Ze’ev Jabotinsky (born Vladimir Yevgenyevich Zhabotinsky, 18 October 1880, Odessa – 4 August 1940, New York), was a Russian Jewish Revisionist Zionist leader, author, poet, orator, soldier and founder of the Jewish Self-Defense Organization in Odessa. With Joseph Trumpeldor, he co-founded the Jewish Legion of the British army in World War I. Later he established several Jewish organizations in what was then called Palestine, including Beitar, HaTzohar and the Irgun.
Jabotinsky was born Vladimir Yevgenyevich (Yevnovich) Zhabotinsky in Odessa, Russian Empire (modern Ukraine) into an assimilated Jewish family. His father, Yevno (Yevgeniy Grigoryevich) Zhabotinsky, hailed from Nikopol, Ukraine. He was a member of the Russian Society of Sailing and Trade and was primarily involved in wheat trading. His mother, Chava (Eva Markovna) Zach (1835–1926), came from Berdychiv. Jabotinsky’s older brother (Myron) died in childhood. His sister, Tereza (Tamara Yevgenyevna) Zhabotinskaya-Kopp, founded a private, female secondary school in Odessa. In 1885 the family moved to Germany due to his father’s illness, returning a year later after his father’s death.
Raised in a Jewish middle-class home, Jabotinsky was educated in Russian schools. Although he studied Hebrew as a child, he wrote in his autobiography that his upbringing was divorced from Jewish faith and tradition. Chava Zhabotinskaya opened a store in Odessa selling stationery, and enrolled young Vladimir in the city’s gymnasium. Jabotinsky did not finish school, having become involved in journalism. In 1896 he began writing articles for a major local Russian newspaper, the Odessa Leaflet, and was sent to Italy and Switzerland as a correspondent. He also worked with the Odessa News. Jabotinsky was a childhood friend of Russian journalist and poet Korney Chukovsky, and attended Chukovsky’s 1903 wedding to Maria Goldfeld.
Jabotinsky wrote under the pseudonym “Altalena” (“swing” in Italian, also “Old Italian” in Yiddish). His dispatches from Italy earned him recognition as an up-and-coming Russian-language journalist. He was a student at the Sapienza University of Rome law school, but did not graduate. In the summer of 1901 he returned to Odessa and began working as a journalist at the newspaper Odessa’s News (Russian: Одесские новости). Later he edited newspapers in Russian and Hebrew.
He married Yohana Galperina in October 1907. They had one child, Eri Jabotinsky, who later became a member of the Irgun-inspired Bergson Group. Eri Jabotinsky briefly served in the 1st Knesset of Israel; he died on 6 June 1969.
Zionist activism in Russia
Prior to the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, Jabotinsky joined the Zionist movement, where he soon became known as a powerful speaker and an influential leader. With more pogroms looming on the horizon, he established the Jewish Self-Defense Organization, a Jewish militant group, to safeguard Jewish communities throughout Russia. He became the source of great controversy in the Russian Jewish community as a result of these actions.
Around this time, he began learning modern Hebrew, and took a Hebrew name: Vladimir became Ze’ev (“wolf”). During the pogroms, he organized self-defense units in Jewishcommunities across Russia and fought for the civil rights of the Jewish population as a whole. His slogan was, “Better to have a gun and not need it than to need it and not have it!” Another slogan was, “Jewish youth, learn to shoot!”
In 1903, he was elected as a Russian delegate to the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. After Theodore Herzl’s death in 1904, he became the leader of the right-wing Zionists. That year he moved to Saint Petersburg and became one of the co-editors for the Russophone magazine Yevreiskaya Zhyzn (Jewish Life), which after 1907 became the official publishing body of the Zionist movement in Russia. In the pages of the newspaper, Jabotinsky wrote fierce polemics against supporters of assimilation and the Bund.
In 1905, he was one of the co-founders of the “Union for Rights Equality of Jewish People in Russia”. The following year, he was one of the chief speakers at the 3rd All-Russian Conference of Zionists in Helsinki (Helsingfors), which called upon the Jews of Europe to engage in Gegenwartsarbeit (work in the present) and to join together to demand autonomy for ethnic minorities in Russia. This liberal approach was later apparent in his position concerning the Arab citizens of the future Jewish State: Jabotinsky asserted that “Each one of the ethnic communities will be recognized as autonomous and equal in the eyes of the law.”
In 1909, he fiercely criticized leading members of the Russian Jewish community for participating in ceremonies marking the centennial of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. In the light of Gogol’s anti-Semitic views, Jabotinsky claimed it was unseemly for Russian Jews to take part in these ceremonies, as it showed they had no Jewish self-respect.
WZO representative in Turkey 1908 – 1914: Editor-in-chief of daily Istanbul newspaper “Jeune Turc”
In 1908, the Berlin Executive office of the World Zionist Organisation (WZO), sent Jabotinsky to the Ottoman capital Constantinople. Jabotinsky became editor-in-chief of a new pro-Young-Turkish daily newspaper “Jeune Turc”, which was founded and financed by Zionist officials like WZO president David Wolffsohn and his representative in Constantinople Victor Jacobson. The journalists writing for that paper included the famous German Social democrat and Russian-Jewish revolutionary Parvus, who lived in Constantinople from 1910 until 1914. The “Jeune Turc” was prohibited in 1915 by the pro-German Turkish military junta. Richard Lichtheim, who was to become Jabotinsky’s representative in Germany in 1925, stayed in Constantinople as WZO representative and managed to keep the “Yishuv” out of trouble during the war years by constant diplomatic interventions with Germans, Turks, and also US authorities, whose humanitarian support was crucial for the survival of the Jewish settlement project in Palestine during the war years.
During World War I, he had the idea of establishing a Jewish Legion to fight alongside the British against the Ottomans who then controlled Palestine. In 1915, together with Joseph Trumpeldor, a one-armed veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, he created the Zion Mule Corps, which consisted of several hundred Jewish men, mainly Russians who had been exiled from Palestine by the Ottoman Empire and had settled in Egypt. The unit served with distinction in the Battle of Gallipoli. When the Zion Mule Corps was disbanded, Jabotinsky traveled to London, where he continued his efforts to establish Jewish units to fight in Palestine as part of the British Army. Although Jabotinsky did not serve with the Zion Mule Corps, Trumpeldor, Jabotinsky and 120 Zion Mule Corps members did serve in Platoon 16 of the 20th Battalion of the London Regiment. In 1917, the government agreed to establish three Jewish battalions, initiating the Jewish Legion.
As an honorary lieutenant in the 38th Royal Fusiliers, Jabotinsky saw action in Palestine in 1918. His battalion was one of the first to enter Transjordan.
He was demobilised in September 1919, soon after he complained to Field Marshal Allenby about the British Army’s attitude towards Zionism and the Jewish Legion. His appeals to the British government failed to reverse the decision, but in December 1919 he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his service.
Jewish self-defense in Palestine
After Ze’ev Jabotinsky was discharged from the British Army in September 1919, he openly trained Jews in warfare and the use of small arms. On 6 April 1920, during the 1920 Palestine riots, the British searched the offices and apartments of the Zionist leadership, including the home of Chaim Weizmann, for arms. In a building used by Jabotinsky’s defense forces, they found three rifles, two pistols, and 250 rounds of ammunition.
Nineteen men were arrested. The next day, Jabotinsky protested to the police that he was their commander and therefore solely responsible, so they should be released. Instead, he was arrested and joined them in jail. The nineteen were sentenced to three years in prison and Jabotinsky was given a 15-year prison term for possession of weapons. In July, a general pardon was granted to Jews and Arabs convicted in the rioting.
A committee of inquiry placed responsibility for the riots on the Zionist Commission, alleging that they provoked the Arabs. The court blamed “Bolshevism” claiming that it “flowed in Zionism’s inner heart”, and ironically identified the fiercely anti-socialist Jabotinsky with the socialist-aligned Poalei Zion (‘Zionist Workers’) party, which it called ‘a definite Bolshevist institution.’
Founder of the Revisionist movement
In 1920, Jabotinsky was elected to the first Assembly of Representatives in Palestine. The following year he was elected to the executive council of the Zionist Organization. He was also a founder of the newly registered Keren haYesod and served as its director of propaganda. He left the mainstream Zionist movement in 1923, however, due to differences of opinion between him and its chairman, Chaim Weizmann, and established a new revisionist party called Alliance of Revisionists-Zionists and its youth movement, Betar (a Hebrew acronym for the “League of Joseph Trumpeldor”).
His new party demanded that the mainstream Zionist movement recognize as its stated objective the establishment of a Jewish state on both banks of the Jordan River. His main goal was to establish a modern Jewish state with the help of the British Empire. His philosophy contrasted with that of the socialist oriented Labor Zionists, in that it focused its economic and social policy on the ideals of the Jewish middle class in Europe. His ideal for a Jewish state was a form of nation state based loosely on the British imperial model. His support base was mostly located in Poland, and his activities focused on attaining British support to help with the development of the Yishuv. Another area of major support for Jabotinsky was Latvia, where his speeches in Russian made an impression on the largely Russian-speaking Latvian Jewish community.
Jabotinsky was both a nationalist and a liberal democrat. Despite his attachment to nationalism, he did not embrace authoritarian notions of state authority and its imposition on individual liberty; he said that “Every man is a king.” He championed the notion of a free press and believed the new Jewish state would protect the rights and interests of minorities. As an economic liberal, he supported a free market with minimal government intervention, but also believed that the “‘elementary necessities’ of the average person…: food, shelter, clothing, the opportunity to educate his children, and medical aid in case of illness” should be supplied by the state.
From 1923, Jabotinsky was editor of the revived Jewish weekly Rassvet (Dawn), published first in Berlin, then in Paris. Besides his journalistic work, he published novels under his previous pseudonym Altalena; his historical novel Samson Nazorei (Samson the Nazirite, 1927), set in Biblical times, describes Jabotinsky’s ideal of an active, daring, warrior form of Jewish life. His novel Pyatero (The Five, written 1935, published 1936) has been described as “a work that probably has the truest claim to being the great Odessa novel… It contains poetic descriptions of early-twentieth-century Odessa, with nostalgia-tinged portraits of its streets and smells, its characters and passions.” Although it was little noticed at the time, it has received renewed appreciation for its literary qualities at the start of the twenty-first century, being reprinted in Russia and Ukraine and in 2005 translated into English (the first translation into a Western language).
Return to Palestine blocked by the British
In 1930, while he was visiting South Africa, he was informed by the British Colonial Office that he would not be allowed to return to Palestine.
Evacuation plan for the Jews of Poland, Hungary and Romania
During the 1930s, Jabotinsky was deeply concerned with the situation of the Jewish community in Eastern Europe. In 1936, Jabotinsky prepared the so-called “evacuation plan”, which called for the evacuation of the entire Jewish population of Poland, Hungary and Romania to Palestine.
The same year he toured Eastern Europe, meeting with the Polish Foreign Minister, Colonel Józef Beck; the Regent of Hungary, Admiral Miklós Horthy; and Prime Minister Gheorghe Tătărescu of Romania to discuss the evacuation plan. The plan gained the approval of all three governments, but caused considerable controversy within the Jewish community of Poland, on the grounds that it played into the hands of anti-Semites. In particular, the fact that the ‘evacuation plan’ had the approval of the Polish government was taken by many Polish Jews as indicating Jabotinsky had gained the endorsement of what they considered to be the wrong people.
The evacuation of Jewish communities in Poland, Hungary and Romania was to take place over a ten-year period. However, the British government vetoed it, and the World Zionist Organization’s chairman, Chaim Weizmann, dismissed it. Two years later, in 1938, Jabotinsky stated in a speech that Polish Jews were “living on the edge of the volcano”, and warned that a wave of pogroms would happen in Poland sometime in the near future. Jabotinsky went on to warn Jews in Europe that they should leave for Palestine as soon as possible. There is much discussion about whether or not Jabotinsky actually predicted the Holocaust. In his writings and public appearances he warned against the dangers of an outbreak of violence against the Jewish population of Central and Eastern Europe. However, as late as August 1939, he was certain that war would be averted.
Plan for a revolt against the British
In 1939, Britain enacted the MacDonald White Paper, in which Jewish immigration to Palestine under the British Mandate was to be restricted to 75,000 for the next five years, after which further Jewish immigration would depend on Arab consent. In addition, land sales to Jews were to be restricted, and Palestine would be cultivated for independence as a binational state.
Jabotinsky reacted by proposing a plan for an armed Jewish revolt in Palestine. He sent the plan to the Irgun High Command in six coded letters. Jabotinsky proposed that he and other “illegals” would arrive by boat in the heart of Palestine – preferably Tel Aviv – in October 1939. The Irgun would ensure that they successfully landed and escaped, by whatever means necessary. They would then occupy key centers of British power in Palestine, chief among them Government House in Jerusalem, raise the Jewish national flag, and fend off the British for at least 24 hours whatever the cost. Zionist leaders in Western Europe and the United States would then declare an independent Jewish state, and would function as a provisional government-in-exile. Although Irgun commanders were impressed by the plan, they were concerned over the heavy losses they would doubtless incur in carrying it out. Avraham Stern proposed simultaneously landing 40,000 armed young immigrants in Palestine to help launch the uprising. The Polish government supported his plan, and it began training Irgun members and supplying them arms. Irgun submitted the plan for the approval of its commander David Raziel, who was imprisoned by the British. However, the beginning of World War II in September 1939 quickly put an end to these plans.
Integrated state with Arabs
According to the historian Benny Morris, documents show that Jabotinsky favored the idea of the transfer of Arab populations if required for establishing a (still-proposed) Jewish state. Jabotinsky’s other writings state, “We do not want to eject even one Arab from either the left or the right bank of the Jordan River. We want them to prosper both economically and culturally. We envision the regime of Jewish Palestine [Eretz Israel ha-Ivri] as follows: most of the population will be Jewish, but equal rights for all Arab citizens will not only be guaranteed, they will also be fulfilled.” Jabotinsky was convinced that there was no way for the Jews to regain any part of Palestine without opposition from the Arabs. In 1934, he wrote a draft constitution for the Jewish state which declared that Arabs would be on an equal footing with their Jewish counterparts “throughout all sectors of the country’s public life.” The two communities would share the state’s duties, both military and civil service, and enjoy its prerogatives. Jabotinsky proposed that Hebrew and Arabic should enjoy equal status, and that “in every cabinet where the prime minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership shall be offered to an Arab and vice versa.”
While in New York to build support within the United States for a Jewish Army, Jabotinsky died of a heart attack on 4 August 1940 while visiting a Jewish self-defense camp run by Betar. He was buried in New Montefiore Cemetery in Farmingdale, New York, in accordance with a clause of his will. A monument to Jabotinsky was erected at his original burial site in New York. In 1964 the remains of Jabotinsky and his wife, in accordance with a second clause of his will, were reburied in Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem by order of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol.
Legacy and honors
- Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s legacy was carried on by Israel’s Herut party, which merged with other right wing parties to form the Likud Party in 1973. Likud has since acted as Israel’s main right-wing party, and has been part of most Israeli governments since 1977. His legacy has also been honored to a smaller extent by Herut – The National Movement (a breakaway from Likud), Magshimey Herut (young adult activist movement) and Betar (youth movement). In the United States, his call for Jewish self-defense has led to the formation of Americans for a Safe Israel and the Jewish Defense Organization. The JDO’s training camp is named Camp Jabotinsky.
- In Israel, 57 streets, parks and squares are named after Jabotinsky, more than for any other person in Jewish or Israeli history. making him the most-commemorated historical figure in Israel.
- The Jabotinsky Medal is awarded for distinguished service to the State of Israel.
- The Jabotinsky Institute, in Tel Aviv, is a repository of documents and research relating to the history of Betar, the Revisionist movement, the Irgun, and Herut. It is identified with Likud.
- A bronze bust of Jabotinsky by Johan Oldert was presented to the Metzudat Ze’ev in Tel Aviv in 2008 and remains on display.
- Jabotinsky Day (Hebrew: יום ז’בוטינסקי) is an Israeli national holiday celebrated annually on the twenty ninth of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, to commemorate the life and vision of Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Our habit of constantly and zealously answering to any rabble has already done us a lot of harm and will do much more. … We do not have to apologize for anything. We are a people as all other peoples; we do not have any intentions to be better than the rest. As one of the first conditions for equality we demand the right to have our own villains, exactly as other people have them. … We do not have to account to anybody, we are not to sit for anybody’s examination and nobody is old enough to call on us to answer. We came before them and will leave after them. We are what we are, we are good for ourselves, we will not change, nor do we want to.(From Instead of Excessive Apology, 1911).
- “Eliminate the Diaspora, or the Diaspora will surely eliminate you.” (From “Tisha B’av 1937”).
A Jew brought up among Germans may assume German custom, German words. He may be wholly imbued with that German fluid but the nucleus of his spiritual structure will always remain Jewish, because his blood, his body, his physical-racial type are Jewish. … It is impossible for a man to become assimilated with people whose blood is different from his own. In order to become assimilated, he must change his body, he must become one of them, in blood. … There can be no assimilation as long as there is no mixed marriage. … An increase in the number of mixed marriages is the only sure and infallible means for the destruction of nationality as such. … A preservation of national integrity is impossible except by a preservation of racial purity, and for that purpose we are in need of a territory of our own where our people will constitute the overwhelming majority.