The Jabotinsky Paradox

How could the man who at one point openly scorned religion also be the forefather of the political coalition that ensured for it a key place in Israeli life?

Ze’ev Jabotinsky (second row in the very center, wearing glasses) at a Revisionist Zionist conference likely in Paris in the second half of the 1920s. Wikipedia.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky (second row in the very center, wearing glasses) at a Revisionist Zionist conference likely in Paris in the second half of the 1920s. Wikipedia.
Aug. 2 2021
About the author

Avi Shilon, a historian and political scientist, is the author of Menachem Begin: A Life (2012), Ben-Gurion: His Later Years in the Political Wilderness (2016), and, most recently, The Left Wing’s Sorrow: Yossi Beilin and the Decline of the Peace Camp (Hebrew, 2017). He teaches at NYU’s Tel Aviv campus and Ben-Gurion University, and contributes op-ed pieces to Haaretz.

In 1919, a fierce debate broke out among the Jews of the Land of Israel, much like the one raging in the U.S. at the same time, over the question of whether women should be allowed to vote in the emerging institutions of Jewish self-government. The debate pitted secular Jews against the Orthodox, and especially members of the staunchly traditionalist Old Yishuv, so called because it had been established before the Zionist pioneers began to arrive in the 1880s. Despite his reputation as a moderate, Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem—and soon thereafter of Palestine—came out against women’s suffrage. Vladimir Jabotinsky, a prominent anti-socialist Zionist who in 1925 would found the right-wing Revisionist movement (the precursor of today’s Likud), was incensed. To him, Rabbi Kook and his supporters were ignoramuses “who came out of a hole in the wall . . . and never heard the name of John Stuart Mill.”

Such harsh rhetoric was typical of Jabotinsky at the time. A secular Jew himself, he saw modern Jewish nationalism as part of a Western secular revolution, and he aspired to create a Jewish state on a classical-liberal model, with religion having no official role in government. In his mind the attachment of many Jews to their religious practices was a symptom of their backwardness.

But fifteen years later, in 1934, he wrote the following about Kook, with whom he had by this time become personally acquainted:

You, too, who never saw Rabbi Kook, . . . cannot but sense that behind all this stands a rare and precious human figure, a soul soaring in a singular world of sublime and noble ideals, constructing its daily life according to a timeless imperative, seeing in every tiny phenomenon a reflection of a wondrous mystery, the shadow of the shadow of the sh’khinah [divine presence].

It wasn’t only Rabbi Kook who had transformed in Jabotinsky’s mind from ignoramus to soaring soul. Jabotinsky’s perspective on Judaism itself underwent a similar transformation. While he never lost his commitment to classical liberalism or to its its conception of the separation of religion from the state, in the latter part of his life Vladimir Jabotinsky abandoned his secularism, and came to see religion as a spiritual necessity for both the individual and society.

This transformation in Jabotinsky’s thinking has gone largely unnoticed by scholars (with one prominent exception), who still tend to see him as a staunch secularist—as do both his admirers and his detractors. Why did Jabotinsky undergo this change of heart? How did he reinterpret the meaning of religion and faith, and why has this aspect of his thinking been overlooked? I hope to dispense with some of the myths about Jabotinsky, especially the old-fashioned notion, which originated with his political enemies, that he was a militarist, an authoritarian, and even a fascist. He possessed, instead, one of the subtlest and most insightful minds in the history of Zionism.

Thinking about Jabotinsky’s orientation to the world of faith is not merely a matter of correcting the historical record; indeed, an analysis of his evolving views on religion can help us to understand the ideas underlying Israeli politics today. For it was Jabotinsky’s disciple, Menachem Begin, who, although by no means a fully practicing Jew himself, brought Judaism into the public square as his Labor predecessors never had. What’s more, the Likud party—the direct descendent of Jabotinsky’s Revisionists, led today by the son of his personal secretary, Benzion Netanyahu—has found success by attracting religious voters and cementing alliances with religious parties. The current prime minister, Naftali Bennett, the first kippah-wearing head of the Israeli government, got his start in politics as the bureau chief of then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and thus owes his success to Likud.

That Jabotinsky is a seminal figure in the history of the Israeli right is a matter of long-standing consensus. But that consensus contains within it a puzzle: how could the man who thought religion had no place in political debate and denigrated rabbis as ignoramuses also be the intellectual forefather of the very political coalition that ensured for religion a key place in Israeli political life? The integration of religious Jews into the backbone of Israel’s right-wing bloc is a phenomenon that does not derive from the secular vision that historians have attributed to Jabotinsky. In fact, it is the continuation of  Jabotinsky’s mature thought, expressed, as we will presently see, in his later years. To understand why and how Jabotinsky changed, it’s first necessary to have an overall understanding of his character and worldview.


I. A Secularist Background


Ze’ev Jabotinsky, as he eventually began to call himself, was a controversial figure throughout his life. Belittled and beloved, no other Zionist leader inspired such sharply opposing responses in the pre-state era. In the eyes of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, he continued to be a danger even after his death. Jabotinsky, who passed away in 1940 at the age of sixty while visiting New York, had written in his will, five years earlier, that “If I’m buried outside of the Land of Israel, my bones should only be reinterred there by order of the Jewish government, which will be established!”

After the state was declared in May 1948, Menachem Begin, the leader of the Ḥerut party—the post-independence incarnation of Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement—sought to honor the last wishes of the man he called “my teacher and rabbi.” He demanded that the government authorize Jabotinsky’s reinterment in Israel. Ben-Gurion refused. With the cynicism that typified his political polemics, he replied, “The state needs living Jews.” Jabotinsky’s bones were finally brought to Israel only in 1964, after Levi Eshkol, a Labor leader more inclined to reconciliation and compromise, succeeded Ben-Gurion as prime minister.

It was no coincidence that Ben-Gurion denied the request for government approval of his rival’s reinterment in Israel. By acceding to this request, he feared, the state would be granting legitimacy to Jabotinsky’s doctrines and empowering the Zionist right, which during Ben-Gurion’s time was relegated to the opposition.

Ben-Gurion’s fears were apparently justified. Since Ḥerut’s successor party, the Likud, first rose to power in 1977, it has ruled Israel—alone or in unity governments—almost continuously. However, it is doubtful that the “old man,” as Ben-Gurion’s associates called him, ever imagined that in the 21st century the Israeli left would be raising the banner of Jabotinsky’s heritage, emphasizing his demand for equality for all citizens, including Israeli Arabs, and noting that Jabotinsky had at one point envisioned something like a binational state. Of course, the left’s appropriation of Jabotinsky also serves a polemical purpose: to argue that Benjamin Netanyahu has distanced the Likud from its liberal roots—much as in the U.S. some Democrats claim to long for the days of Ronald Reagan, whom they too once called a fascist, while accusing Donald Trump of abandoning Reagan’s legacy.

And it’s not just the left taking up Jabotinsky’s mantle. The Zionist right still lionizes him as a fighter for a greater Land of Israel, and often cite his doctrines. Israeli Arabs, including the leader of the Joint Arab List, Ayman Odeh, quote his demand that all citizens of the Jewish state should have complete equality. Scholars, as well as those who think Israeli public life has become too religious, note that in his will he expressed indifference about cremation, in violation of the edicts of Judaism, as additional evidence of his hostility toward religion. Nearly everyone in Israeli politics seems able to cherry-pick something from Jabotinsky’s many writings and speeches.

A unique and original leader, not easily pigeonholed into today’s political categories, Jabotinsky has become an icon for nearly every one of the different groups that make up the Israeli mosaic.

But rank opportunism alone does not explain why Jabotinsky has become an icon for nearly every one of the different groups that make up the Israeli mosaic. Jabotinsky was a unique and original leader, not easily pigeonholed into today’s political categories, and the richness of his thought indeed contains something for everyone. But let’s begin with the man himself.

Vladimir Jabotinsky was born in 1880 in cosmopolitan Odessa. By his own account, he and his generation were “the product of [Jewish] assimilation in the southern region of Russia.” Although Hillel Halkin has shown in his biography that Jabotinsky was not quite so assimilated as he claimed to be, his upbringing was far less traditional than that of most other Russian- and Polish-born Zionists. Moreover, Jabotinsky wrote, his and his peers’ attitude toward religion was one of “boundless apathy”; it interested them no more than “the snows of yesteryear.” In his youth, his aspirations were more literary than political, and he quickly found success as a journalist, political commentator, and literary critic. He also composed poetry, which expressed a worldview—very much a product of his own Russian intellectual milieu—that rejected religion as both practice and faith, along with religious institutions. Soon he expanded his repertoire to include translation, plays, and novels, while proving himself an original thinker able to tackle a wide range of subjects.

It was with a universalist, secular background that Jabotinsky, while beginning his studies at the University of Bern in 1897, first encountered Zionism. On his way to Switzerland, he was affected by his first exposure to the inferior status of traditional East European Jews, who were not at all like the Jews he had grown up with in Odessa. When he returned to Russia after completing his studies, this impression was reinforced by the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, and the wave of anti-Jewish violence in the following four years, which transformed him into an active Zionist. But his rejection of universalism in favor of Jewish nationalism by no means entailed an embrace of Judaism. At this embryonic stage of his thinking, he believed the Jewish religion to be a primitive national framework that would inevitably be replaced by an ethic more appropriate to a modern national movement, an ethic that, unlike the traditional Judaism he had seen in East Europe, could serve the spiritual and material needs of the Jews returning to their land. Jabotinsky in this regard resembled many of his fellow Russian and Polish Jews, including Ben-Gurion, who came from deeply religious environments and embraced Zionism as a rebellion against the traditions of their fathers.

In an article he published in 1905, entitled “Zionism and the Land of Israel,” Jabotinsky asserted:

Not religion but rather national particularity is . . . the sacred treasure that our people guarded and continues to guard with such obstinacy. . . . The need to keep watch over our national particularity under conditions of exile led to the multiplication and severity of the religious laws meant to serve this purpose. All religious “creativity” in the exile was nothing but a single sterile web of commentaries on commentaries on commentaries.

His view of rabbinic Judaism as a collection of commentaries clearly had its roots in the late medieval Christian view of Judaism, and also in the views of such major thinkers as Kant and Hegel. It was a view shared by anti-Semites as well.

But while Jabotinsky’s ideas about Judaism were somewhat simplistic at this stage, his political thinking was otherwise highly sophisticated—despite the conventional image of him as a hardliner who established the Zionist right based on the demand for a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River. He revered Theodor Herzl, but opposed his proposal at the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903 to consider Jewish settlement in Uganda. He also did not share Herzl’s belief that securing support from the world powers was a prerequisite for such practical measures as establishing communities in Ottoman Palestine. Jabotinsky belonged to a broader movement known as “synthetic Zionism,” whose members convened in 1906 in Helsinki and issued a call for collective rights for Jews in the Diaspora, in parallel to settlement in the Land of Israel and political Zionist action. While some Zionists saw any effort to aid the Diaspora as a distraction from the central goal, or saw any improvement of diasporic circumstances as discouraging aliyah, he saw no contradiction between strengthening national feeling among Diaspora Jews and the drive to settle in the Land of Israel.

Jabotinsky’s concern for the rights of Diaspora Jews as a minority in their countries was also reflected in his attitude toward Arab minority rights in the Jewish state he envisioned. In his mind, the state would ultimately be Jewish because it would have a Jewish majority. As the historian Dimitry Shumsky has shown, Jabotinsky considered various proposals to create separate autonomous territories that lacked full sovereignty, or federative arrangements that would grant citizenship and full self-government to both nations in the Land of Israel in order to circumvent the need to create two separate nation-states.

His advocacy of a federation can be attributed, in part, to the prevailing political winds of the time. The failed Russian revolution of 1905 stirred Jabotinsky’s hope that the tsar’s empire might someday become a multiethnic democracy. Next came the revolution of the Young Turks (1908), sparking hope that the “new Turkey” would be a pluralistic empire adapted to the new reality in which national communities—as opposed to religious-minority communities with limited judicial autonomy—would serve as the building blocks of political order. He traveled there to see for himself, but was quickly disillusion by what he observed, and especially by what he understood to be the feebleness of the old, deeply religious Jewish world.

In his essay “The Orient,” he wrote:

Among us, in the lives of the Jews who hold to the archaic, many savage customs of real “orientalism” have been preserved—hatred of free legislation; religion’s involvement in life; women who wear wigs [rather than bare their hair] and to whom a man does not extend his hand. But if we were to believe for a single moment that these traits belong to the organic nature of Judaism, we would certainly have no desire to perpetuate it. It is to that end that, after all, we had the Haskalah, [Jewish enlightenment], so that we could separate these primitive traditions and laws from our fundamental nature.

In short, Jabotinsky had no romantic notions about Judaism, traditional Jews, or the Middle East. He set his sights firmly toward the West. Indeed, he was among the first Zionists to identify the British empire as their best ally, and to recognize that it shared their interests. Cognizant of the importance of symbols and myths, he insisted—along with Ben-Gurion—on forming a Jewish Legion that would operate within the framework of the British Army during World War I. While the Jewish Legion did not play a salient role in the war, it was able to participate in the conquest of the Land of Israel, thus according the Jews a foothold—if only a symbolic one—prior to the Balfour Declaration.

Jabotinsky—like Chaim Weizmann, who took over the leadership of the Zionist Congress after Herzl’s death—continued to advocate cooperating with Britain during the 1920 and 30s—although he was disappointed that London, having received the Mandate for Palestine, awarded in 1922 the territory east of the Jordan River to the emirate of Transjordan. But unlike Weizmann, a master of personal politics and high diplomacy, Jabotinsky understood the importance of mass politics in an era of large democracies. Throughout his life, he believed in the power of petitions, demonstrations, and speeches that could inspire and direct popular passions. In the internal Zionist debate over the mission of the nascent Hebrew University—whether it should focus on research, as the elitist Weizmann demanded, or on teaching and learning in order to accommodate as many Jewish students as possible—Jabotinsky preferred the second option.

Since 1919, after settling in Jerusalem with his wife Yohana and son Eri, one of his objectives was to form a Jewish defense force. In fact, he was one of the founders of the initial core of what would become the Haganah—which would, when it was later led by staunch socialists, hound Jabotinsky’s disciples. When the Haganah was formed, a dispute arose between Jabotinsky and representatives of the workers’ parties, who wanted to form a clandestine militia. Jabotinsky argued that going underground would mean surrendering the basic right to self-defense and that a secret organization would not be sufficient to defend the pre-state Jewish community. He demanded instead that the British issue licenses for bearing arms. (When the British refused, the Haganah began procuring weapons anyway.)

Jabotinsky’s desire for a defense force that operated in the open was in tune with much of his other thinking, as I will explain—and his insistence that it be one with formal ranks, uniforms, and the like contributed to his reputation as a militarist. But here too, his views were more complex. For example, in March 1920, when it was clear that the Jews at the Galilean village of Tel Ḥai were in an inferior position vis-à-vis the Arabs in the area, it was Ben-Gurion who demanded that they hold their ground, in the name of “the principle of settlement.” Jabotinsky, by contrast, believed it was unnecessary to endanger the lives of its residents if they had no way to defend themselves.

Arab forces indeed overwhelmed Tel Ḥai and, after a battle that left eight Jews dead, drove out the remainder and razed the village. The martyred leader of the heroic defense, the one-armed Russo-Japanese War veteran Joseph Trumpeldor, became a legend because of his final words: “It’s good to die for our country.” (Some dispute this account, saying that he simply cursed in Russian.) As the hero of this Zionist Alamo, Trumpeldor remains associated with the Revisionists, who named their youth group Brit Trumpeldor, or Beitar, after him. But few remember that if the people of Tel Ḥai had taken Jabotinsky’s advice, Trumpleldor could perhaps have lived to serve as one of the IDF’s commanders in Israel’s War of Independence.


II. Reading Reality


By the early 1920s, Jabotinsky had already made a name for himself as a man of considerable talents and an emerging Zionist leader. But wider recognition of his unique worldview, simultaneously bold and sober, came in the wake of his most famous essay, “On the Iron Wall,” published in 1923.

Jabotinsky wrote this article in response to the Arab riots of 1921, when Jews were attacked in various places, including Jaffa, where the gifted Hebrew novelist Yosef Ḥayyim Brenner was among the dead. The riots surprised the leaders of the Jewish Yishuv, who had believed that the Arabs could be conciliated with promises of economic prosperity, or of class-based solidarity between Jewish and Arab workers. Jabotinsky thought otherwise. He argued that Zionists should regard Arab resistance to Zionism as natural, since nowhere in the world had a resident people agreed to colonial settlement on their land. (In those years, “colonialism” did not yet have a negative connotation; it was perceived as an engine of advancement rather than oppression.) The Labor Zionist leaders, Jabotinsky claimed, were misleading the Jewish public with promises of coexistence, while treating the Arabs with condescension in their attempts to appease them with promises of compensation or compromise:

Emotionally, my attitude to the Arabs is the same as to all other nations—polite indifference. Politically, my attitude is determined by two principles. First of all, I consider it utterly impossible to eject the Arabs from Palestine. There will always be two nations in Palestine—which is good enough for me, provided the Jews become the majority. And secondly, I belong to the group that once drew up the Helsinki Program, . . . and its foundational principle is equality of rights. . . .

But it is quite another question whether it is always possible to realize a peaceful aim by peaceful means. For the answer to this question does not depend on our attitude to the Arabs, but entirely on the attitude of the Arabs to us and to Zionism.

Our peace-mongers are trying to persuade us that the Arabs are either fools, whom we can deceive by masking our real aims, or that they are corrupt and can be bribed to abandon to us their claim to priority in Palestine, in return for cultural and economic advantages. I repudiate this conception of the Palestinian Arabs.

Jabotinsky’s basic argument is that Jews should recognize Arabs’ resistance to Zionism as justified from the Arab perspective. But if the Jews truly believe that Zionism is moral and just—as, he wrote, it is—they must recognize that their own demands for justice are incompatible with those of the Arabs. This assessment gave rise to his call to build (with British assistance) an iron wall, a metaphor for strong military power, until the Arabs accept the Jews’ presence as an irreversible fact. Then, when they realize that it is impossible to expel the Jews through force, a leadership will arise among the Arabs that will seek compromise. This compromise will also impose obligations on the Zionists; though he did not elaborate on the terms of this compromise in “On the Iron Wall,” he did subsequently, as I will explain.

Jabotinsky’s reading of the situation stood out for its sobriety; he was the first to recognize each community’s mutual claims to justice and to realize that time must elapse before achieving any peace.

In effect, Jabotinsky was the first to recognize the mutual claims to justice and to realize that time must elapse before achieving the long-awaited peace. His reading of the reality stood out at the time for its sobriety; since the Jewish national movement required hope and optimism to grow, contemporaries saw it as an expression of despair and pessimism, and more evidence of his supposed militarism.

From the perspective of almost a century later, many historians agree that Jabotinsky’s primary political rival, Ben-Gurion, later adopted the iron-wall approach, starting with strengthening the Haganah as a military force and then, after the establishment of the state, developing the IDF and pursuing the atomic project at Dimona. In fact, one of the reasons behind Begin’s agreement to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for peace was that it fulfilled the “late” stage of Jabotinsky’s strategic vision. According to Begin, just as his “teacher and rabbi” had envisioned, the Egyptians offered a hand of peace only after they had come to realize—in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War—that Israel could not be defeated on the battlefield. Egypt’s peace offer in turn obligated the Jews to compromise. Therefore, Begin was willing to return the Sinai, which in any case he did not consider part of the biblical Land of Israel, but a strategic asset that could be traded in exchange for another strategic asset—peace.

In response to the controversy that “On the Iron Wall” had aroused, Jabotinsky published another, lesser-known article titled “On the Morality of the Iron Wall.” He argued that since humanity is divided into various subgroups, it would be fair and moral to demand that Arabs consider the fact that the Jews have no other place in the world besides the Land of Israel. Jabotinsky emphasized, however, that the future Jewish state would enact a constitution ensuring the equality of rights for its citizens. He suggested that an Arab could serve as the head of state, albeit in a symbolic role as a president or emir; the role of prime minister, who wields executive power, would be filled by a Jew. According to Jabotinsky’s plan, the Jewish Agency would retain a role in the government because the Jewish state, as later enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, would belong to all Jews and not only to its citizens. He also proposed a bicameral legislature, similar to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. He was willing to accept a non-Jewish majority in the lower house so long as it refrained from restricting Jewish immigration, which would eventually change the demographic balance. At the same time, the upper house would be established on a federal basis, representing the four partners in building the country: Jews, Muslims, Christians, and the Jewish Agency, representing world Jewry. The U.S. also inspired another one of Jabotinsky’s proposals: the Confederation of the Semitic Peoples, with a capital in Damascus, in which the Jews would have an autonomous canton. In all of this and more, Jabotinsky was more flexible in his plans than the leaders of Labor Zionism, contrary to his hawkish image following the publication of “On the Iron Wall.”

Nonetheless, it is important to note that in his last book, The Jewish War Front, Jabotinsky did not rule out the possibility of population transfer—that is, expulsion of Arabs. The book was published in 1940, shortly before his death, and was written in the gloomy context of World War II.

I see no need for this exodus, and it would be undesirable from many perspectives. But if it becomes clear that the Arabs prefer to emigrate, this may be discussed without a trace of sorrow in the heart.

In any case, after the publication of “On the Iron Wall,” and in light of his demand that the Zionist movement express, openly and explicitly, its aspiration for an independent state for the Jews in Palestine, his rift with the Labor Zionists widened, and in 1925 he established the Revisionist Party.

In the view of most historians, the 17th Zionist Congress in 1931 was the major opportunity he missed. At that stage, following the 1929 Arab riots and the ensuing British White Paper restricting Zionist activity, Chaim Weizmann’s standing eroded. Weizmann was widely criticized for his conciliatory attitude toward the British—and the minimalist demands he presented to them—and support grew for Jabotinsky and his Revisionists. Instead of forming a winning coalition, he chose, against the advice of his close associates, to adopt a stance that was seen as too extreme: that the Zionist Congress publicly demand the immediate creation of a Jewish state. The Congress rejected the proposal.

In 1935, Jabotinsky reiterated the demand, and, after it was again rejected, he pulled his party out of the World Zionist Organization and established the New Zionist Organization. His decision to quit the mainstream institutions appears in retrospect to have been a political error, denying him the chance of gaining control of the Zionist movement from within, and exacerbating confrontations with the left. In 1942, eleven years after Jabotinsky first proposed it, Ben-Gurion and the Zionist mainstream advanced a public demand for a Jewish state at the Biltmore Conference in New York. Jabotinsky was no longer alive.


III. The Desire to Be King


In the 1920s and 30s, Weizmann had established an enduring alliance with the Labor Zionist movement, and especially with David Ben-Gurion, who had also become the de-facto leader of the Yishuv. Jabotinsky meanwhile developed his critique of the fusion of Zionism and socialism with the principle of “one flag” (ḥad nes): channeling all efforts toward the national objective, without raising the additional flag of socialism. While Ben-Gurion believed that the socialist dimension was critical for the national enterprise because it subordinates private interests to communal concerns, Jabotinsky thought that class-based aspirations undermine the national effort because they portend an internal battle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Notably, Jabotinsky evoked religious terminology in rejecting the blending of socialism and Zionism as a type of sha’atnez—a cloth made of both wool and linen, prohibited by Jewish law.

In the economic context, his stance was also nuanced, and reveals a spiritual dimension of his thought. Though he supported economic liberalism, he outlined five essentials the state should provide its citizens with: clothing, housing, medical care, education, and food. (He dubbed these the “five mems,” as each starts with the letter mem in Hebrew.) Jabotinsky thought that the biblical idea of the jubilee, which mandates a redistribution of land every 50 years, was a sound foundation for allocating resources in society. But he abhorred the doctrines of Karl Marx, which he viewed as the cornerstone of Labor Zionism, because its foundation was materialistic, and thus lacked what he believed most important element for understanding human history: the psychological element.

In Jabotinsky’s economic theory, the desire to accumulate personal wealth and private property is an expression of a spiritual aspiration rather than a material one. Since Judaism teaches that “man was created in God’s image,” each person has a right to fulfill his role in the world as “a son of a king.” As such, human beings will always seek to increase their wealth and broaden their role. This sort of religious and biblical rhetoric was increasingly becoming part of Jabotinsky’s intellectual arsenal.

His ideas about religion were changing. Jabotinsky’s evolving attitude can likewise be seen in his 1938 essay “Introduction to the Theory of the Economy,” in which he articulated his economic program most robustly. He argued that “the individual is the supreme creation of nature; . . . the state must serve the individual and not the opposite.” From the Jewish perspective, as he interpreted it, only immortality separates the individual and God. Hence, he concluded that a person “is intended to be free” and “only in exceptional cases is it permissible to make him a part of the mechanism.”

The principle that, for Jabotinsky, drives human history can be found in the tension between the desire to obtain the requirements of biology and the desire for majesty and personal dignity, which he called “play.”

According to Jabotinsky, the principle that drives human history can be found in the tension between the desire to obtain what he termed “necessity,” or the requirements of biology, and the desire for majesty and personal dignity, which he called “play.” (The Hebrew phrase he used here, mani’a ha-malkhut, literally means “the desire to be king,” invoking the leisure time that kings, but not their servants, have for “play.”) These needs are both “fundamentally different and independent of one another.” While the first are shared by other organisms, the drives of “play” are unique to the person. Human civilization, in its infinite cultural permutations, is the product of “play.”

Jabotinsky gave the example of an infant’s utterances:

An infant in his cradle, when he moves his limbs or makes different noises with his mouth, can be voicing two different drives. Sometimes he intends to ask for food or to complain about physical discomfort; sometimes he is “just” moving his feet or gurgling and vocalizing. These two forms of activity are expressed as a response to a certain need, but in the first case this is necessity and in the second case this is play. The typical difference is that the infant cries when he does an action of the first type (necessity) and laughs in the second case (play).

Thus the need to satisfy human desires, met in diverse, “playful” ways, has fueled the material progress of mankind, turning what previous generations considered luxuries into basic needs. “In our time,” he writes by way of example, “even the poorest of people would not consider eating raw meat or a raw potato.” It is every person’s desire to be a king, to accumulate a certain amount of property, and to expand his “kingdom” with a “life of luxury” that ultimately promotes, fertilizes, and develops humanity, until what was once a “luxury” (“play”) becomes just another “necessity.” Human beings must be free to exercise their drive to play to continue their forward march toward progress—and this drive can only flourish in a free-market and capitalist economy.

Jabotinsky brought these economic ideas together with his thinking on other topics in his brilliant 1926 novel Samson the Nazarite, which portrays the titular biblical hero teaching the people of Israel that three things are essential for renewing their kingdom in the Land of Israel: a “king” (a stable government), “iron” (a strong army), and “laughter” (culture and pleasure, or what he elsewhere called “play”). Here Jabotinsky again turns to the Hebrew Bible as a source of political and intellectual inspiration—another landmark of his gradually evolving attitude toward religion. I’ll come to a fuller assessment of Jabotinsky’s religious views presently, but it is necessary, beforehand, to linger on his creative and literary dimensions. Just as it’s hard to think of another Zionist leader who proposed laughter as one of the foundations of the national enterprise, it’s also hard to think of another who devoted so much time to artistic pursuits alongside his political activities. This diffusion of his energy and focus was in part what prevented Jabotinsky from capturing the leadership of the Zionist movement.

Indeed, before he was a Zionist leader, Jabotinsky was a playwright, and even though by this time he had, for the most part, moved on to writing in other genres, he in a certain sense always perceived life as theater. His theatrical speeches provoked the hostility of the Labor Zionists, who sanctified practicality and matter-of-factness. Likewise, his theatricality led to his fondness for ceremonies, discipline, uniforms, and order, which were so foreign to the leaders of the Labor movement, who made a virtue of asceticism, anti-materialism, and in some cases anti-intellectualism. They concluded from the Revisionists’ parades and uniforms that Jabotinsky was a militarist. But this was a misunderstanding: he was, rather, someone who attached much importance to mankind’s aesthetic impulses, who understood that art and culture, and not bread alone, are necessary for human flourishing—and that outward forms could be as important as inward convictions.

He combined these tendencies in his concept of hadar, best translated as “splendor,” “majesty,” or even “honor.” The attribute of hadar was needed to transform Diaspora Jews into the “new Jew” that Zionists of many stripes sought to create in the Land of Israel. Endowed with hadar, a Jew should be proud of his origins, firmly stand up for his rights, act courteously, dress elegantly, and accept equality of the sexes. Even Jabotinsky’s penchant for the finer things in life, like eating in cafés and wearing stylish clothes—which contrasted so sharply with the spartan ethos of his opponents—fit into his understanding of human, and Jewish, dignity. He abhorred what he and other Zionists called “the politics of the shtadlan,” or intercessor, who would go with hat and hand to plead the Jewish cause before Gentile rulers. But above all, he thought the modern Jewish revolution would emerge from a change in the inner lives of Jews.

Jabotinsky’s nationalism incorporated art, beauty, and high culture, but also amusement. In this sense, his Zionist ideal was different from that of Ben-Gurion, who viewed art, as well as luxury, with suspicion. In the end, Jabotinsky was too complex for his thought to be reduced to such simple categories as left wing or right wing, liberal or conservative, dove or hawk—which explains why nowadays he is one of the only “founding fathers” whose views remain relevant and vital decades later.


IV. A Deeper, Transcendental Connection


With this in mind, we can now focus on the evolution of Jabotinsky’s thinking about religion. The initial shift in Jabotinsky’s attitude toward religion can be dated to 1925 (the year before he wrote Samson, and just six years after his characterization of Rabbi Kook as an ignoramus), when he founded the Revisionist Party. It was at this point that he began to highlight the connection between biblical values and modern Jewish nationalism: “The sabbatical and jubilee years,” he wrote around this time, “the principle of rest on the Sabbath, Amos’s social teachings, Isaiah’s vision of peace among the nations, and finally the cult of the book, . . . that, it seems to me, is our tradition.”

But the secularization of sacred values and their transformation into social principles is hardly original. In fact, this was the position prevalent in Zionism’s founding generations, from the 19th-century German Jewish socialist-turned-proto-Zionist Moses Hess to Ben-Gurion. Jabotinsky’s true transformation lay in his growing appreciation for religiosity in itself, as he became convinced that its experiential, irrational aspect could invigorate the soul and was a necessary underpinning for morality. In a 1926 letter to Avraham Rakanti, a religiously observant member of the Revisionist movement, he gave voice to this view:

Like us, Mizraḥi [the religious Zionist movement] is not afraid to swim against the current of intellectual fashion. . . . I will go even further and say that, even though I am far from [living a] religious life, . . . I hope that future generations . . . will rediscover religious emotion and that their souls will be healthier, more whole, and more harmonious than are the secular souls of our time.

In other words, and in diametric opposition to his former stance, Jabotinsky thought that religion could offer spiritual and psychological wholeness not to be found in reason, art, or in purely secular nationalism. He saw faith as purifying and healing. From this point forward, Jabotinsky’s approach to religion no longer focused on identifying particular precepts that might shape the social organization of a Jewish state (like the jubilee year), but on faith’s power to connect people with the sublime. He never translated this into personal observance, let alone a desire for the Jewish state as such to adhere to halakhah. But to the mature Jabotinsky, a Jewish state without Judaism would be a failure.

He never translated his change of feelings about religion into personal observance. But to the mature Jabotinsky, a Jewish state without Judaism would be a failure.

Thus by 1934, Jabotinsky would write the letter I cited at the beginning of this essay, praising Rabbi Kook and using such terms as soul, mystery, and even sh’khinah—a rabbinic term for the immanent Divine presence. He enlisted the rabbi’s charisma to evoke a deeper, transcendental connection between human beings.

But Jabotinsky’s evolving attitude toward religion was by no mean limited to his private correspondence. It found its most important expressions in his public rhetoric from 1935 onward, after he and his party left the World Zionist Organization and established the New Zionist Organization (NZO). The new group’s charter, approved with his encouragement, uses manifestly religious terms, speaking of “the redemption of the Jewish people and its land” and “the establishment of the Hebrew state on the foundation of civil liberty and principles of justice in the spirit of the Torah of Israel.”

Unsurprisingly, political factors were also in play in the wording of the NZO charter. After all, it was established as an alternative to the World Zionist Organization and hoped to gain support from traditional Jews in Poland and Russia, as well as from the religious Zionists. But Jabotinsky responded candidly to accusations that this religious rhetoric was pure pandering in his keynote speech at the first NZO Congress:

Broad circles in the enlightened strata of my generation grew up under the captivating charm of the 19th century and its liberal ideas: . . . religion as the province of the individual; separation between the state and the church or religious community. But history proceeds dialectically, and today we stand at a turning point that requires a serious revision in this area. We began by rooting out clericalism, but we proceeded from there to uprooting God, . . . and we now we see how deep human nature can descend if we deny it the divine. . . . It is not merely an individual concern whether there will continue to be sacred spaces in the world or whether they will pass away. . . . It is a matter of supreme importance for the state—and for us as nation—that the eternal fire not be extinguished, so that candles will be lit in churches and synagogues.

Jabotinsky here made explicit that, under the influence of the Enlightenment, he and the members of his generation would have preferred to profane the sacred and to sanctify their liberalism. But in retrospect, Jabotinsky regretted this secularizing tendency, and saw the sanctification of individual conscience and of universal moral theories as unable to substitute for religion.

In appreciating the necessity of religious belief, Jabotinsky was not necessarily retreating from liberalism. Rather he believed that the modern West’s declining faith in divine authority had deprived humanity of the spiritual capacities necessary for realizing the sublime ideas of liberalism. Liberal metaphysics are too thin when unmoored from theology, and without God they cannot provide a stable foundation for liberalism’s idea of man. So Jabotinsky argued in various articles and personal correspondence during the last five years of his life. His son Eri even demanded an explanation for his father’s changed attitude toward Judaism. In a 1935 letter, the elder Jabotinsky replied:

It is certainly possible to set up a moral system devoid of any connection to the divine presence. That is what I have done. . . . But now I am certain that it is more correct to treat these moral principles as connected to a mystery beyond the human grasp. . . . I will go even farther: we need religious pathos, in and of itself.

This is not a sterile or utilitarian approach, but a recognition of human limitations, for here again Jabotinsky reminds us that he was always a thinker who looked beyond the material and the pragmatic, and that he was a poet before he was a politician. He saw the effect of religious feeling on the soul as akin to that of two other great emotive forces, poetry and music, without which a human being is “impoverished, deprived,” as he put it another speech from this period:

What are poetry and music in comparison to [religious] emotion? . . . Of all the spiritual factors in world history, religion was always the strongest. . . . A whole person can hardly be devoid of this vast emotion. The man of the future, the whole man, . . . will be religious. . . . I do not know what the substance of his religion, that of every human being, will be—but, wherever he goes, he will bear some sort of living connection between his soul and the infinite.

This is not—as Halkin has shown at length—the cynical vision of someone who believes that religion is merely a useful way to keep the masses in line in the service of the political good, but of someone who saw religion as an independent moral force. Thus he concluded the speech by saying that the enervation of religious spirit could open the door to “the naked cynicism of brutal force.” Therefore, “religious feeling is the manifestation of the important and fundamental human spirit, and every attempt to disavow it is artificial.” Whereas the younger Jabotinsky once thought that as mankind progressed it would shed religious superstitions, the mature Jabotinsky seemed to see mankind’s religious instincts as inseparable from human flourishing.


V. Beyond Secular or Religious


What accounts for this change in attitude? First and foremost, it was a response to the rise of Bolshevism in Russia and fascism in Italy during the 1920s, and National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s. The destabilization of Europe between the First and the Second World Wars did away with the 19th-century bourgeois optimism that had characterized the younger Jabotinsky, and was replaced by anxiety about the future. Both the Nazi and the Bolshevik states proved to be brutal opponents of both liberalism and religion. Unhinged from the constraints of Judeo-Christian morality, 20th-century totalitarians entirely subordinated the individual to the collective and believed any means justified their revolutionary ends. He was also worried by the fascist inclinations among the young generation of Revisionist supporters. This led him to conclude that faith could provide a moral and spiritual bulwark without which liberalism would collapse.

While many of his contemporaries saw religion as encouraging nationalistic chauvinism, Jabotinsky believed that it provided a necessary check on nationalism’s darker impulses. While today it is common to see tension or even contradiction between classical liberalism and religion, for Jabotinsky the two were complementary forces. Only religion, he believed, could curb the chauvinism and racism that stem from humankind’s natural egoism—a belief that also gives the lie to those who accuse him of sowing seeds of chauvinism and racism into the Israeli right.

While many of his contemporaries saw religion as encouraging nationalistic chauvinism, Jabotinsky believed provided a necessary check on nationalism’s darker impulses.

The opposition of some European clergyman to Nazism, especially in Poland and Germany, cemented this belief in Jabotinsky’s mind. Motivated for the most part by the atheistic, even pagan aspects of Nazi ideology, and especially by its anti-Catholic propaganda, their courage reinforced his sense that religion exerted beneficial moral influence. Jabotinsky explicitly praised the Polish Catholic Church, which “became the only vanguard in the war of freedom of thought” during the war because it was “constructed on the principle that in the end a person’s world does not depend on his race or nation, but rather on the values in his heart.”

Paradoxically, the fact that Jabotinsky also paid tribute to Christianity, and that his affinity for Judaism did not come at the expense of his liberal worldview and his support for the separation of religion and state, has misled leading scholars to dismiss his evocations of religion as superficial. They conclude that because Jabotinsky was able to appreciate Christianity as well as Judaism, and because he never abandoned liberalism, that he was never anything more than a one-dimensional secularist who occasionally had nice things to say about faith. But Jabotinsky’s views evolved over the course of his life. Just as his resolute Jewish nationalism did not prevent him from being one of the Zionist leaders with the most egalitarian attitude toward the Arabs, so too his approach to religion should not be understood from a binary and simplistic perspective that allows for only two possibilities: secular or religious.

Jabotinsky’s attitude toward religion also has much relevance for a better understanding of current Israel politics. His chief political heir, Menachem Begin, displayed more open sympathy for Jewish religious tradition. Begin’s Likud party came to power in 1977, and has ruled Israel almost continuously since then, in major part thanks to the alliance Begin formed with both the country’s religious camp and with Middle Eastern Jews (Mizraḥim) who came to Israel with a more traditionalist approach toward Judaism—an attitude, broadly defined, that is now characteristic of most Israeli Jews.

Today, historians and political scientists tend to portray Begin as having transformed the original Revisionist party into an inclusive and electorally successful movement with moderate traditionalist Israelis forming its base, in the process making a radical break with the secular elitist whom he so revered.

It’s true that Begin’s attitude toward Judaism put more emphasize on its national dimension, while Jabotinsky paid more attention to its spiritual dimensions. It is likewise true that Begin felt himself far more at home with Jewish traditions, texts, and rituals than his mentor ever did. But it should now be evident that it is more accurate to emphasize the continuity between founder and successor. It wasn’t Begin but “Jabo,” as his followers affectionately called him, who paved the way for the transformation of the Revisionist party into an inclusive movement for Mizraḥim and traditionalists in Israel, laying the groundwork for the political success of right-wing Zionism in the next generation. In this rather more expansive embrace of Israel’s essentially Jewish character, the mature Jabotinsky truly and rightly was Begin’s “teacher and master.”

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More about: History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism, Vladimir Jabotinsky, Ze'ev Jabotinsky