Middle East Archive  |  Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism

The Iron Wall

Lenni Brenner

The Iron Wall

8. The Years of Fascism and Terror


Palestine in the 1920s

Zionism was far from a thriving enterprise in the 1920s. It had its adherents everywhere there were Jews but, not competing for power anywhere – except in far-off Palestine – it gave off a fringe utopian quality, akin to Esperanto or pacifism. Intellectuals conceived of it as little more than a slightly ridiculous attempt to set up a national museum. Many Jews opposed it for its emphasis on the separateness of the Jews. The bourgeois Jewish charities were more interested in aiding the real Jewish communities in Poland and the Soviet Union, and capital investment lagged. Its main strength lay in Poland. With the closing off of emigration to the US, Palestine became attractive to a substantial portion of the conservative and religious petty bourgeois, who saw no future for themselves under the severe discriminations of Prime Minister Wladislaw Grabski, who ruthlessly used every means short of violence to squeeze the Jews out of their economic positions. The influx of small businessmen and artisans caused a brief boom, followed by a severe financial panic. The ensuing depression brought a virtual halt to immigration and in 1927 only about 2,700 immigrants arrived, while more than 5,000 left the colony. The WZO was compelled to set up soup kitchens for the unemployed and actively encourage them to leave Palestine. [1] In order to extend their meagre financial base, the WZO was driven to set up the Jewish Agency as a sort of joint board with the Jewish charities, which, at least nominally, was supposed to represent the Zionist Yishuv in its dealings with the British. The slowing of the pace of immigration, keeping the Jewish percentage of the population down to a still insignificant 16.3 in 1927, permitted a superficial lull in the conflict with the Arabs, but it had merely been transformed into other forms. Economically, competition continued unabated, particularly for crucial government contracts and development projects. At the mass level, the antagonism took on a seemingly sectarian form which finally exploded into a savage pogrom in 1929.

Until the Balfour Declaration, the Zionists looked down with contempt at the pious Chassids who prayed at the Wailing Wall. They shared the opinion, held by all foreign tourists, that the Wall was the symbol of the decadence of the Jewish religious tradition, its degeneration into an other-worldly fanaticism, accompanied by morbid expressions of oral-fixation and squalor. But now the Wall took on a new “national” significance, both for the Zionists and the Arabs. As a gesture of imperial impartiality toward both Arab and Jew, Sir Herbert Samuel had compensated the Arabs for the pardoning of Jabotinsky by appointing al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni as Mufti of Jerusalem. He became convinced that the Zionists planned to destroy the Mosque of Omar and replace it with a new Jewish temple. He countered the alleged plot by a programme of increased Islamic devotions at the mosque, which included reviving noisy long-forgotten ceremonies at the crown of the Wall, overlooking the narrow alley where the Jews prayed below.

In turn, on Yom Kippur 1925, attempts had been made to set up benches before the Wall, which the British police, at the insistence of the Arabs, removed, even while the services were going on. In 1928, also on Yom Kippur, attempts were made to fasten a screen to the pavement to segregate the women, as is mandatory in an orthodox synagogue. Again the police were called in to remove the screen. The Mufti responded to this latest provocation by ordering the opening of a long-closed gate at one end of the alley, converting it into a thoroughfare for both pedestrians and animals. Doar Hayom, the Revisionist daily, began to agitate the Jews for a fight against the Mufti on the issue: “the wall is ours”. [2] On 15 August 1929, several hundred bourgeois youth, mostly Betarim, the women carrying concealed weapons and explosives, marched to the Wall, and a detachment of Betarim, many carrying knives and sticks, raised the Blue-White flag and sang the Zionist anthem. [3]

The Arabs responded with a counter demonstration at the Wall, with the Jewish beadle being beaten and some prayer books destroyed. Two days later, a Jewish youth chased a football into an Arab garden and was stabbed. The boy died a few days later and the funeral turned into a demonstration. On 23 August, serious Muslim rioting broke out in Jerusalem and rapidly spread throughout the country with many Jewish deaths.

The Hebron Pogrom

A pogrom erupted in Hebron on 24 August with the brutal slaughter of 64 Chassidim, and on the 29th more Chassidim were massacred in Safed. By the time the spasm subsided, 133 Jews had been murdered, most of them anti-Zionist Chassidim, who had lived in peace with their Arab neighbours for centuries, and 116 Arabs were killed, mostly by the police. By no means did all Arabs take part in the pogroms, they were exclusively Muslim, and in many cases, particularly in Hebron, Jews were hidden from the fanatic mob by some of their Muslim neighbours. [4] But the pogroms were a devastating propaganda setback for the Palestinian cause, particularly because the prime victims had been the anti-Zionist Chassidim.

Both British and Zionist opinion blamed the Revisionists for provoking the outrage through Doar HaYom’s inflammatory articles and the subsequent demonstration. Jabotinsky had been out of the country during the pogroms but on his return he rushed to the defence of his movement: the rally had been “useful and a fine thing”. He insisted that “it is the main thing in all strategy to force the enemy to attack before he is ready. A year later it would have been infinitely worse.” [5] He went abroad again on 25 December and the British took advantage of his absence to bar him from the country; he was never again to set foot in Palestine.

The 1930s

The Revisionists in the WZO: a Fascist Tendency?

Despite the incident at the Wall, Revisionism continued its rapid growth. By the 1931 World Zionist Congress they had become the third largest tendency in the WZO, with 25% of the delegates. Their major demand became the insistence that the WZO go on record as formally calling for a Jewish state, with a Jewish majority, on both sides of the Jordan. Whether it was to be an independent state, or a “seventh dominion” within the British Empire was irrelevant to them, the key words in their position were Jewish majority. At that time the Jews were a mere 18% of the population of Palestine – less if Trans-Jordan was taken into account – and most of the Zionist leadership opposed the proposition on the grounds that it could serve no practical purpose and would only antagonize the Arabs. The demand, as with the previous truculence over the Wall, were symptoms of the growing alienation of Revisionism from the mainline leadership with its patient policy of adding “one more dunam, one more Jew, one more goat” – as one wit put it – to their holdings. Jabotinsky tore up his WZO membership card in disgust at the refusal of the Congress to admit that a Jewish state was the Endziel of Zionism, and he began to call for his followers to abandon the WZO. Most of his lieutenants opposed the proposition, arguing that they could gain nothing by quitting the WZO, and Jabotinsky, after a series of. compromises, determined to get rid of his internal opposition. On 23 March 1933, he suddenly announced, without the slightest warning or consultation with anyone, that he was superseding the duly elected Executive of their world movement and assuming personal responsibility for the running of the tendency pending a membership plebiscite. To make matters even odder, he announced that he had reversed his previous position. They would definitely attend the 1933 Zionist Congress. The whole faction fight had revolved around staying in or leaving the WZO, and now that he suddenly accepted the position of his opponents, the true question to be decided by the plebiscite was just what kind of movement Revisionism was to be: merely an extreme faction within the broad parameters of bourgeois general Zionism, or a proto-Fascist party?

The ranks had their say about Jabotinsky’s putsch on 16 April; the vote was overwhelming: 31,724 (93.8%) backed him and only 2,066 (6.2%) supported the Executive. Thereafter, while dissent was still tolerated, it almost always came from sundry maximalists, who complained that Jabotinsky was not anti-Arab or anti-British or pro-Fascist enough.

It was the Betar that provided the bulk of Jabotinsky’s backing, even though most of its leaders had previously opposed him on the question of leaving the WZO. Mordechai Katz, one of the leading figures in Betar, later wrote that his colleagues concluded that Jabotinsky was leading a “salutary revolution” in Zionist thought and that they had to follow him, right or wrong. [6] The character of the “revolution” was captured by Katz’s own description of the attitude of the Betar ranks to Jabotinsky:

it frankly worshipped him ... when a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mussolini have desecrated the meaning of the word “leader”, it was perhaps inevitable that to some confused and shallow minds the Jabotinsky-Betar phenomenon should appear as a reflection of a political trend, for which Rosh Betar had nothing but contempt ... Leadership, and even cult of personality, which comes from a choice of free men, prompted by faith in and admiration for fellow men endowed by Providence with great minds and valiant hearts, such leadership will always be a blessing. [7]

Jabotinsky had been distinctly unsympathetic toward Fascism in its early years. He loved the liberal-aristocratic Italy of his student days, and identified with the liberal-nationalist traditions that Mussolini despised. In 1926 he had publicly sneered at Fascism:

There is today a country where “programs” have been replaced by the word of one man ... Italy; the system is called Fascism: to give their prophet a title, they had to coin a new term – “Duce” – which is a translation of that most absurd of all English words – “leader”. Buffaloes follow a leader. Civilized men have no leaders. [8]

However, this was still the author who had penned those lines about Samson discovering the “great secret of politically minded peoples” in the “spectacle of thousands obeying a single will”, and it was inevitable that his own fanatic “Legionism” and hyper-nationalism would attract those who sought a Jewish version of Fascism within the camp of Zion. Whatever his personal reservations about the leader principle, the combination of the pressures from below and the inner logic of his own increasing extremism inexorably led him and Revisionism into the orbit of Italian fascism.

A Middle-Class Movement

At all times and in all countries, Zionism was a middle-class movement. The Jewish haute bourgeoisie never had the least interest in abandoning their wealth in the Diaspora for remote and poor Palestine, and everywhere the Jewish working class saw its destiny as linked to their fellow workers. It was the untenable position of the Jewish petty bourgeoisie, the “trading nation” par excellence, like the “gods of Epicurus in the Intermudia”, in the “pores of Polish society”, that provided the social base for all of the sundry tendencies of Zionism. [9] They saw themselves between their class rivals of the “native” capitalist class, who sought to drive the Jews out of “their” home market, the peasants, who everywhere were organizing marketing co-operatives which replaced the traditional Jewish “middleman”, and the workers, who intended to do away with the entire capitalist system. A portion of the Jewish petty bourgeoisie, more particularly a portion of their children, fully abandoned their class for Marxism. A substantial element, convinced that they could not attain their class ambitions in Europe, sought to continue, as a class, in a new colonial setting in Palestine. [10] The Mizrachi Religious Zionists, the oldest separate faction within the WZO, was, with the exception of the tiny Ha’Poal HaMizrachi grouping, always an avowedly pro-capitalist current. But Mizrachi could never really appeal to the bulk of Jews with any modern education due to its total commitment to the Orthodox religion, which most modern Jewry has abandoned. Additionally, the Mizrachi, perhaps as a direct result of its preoccupation with the precepts of the ancient religion, is singular in that it has never produced a single political thinker of even the slightest stature. The General Zionists were also avowedly pro-capitalist but were divided into two independent factions, neither of which could hope to satisfy substantial elements of the petty bourgeoisie. One grouping, the “A” faction, became centred in the thriving orange-groves in Palestine, with its wealth based on the exploitation of cheap Arab labour. They had no economic interest in seeing a significant Jewish immigration into Palestine as they had no desire to pay the higher wages they knew the articulate Jews would demand, their greed for immediate profits always was at cross-purposes with their Zionism, and they therefore could never be thought of as potential leaders of the WZO. Faction “B”, identified with Weizmann, fully understood that a premature petty bourgeois immigration could only create problems for the cause by its own anarchic greed, and Weizmann worked closely with the Labour Zionists in developing the Kibbutzim, on the grounds that setting up these idealist collectives was the cheapest method of developing the rudimentary infrastructure necessary for the further expansion of the Zionist economy. He wrote to Baron Edmond de Rothschild in December 1931, telling him of the sharp differences between the “old settlers”, many of whose colonies had been subsidized by the Baron, and the rest of the Zionist movement, because of their use of Arab labour. He went on to denounce those who sloganized about the need for more “middle-class colonization”, complaining that

gentlemen of this type are utterly unfit for Palestine, and are a positive danger there. Their economic antics can be safely performed only in a country with a very highly developed economic system: their activities are more or less parasitical ... We saw the whole thing illustrated during the mass immigration – the so-called “middle-class” immigration – of 1925-26. This immigration had two natural results: first an artificial trade-boom, involving the transfer of an unnaturally and unnecessarily large sum of money from Jewish to Arab hands, and secondly, the inevitable collapse which followed the boom. [11]

In contrast, Jabotinsky saw precisely these elements as the natural clientele of his tendency. He never had the slightest interest in recruiting Jewish workers to Zionism in as much as they had neither money nor the particular skills needed for the development of Palestine. [12] Additionally, they already worshipped before “another idol”, socialism. [13] He fully understood that socialism, if carried to its logical conclusions, was absolutely incompatible with Zionism. In 1932, a student wrote to him, asking why he thought Communism could not be combined with Zionism. His reply was emphatic:

It is useless here to seek escape by mincing words ... For Zionist construction two things are necessary – besides people. First a land ... and secondly – capital ... more than 90 per cent of the money for reconstruction comes from the pocket of our middle class. Money for the building of Tel Aviv was brought by the middle class, the older colonies were founded by money partly donated by the public and partly from money contributed by large capitalists. And the pure essence of Communism declares for class struggle against the middle class. Wherever it conquers, it must destroy the bourgeoisie, confiscating its large fortunes. That means chopping off the only root from which capital for construction in Eretz Israel can be secured.

As regards land, Marxism was equally anathema:

the essence of Communism consists in that it agitates and must incite the Eastern nations against European dominance. This dominance in its eyes is “imperialistic” and exploitative. I believe otherwise and think that European dominance makes them civilized, but that is an incidental question and doesn’t belong to the matter. One thing is clear: Communism incites and must incite the Eastern nations and this it can do only in the name of national freedom. It tells them and must tell them: your land belongs to you and not to any strangers. This is how it must speak to the Arabs and the Arabs of Palestine... For our Zionist lungs, Communism is suffocating gas and this is how you must deal with it. [14]

Jabotinsky drew what he saw as the necessary corollary from these fundamentals. Strikes might be legitimate in an advanced country but they could never be tolerated in a developing society such as Zionist Palestine. It was on this point that he came closest to classic Fascism. For all of his opposition to the leadership principle, he insisted that “Fascism has some good ideas”, among these the outlawing of strikes [15]:

And by “obligatory arbitration” we mean this: after the election of such a permanent board, recourse to it should be proclaimed as the only legitimate way of settling industrial conflicts, its verdicts should be final, and both strike and lockout (as well as boycott of Jewish labour) should be declared treasonable to the interest of Zionism and repressed by every legal and moral means at the nation’s disposal. [16]

Jabotinsky did not go so far as to propose the abolition of the Zionist Representative Assembly; Britain was, after all, a bourgeois democracy and would never tolerate a local Fascist regime in one of her colonies, and he had his genuine reservations as to Fascism’s full programme, but as early as 1928 he expressed himself as being in favour of the corporate state, proposing to supplement the Assembly with a “higher” body:

If one wishes to endow the System of Arbitration with true and significant prestige, it has to be realized in all aspects of the internal structure of the Yishuv... This leads some of us to think about the idea of a Trades’ Parliament. First of all, one must create in the Yishuv professional corporations ... this Trades’ Parliament will establish the Arbitration System from the top downwards. [17]

Anti-Labour Measures in Palestine

The Revisionists were not about to wait until they had state power to begin to implement their anti-labour programme. With the ban on Jabotinsky’s return, ideological leadership of their Palestinian unit went to Abba Achimeir, Un Zvi Greenberg and Wolfgang von Weisl, all three devotees of Mussolini. Achimeir, who had a column, Yomen Shel Fascisti (Diary of a Fascist) in their newspaper, Chazit Ha’am, set up a secret society, Brit HaBiryonim (Union of Terrorists), and he began to mobilize his thugs against the Histadrut, writing in his private diary that “We must create groups for action to exterminate the Histadrut physically: they are worse than the Arabs: bombs into their gatherings.” [18] He made a speech to his followers in Haifa:

You’re no students: you’re just so much molasses. There isn’t one among you capable of committing murder after the fashion of those German students who murdered Rathenau. You lack that nationalist spirit which dominated the Germans. [19]

Achimeir and his friends began to put together a strike-breaking “union” and by December 1932 they were strong enough to break a strike at the Froumine biscuit factory in Jerusalem by providing scab labour. On 27 February 1933, they tried to repeat their success by breaking a building strike in Petah Tikva. Dozens of strikers were arrested for battling the scabs. During Passover, the Betar organized a parade through Tel Aviv, and this time they were roundly defeated in a furious battle. [20] It is to be understood that the Histadrut was itself fighting a race war against the Arab harvesters in the Jewish orange-groves, physically driving them out of their traditional livelihoods, but that is hardly why the Revisionists attacked it. The Biryonim were motivated by fascist malice against its more legitimate activities as a workers’ union.

Murder of Chaim Arlosoroff

On 16 June, Chaim Arlosoroff, a labourite, and the Political Secretary of the Jewish Agency, was assassinated while walking on a Tel Aviv beach with his wife. Two Revisionists were accused of committing the crime and Achimeir was charged with conspiracy.

When Hitler had come to power Chazit Ha’am had announced that Nazism was a national liberation movement and that Hitler had saved Germany from Communism. Jabotinsky was more than willing to tolerate supporters of Mussolini in his movement but pro-Nazis were a bit too much, even for him. He insisted that they stop running such pieces:

I demand an unconditional stop to this outrage ... Should Chazit Ha’am publish even a single line which could be interpreted as a new attempt at kow-towing ... I will demand that its editors be expelled from the party. [21]

The reprimand from the man they considered their own fuhrer was enough to convert Achimeir and company into anti-Nazis. In an about-turn, they began to attack the leadership of the WZO, and particularly Arlosoroff and the Jewish Agency, the executive arm of the WZO in Palestine, for attempting to collaborate with Hitler.

The WZO had done nothing to mobilize the Jewish people – or anyone else – in Germany or elsewhere, to try to stop Hitler from coming to power; with his accession to power they saw their opportunity to utilize the Nazis’ Jew-hatred to build their Zion in Palestine. Hitler wanted the Jews out of Germany and the WZO wanted some of them, those with money or skills that could be used to build the national home, to remove to Palestine. Arlosoroff conceived of an elaborate scheme for a “liquidation bank” to be operated in conjunction with Germany, Italy and Britain, which would gradually transfer German Jewish wealth to Palestine. He went to Berlin to negotiate with the Hitlerites, returning on 14 June; on 15 June, Chazit Ha’am ran an attack on Arlosoroff, “The Alliance of Stalin-Ben-Gurion-Hitler”. The grotesque title interconnected two major themes of the paper’s line: the Labour Zionists were scheming to set up a pro-Communist Arab regime and, at one and the same time, to sell out the Jews to the Nazis:

We have read ... an interview with Mr Arlosoroff ... Among other meaningless words and stupidities in which this red mountbank excels, we find that the Jewish problem in Germany can be solved only by means of a compromise with Hitler and his regime. These men ... have now decided to sell for money the honor of the Jewish People ... to Hitler and the Nazis ... Jewry will welcome the triple alliance of “Stalin-Ben-Gurion-Hitler” with repulsion and detestation. The Jewish People has always known how to deal with those who have sold the honor of their nation and its Torah, and it will know today how to react to this shameful deed. [22]

Arlosoroff was murdered the next night as he and his wife were walking on the Tel Aviv beach. The police used expert bedouin trackers, and two Revisionists, Avraham Stavsky and Zvi Rosenblatt, were brought in and identified by the widow. The police raided Achimeir and found a diary note about a party held in his home immediately after the slaying to celebrate a “great victory”, and arrested him as the instigator of the crime. [23] Upon hearing of their jailing, Jabotinsky immediately issued a statement announcing his conviction that they were totally innocent and would be vindicated.

The 1933 World Zionist Congress

The self-created split in his movement only guaranteed that Jabotinsky would weaken the Revisionist position within the Zionist camp, and in fact their vote dropped to only 14% of the poll for delegates to the August 1933 Congress. Not only had their vote declined, but they were totally isolated due to the Arlosoroff slaying. Nor was Jabotinsky doing anything to improve their image by walking into a Jewish convention, only months after Hitler had come to power, surrounded by a bodyguard of brownshirts. The Presidium promptly banned the uniforms out of fear that they would provoke the labourites.

The WZO leaders said as little as they could about Germany in as much as they knew that negotiations were proceeding to work out a trade agreement with Hitler. Jabotinsky brought forth a motion to support the embryonic anti-Nazi boycott, but it had no chance of success. The delegates were totally put off by the fascist character of Revisionism. During the Congress, Jewish Telegraphic Agency dispatches told of the police discovering Jabotinsky’s letter to Achimeir denouncing him for his pro-Nazi articles. [24] The vast majority of the delegates believed that the Biryonim had murdered the Political Secretary of their movement and the letter could only serve to reinforce their opinion. They could only think that their own Hitler was denouncing the WZO leaders for being pro-Nazi. The resolution calling for action against the Hitlerites was soundly defeated, 240 to 43. [25] (In fact the Nazis announced, during the Congress, that a trade agreement had been reached with the WZO’s Anglo-Palestine Bank.)

Relations between the Revisionists and the WZO could not have been worse than they were in the period immediately after the 1933 Congress. The existential reality of Palestinian Zionism, that it had to constantly grow just to hope to keep pace with the Arab birth-rate, coupled with the fact that their finances were exhausted in the midst of the Depression, made it inevitable that the “practicals” of the WZO leadership would seek to profitably collaborate with Hitler. Jabotinsky did not know it but, at the very time the Congress was meeting, the Jewish expert of the SS, Baron Leopold von Mildenstein, was the guest of the WZO in Palestine. Nor did he know that, in December of that year, Weizmann would ask the Nazis for permission to come to Berlin to negotiate for the further development of the Ha’avara (Transfer) trade pact into the full-scale liquidation bank envisioned by Arlosoroff. [26] But Jabotinsky himself was negotiating, via the Unione Revisionisti, for a Betar school in Italy. Given his own developing relations with Mussolini, the cynical might think that Jabotinsky would have collaborated with Hitler if he had the responsibility for running the Yishuv. Such would only be speculation and, in fact, he had his principles, even concerning when it was proper to collaborate with anti-Semites. They had to play by the rules, and allow the Jews to protect themselves from pogromists. Hitler, who would never allow that, was clearly an implacable enemy of the Jews. Of course the Revisionists were not the only ones who denounced the Transfer, the Jewish Communist press always covered Zionist Congresses and reported the above-ground aspects of Zionist relations with the Fascists and the Nazis. The Socialist International denounced it and there was immense opposition within the WZO, particularly in Poland, where the Jewish masses instinctively knew that any compromise with Hitler could only weaken them vis-à-vis their own anti-Semites; and the US, where the bulk of the Zionist ranks and some of the leadership were infected with the reforming spirit generated by Roosevelt’s triumph.

Jabotinsky tried to set up the Revisionists as a boycott organization, but his strategic conceptions were ludicrous. He did not want a “negative” boycott, no need to tell people not to buy German goods, their own revulsion at Hitler’s actions would take care of that. It was better to set up an office to tell people the exact make and model of a competitor’s wares that they could buy. The Revisionist Executive did not want to get involved, knowing that a serious boycott effort would take cash, which they did not have. Jabotinsky, a half-time secretary and an unpaid typist were their international boycott staff. Without Jewish unity a boycott could never have been effective and the last movement to unite the Jews was an organization notorious for its terrorist attacks on Jewish labour unions in Palestine. Their boycott campaign dwindled away to nothing. Hitler just was not Jabotinsky’s priority: he knew that Hitler was venomous, but did not think the new regime could last; either he would be curbed by the German capitalists or Germany would go broke due to world reluctance to buy German goods. Poland, with its huge Jewish population, was always the Revisionists’ prime European focus, and Palestine remained the exact centre of their universe; it was there that Revisionism was to be seen in its own distinctive Zionist-Fascist character.

The Arlosoroff Trial

Zionist Palestine was at a stage of near civil war, with street skirmishes the order of the day. But the centre of attention was the forthcoming trial of Jabotinsky’s most famous co-thinker – he actually called Achimeir “my teacher and mentor” – although, in reality, he always thought him far too given to “maximalism” and basically unpolitical.

As has happened before and since in these matters, the accused’s attorney attempted to escape from the overwhelming evidence of guilt by concocting an absurd counter explanation for the crime his client had been charged with. In January 1934, an Arab, Abdul Majid Buchari, already jailed for another murder, confessed to the slaying, claiming he and a friend had wanted to rape Mrs Arlosoroff. He recanted a week later, made another confession and recanted again, saying that he had been bribed by Stavsky and Rosenblatt. By any reckoning it would have to be an astonishing coincidence that the Political Secretary of the WZO should be called a traitor and threatened by a fascist clique modelling themselves on the assassins of ancient Judea and then killed in a chance encounter with an Arab murderer; but Jabotinsky insisted that “this confession looks very much like the truth”. [27]

The case came to trial on 23 April 1934. A British civilian court is a British court even in a colony, and Achimeir was acquitted without even having to put up a defence. The diary was not enough to prove prior conspiracy (though he was held on a new charge of belonging to a terrorist organization). After hearing Rosenblatt’s defence, the court cleared him as well, for lack of sufficient evidence. But, by two to one, Stavsky was found guilty and, on 8 June, was sentenced to hang. However, on 19 July the Palestine Court of Appeals overturned the decision on a combination of technicalities. There had been procedural errors committed by the trackers. Once that evidence was thrown out there was no longer any material corroboration to back up the widow’s accusation. Unlike the then British rules of evidence, Palestinian law required such verification in capital offences. The Chief Justice was plainly displeased: “in England the conviction would have to stand”, and he denounced the bogus confession:

The whole interposition of Abdul Majid in this case leaves in my mind a grave suspicion of a conspiracy to defeat the end of justice by the suborning of Abdul Majid to commit perjury in the interest of the defence. [28]

Stavsky’s release on a technicality infuriated the labourites, who rioted against him when he showed up in the great synagogue of Tel Aviv, and the charge that they had murdered a fellow Zionist was to pursue the Revisionists throughout the 1930s. There is not the slightest reason to think that Jabotinsky was involved in the murder, or wanted it or welcomed it, but to think that no Revisionists were involved requires the belief in a series of coincidences, spread over decades. First, it would have to have been mere chance that the incriminating article should appear when it did, threatening Arlosoroff. Then the widow should, inaccurately, identify some Revisionists. The police would then have to find a diary which, only by coincidence, talked of a celebration after the killing. An Arab not even thought of as a suspect, would then have to, of his own free will, suddenly confess to murdering a prominent Zionist. The widow would have to continue to deny that said Arab tried to rape her, and continue to proclaim that the murderers were Jews, presumably out of unmitigated factional malice. Two British courts would have to believe her concoction, one of them even while releasing the victim of her slander; that same court would have to malign his defence attorney as a suborner of perjury. As if that were not an incredible series of events, in 1973, 40 years later, a retired ballistics expert would have to falsely declare that, in 1944, the gun that killed Arlosoroff was found to have been used, in November 1944, by a confessed assassin, a member of a Revisionist splinter group, the “Stern Gang”, to kill Lord Moyne, the British High Commissioner for the Middle East. The forensic expert explained that the same gun had been used in no less than eight Revisionist-connected political killings. The only reason that F. W. Byrd

did not give evidence of the Arlosoroff connection at the time of the trial of the two murderers of Lord Moyne as the chain of evidence of the Arlosoroff exhibits had been broken during the eleven year gap. [29]

In 1955, Yehuda Arazi-Tennenbaum, an ex-labourite and a former Mandatory police officer, suddenly announced that Stavsky had been innocent and that the Arab had been pressured into recanting his confession. A policeman who admits that he kept silent about a railroading of an innocent man – for 22 years – is automatically suspect. His rationale for why he doubted that Stavsky did it is curious. He had first believed the charge, he maintained, because he thought Stavsky was a different Stavsky, a Communist. When he discovered that this Stavsky “was a Betari, he was convinced that the police had made a mistake”. [30] The remark about a Communist Stavsky is curious as there was not the slightest evidence connecting any Communist with the killing. It must be remembered that, in 1955, Arazi had no knowledge that Byrd had traced the gun. To accept his story we must add another to our series of remarkable coincidences, this time that one of the police involved should believe Stavsky innocent, keep silent, and then, 22 years later, choose to reveal the truth. To accept Arazi’s tale would throw grave doubt on Byrd’s 1973 revelation. But Arazi, the policeman, admitted to keeping the facts from the public for 22 years; Byrd, the ballistics expert, had notified the authorities of his evidence, immediately, in 1944. It is obvious who is the more creditable witness, especially as Byrd’s evidence is in harmony with the undisputed evidence presented at the trial – the article and the diary entry, as well as the other evidence adduced then.

Denying that they had anything to do with the killing made it impossible for the Revisionists to defend it on political grounds, namely that they had, in fact, only killed a collaborator with the Nazis, and, therefore, the public saw the question solely as one of whether or not the Revisionists had murdered a rival Zionist. With the exception of some other right wing Zionists, who saw the Revisionsts as part of their wall against the labourites, and failed to see what they did not want to see, the entire political world interpreted Jabotinsky’s stubborn insistence on his disbelief in the widow’s identification of his followers, and his claims to believe in the incredible Abdul Majid yarns, as proof of the movement’s responsibility for the crime.

The Final Split with the WZO

The Biryonim could never win their fight against the Histadrut, their National Labour Union never had more than a tenth of the Histadrut’s membership. The Labour Zionist ranks had seen the triumph of Hitler in Germany and Dollfuss in Austria and definitely wanted to destroy their own Fascist menace before it devoured them as well. On 17 October 1934, 100 Revisionists were trapped inside their new Haifa headquarters by 1,500 labourites, and 20 Revisionists had to be taken off to the hospital on stretchers. But the Labour Zionist leadership, which eagerly traded with the Hitlerites, were hardly the ones to carry out a campaign against their own Fascists, primarily out of concern that such a civil war climate would frighten off Diaspora Zionism’s middle class following. [31] In August 1934, the Revisionists, sensing that they could never win the uneven conflict that they had provoked, offered to negotiate a pact with the Histadrut, to eliminate violence in conflicts between the factions. The Histadrut ranks opposed compromise, but in October, Pinhas Rutenberg, a Zionist businessman, arranged for a secret meeting between BenGurion and Jabotinsky at his London home. On 26 October the two signed an agreement to ban violence in their disputes. Later pacts sought to regulate the relationships between the rival unions and called for an end to the Revisionists’ boycott of WZO fund-raising campaigns and, in return, the restoration of the Betarim’s right to obtain immigration certificates, which had been denied them because of their strike-breaking. The agreements were unpopular with the ranks on both sides, with Achimeir in Palestine and Menachem Begin in Poland both bitterly opposing them. However, the Revisionists’ world congress in January 1935 finally went along with the agreements, but the Histadrut referendum, in late March, overwhelmingly, 15,227 to 10,187, repudiated the pacts. Jabotinsky then called for a round-table conference with the leadership to “save” the unity of the movement. The leadership was naturally unwilling to treat a minority of their movement as their equals and, in rebuttal, modified the membership “shekel” to require that all Zionists adhere to the discipline of the WZO, and Jabotinsky finally decided to consummate the inevitable split. On 3 June 1935, the ranks voted overwhelmingly for their leader’s proposition to set up an independent Zionist organization.

Ever Closer to Fascist Italy

By the mid-1930s, in spite of his remaining cavils over Fascism as a system, Jabotinsky increasingly oriented towards Italy. In November 1934, Mussolini set up a Betar squadron at his scuola marittima at Civitavecchia. There, 134 cadets were trained by the notorious Black- shirts and, in 1936, Il Duce himself reviewed his Zionist wards. [32] Setting up the school in Italy could only confirm the world’s image of Revisionism as Fascist but the imperious Jabotinsky scarcely cared. He wrote to one of his Italian followers, who was handling the negotiations with the regime, that they could have set up the school elsewhere but “we ... prefer to have it established in Italy”. [33] By April 1935, Jabotinsky had become little more than a defence attorney for Mussolini and, while in America on tour, he wrote an article, “Jews and Fascism – some Remarks – and a Warning” for an English-language Zionist paper, the Jewish Daily Bulletin:

Whatever any few think of Fascism’s other points, there is no doubt that the Italian brand of Fascist ideology is, at least an ideology of racial equality. Let us not be so humble as to pretend that this does not matter – that racial equality is too insignificant an idea to out-balance the absence of civic freedom. For it is not true. I am a journalist who would choke without freedom of the press, but I affirm it is simply blasphemous to say that in the scale of civic rights, even the freedom of the press comes before the equality of all men. Equality comes first, always first, super first; and Jews should remember it, and to hold that a regime maintaining that principle in a world turned cannibal does, partly, but considerably atone for its other shortcomings; it may be criticized, it should not be kicked at. There are enough other terms for cussing use – Nazism, Hitlerism, Polizeistaat, etc. – but the word “fascismo” is Italy’s copyright and should therefore be reserved only for the correct kind of discussion, not for exercises in Billingsgate. Especially as it may yet prove very harmful. That government of the copyright is a very powerful factor, whose sympathy may yet ward off many a blow, for instance in the League of Nations councils. Incidentally, the Permanent Mandate Commission which supervises Palestinian affairs has an Italian chairman. In short – thought I don’t expect street-urchins (irrespective of age) to follow advice of caution – responsible leaders ought to take note. [34]

The apologist for “fascismo” was naturally quite impressed by the Italian romp over Ethiopia – England is now by far not the strongest power in the Mediterranean’ – and, by 1936, he became convinced that it was time to shop around for a new mandatory – preferably one with the proper willingness to use the sternest measures against the Arabs. “Logically,” he wrote a friend,

the Ersatz could be either Italy, or some condominium of less anti-Semitic States interested in Jewish immigration, or a direct Geneva Mandate, or a fourth alternative which I’ll touch upon later. Before June 30-July 15 I sounded alternative no.1. Result: not yet ripe, not by a long shot. [35]

Jacob de Haas, a co-worker with Herzl, had come over to Revisionism in the mid-1930s and the old Zionist warhorse had chaired the founding congress of the New Zionist Organization, in Vienna, in September 1935. On his return to America he described the gathering in his weekly column for Chicago’s Jewish Chronicle: “The delegates were not fascists, but having lost all faith in democracy they were not anti-fascist. They were however very anti-Communistic.” [36] The old man was writing in America, he did not consider himself a fascist, which would have been ludicrous in America, so he convinced himself that his comrades were only anti- democratic. But Wolfgang von Weisl, the financial director of the NZO, and its diplomatic representative in Eastern Europe, was certainly much more accurate when he told a Bucharest diplomatic paper that “although opinions among the Revisionists varied, in general they sympathized with Fascism”. He assured his interlocutor that “He personally was a supporter of Fascism, and he rejoiced at the victory of Fascist Italy in Abyssinia as a triumph of the White races against the Black.” [37] Such opinions made for much popularity in Rome and it was Mussolini himself who told David Prato, later to become Chief Rabbi of Rome, that:

For Zionism to succeed you need to have a Jewish state, with a Jewish flag and a Jewish language. The person who really understands that is your fascist, Jabotinsky. [38]

Such was the movement that was now confronted with the Arab revolt of 1936.

The Great Palestinian Revolt

The story of the rising has been well told elsewhere and will not be detailed here. It is sufficient to say that between 1933 and 1936, 164,267 Jewish immigrants poured into Palestine and the Jewish minority rose to 29.9% by December 1935. The Arabs could now see the Zionists becoming the majority within the country in the near future. Tremendous unrest had followed the 18 November 1935 discovery of a cache of weapons that the Haganah had tried to smuggle into the country in a cement cargo, and that same month Shaykh Izz al-Din al-Qassam, a popular Muslim preacher, went into the hills with a guerrilla band. British troops soon killed him, but the crisis exploded again on 15 April 1936, when a remnant of Qassam’s followers stopped travellers on the Tulkarm road and killed two Jews. Two Arabs were killed in retaliation, and the funeral of the two Jews turned into a demonstration, with the mourners starting to march on Jaffa, only to be driven back when four of their number were shot by the police. A counter-march soon started out for Tel Aviv and the revolt was on. A spontaneous general strike broke out and pressure from below forced the rival effendi cliques to form an Arab Higher Committee under the Mufti’s leadership. Frightened that continuation of what was basically a jacquerie would throw the peasantry permanently out of their control, the Palestinian establishment prevailed upon the naive local strike committees to call off the strike on 12 October, pending the outcome of a promised Royal Commission investigation.

The thrust of British policy on Palestine has frequently been debated by historians. The local administrators, like bureaucrats everywhere, wanted as little trouble as possible and they saw that it was Zionism, with its pretensions, that provoked the natives. Inevitably they tended to become anti-Zionist and even anti-Semitic, though even those who affected to be pro-Arab usually saw them as just another race of wogs who needed protection from the cunning Jews. Zionism had its most success with the politicians in London who were at a remove from the local Arab pressures and who tended to think in more strategic imperial terms. But it was the most philosophic of the local administrators, Sir Ronald Storrs, who summed up the British government’s overall view. British Jerusalem’s first military governor confided, in his memoirs, that the Zionist enterprise was “one that blesses him that gave as well as him that took, by forming for England ‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism”. [39] On balance it must be said that, for all their vacillations, without the patronage of the British, and particularly the presence of the army, Zionism would have been driven into the sea by the overwhelming Arab population.

The entire Zionist Yishuv was more than eager to play the role of the local Orangemen and the WZO’s Haganah, dominated by the labourites, previously illegal, and in practice barely tolerated, was enrolled in the Crown’s service as “Ghaffirs” or regular “native” police, and Jewish Settlement Police, to help the British colonial police administration (who, to make the analogy with Ireland even more literal, were mostly veterans of the infamous Black and Tans). By the end of the revolt, in 1939, no less than 5% of the entire Jewish population was enrolled in these forces. Only the Revisionists remained outside the Haganah. They had split off from it, along with most other right wing Zionists, back in 1931. There had been complaints about its lack of preparedness during the 1929 riots, but the prime reason for the split was opposition to its domination by the Histadrut. The new “Haganah-B” commander, Avraham Tehomi, was a Revisionist, and in December 1936, he formally agreed that the militia would operate under Jabotinsky’s direction. However, it was not until after April 1937, when Tehomi and about a quarter of its 3,000 men, supporters of the Mizrachi, General Zionists and Jewish State Party, with very few Revisionists, split off to return to the fold of the much larger Haganah, that the group became a genuinely Revisionist force.

At first, Jabotinsky had gone along with the Haganah’s defensive havlaga strategy of restraint. He had always preferred a fully legal legion, formally affiliated to the military, and he feared that illegal counterinsurgency would choke off that potential. However, there was really no place for a second shadow of the Haganah, and the now fully Revisionist underground, henceforth known as the Irgun (literally, the Organization, from Irgun Zvei Leumi or National Military Organization), only made sense as a terrorist grouping. Small-scale actions began in 1936 and, despite Jabotinsky’s genuine distaste for such activities – in July 1937 he told a meeting of its high command, in Alexandria, that “I can’t see much heroism and public good in shooting from the rear an Arab peasant on a donkey, carrying vegetables for sale in Tel Aviv” – by November 1937 the Irgun was irrevocably committed to terrorism. [40] The Fascist character of Revisionism expressed itself yet again, with the ranks being eager for extremism and Jabotinsky, their leader, giving in to his maximalists.

Early in September 1937, 13 Arabs had been killed, supposedly in retaliation for the deaths of three Jews. By 14 November the Irgun went on the offensive. Several Irgunists were determined to act on their own and the Irgun command headed them off by organizing a wave of operations that resulted in ten Arabs killed and numerous wounded. [41] Thereafter there were innumerable attacks on purely civilian Arab targets with the high point of the campaign coming in the summer of 1938. On 6 July a milk-can bomb went off in the Arab market in Haifa, leaving 21 dead and 52 injured. On 15 July an electric mine in David Street in the old city of Jerusalem killed ten and wounded 30. On the 25th another bomb in the Haifa market killed 35 civilians and wounded 70. On 26 August a bomb in Jaffa’s market slaughtered 24 and injured 35. [42] The Irgun’s operations have been documented elsewhere, by friend and foe alike, and it would be tedious to further detail their actions here. However, the historians are in general agreement that, whatever they reveal about Revisionism, their net effect on the outcome of the revolt was absolutely nil. [43] Although the Haganah played a much more important part in defending the Zionist Yishuv, it is indisputable that its role was strictly auxiliary to the main effort of the British army which, using classic colonial repression, bombing from the air, collective punishment, internment without trial, executions, resoundingly crushed the revolt.

Diaspora Revisionism

If, by any objective standards, the Irgun’s efforts were inconsequential on the ground in Palestine, the reports of Jewish violence nevertheless had an appeal to Jewish middle-class elements in Eastern Europe, reeling from the eruption of renewed anti-Semitism in the wake of the Nazi takeover in Germany. The Polish right wing, although apprehensive about Hitler’s designs on the Corridor, saw its own anti-Semitism vindicated by the establishment of the new regime in their “highly cultured” neighbour and Fascist anti-Semitism began to grow, particularly in the universities. As long as Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, the gruff old semi-dictator, lived, the Jews were relatively safe from violence. He had always seen anti-Semitism as a legacy of Tsarist backwardness and he would not tolerate pogroms or, for that matter, any kind of street disturbance. But with his death in 1935, his successors, the “Colonels”, started pandering to the resurgent Jew-hatred, and the 3,300,000 Polish Jews were confronted with both pogrom gangs and ever-increasing official discrimination. In the Baltic states, Austria, Hungary and Rumania, Jews faced similar campaigns, both violent and legalistic, to drive them out of their positions in the economy.

Any class is naturally attentive to a political party that appeals to its interests, but there were additional reasons why the Jewish middle class, or much of it, would not look to more radical alternatives. They had seen the German working class let Hitler walk right through them into power, and crush them, without firing even a single shot. If they looked east they could only be repelled by the Soviet Union, then in the throes of the great purges. With the Jewish situation in their own region turning desperate, and their class position even more hopeless, many middle-class Jews irrevocably turned their backs on assimiliation and looked towards Palestine. But, with the British sharply cutting the Jewish immigrant quota in an effort to mollify the Arabs, official Zionism too began to lose its appeal to Polish Jewry. While much of its following moved toward the Bund, which, unlike any of the Zionists, organized defence squads and fought pitched battles with the pogromists, a substantial element began to go into the Betar. If Palestine was ever to become theirs, it was plain that it could only be by force and the only ones emphasizing both Palestine and militarism within the Jewish community were the Revisionists.

Jabotinsky, hitherto the “monist”, opposed to mixing ideologies, began to pander to the massive Orthodox middle class. He had always been a secularist, never went to the synagogue (except to say the prayer for his father), and did not observe any of the principal tenets of the Jewish religion. Previously he had denounced Orthodoxy for its obscurantism and male chauvinism; now, in 1935, he suddenly injected a “religious plank” into the platform of his NZO, all about “implanting in Jewish life the sacred treasures of the Jewish tradition”. [44] He claimed to genuinely profess that “My ... generation ... started by eliminating clericalism and wound up eliminating Godhead ... We now see into what human nature can degenerate if deprived of Godhead.” [45] While still having nothing to do with Jewish ritualism, he began to talk of how he was “now convinced that it is sounder to treat ... ethical fundamentals as connected with a superhuman mystery”. [46] The whole episode is a low point of his career, even members of his family felt that all of this was palpable demagoguery. [47]

But if the Jewish middle class was all dressed up with some place to go, the question still remained as to just how they were going to get there. With Britain blocking the way to anything like a mass immigration to Palestine, Jabotinsky turned once again to the anti-Semites for patronage. The Zionist movement had never believed that it was possible to solve the Jewish question on Polish soil and mainline Zionism had always sought the support of the government. Weizmann had a meeting with Foreign Minister Jozef Beck, who assured him that if the British ever implemented the partition proposed by their 1937 Royal Commission, Warsaw, in the interest of seeing the greatest possible stage for Jewish emigration, would work to its utmost to guarantee the Zionists the best possible frontiers for their statelet. That same year, Yehuda Arazi, acting as the emissary of the Haganah, secretly purchased machine-guns and rifles from the Polish army to be smuggled into Palestine in steamrollers. Some Haganah instructors were allowed into the country to utilize the weapons to secretly train some of their followers who would then go off to settle in Palestine. [48] But with the WZO tied to the British, who soon abandoned partition and cut the immigration quotas, both as concessions to Arab opinion, it was the Revisionists who became the prime protégés of the regime. On 9 June 1936, Jabotinsky had a meeting with Beck, and on 11 September with Prime Minister Felicjan Slawoy-Skladkowski. In October 1937 he returned to Warsaw to meet Marshall Edward Smygly-Rydz, the new strongman. The Revisionists and the anti-Semites worked out what the Revisionists were pleased to call an “alliance”.

Proposals for an Exodus

Jabotinsky, for his part, using the Polish press as his vehicle, called for the “evacuation” of one-and-a-half million Jews from Eastern Europe, the largest contingent to be Polish Jews. In an article written for Jews, he described his thinking:

I had first thought of “Exodus”, of a second “departure from Egypt”. But this will not do. We are engaged in politics, we must be able to approach other nations and demand the support of the other states. And that being so, we cannot submit to them a term that is offensive, that recalls Pharaoh and his ten plagues. Besides, the word “Exodus” evokes a terrible picture of horrors, the picture of a whole nation-mass, like a disorganized mob, that flees panic stricken. [49]

It was, of course, an Exodus that Jabotinsky was proposing, regardless of what he chose to call it; and while the proposition was an instant success with the government, it was completely opposed by all of Polish Jewry beyond the Revisionist camp. Two Zionist dailies which had previously carried his columns immediately severed all connections with him, but the Revisionists ultimately even went further, in 1939 sending Robert Briscoe, then a Fianna Fáil member of the Irish Dáil (later famous as the Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin), to make yet another proposition to Beck:

On behalf of the New Zionist Movement ... I suggest that you ask Britain to turn over the Mandate for Palestine to you and make it in effect a Polish colony. You could then move all your unwanted Polish Jews into Palestine. This would bring great relief to your country, and you would have a rich and growing colony to aid your economy. [50]

The Palestine Invasion Plan

The Poles did not trouble themselves to ask the British for the Mandate. But they did better: in the spring of 1939, they set up a guerrilla training school for their Revisionist clients at Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains. Twenty-five Palestinian Irgunists were taught the finer points of sabotage and insurrection by the Polish Army. Weapons for 10,000 men were provided for a proposed invasion of Palestine, in April 1940. [51] Poland is a long way from Palestine; how did the Revisionists think they were going to get there? Avraham Stern told the cadets at Zakopane that they were negotiating passage with Turkey and Italy, but there is no evidence that either the Turks or the Italians were in the slightest way involved. By 1936, the Fascist regime had irrevocably moved into Hitler’s camp, the school at Civitavecchia was abandoned the following year and Jabotinsky severed all ties with Mussolini. But many within the movement had become so fanaticized in their pro-Fascism that they blamed the Jews for Mussolini’s turn to Hitler. Had they not warned the Jews not to attack Fascism? If only the Zionists had supported Italy in the Ethiopian war, then, they reasoned, Mussolini would have maintained his patronage of Zionism. Stern represented this element and, although documentation on this point apparently never existed, it is legitimate to speculate that Stern thought that if the Revisionists could show Mussolini that they were really serious about attacking Britain in Palestine, he would then return to his previous patronage of the movement.

Did the Poles ever really believe in the fantastic plan? It is difficult to say, but it is to be remembered that the world was about to see the world’s greatest cavalry ride out to take on Hitler’s Panzer Korp. The Colonels were all graduates of Pilsudski’s Polish Legion, which had developed similar crack-brained schemes in its day (Pilsudski backed Germany against Russia during World War I, always planning to then turn on the Germans and go over to the French). They saw Jabotinsky as the Jewish Pilsudski, and if Pilsudski could concoct such manoeuvres and come to power, why not Jabotinsky? But even if the invasion never took place, or failed to accomplish anything, the Colonels stood to gain as the Revisionists had to stay in the good books of the regime domestically if their patrons were ever to come across with weapons and training. The thousands of Betarim kept out of the battle against the pogromists. Unless they were attacked, the Revisionists, for all their militarism, never fought their Polish Fascist counterparts. Shmuel Merlin, who spent the last pre-war years in Warsaw as editor of one of the Revisionist papers, has explained that:

It is absolutely correct to say that only the Bund waged an organized fight against the anti-Semites. We did not consider that we had to fight in Poland. We believed the way to ease the situation was to take the Jews out of Poland. We had no spirit of animosity. [52]

The 1938 Betar Conference

Menachem Wolfovitch Begin was the boy-orator of 1930s Revisionism and it was he who best expressed the increasingly feverish spirit of the Betar ranks in the face of the growing Nazi threat. Their desperation took the form of crying out for the immediate conquest of Palestine. At the 11 September 1938 Warsaw world conference of Betar, the young fire-eater rose to amend their oath. After the Arlosoroff assassination, Jabotinsky had inserted a clause, “I will raise my arm only for defence”, but now Begin insisted on amending it to, “I will raise my arm for the defence of my people and the conquering of my homeland”. Jabotinsky knew that they had not the slightest chance of beating the British; the whole notion of the invasion of Palestine in 1940 was still obviously only half serious in his mind (presumably it was the chance of getting the guns and the training in the here and now that interested him) and he attacked Begin. There were all manner of noises in the world, he said, but Begin’s speech reminded him of nothing more than “the useless screeching of a door” on its hinge. To him, “military Zionism” was as one-sided as Weizmann’s practical Zionism. He had his own rewrite of the first line of the Bible, “In the beginning God created – politics”: ... “If you, Mr Begin, don’t believe that there remains a conscience in the world, you have no choice but to go to the deep Vistula River.” [53] Or join the Communists.

New Invasion Plans

In spite of Jabotinsky’s polemic against Begin, the amendment was passed. Revisionism was engulfed in a wave of maximalism, the Irgun was increasingly acting independently of Jabotinsky and, once again, he capitulated to his extremists. In August 1939 he informed the Irgun that he wanted to advance their proposed invasion of Palestine, to October of that year. He would lead a boat-load of Betarim who would land on the beach at Tel Aviv. At the same time, the Irgun would seize Government House in Jerusalem and hold it for 24 hours; a Provisional Government would be declared. After his arrest or death, the Revisionist movement in Europe and America would further proclaim a Government-in-Exile. The adventure was clearly patterned after the 1916 Easter Monday rising in Ireland, where the leaders were duly executed after their surrender, but their gesture triggered off a popular revolution which ultimately led to the British evacuation of the south of Ireland. But, in this case, there is not the slightest reason to doubt that such an exploit could only have led to the destruction of the Irgun as a movement. It is inconceivable that such a venture would have inspired the Labour Zionists, who were the most powerful force among Palestinian Zionism, to follow their hated rivals into revolting against Britain.

To put Jabotinsky’s updated invasion plan into full perspective, it must be realized that the Irgun had shifted its attentions from the Arabs to the British in the wake of the May 1939 White Paper, which finally put paid to Britain’s patronage of Zionism. The Paper envisioned curtailed Zionist land purchases, limited immigration to 75,000 for the next five years, and an Arab dominated state within ten years. The Irgun’s response was to start a bombing campaign aimed at British installations. The British acted much more forcefully in response to the attacks on them than they have ever reacted to the Irgun’s campaign against the Arabs, and David Raziel, the commander of the Irgun, was arrested in late May. If that were not enough, on the night of 31 August, the police rounded up the rest of the Irgun’s High Command while they were discussing the merits – and demerits – of Jabotinsky’s scheme. [54]

If the beheading of the Irgun wasn’t sufficient, later that same night, 31 August/1 September, the Nazis invaded Poland, starting a war that Jabotinsky had – repeatedly – insisted was out of the question. On 31 March he had written to his sister saying that “There will be no war; the German insolence will soon subside ... in five years we will have a Jewish state.” Within the last week of August, the last week before the war, he wrote that “There is not the remotest chance of war.” [55] He had become obsessed with the notion that the world would see that the only solution for the Eastern European Jewish question was evacuation, and that the world, which for him, after Mussolini’s turn toward Hitler, again meant Britain, would implement it as a way of taking the Jewish question away from Hitler, therefore helping to defuse the war threat. That being his fundamental premise, he allowed himself to believe that the capitalists would not let themselves be dragged into another war which he understood would mean the downfall of at least some of the regimes as had happened in World War I. Even after the outbreak of the war he tried to take comfort in the “phony war”, the period of military inactivity immediately after the Polish campaign, to tell a friend that “I still don’t believe in a genuine war.” [56]

Jabotinsky: The Last Year

When the reality of the war finally sank in, Jabotinsky was quite contrite, but it never occurred to him that an error of such magnitude disqualifies anyone from political leadership. His main concern was that:

my opponents, who have been always trying to dismiss my political predictions, will now use this error of mine as proof that “Jabotinsky was again wrong because he was never able to reckon with reality.” [57]

He immediately notified the British that he was shelving his conflict with their Palestinian administration for the sake of the war effort. By late October they released Raziel from detention, but a majority of both the leadership and the ranks of the Irgun refused to accept Jabotinsky and Raziel’s position and, under the leadership of Avraham Stern, continued an increasingly isolated mini-war against Britain.

In essence, Jabotinsky came to see the Second World War as a rerun of the First. Again the Jews of Europe were secondary to the potential Jewish state, his central focus became another Jewish Legion, although this time around he understood that it would have to fight on any front, not merely defend Palestine. He knew that the only place he might conceivably recruit for such a force was in the United States and he immediately tried to get there; in the event, he could not leave Britain until March 1940. Until then, he lobbied the London politicians for an army, but with no success. They knew that the Jews would automatically support them against Hitler and such a force could only antagonize the Arab Middle East.

At this time Jabotinsky was engaged in writing his final major work, The Jewish War Front. The book is, despite its title, not so much about the war as the post-war solution to the Jewish question in Eastern Europe. Jabotinsky’s central thesis is that “real equality for the Jews in that Zone of Distress – unless a great exodus relieves the situation – is doomed to remain a mirage”. [58] The book must have taken its readers by surprise, certainly they were not used to Jewish authors making excuses for anti-Semitism:

A gross injustice! Of course; but mere disapproval is useless. The root of the trouble is not hatred of the Jews – that could be combatted, if not eradicated – but something much more elemental and primordial: sympathy with “one’s own people”, an instinct which cannot be criticised, because, after all, it is as natural as preferring one’s own children to one’s neighbor’s offspring. [59]

The book has a bizarre quality, especially so to a modern reader of even the slightest enlightenment. There are arguments claiming to demonstrate the impossibility of genuine Jewish emancipation, Jews being smarter than most non-Jews: “urbanism [has] made the Jew, on the average if not on the summits where genius dwells, better equipped for most of the competitions of modern life”. If they enter into the life of a country they will shine, drawing the envy of the slower gentiles:

This is the fateful inner contradiction of civic equality for Jews: it can be durable only if it is not enjoyed to the full; yet it is impossible to bring about a voluntary renunciation of such a privilege. [60]

So hundreds of thousands of Jews of Eastern Europe are to go off to Palestine, for their own good as well as the good of those who stay, as well as that of the nations of the region. They will find the good life in the Jewish state, alongside their Arab neighbours, who shall enjoy full equality with the Jews. However,

whether the Arabs would find all this a sufficient inducement to remain in a Jewish country is another question. Even if they did not, the author would refuse to see a tragedy or a disaster in their willingness to emigrate. The Palestine Royal Commission did not shrink from the suggestion. Courage is infectious. Since we have this great moral authority for calmly envisioning the exodus of 350,000 Arabs... we need not regard the possible departure of 900,000 with dismay.., it would even be undesirable from many points of view; but ... the prospect can be discussed without any pretence of concern ... Herr Hitler, detested as he is, has recently been enhancing its (population transfer) popularity ... his critics ... disapprove of ... removing Germans from the Trentino and the Balticum and planting them in fields and houses robbed from the Poles: but it is the robbing of the Poles, not the moving of the Germans, which really elicits the censure. One cannot help feeling that if only Germans ... Italians and Balts ... were concerned, the operation might in the end prove not so bad ... the idea of redistributing minorities en masse is becoming popular among “the best people”. [61]

Jabotinsky arrived in the United States on 13 March 1940. Zionism was at a low ebb in America. Palestine was far from the front, most Jews were numb from the horror that was beginning to be visited on their kin in Poland, and working for a not very likely Jewish army could have no popular appeal when everyone knew that if a young man wanted to fight Hitler for the British Empire, all he had to do was cross over to Canada. The WZO also pushed for a Jewish army, of course with no more success than Jabotinsky.

Jabotinsky soldiered on, he even studied Spanish for a proposed tour of Argentina, but he was extremely depressed by the war in Europe; the condition of the Jews was appalling and, from a narrower Zionist point of view, Eastern Europe had been his stronghold, he could never hope to gain a popular following in the American Jewish community with its then strong left and liberal mentality. He was worn out, physically and mentally. On 1 August he told a friend that he suspected that he had angina pectoris. The next day he was examined by a doctor, who also suspected heart trouble, and who told him to come back for further tests after the intervening weekend. He spent the weekend at a Betar camp at Hunter in Greene County, in the Catskill Mountains, about 130 miles from New York City. He was driven there on Saturday 3 August, arriving there in the evening. He was utterly exhausted and, after briefly reviewing a guard of honour, he was rushed to bed and a doctor summoned. As he was being undressed he sighed, “I am so tired, I am so tired”. These proved to be his last words; he did not respond to injections or oxygen and died at 10.45 p.m. A few days later he was buried in a Jewish cemetery on Long Island. He left a will which categorically stated that “my remains (should I be buried out of Palestine) may not be transferred to Palestine unless by order of that country’s eventual Jewish Government.” [62] It is a sign of the bitter hostility of Labour Zionism to the memory of the man that David Ben-Gurion routinely referred to as “Vladimir Hitler” that the Israeli government did not issue such an order until July 1964, 16 years after the establishment of the Israeli state.

A Final Evaluation

By any standards, Jabotinsky was extraordinary. His disciples point to his many talents and see him as Zionism’s renaissance man, and others have analogized him to Trotsky, as his movement’s great heretic-writer-orator-soldier. Most certainly he had his distinctive virtues and, for all his extremes as an ideologue, he was always essentially an amiable man (though, naturally enough, there is no record of his having any contact with Arabs). Undeniably he was a gifted linguist, fluent in Yiddish, German, Hebrew, Italian, French and English, as well as his native Russian, capable of stunning an Antwerp audience, totally unused to foreigners using their native language, by addressing them in Flemish, or regaling a Scandinavian with quotes from medieval Norse Sagas, or reciting Die Lorelei in Esperanto. But even as a linguist his Zionist fanaticism predominated and of Arabic he never learned more than a few curses.

As a stylist, it is as if there were two Jabotinskys. When he wrote politically for a gentile audience he was worthless, he wrote to his audience, and a book such as The Jewish War Front is full of the stilted vocabulary of the British upper class of 1940. However, his Samson is well researched and the characters, including the necessarily somewhat superman-like hero, are all believable, yet the tale as he tells it gives off a yellowed quality, like the very pages of the book itself as one encounters it in libraries. It is its blatant racism and old fashioned imperialism, no longer found in serious modern literature, that makes it into a museum curio.

It was as a polemicist in the Zionist press that he was at his best and he could give off an extremely clear and authoritative quality, which he ascribed to his linguist’s grasp of grammar as well as his penchant for drawing logical, even if necessarily extreme, conclusions from common Zionist premises. Thus, when he discusses the absolute necessity of force for the success of Zionism, or its total dependence on capitalism, he is definitive, even oracular. But he could never confine himself to such truths; his decades of association with Russian and then British reaction gave him not only an imperial but an imperious political mentality which drove him over to the world ultra-right. His vivacious bonhomie could not mask the fact that he was, at the very best, an extreme reactionary, an avowed collaborator with anti-Semites, an apologist for Benito Mussolini, and often little more than an absurd political crackpot.

In the end, his interest for the historian will have to lie in his being the mentor and idol of his world famous disciple, whose first act as Prime Minister of Israel was to put Jabotinsky’s portrait on the wall of his new office.


1. Nathan Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah, p.134.

2. Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism, p.255.

3. Yehuda Benari and Joseph Schechtman, History of the Revisionist Movement, vol.I, p.338.

4. J. Bowyer Bell, Terror Out of Zion, p.5.

5. Joseph Schechtman, Fighter and Prophet, p.120.

6. Mordechai Katz, The Father of Betar, p.13.

7. Ibid., p.15.

8. Vladimir Jabotinsky, Jewish Fascism, The Zionist (London), 25 June 1926, p.26.

9. Karl Marx, Capital (New World Paperbacks), p.79.

10. Enzo Sereni, Towards a New Orientation, Jews and Arabs in Palestine (1936), pp.282-3.

11. Barnett Litvinoff (ed.), Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann, vol.XV, p.238.

12. Joseph Nedava, Jabotinsky and the Bund, Soviet Jewish Affairs, vol.III, 1 (1973), p.44.

13. Schechtman, Fighter and Prophet, p.233.

14. Jabotinsky, Zionism and Communism, Hadar, February 1941, p.33.

15. Yaakov Shavit, Fire and Water: Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the Revisionist Movement, Studies in Zionism, Autumn 1981, p.224.

16. Jabotinsky, State Zionism, p.10.

17. Shlomo Avineri, The Political Thought of Vladimir Jabotinsky, Jerusalem Quarterly, Summer 1980, p.18.

18. Revisionism: A Self-Portrait, Jewish Frontier, January 1935, p.16.

19. Ibid.

20. Anita Shapira, The Debate in Mapai on the Use of Violence, 1932-1935, Zionism, spring 1981, p.105.

21. Schechtman, Fighter and Prophet, p.216.

22. Eliazer Liebenstein, The Truth About Revisionism, (1935), pp.51-3.

23. Revisionists in Palestine seek to explain away Incriminating Testimony, Jewish Daily Bulletin, 29 August 1933, p.4.

24. Jewish Daily Bulletin, 24 August 1933, p.1.

25. Zionists Reject Boycott of Reich, New York Times, 25 August 1933, p.6.

26. Werner Braatz, German Commercial Interests in Palestine: Zionism and the Boycott of German Goods, European Studies Review, October 1979, p.504.

27. Jabotinsky, Jackals and Clams, Our Voice, April 1934, p.8.

28. Stavsky Appeal Allowed, Palestine Post, 22 July 1934, p.8.

29. Trace 1933 Murder Weapon to Stern Group Death Squad, Jewish Journal, 10 August 1973.

30. Stavsky was Framed, Jewish Herald (S. Africa), 24 February 1955, p.3.

31. Shapira, p.104.

32. Mussolini, My Husband (Italian film documentary).

33. Jabotinsky, letter to Leone Carpi, 7 October 1931, Scritti in Memoria di Leone Carpi, (D. Carpi, A. Milano, A. Rofe, eds), p.42.

34. Jabotinsky, Jews and Fascism – some remarks – and a Warning, Jewish Daily Bulletin, 11 April 1935, p.3.

35. Schechtman, p.304.

36. Jacob de Haas, New Struggles in an Old World, Chicago Jewish Chronicle, 18 October 1935, p.9.

37. Dr von Weisl Believes in Fascism, World Jewry (London), 12 June 1936, p.12.

38. Michael Bar-Zohar, Ben-Gurion – The Armed Prophet, p.46.

39. Ronald Storrs, Orientations, p.405.

40. Schechtman, p.449.

41. Bell, p.39.

42. Israel Shahak (ed), Begin and Co. As They Really Are, p.12.

43. Daniel Levine, David Raziel, The Man and His Times, p.229.

44. Schechtman, p.287.

45. Ibid., p.286.

46. Ibid., p.289.

47. Ibid.

48. Yehuda Slutsky, Haganah, Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol.7, col.1069.

49. Jabotinsky, Evacuation – Humanitarian Zionism, Selected Writings (S. Africa), 1962, p.75.

50. Robert Briscoe, For the Life of Me, p.268.

51. Nathan Yalin-Mor, Memories of Yair and Etzel, Jewish Spectator, Summer 1980, p.33.

52. Shmuel Merlin (interview with author), 16 September 1980.

53. Levine, p.80.

54. Yalin-Mor, p.36.

55. Schechtman, p.366.

56. Ibid., p.367.

57. Ibid.

58. Jabotinsky, The Jewish War Front, p.12.

59. Ibid., p.62.

60. Ibid., p.109.

61. Ibid., pp.220-2.

62. Schechtman, p.400.

Middle East Archive | Encyclopedia of Trotskyism

Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 22.8.2006