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The Iron Wall

Lenni Brenner

The Iron Wall

4. Collaborating with Tsarism and British Imperialism


The First World War and the Jewish Legion

It is difficult to say with certainty exactly how Jabotinsky saw the outbreak of war in August 1914. In 1934 he wrote that he wished for a Russian defeat. But earlier, in 1928, in his Story of the Jewish Legion, he had already stated that he was indifferent to either side. For Jabotinsky the war did not really begin until 29 October, when two German ships attached to the Turkish fleet shelled Odessa. With Turkey now in the war it had meaning from his Zionist perspective. Convinced the Ottomans would not survive, he understood that Zionism” s hour had come. He was determined that the movement would be in al the kill. His scheme was quite simple: he would establish a Jewish Legion to fight for the British in their inevitable invasion of Palestine.

Russian Support for the Legion

He convinced a Russian paper to send him from France to North Africa to see what reaction there would be to the Sultan” s call for the world” s Muslims to back him in the war. There was, as he expected, not the slightest bit of pan-Islamic sentiment. But his trip turned out to be providential from a Zionist standpoint. He arrived in Alexandria in December, just in time to learn that the Turks had just expelled 11,009 Russian Zionists from Palestine. They had done nothing to deserve their fate; in fact Palestinian Zionism had rushed to the support of the Turks; Ben-Gurion and Shochat and their friends had offered to setup a Zionist militia to police the country – which would have freed Turkish troops for duty elsewhere. But Jamal Pasha, the military governor, would have none of it, and Shochat, the organizer of the HaShomer (Watchmen), and his wife Wilbushevich, were banished to Anatolia, while Ben-Gurion was summarily deported. It is difficult to explain the Turks’ actions except in general terms. A regime as tyrannical as that of Mohammed V, who exceeded all his predecessors’ anti-Armenian atrocities – hundreds of thousands were killed in the greatest single genocide of modern times prior to Hitler – does not act rationally. The affair, however, demonstrates the naivety of Palestinian Zionism in trying to link itself to the decaying Turkish tyranny.

Technically, the new exiles were now subject to the Russian draft, and the British, legally, should have helped their ally, but the Russian consul” s threats in the matter were only bluffs. He knew well enough that in 1913, when he had tried to have the British arrest a wanted revolutionary, 10,000 Egyptian Jews had rioted, and the British had to drop the matter. Jabotinsky’s Legion proposal would save his face. The Russians were not too keen on the idea of the Zionists serving in their army, and were overjoyed to see Jews leave their empire for good, but could not admit this diplomatically. Now a Zionist came along with a proposition that would simultaneously keep émigré Jews out of their hair while still having them fight the enemies of the Tsar. The consul gave his backing to the Legion.

British Response: the Mule Corps

The British were somewhat more reluctant to go along. Their army had plenty of colonial troops but Westminster had no interest in anything along the lines of the French Foreign Legion. There was no conscription yet in Britain and Lord Kitchener saw the Turkish front as peripheral, and had no plans then for a Palestine offensive. At last it was agreed that the refugees could set up a Zion Mule Corps as a logistics outfit, but with the understanding that they would have to fight on any front required.

Jabotinsky and his friends discussed the British proposal at length; he finally decided that he could not accept it. What he had in mind was a gallant army, something that would attract Jews on a nationalist basis to aid in the conquest of their ancestral land. Now all he was offered was a non-combatant work unit compelled to labour on any remote front. And the name! A mule is half a donkey; a Zion Mute Corps sounded ridiculous. But hundreds of refugees decided to accept. After all, what difference did it make on what front they fought the Turks? Besides, in wartime there is no hard and fast line between military elements, they would be certain to receive military training and see combat. In the end, 562 of the Muleteers fought at Gallipoli.

World Jewish Reaction to the War

The immense majority of the world” s Jews were either pro-German or were socialists opposed to both the Entente and the Central Powers. In Britain and France, the native Jews identified with their country of birth, but the far larger immigrant group, fresh from the Tsarist prison, saw Britain and France strictly as the Tsar’s allies, and opposed the war from its onset. In America as welt, the millions of newcomers favoured slaying out of the war and many cheered the German victory at Tannenburg and the subsequent German advances into Poland and Lithuania. Certainly, in Russia itself the vast majority of Jews were opposed to the war effort and with perfect reason. The defeated generals had to explain to themselves and the public why their armies had been crushed, and they quickly blamed it all on the hapless Jews, claiming they were all German spies.

Soon, Jews were being officially executed as German agents, and pogroms became commonplaces of Russian military life. Eventually, about 600,000 Jews were deported eastwards out of the Pale, and only the rapid advances of the Germans saved still more from the same fate. Under the circumstances, most Russian Zionists shared the universal hatred of the war, and wished nothing more than speedy deliverance and the appearance of the Teutonic saviours.

The WZO was officially neutral, an office was opened in Copenhagen, but the vital Akrionskomitee stayed in Berlin. and there is no doubt that the top leaders wanted the Germans to win. Of the central figures, only Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokotow were pro-Allies. [1] The WZO still did not realize that the Ottoman dynasty was doomed; stilt less that the Hohenzotlern would also be driven from his throne. They used the German government as an intercessor with the Turks for more merciful treatment for Russian Zionists in Palestine. It was in Germany’s interests to help them: world opinion condemned Berlin for its failure to intervene when its Islamic friends destroyed the Armenian community, and helping the Jews went far to atone for their previous silence – at least in the eyes of some Jewish journalists in America, which the Wilhelmstrasse still hoped to keep out of the European mélée. The WZO was allowed to use the German diplomatic pouch in communicating with the Political Bureau in Constantinople and the movement in Palestine, as their reward for keeping the central office in Berlin. [2]

Jabotinsky tried to convince the WZO to back the Legion idea, travelling to Copenhagen to put his case, but the results were exactly the opposite of what he had hoped. The Actions Committee voted to repudiate all Legion propaganda: they feared the Turks would retaliate on what was left of the Zionist community in Palestine. The full degree of Jabotinsky” s commitment to the Legion may be gauged by the fact that it was in Malmö, Sweden, of all places, that the fanatic opponent of Yiddish reluctantly gave his first public speech – on the Legion – in the hated language. [3]

Discussions in Russia

He went on from Scandinavia to Russia in the summer of 1915. By July the government had outlawed, for the first time, the use of Hebrew characters, thus wiping out the Hebrew and Yiddish press. Under those circumstances he could have no success convincing the local Zionist leaders to back his ideas. They were bourgeois patriots in reverse – they did nothing to organize a Jewish underground to fight the new repression, putting their entire hopes on a German victory. They also feared the effect his efforts would have on the safety of their friends in Palestine. But even if he was called a traitor by his erstwhile comrades, he was a success with the Tsarist officialdom, He realized, soon enough, that he had made a mistake over the issue of the Mules. The Foreign Ministry in St Petersburg had heard about them from their man in Alexandria and were impressed. At the time, Jabotinsky did not dare discuss his connections with the regime, but later he wrote of them quite openly in his book:

It was that “donkey battalion” from Alexandria, ridiculed by all wits in Israel, which opened before me the doors of the government offices in Whitehall. The Minister of Foreign Affairs in St Petersburg wrote about it to Count Benkendorf, the Russian Ambassador in London; the Russian Embassy forwarded reports on it to the British Foreign Office; the chief Counsellor of the Embassy, the late Constantine Nabokov who afterward succeeded the Ambassador, arranged for my meetings with British Ministers. [4]

Was Jabotinsky a paid agent of the Tsar? There is no evidence that he was, nor that he ever took money from anyone in his career. Later, he defended his collaboration with the Romanoffs by misapplying Mazzini’s maxim. He was merely extending the logic of his previous defence of Herzl’s role vis-à-vis Plehve. He could also point to the crimes of the Turks against the Yishuv (settlement), and to the fact that he had to take advantage of his certainty that they were going to be beaten in any circumstances. But he did become far more than a propagandist for his own Legionnaire cause. The British were compelled by the Russians to publicly declare their support for a Russian takeover at Constantinople. Not only Jews and leftists, but even many British imperialists, as well as the Greeks, thought this was giving the incompetents in St Petersburg far more than they deserved. Jabotinsky worked to break down public resistance to the takeover. In his 1917 thesis-book Turkey and the War, essentially an intellectual absurdity which proclaimed the Turkish problem to have been the central issue of the war, he politely but bluntly told his hoped for imperial patrons:

We do, however, notice even now a strong instinctive aversion in the average English mind to Russia having Constantinople and the Straits. his time to insist upon a fair and thorough revision of this hereditary feeling. [5]

Even though the Russians had proven their incompetence in the war against Japan, and he had personally seen the intense opposition of the workers to the regime, Jabotinsky was completely convinced that the empire would expand to conquer Galicia from the Hapsburgs. The Tsarists did not merely organize sporadic pogroms on their invasion of the province, they summarily removed all Jews from elected posts in the conquered municipalities, and Jabotinsky predicted that the Jews of Constantinople as well would lose their rights for the next 30 years. [6] He saw the weaknesses of the Ottomans, and he fought them, because he wanted them to fall in the interests of Zionism. He ignored the equally obvious weaknesses of the Romanoffs, which he saw again first hand on his 1915 trip through the empire, because he wanted their support for Zionism. The axis mundi of his Zionism was that the Jews could not solve the problem of anti-Semitism in the Diaspora, therefore the re-creation of a Jewish state was the most important thing in Jewish life. He has lobe seen as an intelligent fanatic: his understanding of general politics was de minimis; he did read on other topics besides Jews, but Jewish preoccupations and literary and linguistic interests consumed so much of his time that he really did not seriously study general political affairs. No one would think today of republishing his opinions on a single political question not touching on his narrow Zionist speciality. To him, the land of Israel was more important than the people Israel. In his post-war book on the Legion he expressed his feelings quite candidly:

As I saw it, the matter was crystal clear: the fate of the Jews in Russia, Poland, Galicia, very important undoubtedly, was, if viewed in the historical perspective only, something temporary as compared to the revolution in Jewish national life which the dismemberment of Turkey would bring us. [7]

His desire for a Turkish defeat led him, inexorably, into favouring a Russian victory. On 21 January 1917, only a little over a month before the fall of the Tsar, he handed in the final manuscript of his Turkey and the War. In it he wrote of the Russian front:

Even there, we hope, Germany wilt no more be given the opportunity of administering dangerous strokes, and perhaps some day we shall yet witness a revival of the Russian offensive. [8]

Although he had no reason to know it then, when he left Russia in August 1915 he was never to see it again. He had what he needed to convince the British to set up the Legion: the backing of the Tsarists.

Britain and the Petition Campaign for the Legion

The anti-Semitism of their Russian allies had become a distinct liability to the British government both at home and abroad. Britain’s sons were being slaughtered in the trenches, but there were thousands of young Russian Jews walking the streets of London. Theoretically, the government could have permitted the Russian army to set up units in Britain (as they were to allow the Poles in World War II), or they could have tried to deport the Jews to Russia by way of Scandinavia, but the politicians did not dare to implement such brazen policies. These Jews had migrated from their homeland to get away from anti-Semitism, and under no circumstances would they fight for the pogrom regime. Even many British reactionaries sympathized with them. What Jabotinsky offered the authorities was a partial solution to their dilemma. If they setup a Legion they would get some of the youths off the streets and into uniform. There was only one small problem: the Jews were no more interested in dying for Russia’s ally than they were in fighting in the Tsar’s army. A substantial element in the London Jewish community had become highly radicalized as a result of their experience in Russia, and as a result had no illusions about the true nature of British imperialism or capitalism in general. From the moment he started publicly advocating the Legion, the Jewish mattes bitterly opposed him. Later, Jabotinsky admitted that “everybody’s main concern was not to be drafted and the man who wanted them to join the Jewish Legion was enemy Number One”. [9]

Jabotinsky tried to build Jewish support for the Legion idea with a petition campaign, but this proved to be a failure. In his unpublished biographical notes he later wrote that the affair “ended in riots, disgrace, and failure”. [10] Without the threat of conscription facing them – not being British subjects it did not apply to them – it was impossible to con the Jewish workers into volunteering to die in an imperialist war.

In his book, Jabotinsky accused Georgi Chicherin, later to become the second Soviet Commissar of Foreign Affairs, of mobilizing the émigré left against him. There was no doubt of the effectiveness of the disruption. His first public meeting was quiet, but only because the leftists assumed there were police lying in wait. When they realized that Jabotinsky and his few friends were acting alone they starting coming 30 at a time with whistles. Eventually, the Legion rallies ended in brawls, with Jabotinsky getting his glasses smashed and having to flee his last lecture with irate workers at his heels. [11]

After the Gallipoli disaster, the Mules had been returned to Alexandria and demobilized, but 120 re-enlisted in late 1916 and were brought to Britain, where they were assigned to the 20th London Battalion. Jabotinsky joined them us a private in January 1917. But without conscription there could be no Legion. Jabotinsky’s break came, paradoxically, as a result of the overthrow of the Tsar whom he had assumed would be one of the war’s victors. The new government was determined to stay in the war, and now that official anti-Semitism was abolished, the St Petersburg government dared to politically risk backing conscription for its subjects in Britain. The Ambassador called in Jabotinsky for a consultation:

Among the foreign Jews there are two opinions. One is that of the majority in Whitechapel – No. The other is that of my friends and myself – Yes ... It is foolish to expect Whitechapel suddenly to display a desire for war when the ordinary Britisher has already lost such a desire. [12]

In August, Jabotinsky got what he wanted: conscription of his fellow Russian Jews and, on 23 August, the official establishment of the Legion. Recruiting rallies were started again. This time, with the Legion now having official backing, and 60 former Mules acting as a protection force, the meetings were not disturbed. But the Legion was always opposed by the immense majority of the Russian Jews in Britain. Only a few hundred chute to join the outfit on their own, most of the 38th Royal Fusiliers were draftees who loathed Jabotinsky for his support of conscription. Over 20,000 Jews chose to repatriate to the new Russia rather than serve in the imperialist army. [13]

The Balfour Declaration

The British did not suddenly become pro-Zionist out of philo-Semitism. They finally decided to back the Legion, and, in November, issued the Balfour Declaration, announcing their intention to set up a “national home” for the Jews in Palestine, out of what they thought of as necessity. In 1936, David Lloyd George, the prime minister at the time of the decision to patronize Zionism, revealed cabinet opinion in 1917:

The French army had mstinied, the Italian army was on the eve of collapse and America had hardly started preparing in earnest ... It was important for us to seek every legitimate help we could get. We came to the conclusion, from information we received from every part of the world, that it was vital we should have the sympathies of the Jewish community ... They were helpful in America and in Russia, which at that moment was just walking out and leaving us alone. [14]

The overthrow of the Tsar, and the Balfour Declaration, reorientated the leadership of the WZO. Although the German Zionists never stopped trying, as the good Germans” they really were, to get the Kaiser and the Sultan to mulch the British ploy, most Zionists tow suddenly saw the virtues of the British Empire and did all they could to help the Entente. The Poole Zionists, who had originally tried to build a Legion for the Turks, and then had shifted, at least in America, into an anti-war posilion, now became recruiting agents for Britain in America, calling for Jewish blood for the realization of “our holy ideal”. [15] By the end of the war, approximately 11,000 men served in the Legion, with 34% coming from the United Slates: 30% joined up when the Legion arrived in Palestine; 695 came from Canada; 1% from Argentina: and only 28% from Britain, with most of these being conscripts. (Approximately 560 volunteered for the Mules, 1,500 served in the invasion, 5,000 were part of the post-war occupation and another 5.000 were in training when the war ended.)

Yosef Trumpeldor, the prime organizer of the Mules, went back to Russia to try to convince the Kerensky government to set up a Jewish army of 75,000 men to fight on the Caucasian front. They were to fight their way through Turkish Armenia and Mesopotamia and then end up in Palestine. Trumpeldor even got assent in principle from Kerensky for his fantasy. His hoped-for army vanished into history with the Bolshevik revolution. In the end, British imperialism gained little from their arrangement with the Zionists: America got into, and Russia out of, the war – neither acknowledging the role of the Zionists. In practical terms, the Balfour Declaration and the Legion gained them 5,000 troops, nothing more – and the enmity of the Arab world.

The Legion in Palestine

The Legion saw little combat. They arrived in Palestine in June 1918 and spent the summer in the hills near Nablus. Jabotinsky, by Ibis time a lieutenant, led night patrols through the bush and occupied a deserted village. His men were sent to the Jordan valley for seven weeks – he described the heat there as purgatory and Gehenna – and finally, on 23 September, his company took the Jordan River ford at Umm-esh-Shert from the retreating Turks. In Jabolinsky” s account of his adventures malaria seems to have been more of an enemy than the outclassed Turks. Jabotinsky never pretended that his personal role, or that of the Legion, was more than it was. It was hardly their fault if they had no more of a part in the conquest, they were only a small contingent in Allenby’s army. We focus on them today because we know the future history of the country, but for Allenby, then, they were just another detachment. The Italians insisted on having 1,000 troops in on the taking of the country, so as to protect their interests. There was an Armenian contingent, and the Arabs under Lawrence were a vital part of Allenby’s strategic thinking. He was conquering Palestine for Britain. The Balfour Declaration was just another piece of diplomacy, nothing more.

To Jabotinsky, the real role of the Legion could only begin after the Turks were driven out. Jabotinsky was a conscious and consistent colonialist. The Turks would go but then there would be the Arabs. If the Zionists were going to play a part in military affairs they would have to at least assist in the garrisoning of the place. Here begins his lamentations. The British officialdom on the spot had no sympathy for the national home. From the beginning they would outlet the Legion into Jerusalem. They had not asked for a Jewish Legion. They were of the “Cairo school” , Arabists, their “Legion” the forces of Faisal, the son of the Sherif of Mecca, whose bands performed the crucial service of cutting the Damascus-Hejaz railway, thus hopelessly isolating the Turks and demoralizing their German specialists. The British army had no need for the Legion’s future services now that the war was over; no further concern about American and Russian Jewry’s attitudes troubled the British government, and they started to demobilize the Legion. Jabotinsky fought a hopeless rearguard action to keep his unit together but it was doomed from the start. The men in the unit, mostly from London’s East End, were not interested in the Land of their Forefathers, all they wanted was to get back to their families, unlike Jabotinsky, who saw himself as a Jewish crusader knight, eternally at the watch. They understood he was a powerful spieler but they saw the Palestinian Zionists, as Jabotinsky had to admit, “simply as fools”, and Palestine itself as a back of beyond, as probably any Londoners would have done. [16] The Americans, despite being recent immigrants there, were equally eager to go home. The Palestinians were cult-like Po’alist earth-therapists: they saw the Arabs as the early Americans saw the lndians, fighting was inevitable, but they would fight them as farmers not as the 7th Cavalry. Thus, they too wanted to be demobbed, but in Palestine, immediately, so that they could take part in the pioneering opportunities opened up by the elimination of the Turks. Certainly Jabotinsky, never one to do anything by halves, did nothing to endear himself or the Legion idea to the troops by his fanatical spit-and-polish mentality. His men had grown up in the shtetl with its squalor, but Jabotinsky had developed into a heel-clicking martinet. He was unable to grasp that being an enlisted man was unpalatable to anyone used to the dishabille many Jews then took for granted.

The Legion staggered on but the men grew more and more unruly. At a meeting in the summer of 1919 he warned them that the Legion was vital to the colonization of the country, the Arabs did not believe that the Indian troops, mostly Muslims, who made up about half of the garrison, would fight them to protect infidel Jews but he only infuriated the men by anathemizing all who wanted to abandon the Legion as “traitors to their people”. [17] By then, looked upon as a meddling busybody by the British and a crank militarist by his own troops, Jahotinsky still failed to recognize the fact that his usefulness was over. He was saved from complete repudiation by his own men by the decision of the army to demobilize him in August 1919, after 30 months’ service. He fought the order to the end, but was told that if he did not accept immediately the army would have no choice but to discipline him.

Significance of the War and Jabotinsky’s Endeavours

From then on, Jabotinsky’s militarism would always he private and political; in his enforced retirement we see the beginning of his entire future relationship to the British: to their right.

The veterans of the Legion always referred to it as the “forgotten Jewish army”, and for the world at large World War I has become the forgotten “great war” . In the US the “Uncle Sam Wants You!” recruitment posters have served as material for two generations of cartoonists. But the historians have not yet done enough to make today’s literate public fully understand that World War I signified the breakdown, perhaps the beginning of the end, of our industrial civilization. Though the leaders of all the warring states, not merely the losers, seem to us to be so many museum-pieces, there is something missing in our dismissal of the First World War leaders as quaint portraits in an old rotogravure. Our mood-feeling had detached itself from the reality of the war to “make the world safe for democracy”. Lloyd George was a murderer: the allies as well as the Central Powers slaughtered between 10 and 13 million souls, all for one and the same purpose: to make the ruling element of their state so much the richer. Much has happened since, monstrous things that would have made even some of them blench, but each and every surviving institution that endorsed that carnage – as with the Republican and Democratic parties in America, the Tories and the Liberals in Britain, all the social democratic parties that abandoned internationalism for social- patriotism, marked themselves for ever as betrayers of civilization. It is crucial to realize that not a single one of these factors has redeemed themselves in the succeeding years. A crime of such magnitude grew out of the grim reality that these factions represent classes fundamentally antiquated and antagonistic to the interests of humanity. To this moment the surviving institutions responsible for what seems so much a part of the dead and gone past still act, without shame, against the masses in the modern world. So too with Zionism which, through Jabotinsky’s Legion, harnessed itself to the juggernaut of imperial carnage.

There is only one word that can be accurately used to describe Jabotinsky during the War: a traitor. To the Jews of Russia, to the Jews of Britain, to democracy, to liberty, to humanity. That a Jew who collaborates with a government while it hangs Jews qua Jews on bogus spy charges is a renegade is so apparent that it requires no further elaboration. So too was the Jabotinsky who collaborated with the British in dragooning the workers of the East End. And finally the Jabotinsky who collaborated with the British Empire in the conquest of Arab Palestine, was likewise a traitor: to democracy, to the right of each and every nation to self-determination. That he did all this for an ideological cause rather than for base coin, as with the Lloyd Georges and the rich of the several empires, changes nothing and justifies nothing. He was a fanatic, prepared to traffic with the enemies of his people for the sake of what he saw as more important than their rights or even their lives. When his present-day followers tell us that he was a Zionist hero, a nation-builder required to use the powers that be for his purpose, all they are doing, in actuality, is giving us advance warning that they, like him, are prepared to betray humanity for the sake of their Zionist state.


1. Livneh, Germany: Relations with Zionism and Israel, Encyclopaedia of Zionism and Israel, Vol.1, p.383.

2. Ibid., p.384.

3. Schechtman, Rebel and Statesman, p. 214.

4. Jabotinsky, Story of the Jewish Legion, p.74.

5. Jabotinsky, Turkey and the War, p.171.

6. Schechtman, p.229.

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

8. Jabotinsky, Turkey and the War, p.252.

9. Schechtman, p.224.

10. Ibid., p.232.

11. Ibid.

12. Jabotinsky, Story of the Jewish Legion, pp.91-2.

13. Simcha Flapan, Zionism and the Arabs, p.102.

14. Great Britain – The Emancipator of Arabia and Mesopotamia – Lloyd George, Palestine Post, 26 June 1936.

15. Joseph Rappaport, Zionism as a Factor in Allied-Central Power Controversy (1914-18), Early History of Zionism in America, p. 298.

16. Jabotinsky, Story of the Jewish Legion, p.160.

17. Schechtman, p.276.

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