administered the finances of the Dutch royal family, and a member of the Actions Committee, published a travelogue, in German, of his recent trip to Palestine. In it, he reiterated the traditional Herzlian line that Turkey should set up an autonomous Zionist state there. He began to send copies to Turkish politicians. Everyone in the Constantinople office was understandably nervous -Turkey was now ruled under martial law – if that was thought to be an official policy, Turkish Zionists fell they could be in danger of their lives. The Constantinople office warned Wolffsohn that the entire chapter of Kann’s book on Zionist aspirations had to be taken out – the Turks would not believe a purely formal repudiation of Kann’s thinking. Wolffsohn, safe in Cologne, had no conception of the possible danger the Constantinople Zionists faced. and refused to discipline Kann. By February 1910 the Constantinoplites were in a stale of severe panic and demanded nothing less than Kann’s resignation. Wolffsohn would not hear of any such thing, and by May, Jabotinsky decided he could no longer continue his work as long as Kann’s statements hung over his head, and he resigned.

Wolffsohn was fortunate in that nothing untoward happened as a result of Kann’s indiscretion. Probably by then the Turks were accustomed to Europeans dissecting their decaying empire, and felt they had nothing to fear from the Zionists. In Palestine, Zionism was an ineffectual force compared to the Turkish presence there and, more important, the Zionist movement was one of the few non-Turkish political factors in the empire that was not in revolt. On the contrary, in 1911 the WZO supported Turkey against the invading Italians in Libya and again in the two Balkan Wars of 1912-13. [8] In the 1912 elections for the Ottoman parliament, the Palestinian Zionists supported the ruling Unity and Progress Party. [9] David Ben-Gurion, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, Moshe Sharett and Israel Shoehat (Manya Wilbushevich’s husband) duly went off to study law at the University of Constantinople in preparation for careers in Turkish politics. [10]

End of the Ottoman Empire

Zionism was increasingly loyal to Turkey until after the outbreak of World War I. But Jabotinsky was unique within the movement: while there is no sign that he did anything to warn the WZO leadership, he seems to have been the only leading Zionist who understood that the Ottoman Empire could not possibly survive a war with any major power, and that fact became the guiding star of his politics during the war. In his post-war book, The Story of the Jewish Legion, he wrote about his conception of the Turkish reality:

I am at a loss to understand how anyone could have had any doubts on the subject ... that Turkey more than anyone else would have to pay for this war, I did not and could not doubt for one moment. Stone and iron can endure a fire; a wooden hut must burn, and no miracle will save it. [11]

He was, of course, quite correct about Turkey’s fate but, as he writes, this was an elementary matter: the fact that he foresaw it serves to emphasize not his far-sightedness but rather the short-sightedness of the Zionist movement as a whole. An explanation for their collective folly is perhaps to be found in Zionism’s general acceptance of the powers that be, the automatic reflex of a counter-revolutionary movement which, as part of its running argument with revolution, must deceive itself as to the strength of the opponents of revolution.

It was Jabotinsky’s ability to see the implications for Zionism of the inevitable death of the Turkish Empire that was, with the coming of the war, to lead to Zionism’s first and most important political breakthrough, the Balfour Declaration, and Jabotinsky’s own rise to the top ranks of the WZO. It was thus that his Turkish interlude, half forgotten on his return to Russia, and his campaign for Hebrew, turned out to have been, in the end, far more productive than his millions of words wasted in his quixotic endeavours. We learn a great truth here: Zionism’s connection to reality lies not in its pretences towards being some kind of reflection of the concerns of the Jewish masses, but rather that, as we shall see, Zionism could be useful as a cat’s-paw for the victorious imperialism in its designs in the Middle East.

Crime of the WZO

It is not enough to say that Zionism was ultra-imperialist in its pro-Turkish policies: there was more than an element of insanity involved. It would have occurred to no one else in the broad Jewish world to have tried to hinder or interfere with the Armenians in their struggle; nor would anyone have thought to support Turkey in any of its wars, and in the end Zionism gained nothing by its actions. But what was demonstrated, early in its history, was that there were no criteria of ordinary humanism that the WZO considered itself bound to respect. The advancement of the cause of a Jewish state was, to the WZO, the Alpha and Omega of life. If thousands of Arabs and Jews unnecessarily slaughtered in its wars are its gravest atrocity; we would propose the WZO’s pro-Turkish diplomacy as one of its crimes. Certainly, any modern Zionist who attempted to defend its policy before an Armenian audience would be courting violence. That fact, for such it surety is, tells more of the utter tack of elementary integrity inherent in the Zionist philosophy than all the polemics on the subject of a Jewish state ever written.


1. Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism, p.508.

2. Russia, Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol.14, col.443.

3. Patai (ed), The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, p.387.

4. Ibid., p.415.

5. Ibid., pp.417-18.

6. Ibid., p.541.

7. Ibid., p.1600.

8. Eliazer Livneh, Germany: Relations with Zionism and Israel, Encyclopaedia of Zionism and Israel, vol.I, p.383.

9. Laqueur, p.223.

10. Moshe Perlman, Ben-Gurion Looks Back, pp.43-7.

11. Jabotinsky, Story of the Jewish Legion, p.30.

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