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Zionism’s Colonial Roots

Monday 17 June 2013

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

May 1, 2013

OVER THE last months before his much-lamented death in August 2010, Tony Judt talked at length with Timothy Snyder, his friend and fellow historian. Their conversations, published after Judt died as Thinking the Twentieth Century, were about “the politics of ideas,” the subject of the book on which Judt had embarked after Postwar, his splendid history of Europe since V-E Day, but which he knew he would not live to write. Some of these political ideas had affected him personally, in particular Zionism. As a schoolboy in London and a Cambridge undergraduate, Judt had been not only a committed supporter but also an energetic activist in Dror, a small socialist-Zionist group. He spent summers working on a kibbutz and in 1967 flew to Israel in the hour of peril as the Six-Day War began.

The story of Judt’s disenchantment with Israel and Zionism is well known, culminating in a 2003 essay in the New York Review of Books in which he concluded that Zionism, as a version of late nineteenth-century nationalism, had itself become anachronistic in a twenty-first century of open borders and multiple identities. In Thinking the Twentieth Century, Judt talks again at some length about these questions, and there is one particularly arresting passage. Despite his own early indoctrination in the socialist variant of Zionism, “I came over time to appreciate the rigor and clear-headed realism of Jabotinsky’s criticisms.”

Today there are perhaps not many readers of the New York Times or the Washington Post, let alone most other Americans, even if they warmly support Israel, who could identify Vladimir Jabotinsky by name. “Jabo” died in 1940 at a training camp near New York City and might seem a remote historical figure. And yet, as a South African historian once wrote, although his pages told of distant events, “they are also about today.” While such essays as Akiva Eldar’s fascinating “Israel’s New Politics and the Fate of Palestine” in this magazine give much insight into the here and now, that in itself cannot be understood without the there and then. What Jabotinsky once said and did is acutely relevant now, ninety years after he founded his “Revisionist” New Zionist Organization.

He may have died long ago, but his soul went marching on. In 1946–1948, the Irgun, the Revisionist armed force—“terrorists” to the British and the New York Times at the time—practiced violence against British and Arabs. It was led by Menachem Begin, who in 1977 would become the first Israeli prime minister from the Right, ending almost three decades of Labor hegemony. Two more recent leading Israeli politicians, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, a former prime minister and a one-time foreign minister, respectively, are children of Irgun activists. Jabo’s portrait hangs at Likud party meetings, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the present Likud leader and prime minister, has a direct personal connection with him. As for the Jewish Americans who continue to support the Jewish state, they may never have read a word of him, but they might be troubled if they did. Jabo is very much about today.

HE WAS born in 1880 into a prosperous, educated Jewish family in Odessa, but when he was a young man the hint of promise given by that city’s cosmopolitanism was bitterly falsified by more pogroms. This experience radicalized Jabotinsky and made him a Jewish nationalist, or Zionist. He traveled throughout Europe to preach the cause, speaking and writing fluently in almost more languages than can be counted. One was Hebrew, which—in its modern form and its attendant literature—he helped invent. Among the many things about him likely forgotten by Likudniks today is that he translated the Sherlock Holmes stories into Hebrew. All in all, this polyglot polymath may be the one man of authentic genius to have been produced by the Zionist movement.

During the Great War, he helped organize—and then served in—the Jewish Legion that fought with the British Army against the Ottoman Empire, and he remained in Palestine under the British rule that followed the war and the Ottoman collapse. In November 1917, the London government had issued the Balfour Declaration, favoring a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, with the hypocritical or even absurd reservation “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” But once they ruled the land, the British soon began to repent of this undertaking they had lightheartedly given, and they despaired of governing a country with two communities facing each other in bitter mutual antagonism.

Soon after the creation of the British mandate over Palestine, Arab violence erupted, which Jabotinsky encouraged the Jewish settlers to resist, fighting force with force. In 1923, he broke with the mainstream movement to found the New Zionist Organization and the doctrine known as Revisionism. If few Americans have heard of Jabotinsky, not all Israelis, one finds, can explain what was supposed to be revised by the Revisionists. That wonderfully protean or adaptable word has variously been applied to a form of late nineteenth-century German Marxism and a group of late twentieth-century Irish historians. But in the 1920s, it came to mean nationalists who wished to rescind or revise the partition of their country: Hungarian revisionists wanted to undo the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which they believed (not without reason) had most brutally and unjustly dismembered the historic Kingdom of Hungary.

In the year after Trianon, the British colonial secretary was busy rearranging the vast area between Turkey in the north and Arabia in the south, which the Western allies had carved out of the corpse of the Ottoman Empire in arbitrary and cynical fashion. This man was Winston Churchill, whose brief tenure at the Colonial Office from February 1921 to October 1922 was crucially important, and fraught with implications for the future. The British had acquired two huge territories, named almost at random “Mesopotamia” to its east and “Palestine” to its west. In March 1921, Churchill summoned a conference in Cairo, where he took two contrary decisions.

Mesopotamia would become an independent kingdom called Iraq, under the Hashemite prince Faisal, even though this new country, “unduly stocked with peppery, pugnacious, proud politicians and theologians,” as Churchill told Parliament (plus ça change, it’s tempting to add), was a completely artificial amalgam of Shia, Sunni and Kurd: its creation has been described vividly by Christopher Catherwood in his aptly titled book Winston’s Folly. But on the other hand, Churchill divided what had been called Palestine, stretching from the Mediterranean to the borders of Iraq. The larger, easterly portion became another Arab kingdom under Abdullah, Faisal’s brother, now dubbed Transjordan, and with us still as Jordan. All the Zionists were dismayed by this partition, as they had been hoping for colonies east as well as west of the Jordan, but Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the World Zionist Organization, expressed his regrets in private and stuck to his policy of cooperation with the British.

BY CONTRAST, Jabotinsky campaigned openly to revise or undo that 1921 partition, on the uncompromising slogan, “A Jewish state with a Jewish majority on both sides of the Jordan.” But it was not merely his platform and organization that distinguished Jabotinsky: there was also his unsparing analysis, expounded in his 1923 essay “The Iron Wall.”

“There can be no voluntary agreement between ourselves and the Palestine Arabs,” Jabotinsky wrote. “It is utterly impossible to obtain the voluntary consent of the Palestine Arabs for converting ‘Palestine’ from an Arab country into a country with a Jewish majority.” Everyone should be aware how colonization had taken place elsewhere, he said. There was not “one solitary instance of any colonisation being carried on with the consent of the native population. There is no such precedent. The native populations, civilised or uncivilised, have always stubbornly resisted the colonists, irrespective of whether they were civilised or savage.”

These sentiments underlaid Jabotinsky’s whole career. The Betar, his uniformed youth movement, marched for—and before long fought for—a Jewish state with a Jewish majority, while Jabo agitated vigorously for his cause, from Palestine to Europe, North America to South Africa. In 1929, there was further grim violence in Palestine. The Revisionists had organized demonstrations at the Western Wall and, much as Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000 precipitated the second intifada, the demonstrations provoked anti-Jewish riots. In the view of the British high commissioner for Palestine, the Revisionists had “deliberately seized upon” the contested status of the Western Wall “and worked it for all it was worth, and converted a religious question into a political one.”

In a letter to the London Times in September 1929, Jabotinsky rebutted the charge of “extremism.” He placed the blame on the British authorities for not controlling Arab violence and on London for abandoning what he insisted were the principles of the mandate: “All the Revisionist demands are nothing else but this principle: the Mandate means a large-scale immigration of Jews maintained for a period sufficient to build up a Jewish country.” The Revisionists demanded “what we call a ‘colonisation regime.’” After one fiery oration, another British official ruefully said that “Jabo’s speech is eloquent and logical, but certainly dangerous in its tendency so far as law and order are concerned,” which was true enough. The British decided not to prosecute him, but while he was visiting South Africa he was refused further admission to Palestine. He never saw Jerusalem again. After traveling to Poland to encourage the Revisionists there, and to warn that the Jews of Eastern Europe were on the brink of disaster, he went to the United States, where he died in August 1940.

Not long before his death, he engaged as his private secretary the young scholar Benzion Netanyahu, a notable medieval historian. Netanyahu remained an ardent Revisionist, living long enough to shock David Remnick, the current editor of the New Yorker, with his “outrageously reactionary table talk” and contempt “for Arabs, for Israeli liberals, for any Americans to the left of the neoconservatives.” Netanyahu died last year at age 102. He had three sons: the eldest, Jonathan, became an Israeli hero when he was killed leading the commando raid to rescue hostages at Entebbe in 1976; the youngest is a doctor and writer; and the middle son, Benjamin, might now claim to be Jabotinsky’s heir.

Today, Benjamin Netanyahu is seen widely as a leader of the Right (although in comparison with Avigdor Lieberman and others who have held office in Israel lately, Netanyahu could look moderate), and Israeli politics have long been categorized in terms of Left and Right, with the Revisionists cast as right-wing no-goodniks. That was so from the 1930s: with the rise of fascism, it became quite common to characterize Jabotinsky as a fascist, a word widely used by his Zionist foes. Rabbi Stephen Wise, a prominent liberal Jewish American of his day, called Revisionism “a species of fascism,” while David Ben-Gurion—the leader of the Labor Zionists in the Yishuv (the Jewish settlement in British Palestine) and then a founding father and first prime minister of Israel—referred to his foe privately as “Vladimir Hitler,” which didn’t leave much to the imagination. And to be sure, while Jabo called himself a free-market liberal with anarchist leanings, the oratory of Revisionism—“in blood and fire will Judea rise again”—and the visual rhetoric—the Betarim in their brown shirts marching and saluting—had alarming contemporary resonances.

IN VIEW of that, it’s very striking how often left-wing writers have expressed admiration for Jabotinsky. The self-proclaimed social democrat Judt was one. Looking back, he saw that political Zionism had been created by Theodor Herzl and others with a “liberal view of History . . . as the story of progress in which everyone can find a place.” A Jewish state, Herzl optimistically thought, could be built in friendly cooperation with the existing inhabitants. But this seemingly enlightened attitude was dismissed by Jabotinsky as mere illusion. In Judt’s words: “What the Jews were seeking in Palestine, he used to say, was not progress but a state. When you build a state you make a revolution. And in a revolution there can only ever be winners and losers. This time around we Jews are going to be the winners.” Likewise, Perry Anderson of the New Left Review and UCLA, one of the best-known Marxist historians of his generation, has said that the Revisionist tradition was more intellectually distinguished than Labor Zionism, no doubt thinking of Netanyahu père as well as Jabotinsky. The British scholar Jacqueline Rose of Queen Mary, University of London, also has written with deep admiration about Jabotinsky’s remarkable novel, The Five, and his literary stature in general. And most amusing of all is the eminent Anglo-Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, a professor at Oxford.

In 2001, Shlaim was on “Start the Week,” the Monday-morning BBC radio program, talking about his latest book, The Iron Wall, about the relationship between Zionists and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. At the time, the show was hosted by the sometimes short-tempered broadcaster named Jeremy Paxman, and one supposes that he (or his research assistants) must have typecast Shlaim in advance as a peacenik or radical, which indeed he is in private life, as it were. Shlaim lucidly expounded the book, with its title from Jabotinsky, and Jabo’s larger challenge to his fellow Zionists. The Arabs were never going to give up what they believed was their country, he said. Why should they? They are normal, intelligent people, a point he habitually emphasized, and Jacqueline Rose is not alone in sensing that this intransigent right-winger was in some ways less “racist” than the Labor Zionists, who simply ignored the Arabs.

As Shlaim summarized him, Jabo said that no Jewish state could ever be created by goodwill and good nature. If their project was worthwhile, then the Zionists must accept the consequences and recognize that their settlement had to be built and then guarded by force, behind that “Iron Wall.” This succinct summary was listened to with almost-audible impatience by Paxman, who finally cut in to ask: So, was Shlaim saying that he thought this man Jabotinsky was wrong? “No,” Shlaim replied quietly. “I mean I think he was right.”

Was Jabo right? He always said that he opposed “transfer” or the forcible expulsion of Arabs, but in that case his plan for a Jewish state with a Jewish majority was even more quixotic. In the land between the Jordan and the sea—British mandatory Palestine from 1921 to 1948, or the territory ruled by Israel since 1967, including the West Bank—Jews were believed to comprise about 5 percent of the population in 1896, when Herzl published his little book Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State”). They were roughly 10 percent twenty-one years later when the Balfour Declaration was published, and about a third when the Zionists (but not the Arabs) accepted the partition proposed by the United Nations in 1947. As to “both sides of the Jordan,” there were then as now scarcely any Jews at all on the east side of the river.

Creating the necessary Jewish majority assumed enormous migration from Europe and a “colonisation regime” in Palestine, which would use whatever means were necessary to subdue indigenous resistance, after which the Arabs would be a decently treated minority, Jabotinsky said, and there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. Like Weizmann and other Zionists, Jabotinsky failed to see that the British, whatever they had said in the stress of war in 1917, could not in practice afford to alienate the hundreds of millions of Muslims over whom they ruled, or the countries that owned so much oil. And by the time Israel was created, after Jabotinsky’s death, a crucial factor in his plan had been hideously disrupted: there were no longer millions of European Jews to immigrate because they had been murdered. That meant that the newborn state of Israel could only create a Jewish majority, even inside the old Green Line before the Six-Day War, by driving out Palestinian Arabs, in which the Labor Haganah, directed by Ben-Gurion, participated as well as the Irgun.

PART OF Jabotinsky’s vision is plainly dead and may never have been realistic. The old Revisionist map of a state stretching far to the east of the Jordan can be seen carved on the gravestone of Tzipi Livni’s father. But Livni herself has said that, although when she was a child “all I ever heard about was that we Jews have the right to a state on both sides of the Jordan,” she now knows that Jews will before long be once more in a minority even between Jordan and the sea, let alone to the east. That creed of a Greater Israel on which she was reared “had no provisions for a Palestinian state, but instead envisioned our living together with the Palestinians in one state.” But she now says, “My goal is to give the Jewish people a home, and that’s why I must accept a Palestinian state. I had a choice, and I chose two states for two peoples.”

In another way Jabo was, and remains, a reproach to other Israelis, including his political heirs, and also to American supporters of Israel, who don’t know what Jabo said or understand its implications. That goes for Benjamin Netanyahu. In a frankly comical interview with the Daily Telegraph two years ago, he complained about the British today, who look at Israel through their “colonial prism” and thus “see us as neo-colonialists.” But “we are not Brits in India!” he exclaims. Still, Netanyahu retains one great British hero: he has a portrait of Winston Churchill in his room, and posed beside it for the Telegraph photographer. It evidently did not occur to the interviewer to ask Netanyahu whether he was under the impression that Churchill condemned colonialism, or was ashamed of the Raj.

It is quite true that Churchill was a romantic supporter of Zionism, and in 1937 he met Jabotinsky. Their cordial discussions influenced what Churchill said and wrote about Palestine immediately afterward. Churchill had already stated in very plain terms that he saw nothing wrong in the Jewish settlers’ supplanting the Arabs, along the lines of an earlier pattern. “I do not admit,” he said, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, or, at any rate, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.

Churchill is a hero to the neoconservatives of the Weekly Standard as well as to Netanyahu; they are all free to quote those words with approval.

For his own part, Jabotinsky would have dismissed Netanyahu’s “We are not neo-colonials” as dishonest evasion. He never shirked the language of colonialism, never denied that the Zionists were settlers and never regretted that this settlement was taking place under the auspices of the British Empire. What Netanyahu correctly, if quite unintentionally, identified is a central problem for Israel and her supporters today. “Britain was a colonial power, and colonialism has been spurned,” the prime minister said two years ago. He is correct. Colonialism has gone out of fashion, along with imperialism and the language of “higher grade” races, used by Churchill to express his support.

That is part of the problem today for Israel, which finds itself on the wrong side of a great rupture between “the West” and “the rest.” And while Jabotinsky was demonstrably right in his time in insisting honestly on the need for force and dismissing the illusion of voluntary cooperation with Palestinians, and while the doctrine of an iron wall and an iron fist has built and preserved the Jewish state for sixty-five years, it is not easy to see how it can work in perpetuity. Or maybe Israel has adopted Keynes’s well-known maxim: when asked what would happen in the long run, he said, “In the long run we are all dead.”


Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English journalist and author. His books include Yo, Blair!, The Strange Death of Tory England and The Controversy of Zion, which won a National Jewish Book Award.

See online: Zionism’s Colonial Roots