Who Was Jabotinsky?

The reputation of a great Zionist founding father has suffered from three stereotypes. None is true.

June 11 2014
About the author

Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), Jabotinsky: A Life (2014), and, most recently, After One-Hundred-and-Twenty (Princeton). 

When speaking of Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940), Menachem Begin habitually referred to him by the traditional rabbinical honorific of rabi v’mori, “my master and mentor.” And yet Begin was in some ways, as Daniel Gordis writes in his recently published biography, “the most Jewish prime minister that Israel has ever had,” while Jabotinsky, in the eyes of many of his contemporaries and not a few historians of our own time, was the “least Jewish” Zionist leader of his age. Did Begin deliberately overlook this in honoring the man whose follower he was as a young Polish Zionist in the 1930s? Did he misunderstand Jabotinsky? Or did he understand him better than others did?

Jabotinsky, as I observe in my own newly published biography, was not the product of the assimilated or even semi-assimilated Jewish home that he is commonly thought to have been. His widowed mother (his father died when he was a small boy) kept a kosher kitchen, regularly lit Sabbath candles, spoke Yiddish far better than Russian, and saw to it that her son studied Hebrew and had bar-mitzvah lessons. This is not what is generally thought of as assimilation, even if Jabotinsky rarely attended synagogue as a boy and had little familiarity with the world of Jewish religious ritual that Begin was thoroughly at home in.

Nor would anyone have thought of it as assimilation had Jabotinsky grown up in Central or Western Europe, where real assimilation was widespread, rather than in the Czarist empire, where it was not. Yet the Eastern Europe he grew up in was that of cosmopolitan, sophisticated Odessa, the least East-European-like city ruled by the Czar, and, Jewishly speaking, the distance between him and Begin might be said to have been no greater, if also no less, than the distance between late-19th- and early-20th-century Odessa and Begin’s native town of Brest-Litovsk, the Jewish Brisk, in the 1920s and ’30s.

In fact, this has been said, and the first time it was said, as far as I know, was as long ago as 1950. To understand the context it was said in, moreover, we need go back still further, to September 1938. It was then that the third world convention of Betar, the Zionist youth movement founded by Jabotinsky and affiliated with his Revisionist party, was held in Warsaw.

The times were grim. That same week, Neville Chamberlain flew to Germany to begin the negotiations with Hitler that were soon to end with the Franco-British capitulation at Munich. Two months earlier, the Évian refugee conference had collapsed in failure, with no solution for the millions of Jews desperately seeking to flee Europe. In Palestine, British immigration quotas kept the country’s gates closed to all but a fraction of would-be Jewish immigrants; the Jewish population of the country, though it had grown considerably in the 1930s, was still less than half the size of the Arab one. The Arab revolt of 1936-39 was at its height, and Jewish settlements and neighborhoods were under attack. The two military organizations of the yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community), were at odds. The Haganah collaborated fully with the British counterinsurgency campaign, under whose command it placed its fighters. The smaller Irgun, whose titular commander was Jabotinsky himself, engaged in counterterror that the Haganah condemned.

At the convention in Warsaw, the fifty-eight-year-old Jabotinsky, the founder and “chief” of Betar—rosh Betar, as he was called in the movement—found himself under attack. The very emblem of militant, non-compromising Zionism, he was now accused of a compromising lack of militancy by a younger generation raised to revere him. The charge was led by a twenty-five-year-old Polish Betar leader named Menachem Begin. Addressing Jabotinsky directly, Begin declared that the latter’s belief that it was possible to mobilize world and English public opinion in Zionism’s behalf, thus forcing the British government to open the gates of Palestine, had been proved false. No appeal to human conscience, Begin stated, but only force, could pry those gates open. The time had come to move from “political” to “military” Zionism in the form of an armed Jewish revolt in Palestine, led by the Irgun and modeled on Garibaldi’s liberation of Italy.

Jabotinsky reacted dismissively. “You might recall, sir,” he said, interrupting Begin’s remarks, “what the proportion of Italians to non-Italians in Italy was [in Garibaldi’s time]. . . . Have you troubled to take note of the relative military strength of the Jewish and Arab forces in Palestine?” An armed Jewish revolt was out of the question. Not until Palestinian Jewry was large and strong enough to carry it out successfully could it be contemplated.

Begin persisted. “We will win by virtue of our moral strength,” he said. Massive Jewish reinforcements would reach Palestine from the Diaspora. “Even if we fall,” he went on, “we still would have fought. . . . There are millions of Jews with nothing to lose.” When he was done, Jabotinsky took the floor and spoke scathingly. Begin’s remarks, he said, were like the sound of a creaky door: aggravating noise that served no purpose. He concluded: “We must educate the Christian world. All education is based on hope—or, if you will, on the illusion that conscience exists. To say it doesn’t is to despair. Such a view needs to be swept away with a broom. . . . Conscience rules this world. I honor it. To mock and ridicule it is forbidden.”


One of the witnesses to this exchange was the young Betar activist Yisrael Scheib, better known by the underground name of Eldad that he took in Palestine when he became a member of the triumvirate heading the group of Irgun dissidents who were called by the English “the Stern Gang.” In 1950, Sheib, who was raised like Begin in a Polish shtetl, published a book containing an account of the Betar convention in Warsaw. There, he celebrated “the victory of the creaky door.” Referring to Jabotinsky’s youth in Odessa and student years in Rome, which had shaped his outlook as much as Brisk and Podwołiczyska shaped Begin’s and Scheib’s, he wrote:

We, whose youth did not pulse to the rhythms of Pushkin and Lermontov—whose heart did not bleed like Jabotinsky’s for the savagery of the Russian Revolution—who had no chance to enjoy the skies and arias of Italy and could not have cared less if fascism was or was not an acceptable form of government, . . . we did not belong to a generation that fought for human rights, liberalism, and parliamentary democracy, and did not understand the mystery of Jabotinsky’s love for British parliamentarianism and its respect for the individual and individual freedoms. This was the background of the debate . . . at which Menachem Begin, the enfant terrible of Betar in Poland, rose to speak.

In point of fact, the exchange between Begin and Jabotinsky was not about parliamentary democracy or human rights. It was about the moral standards of civilized Europe, which totalitarian regimes like fascist Germany and Bolshevist Russia openly repudiated, and about whether a beleaguered Jewish people could look to them in its hour of need. Scheib’s point was that what made sense to Jabotinsky as a product of tolerant, fin-de-siècle Odessa, liberal, pre-World War I Rome, and the democratic London he later lived in for long periods made no sense at all to young Betar members from the shtetlakh of an authoritarian, fiercely nationalistic, ferociously anti-Semitic interwar Poland sandwiched between Hitler and Stalin. Jabotinsky and the young Betarniks agreed on many things, such as the need for an aggressively tough Zionism and for combating the Zionist Left and its ideology, but Jabotinsky’s Zionism remained humanistic; it had faith in Western civilization and in the Jewish people’s integration in its ranks. For Western civilization, which they perceived as incurably ridden with Jew-hatred, young Polish Betarniks like Scheib and Begin had only distrust.

But Begin was different from Scheib, and from the leaders of all secular Zionist parties—not in having had the religious education or ritually observant childhood that Jabotinsky lacked (many others had them, too), but in continuing to observe, though far from rigorously, a degree of Jewish ritual as an adult. For a while, in fact, in 1945, when he was hunted by the British and living underground in Palestine, he disguised himself as an Orthodox rabbi and performed quite creditably in the role.

Nor was it true to say of Begin, as it was true for Scheib to say of himself, that he did not value parliamentary democracy. On the contrary, as he was later to demonstrate, both as head of Israel’s political opposition and as prime minister, Begin’s commitment to parliamentary procedure was strong. It was, together with the esteem in which he held Jewish religious tradition, the grounds for an attack on him at yet another political conclave, this one in June 1949 in Tel Aviv.

Eleven years had passed since the Betar convention in Warsaw—years that had changed the world, the Jewish people, and the Jewish situation beyond recognition. Begin, having arrived in Palestine in 1942, two years after Jabotinsky’s death, and become commander of the Irgun soon afterward, now stood at the head of Israel’s Herut or “Freedom” party. Disappointingly, Herut had won only fourteen seats in the 120-member Knesset in the country’s first elections in January 1949. Six months later, the party leadership met to debate its electoral failure and plans for the future.

At this conference, Begin found himself in the ironic situation that has faced many a once youthful challenger who has risen to a position of greater responsibility. Now, it was he who came under fire for the same failings he had accused Jabotinsky of: hesitancy, compromising on principles, loss of revolutionary fervor. Prominent among the critics were two Herut members of the Knesset: Hillel Kook and Jabotinsky’s son, Eri.

Both men were staunchly secularist and anti-religious, and both accused Begin of having turned Revisionism from a mass movement into a mere parliamentary faction and of having betrayed Jabotinsky’s liberal heritage by failing to insist on the disestablishment of Judaism in the new Jewish state. Begin, they protested, was cozying up to the Orthodox parties by supporting their opposition to a formal constitution that would separate synagogue and state, backing their demand for a separate, government-funded religious educational system, and blocking the endorsement of specific measures against religious coercion, such as Eri Jabotinsky’s proposal to serve non-kosher food in the Knesset cafeteria. These were all issues, they declared, on which Herut needed to take strong anti-clerical stands.

Begin weathered the rebellion against him. When, however, Herut did even worse in new elections held in the summer of 1951, slipping to a mere eight Knesset seats, he resigned as its head and temporarily retired from politics. Eri Jabotinsky left then, too, but permanently.


Although no minutes were taken of the 1949 conference, hints of some of what was said there can be found in a 1953 letter sent by Eri to then prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Speaking of his father, Eri wrote:

His position on religion, religious Jews, and Jehovah [Eri used the Hebrew tetragrammeton yod-heh-vav-heh in defiant contravention of Jewish tradition’s reverential abstention from it] was never any secret to me. . . . Never in my life was I even once [taken by him to] a synagogue. I always knew that Jehovah was for him no more than a stage in the development of human thought and . . . that [he believed that] there are phenomena in the universe that are beyond our power to explain and that attributing them to a “supreme power,” whatever it may be, brings us no closer to an understanding of them. . . . It’s true that he always respected religion. He was a son of the 19th century and meticulously honored freedom of conscience in everyone. He was [also] a man of impeccable manners and [he believed in the importance of] introducing ceremony into daily life. Because of this he saw a certain value in the performance of religious rituals. This and the fact of his pact with the Orthodox have caused those who pretend to be his disciples to claim today that he was a believing Jew who wished to impose religion on the state.

By “those who pretend to be” Jabotinsky’s disciples, Eri was referring, of course, to Begin and his supporters in Herut, while his father’s “pact with the Orthodox” alluded to the inclusion of an Orthodox faction in the New Zionist Organization or NZO, the breakaway body founded by Jabotinsky in 1935 after the Revisionists quit the world Zionist Organization dominated by Ben-Gurion’s Mapai. At NZO’s first congress in September of that year in Vienna, Jabotinsky, seeking to lay the basis for an anti-Mapai alliance wiith the religious Zionist parties, resorted in his keynote address to religious imagery never used by him before, speaking of European Zionism as a “second exodus from Egypt” and of “the messianic birth pangs” of national redemption. Although the anti-clericalism of 19th-century liberalism had been justified, he told the delegates,

it has led to the banishing of God—and one may doubt, and more than doubt, the desirability of this. Yes, religion must remain a private matter . . . but it cannot be a private matter whether there are temples of worship [in a society] or not; whether Mount Sinai and the prophets remain living spiritual forces or are embalmed behind glass in museums like mummified Pharaohs and Aztec relics. . . . It is imperative for a “state”—and for us as a nation—to keep the eternal flame from going out, so that amid the innumerable cross-currents that buffet contemporary youth and sometimes toxically lead it astray, the purest of them, the spirit of the Lord, be preserved; that a space be maintained in the public arena for those who preach and contend in its name.

Moreover, Article 10 of the NZO constitution, composed by Jabotinsky and adopted by the congress, read as follows:

The NZO thinks it absurd to pretend that in a movement of Jewish national renaissance a factor of such magnitude as 30 centuries of religious inspiration and thought can simply be ignored. . . . As far as the individual’s personal attitude is concerned, he may believe or not, practice or not, preach Orthodoxy or atheism in full liberty. But the question of whether the vast treasure of spiritual values called Judaism should be cultivated or abandoned by the Jewish nation as a whole is the affair of the nation as a whole. The NZO explicitly desires it to be cultivated by the nation.

There were those at the congress who accused Jabotinsky of opportunistically forsaking his principles by a tilt toward religion that his previous political writings and speeches had given little warning of. He himself was concerned that Eri, who had been raised in a totally non-religious home, would think this, too. Immediately after the congress, he wrote his son a Hebrew letter saying:

I wonder what you will say about the stand taken on religion [at the congress]. . . . I don’t need to tell you that I still advocate freedom of thought, etc. Nor do I see any sacredness in ritual. The matter is deeper than that. . . . Everyone agrees that there are truly sacred principles in the Bible of the sort that need to be inculcated; but these principles, it so happens, are moral ones that can be espoused by any atheist, too, so why inculcate them under the banner of religion? Precisely here, in my opinion, lies the crux of the matter. One can of course seek to formulate the noblest moral system without bringing the divine into it; this is what I’ve done all my life. Now, though, I’m convinced that it’s more correct to treat ethical fundamentals as connected with superhuman mystery. . . . 

Eri’s answer to this letter, if there was one, has not survived. What are we to make of the letter itself? It was written at a time when all Europe was in danger of falling to the two monstrous totalitarian ideologies of the age, Nazism and Communism, both outspokenly godless creeds. Nineteenth-century critics of secular liberalism like Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche had warned or promised that if God did not exist, nothing would be forbidden any longer, and Jabotinsky had clearly come to agree with them. Although the occasional individual might be convinced of the need to live morally without God, entire societies could not be. The fallible human conscience that Jabotinsky wanted so badly to believe in—that he had still insisted on believing in at the Betar conference in 1938—could not be trusted to keep the monster from the door.


Was Jabotinsky making the case for Plato’s “noble lie”? In the dialogue between Socrates and Adeimantus in The Republic, the Truth, Socrates declares, is the goal of the philosopher—but since ordinary men are not philosophers, they need, for their own good, to be told myths about the gods, just as a crew must sometimes be deceived by its captain in order to bolster its confidence and morale. A public recourse to “superhuman mystery” is needed to keep the ship of state afloat.

But this was not in fact the direction that Jabotinsky’s thought had taken. He did not think of himself as philosophically above the common Jew. This, some of his late writings demonstrate: writings that, had I been aware of them at the time I wrote my biography, would have led me to put greater emphasis on his engagement with Judaism, if only on an intellectual plane, in the last years of his life. The most important of these is a little-known essay published in the Polish Yiddish newspaper Moment in July 1935, right before the NZO convention. It shows Jabotinsky planning what to say there and how to justify it, and it begins on an autobiographical note:

The generation [in Odessa] that I belong to . . . was not, at heart, “atheistic.” Atheism means, after all, taking a stand, having an opinion, if only a negative one: “I say there is no God!” My generation, on the whole, did no such thing. [Its attitude was] “Maybe there is a God and maybe there isn’t—I have better things to worry about.”

Nevertheless, Jabotinsky declared in Moment, the need for a relationship with a transcendent reality was innate. Human nature could not do without it. “At full capacity,” he wrote, “a complete person cannot but be ‘religious.’ I can’t say what the content of his religion should be, [only that it need entail] a living connection between the soul and the Infinite.”

Nor was a private yearning for the Infinite enough. A positive attitude toward religion, Jabotinsky went on to say, had to express itself publicly, too.

For example, great, festive national congresses, convocations, sessions of Parliament—all must begin with worship of the divine. . . . Such demonstrative acts go beyond the faith or skepticism of this or that individual. In the consciousness of millions of Jews today, Jewish nationalism cannot be detached from Mount Sinai. It is of no importance whether I, Mendl from Hotzenklotz, subscribe to this or not. What matters is bearing witness before heaven and earth, proudly and insistently, to the historical credo of millions.

The article in Moment went on to speak of the importance, for Zionism and a future Jewish state, of providing all Jewish children with an education in Jewish religious literacy and even broached the possibility, as an example of “cultivating” the “spiritual values” of Judaism, of banning Sabbath desecration like smoking on the day of rest from a Jewish state’s public spaces, including those of heavily secular Tel Aviv.

Jabotinsky denied the accusation that all this was just to court the religious Zionist parties.”This isn’t ‘bakshish’ [bribery] in return for political support,” he wrote. “[The Orthodox] may boycott us to a man, so that we will end up a pure congress of freethinkers; it will still open with mention of Mount Sinai.” And in another piece in Moment, in June 1939, on the eve of the outbreak of World War II, he sought to make clear that his changed attitude toward Judaism came from a personal place. “The education I received in ancien-regime Russia and Italy,” he wrote there, “was thoroughly rationalistic in outlook; yet in the end, almost without realizing it was happening , I have had to acknowledge that no rationalism can reveal to me the only truth that is worth knowing: whence I come and whither I am going and what is the hunger I feel in my soul.” There was in Orthodox Jewish tradition, he added, something that had begun to attract him like a “magnet.” “Once,” he wrote,

it bothered me that those with the means to contact the divine spent so much time in petty, material, anthropomorphic pursuits, such as [Jewish] ritual. But then came a time when a great realization set in –namely, that perhaps three-quarters of everything genuinely civilized consists of ritual and ceremony. . . . There is no social collective that would not lapse into barbarism were it not for the iron bit in its mouth of immemorial custom and manners. This realization made me aware of the wealth of sacred obstinacy that a minority must possess to preserve inwardly and manifest outwardly a ceremonial life differing so boldly and radically from that of its surrounding environment. . . . These are my brothers. Their garb may differ from mine, as may even their physical movements, but the same blood flows in us both.

This was a man who would only have approved of Begin’s position on state and synagogue and on Begin’s conduct on religious matters as prime minister, including his frequent recourse to the language of Judaism, the long-standing coalition he formed with Israel’s Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties, and such controversial acts as his government’s banning flights by El Al, Israel’s national airline, on the Sabbath. Jabotinsky may never have become a “believing Jew,” but Eri Jabotinsky was wrong about his father, perhaps because he could think only of the man who had raised him and not of the man that man became.


Jabotinsky’s reputation has always suffered from being reduced to two equally false stereotypes: that of the single-minded national patriot fostered by the Zionist Right and that of the quasi-fascist demagogue hurled at him by the Zionist Left. Yet there is also a third stereotype, created in rejection of the first two: Jabotinsky the secular European liberal. This, too, simplifies a man whose legacy was better understood by Menachem Begin than by those who accused Begin of abandoning it. On the question of Judaism in a Jewish state, as in many other things, the Jabotinsky who never set foot as an adult in a synagogue even on Yom Kippur was indeed Begin’s master and mentor.

To which might be added a postscript. In August 1939, Jabotinsky sent a secret order to the Irgun command in Palestine, ordering it to launch the armed insurrection against the British that he had mocked Begin for calling for a year earlier. The order was never carried out, since the Irgun’s commanders did not believe success was possible, and the outbreak of World War II a month later, following the German invasion of Poland, made the idea of landing tens or hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews on Palestinian shores seized from the British no longer even remotely imaginable.

In the end, Jabotinsky despaired of the world’s conscience, too.


Hillel Halkin’s most recent book, Jabotinsky: A Life, has just been published by Yale in the Jewish Lives series. The present essay, delivered as a talk at a June 1 conference in New York on “Menachem Begin’s Zionism,” sponsored by the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, will be included in a e-book of the conference proceedings to be published soon by Mosaic Books.

More about: Betar, David Ben-Gurion, Israel, Vladimir Jabotinsky, Zionism