How Vladimir Jabotinsky Went from Russian Intellectual to Zionism’s Loyal Opposition

October 16, 2020 | Allan Arkush
About the author: Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University.

Born to a relatively assimilated family in cosmopolitan Odessa, Vladimir Jabotinsky showed little interest in Jewish affairs when he set out to establish himself as a journalist and intellectual—writing a successful play for the Russian stage and producing influential pieces on literary criticism and current affairs. At some point around 1903, still in his twenties, Jabotinsky embraced Zionism, and went on to found the Revisionist movement, which is the forerunner of today’s Likud. A new work by Brian Horowitz explores the transitional period in this great Zionist leader’s life. Allan Arkush writes in his review:

The first verifiable trace of Zionism in Jabotinsky’s autobiography is an anti-anti-Zionist piece that he wrote in 1902, responding to a Jewish writer named Bickerman, who had ridiculed Zionism as utopian in a Russian-language journal. . . . Nevertheless, according to Horowitz, it was really the Kishinev pogrom, which broke out on April 19, [1903] and lasted three horrific days that was “the precipitating event” in Jabotinsky’s Zionist transformation. If he subsequently chose to obscure this fact, it was probably because he shied away from “acknowledging anti-Semitism as the stimulus for his Zionism.”

Horowitz has mined new material: . . . for example, Jabotinsky’s furious response to the prominent Russian liberal Pyotr Struve’s 1909 article, “Intelligentsia and the Face of the Nation,” which praised Jews who had integrated into Russian culture and who criticized those who did not. Jabotinsky, Horowitz tells us, did more than repudiate “Struve’s claims that the empire must have a Russian national character; he faulted the decent liberal Russians who ignored antisemitism,” and he did so in characteristically brutal bravura fashion.

Jabotinsky wasn’t always as single-mindedly concerned with Palestine as he later became, but he was never a pussycat. Horowitz’s portrait of him engaged in rough-and-tumble polemics on a long-gone intellectual battlefield is both entertaining and instructive.

In honor of Jabotinsky’s birthday tomorrow, Mosaic is offering a free copy of Hillel Halkin’s biography Jabotinsky, A Life to new subscribers. Take advantage of your offer here.

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