In 1898, at the age of 18, Vladimir Jabotinsky left his Odessa home in Ukraine. En route to law school in Bern, Switzerland, Jabotinsky’s train brought him through southern Ukraine and Galicia.
“The journey,” Hillel Halkin writes, “was his first contact with the shtetl.” The dress, mannerism, and poverty of the shtetl left Jabotinsky deeply disturbed. “I looked away in silence and asked: can this people be mine?”
These people were, in fact, his. And, as Halkin’s concise biography Jabotinsky: A Life illustrates, although he did not know it at the time he would dedicate his life to defending them. Halkin, a renowned translator, literary critic, and historian, immediately sets out to dispel the popular belief that Jabotinsky’s upbringing was divorced from Jewish identity. Such myths were promoted by political rivals such as Chaim Weizmann who spoke for many eastern European Zionists in derisively referring to Jabotinsky as being, “not at all Jewish.”
On the contrary, despite losing his father at a young age, Halkin shows that Jabotinsky’s childhood was surrounded by Judaism and enforced by a domineering mother. She taught him the Hebrew alphabet, “kept a strictly kosher kitchen, lit candles every Sabbath eve, and scrupulously recited the daily prayers,” Halkin writes. Even most of Jabotinsky’s earliest friends were Jews.
The insinuation that Jabotinsky’s early years in Odessa were divorced from Judaism, Halkin explains, is a symptom of the vastly different worlds through which he moved as opposed to Weizmann’s shtetl upbringing.
Contrary to Yehuda Leib Gordon’s famous counsel, “Be a Jew at home and a human being when you leave it,” Odessa stood alone amongst czarist Russian cities where Jews could lead relatively emancipated lives.
At the time, Odessa was a brimming metropole of Jewish thought in which Hayim Bialik, Ahad Ha’am, Leon Pinsker, and Meir Dizengoff were local fixtures. Intermingling within an ethnically diverse city and speaking Russian were scorned by the puritanism of many shtetl Jews who were raised in Yiddish, educated in heders, and strictly segregated from others. “Their world, was divided into Jews and non-Jews, the latter viewed as alien and hostile,” Halkin writes.
Another shtetl offspring, David Ben Gurion, projected similar stereotypes onto Jabotinsky’s upbringing in Odessa, particularly the perception that the city’s assimilatory pressures had acclimatized Jabotinsky to interacting with gentiles. Jabotinsky, alone, Ben Gurion later asserted, “was the only Zionist politician he knew who had not the slightest instinctive fear of gentiles and could never be intimidated by them,” Halkin writes.
Accusations of one’s Jewishness and belonging, as Halkin shows, were but the first in a long series of slights in the most prolific Zionist rivalry. What began as a skirmish over defining Jewish identity developed into a fight over competing values and world views. Although, for a time, Jabotinsky flirted with socialism – even conceding the efficacy of Labor Zionism in the Yishuv’s early years – his military experiences in Palestine during the First World War quickly disabused him of such conviction. No figure proved more influential in Jabotinsky’s political evolution away from Labor Zionism than Joseph Trumpeldor. In 1919, amid worsening relations between Jewish communities and Bedouins in the Upper Galilee conflict broke out. Badly outnumbered, even Jabotinsky proposed evacuating local settlements. Trumpeldor refused, obeying the Yishuv’s dictate to defend them at all costs. Despite Trumpeldor’s appeals for reinforcements (which the Yishuv assured would arrive shortly) none came. Trumpeldor died in the fighting and was later lionized by Jabotinsky who believed the Yishuv had cynically abandoned him and accelerated his own departure from left-wing politics.
So impactful was this experience that when Jabotinsky’s revisionist youth movement, Betar, was formed it bore the Hebrew acronym for B’rit Trumpeldor, “the Trumpeldor League.”
Accordingly, mutual animosity regularly boiled over between Jabotinsky and Ben Gurion. The former, at times, referred to Labor Zionists as “lackeys of Moscow,” while Ben Gurion derisively called the former “Vladimir Hitler.” And yet, as Halkin demonstrates, in later life efforts to cultivate a détente reveal the depth and complexity of their relationship.
“Whatever happens can never change the fact that we two met in reciprocal trust and respect, that we managed for many hours to put everything behind us, and that our deep concerns for the movement and its success led us to make this joint effort,” Ben Gurion’s letter to Jabotinsky read. “I hear your words ‘comrade and friend’ from you. I had long ago forgotten that such a way of speaking exists and perhaps I’ve been the cause of its being forgotten between us,” Jabotinsky responded.
Halkin success contextualizing Jabotinsky’s early life, relationship with Judaism, and political maturation, at times, is overshadowed by the book’s failure to fully appreciate his contribution as a founding father of Revisionist Zionism. Nowhere is this brevity more apparent, and frustrating, then in Halkin’s unpacking of Jabotinsky’s famous essay “Iron Wall.” Halkin dedicates a single paragraph to the article which today is synonymous with Jabotinsky’s political legacy. Aside for Jabotinsky’s comparison of Palestinians to Aztecs and Sioux resisting “foreign settlers as long as it can hope to get rid of them,” Halkin circumscribes the significance of the “Iron Wall” thesis.
By comparison, Avi Shalim’s book, The Iron Wall, situates Jabotinsky’s concept as central in explaining Israeli-Arab relations and Israeli security-mindedness, particularly under former prime minister Menachem Begin. Jabotinsky, Shalim writes, was Begin’s “main source of ideological inspiration,” adding that he often referred to him as “our teacher, master, and father.”
Had Halkin panned outwards and re-calibrated his historical sights beyond the immediacy of Jabotinsky’s life, a lineage connecting Begin, Ariel Sharon, and Benjamin Netanyahu could have offered readers a far greater appreciation as to how truly influential Jabotinsky has become in the afterlife. Unfortunately, while Jabotinsky: A Life overwhelming succeeds in illustrating Jabotinsky’s immediate life and contemporaries, it underwhelms in capturing the longer arc of Jewish history. Though this was not the mandate of a strictly biographical study of Jabotinsky, Halkin’s book is a wonderfully well-researched and fair primer.