Jabotinsky – Vision, Dedication, and Faith
Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who died 79 years ago today, would have become one of the world’s most successful orators, had he not decided to devote himself to act on behalf of the Jewish nation * The Jewish Legion he founded and commanded to protect Jerusalem from Arab rioters, despite British policy, saved many Jews, while he himself paid a heavy price * His brilliance led him to different positions in contrast to his fellow Zionists who attacked him harshly, nevertheless, his accuracy was proven years later – often, too late * Out of his devotion to the nation he later became more traditional, and the warm connection of his followers to Judaism has continued to this day
As part of gratitude to eminent Jewish personalities, it is worth mentioning the founder of the Betar movement, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who passed away on the 29th of Tamuz, 5700 (Aug. 4th, 1940), and in his teachings and deeds worked for the redemption of the Jewish nation and its land – matters important to discuss during the days of ‘bein ha-metzarim’ (the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av). In doing so, we will also come to understand the significance of the enormous crises that befell the Jewish people in modern times, which occasionally led great personalities who grew up in assimilated environments, such as Herzl and Jabotinsky, to reconnect in a deep and wonderful way to their people and country, and to make a decisive contribution to the process of Israel’s redemption in the Gathering of the Exiles, and settlement of the Land. This phenomenon was profoundly explained by our teacher and guide, Rabbi Kook, and has important implications to this day.
Jabotinsky was born in 5640 (1880), orphaned from his father at the age of six, and grew up in a home where Jewish tradition was considered as something distant for the elderly. His hometown was Odessa, whose Jews were known for distancing themselves from Torah and mitzvot. Like many of his peers, he began to assimilate into Russian society and culture and was quite successful.
His talents were brilliant. Already at a young age, he became famous as a writer and gifted translator with a bright future ahead of himself. He was also considered one of the best speakers in the world. He mastered nearly twelve languages and was able to write articles and speak fluently in most of them. He also completed law school and was certified as a lawyer. Had he worked as a lawyer, he would undoubtedly have been considered one of the greatest in his field, having status and wealth. But from the moment he became captivated with the national Jewish idea, he dedicated himself to his fellow Jews, leaving nothing for himself.
Zionism and Dedication
During World War I, Jabotinsky worked to establish the Jewish Legion as part of the British army and participated as an officer in conquering Eretz Yisrael from the Turks. He believed that if the Jews participated in the conquest of the Land their right to it would be recognized, thus preparing the political and military infrastructure for the establishment of the state. Indeed, the Jewish Legion had a significant contribution to the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain declared it would work to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael.
Establishment of a Protective Force in the Land
In 5680 (1920) when the Arabs began a wave of incitement against the Jews, Jabotinsky warned they were about to start rioting against the Jews. When he saw that the commanders of the British army were indifferent to the situation, he organized the members of the Jewish Legion into a protective force, and openly trained them. This was the foundation for the establishment of the Haganah, which, upon the establishment of the state, became the infrastructure for the founding of the IDF. When the wave of riots and murders all over the country began, Jabotinsky appealed to the commanders of the British army, requesting they assign the army to stop the Arab riots in Jerusalem where the majority of the Jewish population was concentrated. The British, however, stood by and refused to exert force against the Arabs. Seeing this, in contradiction to military orders and knowing he was liable to pay a heavy price for it, Jabotinsky enlisted his soldiers from the Jewish Legion and fought the Arabs. In doing so, he saved the Jews of Jerusalem.
His British commanders put him and his soldiers on trial for refusing orders, looting, and disruption of order. Jabotinsky was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor and lowered to the rank of private, but since he took full responsibility upon himself during the trial, his soldiers were punished with light sentences.
From his prison cell, Jabotinsky waged an international public struggle in which he demanded absolute acquittal. He and his companions embarked on a prolonged and life-threatening hunger strike. The public campaign succeeded – at first, his sentence was shortened to one year, and eventually, canceled completely. Nonetheless, the Jewish Legion was disbanded.
Jabotinsky and his soldiers, who were imprisoned in the Acre prison, stopped their hunger strike following a letter written to them by Maran HaRav Kook ztz”l: “Our brothers, the pure heroes … dear brothers … do not harm your health … in particular, it is my duty to declare to you my beloved sons, that what you are doing is forbidden by any way or shape by our holy and pure religion … stay strong, dear brothers, and wait for salvation to come … your faithful brother, who shares your sorrow, and looks forward to rejoicing in your happiness, in your speedy redemption” (Likutei HaRaayah, pages 61–62).
Upon intensifying his activities for aliyah and the establishment of a Jewish state, the British expelled him from the country, or to be more exact, after leaving the country in 1929, he was denied his entry visa.
In exile, and out of loyalty to his homeland, Jabotinsky refused to accept citizenship of any country and did not buy or rent a home. For nearly twenty years, he wandered from place to place, speaking about Eretz Yisrael, the Hebrew language, and the return to Jewish history. At the end of his life, he also emphasized Jewish heritage and faith. His wandering for the sake of the Jewish people prevented him from having a routine family life.
In the course of his Zionist activities, he wrote and published articles in some of the world’s most important newspapers. As a gifted writer, he was paid a nice sum of money for his articles and writings. Part of the money he earned he sent to his wife, mother, son, and sister who lived in Eretz Yisrael, and the rest he contributed to the Zionist movement. He left only a little for himself to pay for his stay in cheap hotels.
The Revisionist Zionists
In 1929, Jabotinsky established the Revisionist Movement, which operated as part of the World Zionist Movement advocating mass immigration to Israel, and the establishment of the Jewish state.
When the Nazis came to power (1933), he intensified his efforts. He would travel in Eastern and Central Europe from one city to another and from town to town, slept in trains and cheap hotels, embarked on meetings and lectures advocating for immediate immigration to Eretz Yisrael and the urgent evacuation of Jews from Europe. He felt that a dreadful Holocaust was about to happen to the Jewish people in Europe.
As a result of his efforts, he was vilified and attacked by members of the Left-wing Zionist parties, by the Bund, and by anti-Zionist circles of all sorts. His political rivals in the Zionist Organization were Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion.
After his positions were rejected, he felt he had no choice, and in view of the Nazi danger in Europe, was obligated to act within a new framework. In 1935 he established a massive Jewish organization working to promote immigration and the Jewish state. Within two years, more members were registered in his organization than in the old Zionist Organization. But it was too late. World War broke out, and his positions could no longer save anyone.
Remarkable Analytical Skills Wasted
His socio-political analytical skills were remarkable. In his clear analyzes, Jabotinsky predicted long-term processes way in advance, according to which he formulated positions that over the years turned out to be remarkably accurate.
He did not pursue honor, authority, or money, nevertheless, his rivals, Weizmann and Ben-Gurion, envied him for his talents, did not grasp the depth of his positions, and systematically and flagrantly worked against him.
In the end, many of his positions were accepted, but sadly, only ten years or later, which at times was tragic. This was the case, for example, with his “Iron Wall” policy concerning the Jewish-Arab struggle, which inevitably materialized in Israel’s wars, but had it been accepted beforehand as a formal position, it most likely would have acted as a deterrence, and achieved incomparably better results.
Also regarding the question of independence, he believed that the demand for a Jewish state should be met immediately by the right of privilege, and demand the strict fulfillment of international promises and obligations to the Jewish people. His position was accepted only after the Holocaust.
After the occupation of the country by the British, when the gates of the country were open without restriction, he demanded a call for mass immigration to determine a solid Jewish majority in the country. The Zionist leadership that advocated selective immigration was strongly opposed, and thus, nearly ten precious years passed.
After the British restricted immigration quotas, he called for a vigorous fight and took action despite the ban. In this framework, called “aliyah af-al-pi” (aliyah nevertheless), tens of thousands of Jews immigrated, and thus survived the Holocaust. Only after the Holocaust did Leftist parties join in organizing “illegal” immigration to Israel.
He was in favor of free market initiative in developing the country and its economy (moderate capitalism). His rivals worked to suppress private initiative. Only due to lack of choice was the idea accepted after decades.
His position was to act overtly in international relations, rather than lobbying in back rooms. History has shown overt activity to be more beneficial.
Also, the rebellion against British rule, which led to the establishment of the state, was already planned by him in 1937.
His Attitude towards Tradition
Stemming from the Jewish national issue, Jabotinsky came closer to Judaism. Several times he expressed genuine regret for not having received a traditional Jewish education. When his friends asked him about his changed attitudes concerning religion and faith, he explained that over time he realized that the mysterious foundation of faith and religion was a basis without which life could not be built, and certainly, not a Jewish life.
True, he criticized phenomena that seemed to contradict the values of freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion, but it is important to note that in this matter, although in a different style, he concurred with some of the views of Rabbi Kook, who saw the values of freedom and liberty as important beliefs.
In the constitution of the New Zionist Organization which he founded, he wrote: “The aim of Zionism is the redemption of Israel and its land, the revival of its sovereignty and language, and the rooting of its sacred teachings in the life of the nation. Its ways: Creating a Hebrew majority in Eretz Yisrael on both sides of the Jordan, establishing the Hebrew state on the foundations of civil liberty and the principles of justice in the spirit of Torat Yisrael“.
It is worth noting that in the first version he wrote “the imposing of its sacred teachings in the life of the nation”, but in the end, compromised with the opinion of the majority of the founding members, and wrote “rooting” instead of “imposing”.
These are the foundations that underpin the positive attitude to tradition in the Revisionist Zionist movement in its various incarnations, up to today’s Likud party.
His Attitude toward Rabbi Kook
In an article written at the end of the summer of 1934, after the acquittal of Avraham Stavsky of Arlozorov’s murder, Jabotinsky addressed Rabbi Kook: “From Rabbi Falk (the military rabbi of the Jewish Legion in World War I), I first heard the name Rabbi Kook. The rabbi was living in London at the time, and Falk was one of his students. It is not easy to faithfully describe a student’s attitude towards his rabbi. Rabbi Falk spoke of Rabbi Kook not only as a revered teacher but as a holy guide. For hours, he sat and explained to me Rabbi Kook’s worldview … For the first time in my spiritual life, my heart opened to that same ancient terrain – but new for me – which contains answers to all our deep problems, and stems from our ancient Scriptures … and behind all the revelations hidden in the verses and aggadot, stands a rare and precious human personality, a soul living in a unique world, a world of lofty and noble ideas, a soul that builds its daily life according to an eternal order, a soul that breathes and operates in certain perpetual contact with a supernatural power”. (Mo’adei Raayah, page 395).
Concerning Public Shabbat Desecration
In the name of Rabbi Kook, Rabbi Avraham Chaim Chechik, related: “It once happened that on a Sunday, Jews whose hearts ached for the desecration of Shabbat, came and told Rabbeinu that on Shabbat some youth had gathered on the field behind the Bukhara houses playing soccer, and transgressed Shabbat prohibitions. Since the youth were members of Betar, whose leader was Ze’ev Jabotinsky, consequently, it would be highly appropriate for Rabbeinu to write a letter of protest to him.
“After Rabbeinu sadly listened to them, he asked me for a piece of paper, and wrote a pleasantly worded protest letter with candid reproach to Mr. Jabotinsky, and asked me to give it to him. When I arrived and handed Jabotinsky the letter and he saw that it was from Rav Kook ztz”l, he asked me to wait until he read it. After reading the letter, he sank into reflection, his face expressing sorrow. Immediately, he asked me: Do you know the contents of Rav Kook’s letter? After I told him I did, he asked me to tell Rabbeinu not to worry, that he would use all of his influence to make sure it didn’t happen again and added that he would also meet Rabbeinu to discuss the matter. He graciously accompanied me to the door, and asked me to send his warm regards to “our dear Rabbi.”
The Attitude of Rav Kook and His Son Rav Tzvi Yehudah towads Jabotinsky
Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda supported Jabotinsky’s political positions, and the armed struggle of the Underground movements, Irgun and Lechi, against the British occupation and Arab rioters, and even boasted that he agreed to hide Underground literature in his home.
Similarly, I also heard testimony that Rabbi Kook ztz”l had tremendous appreciation for Jabotinsky’s self-sacrifice for the people of Israel, his correct positions, and the purity of his character traits. I heard that when a letter was brought to Rav Kook from Jabotinsky concerning the libel surrounding the murder of Arlozorov, he said that Jabotinsky was “an angel of God.” No such leader of the Jewish people at that time received such adoration from Rav Kook.
His Last Day
Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s vigorous activities for years that knew no bounds, as well as the feelings of disappointment and humiliation he felt among his Zionist associates, and most of all the missed opportunity – the Holocaust had begun, and all the many Jews he had met and called for their immigration to Eretz Yisrael, were left trapped in Europe – gnawed his heart, and he died of a massive heart attack while visiting a Betar summer camp in New York. In his will, he instructed his bones be brought for burial to Eretz Yisrael, but only by order of the Jewish state that was to be established. Indeed, in 1964, after Ben-Gurion resigned as Prime Minister, the Israeli government, led by Levi Eshkol, decided to bring his remains and that of his wife to Eretz Yisrael, and their resting place is on Mount Herzl, next to the seer of the State of Israel.
On his last day, the 29th of Tammuz, 5700 (August 4th, 1940), while traveling from New York to the Betar camp in the suburbs, he unexpectedly asked one of his companions who was a traditional Jew, to sing for him the “Kol Nidre” prayer, saying that he did not quite recall the words in Aramaic. After he sang it to him once, Jabotinsky sank into deep reflection, and asked him to sing “Kol Nidre” a few more times.
As well-known in Jewish tradition, a person’s last day holds a concise expression of his entire life. Jabotinsky’s cleaving to the “Kol Nidre” prayer, symbolizing more than any other prayer the sacred day of Yom Kippur, expresses the purity of his actions for the sake of the Jewish nation, its Land, and its spiritual culture.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.