Jabotinsky as Statesman and Leader of His Nation: How would he react to the problems of our time? Prof. Benzion Netanyahu
Closing lecture of ‘the year of Jabotinsky’ given at Tel Aviv University March 4 2001 [last pages of the speech]
Even though I have spoken at length, I have left out certain things that should be mentioned. Thus, permit me before the end of my speech to raise some points about the special positions that, in my opinion, Jabotinsky would promote concerning problems which bother us today. There are those who would claim that it is impossible to justify spelling out such points since they assume that one can apply solutions to problems of the past to problems of today. There is, of course, reason in this position however it does not apply in every case, and in particular the example I will relate to. If, for example, one were to propose to imagine what Clemencau’s positions concerning France would be today it would be fair to dismiss it as being impossible. From time to time history reveals new problems facing nations, created by new conditions, and one might not have even been able to imagine them in prior history, and thus there would be no way to claim how a person from that past would relate to the new problem and circumstances. However, if one imagines what would Jabotinsky’s approach be to today’s problems 60 years after his death, we believe there is reason to this hypothetical thought; and when we read his writings we can almost hear his reactions to our questions, clear and reasoned answers based on convincing proofs.
What is the reason behind this feeling? The reason is, in my view, embedded in the fact that the major issue with which Jabotinsky dealt, namely the question of the Jewish people and everything connected to it, has remained essentially the same as it was, despite the fact that the situation of our people has changed in many ways. In the diaspora the problems of anti-Semitism, of assimilation, and of Jewish education remain, or more accurately: the absence of Zionist education; and in Israel the problems of the Arabs and almost all of the internal social ills remain as they were, despite the fact that some of them have changed in proportion and thus in the amount of their effect on society. Jabotinsky dealt with every one of these problems, and his writings contain specific answers, which are capable, in my view, of assisting us in our own day. I will now deal with only one of these problems, one which particularly engages us today. I, of course, am referring to the Arab problem.
I have already presented his views on ‘havlagah’ [restraint (cf. below *p. 5)], which has returned as an issue after the Oslo agreement. This raises the question of his thought about reaching an agreement, which will result in peace between Arabs and Jews. Jabotinsky denied the possibility of an agreement, the result of which would be that the Arabs would abandon their desire to destroy Zionism as a force in the land of Israel. He proposed that as long as the Arabs saw even the slightest of chances to make this desire into a reality, they will strive to implement it in every way possible. Only two things could bring an end to this striving: a clear majority of Jews living in the land and a mighty protective military force at their command, a force that would convince the Arabs that any provocation at all would cause them damage. The behavior of the Arabs living in the land in the last 50 years validates, it seems to me, this view of Jabotinsky. They have faced a Jewish majority with a formidable military power who has won in battles with every Arab state. Yet, in spite of all this their war with the Jews in our time seems to contradict Jabotinsky’s idea. Jabotinsky would, without doubt, answer by saying that almost all of the Arab attacks on Jews, which we have witnessed in the last few years, have come from Arabs living in territories from which Jewish rule has been pushed out; in which the Jewish defense force has been almost excluded, or at least greatly curtailed. Thus, most of the time that has passed since the Oslo agreement ‘havlagah’ has been ascendant in the equation. In this present state of affairs there is no contradiction to Jabotinsky’s conclusions.
Since Jabotinsky denied the possibility of achieving peace with the Arabs in our time, it is clear that he would deny the assumption that it is possible to conduct negotiations with them on, what some people call, ‘the end of the conflict’. This assumption would appear particularly absurd while one side strives, concretely, to avoid any agreement which does not include the elimination of the other side. In addition, historical experience testifies to how difficult it is to bring ‘an end to a conflict’ in any situation which deals with territory, even in cases where the disparities between the positions of the sides are much less extreme than those in our case. I could cite several examples of this, but I will only mention one: Alsace-Lorraine – a small piece of land common to France and Germany. The conflict over this tiny territory lasted a very long time, even though it was ruled time after time first by one state and then by the other, and despite the fact that neither state sought to control the whole territory, but only the small part where its own citizens were the majority!
I will briefly touch on another point: the right of the Jews to return to the land of Israel. This right rests, according to Jabotinsky, not only on the fact that the Jews were the rulers of the land and a majority of its inhabitants for many hundreds of years, and were forcibly removed from it, but also on the contention that since the Arabs control large tractates of land, which altogether is larger by far than all the territory of the US and Europe combined, and which in most parts the population density is among the lowest in the world; it is thus not just, we would claim, that one people should rule over such vast territory , while another people that has no land will forever remain without land – in particular when its original land, which was taken from it, is included in part of the other people’s vast territory. The basis for such a claim can be found in the writings of Rousseau. One may add what we have learned from studying history from the 7th century and on: in the end the Jews were expelled from their land – Israel, not by the Romans and not by the Byzantines, but by the Arabs, who captured the land of Israel in 636 CE; and thus they are the main party responsible for our condition as a people without a land.
Jabotinsky would dismiss the contention that one must separate the nations as not realistic. He said that there will always be two nations here, and there is no reason that they should not live in harmony and friendship, if the Arabs will be willing to live in a Jewish state as a minority who will have full equal citizenship rights. It is clear that he would in no way agree to establish in the territory of the Jewish state an Arab state no matter what its size would be. As one who was firmly committed to the right of the Jews to rule their homeland within its historical boundaries; he would never consider that they would agree to give up any part of their land, which they had taken control of. In addition he surely would have contended that such an Arab state would not lessen the Arab aspiration to rule over the Jewish state and to destroy it, but rather it would increase their desire particularly since they could use their neighboring state as a base for harboring terrorists and allowing them to attack from it. In this way they could solicit ongoing funding from Arab states to enable them to achieve their goal.
Since he would oppose the creation of an Arab state, he would certainly not be concerned with setting borders, and would certainly not view the notion of ‘agreed borders’ as a means to ensure peace. To those who did believe that ‘agreed borders’ were a means to ensure peace, he would certainly remind them that all of the wars in history were begun by a breaching of agreed borders, a breach usually committed by a neighbor. Similarly, he would certainly have rejected the assumption that it is possible to secure a border by any means, including those of the most modern technology. He certainly would say that even the great wall of China was not built to prevent an enemy intrusion today – and not only of armies. A handful of terrorists can always find a way to breach any barrier by which they can freely enter and leave. He would lead us to a conclusion that would undoubtedly be singular: a border of a nation may be secured only by a deterrent of a people, a people that is greater quantitatively than the enemy that they face, and in particular stronger militarily, with greater spiritual commitment and patience, which train them to fight at any moment for their land at the price of suffering sacrifice.
Similarly, Jabotinsky, who all his life fought for equal rights for Jews wherever they lived, would without a doubt oppose the creation of any area in the land where it would be forbidden for a Jew to live, while Arabs would be permitted to live in peace in any part of the land of Israel, including the area controlled by Jews. He would never agree to an inferior status for Jews in any part of their ancestral land, and he would certainly hold that not only would such a policy not contribute to peace, but would incite feelings of disdain for Jews in the minds of Arabs, and cause further tensions between the two groups and prevent normalization of the relations between them. No doubt Jabotinsky would see any solution to the problem to be based upon totally equal rights applied to every resident of the land by a strong government, which would be in the hands of the Jewish people.
I could give more examples of Jabotinsky’s recommendations that would be applicable to our times, but I must end and I will add only these comments: Jabotinsky as a leader operated through persuasion by agreement of his helpers to his orders. He was ready to listen patiently to every opinion and suggestion, and to every criticism, if it seemed reasonable. He was prepared to change his opinion, and even accept the opinions of others, if he saw any usefulness in it, any at all, for the main goal for which he strove. But, we must always remember one important thing: even when he led an opposition party and when he directed an independent agency he had to garner supporters, and this obligated him to make his ideas very clear and to support any idea that he supported with arguments. This was a very difficult job which demanded great efforts from Jabotinsky, for he had to recruit partners to views which were foreign to the Jewish people, new views which were in opposition to the ethos and ethnos that were prevalent for generations; and thus Jabotinsky had to be active in all of his plans, and every step in their implementation, he had to supply detailed explanations and ongoing rebuttals of the claims of his rivals among the Zionists and the non-Zionists – that is, in all parts of the Jewish nation. Jabotinsky had to teach his nation the ABC of the life of a state, of a political struggle for a war of independence, and I do not know another people who had such an excellent teacher as him. He taught his ideas over and over. He worked until his whole opus had been spread to his students with its extremely diverse range of ideas, and even so his lectures never seemed to repeat themselves, but like new even to those who had heard them before.
Please indulge me if at the end I raise something that was different in Jabotinsky’s experience. All of his prognosis came to pass, everything he promised would happen – happened. Those who knew him became so used to his evaluations, so that he was likened to a prophet. He foresaw the destruction of European Jewry and in particular the destruction of East European Jewry. This is what prompted him in 1936 to propose his plan for a mass exodus of Jews – which he called an evacuation – a plan which was reviled by most of the Jewish parties, including the Zionist ones, for they had not yet discerned the terrible danger which was facing the Jewish people. No one so early on understood the meaning of Hitler’s ascension to power for the future of European Jewry like Jabotinsky. Here his warnings on the destruction awaiting the nation – destruction, as he stressed and he repeated these warning time after time, such as what he said after the Munich agreement in 1938:
“I am sure that from the days of the flood the dams will break in all the streets where Jews live in Eastern Europe, and their attack will be so fierce that it will overshadow the hatred of Jews in Europe and rage of Arabs together”
Jabotinsky saw the coming of the terrible holocaust even though he did not connect it to a war, a war which he did not foresee coming and even vigorously denied its possibility. This was the only major mistake which one can find in Jabotinsky’s predictions, a surprising mistake and almost unintelligible to whoever is familiar with his system of historical analysis, and his great caution in drawing conclusions. Even so, in my opinion, it is simple to explain. He pushed aside from his thoughts this possible tragedy, because he did comprehend its meaning for the Jewish people. Even without a world war he saw European Jewry on the brink of destruction; but in the hours when he was alone with himself he thought about his people and did the calculation of its world, and even though it was clear to him that if a war broke out, the destruction would be inevitable, and enlarge the tragedy manifold; and so one may surmise he thought a war would end all hope for the Jewish nation, and thus he allowed himself to be lured by the hope that the disaster would not occur; and when the war did break out, in my eyes Jabotinsky then became a different person. I say this on the basis of my meetings with him before the war (in 1939) and after its outbreak (in 1940); I was with him in the US the last four months of his life, and I will recall one detail from that period. During that whole period he was always sad, I had never seen such sadness in a person before in my life. Sadness weighed him down as if it was a mountain on him. Despite all that he did, and whatever his positions obligated him to do, he performed them all with intelligence and talent, but was not satisfied with anything. He knew, as his last book proves, that the destruction of the Jews had begun – he understood that it would continue and grow worse, and without a doubt remembered Hitler’s promise, and believed that he would try and keep his promise – namely, “if a war breaks out not one Jew will remain in Europe”. This is what caused his figure which I saw. I applied to him the phrase of Bialick: “the knight of the woeful countenance”.1.
If Jabotinsky seemed that way then, today he seems to us as he appeared almost all of his life: certain in his path, brave and forceful, always ready to oppose any injustice and to battle the wars of his people. He drew the hearts of the nation and charmed them, and he will continue to inspire and animate this people as long as this nation wills to battle for its existence, to be loyal to its future as it had been loyal to its past.
1. see my article [in Hebrew]: ‘The Place of Jabotinsky in Jewish history’, Lectures in Zionist Studies (vol. 7 Haifa, 1981 p. 16 – 17; and also my lecture on Jabotinsky in: Haumah (vol. 40, 2002, pp. 75 – 90
*Remarks on ‘Havlagah’ in the speech
Attempts at ‘ha’apalah’, ‘illegal immigration’, by various means began seriously at that time, but a serious and widespread plan for significant immigrantion only became possible with the founding of the New Zionist Organization (NZO). The NZO began to implement an increasing number of immigrants shortly after its founding. The expansion of this activity was made possible by the support of the Polish government, who supplied passports to every Polish Jew who wanted to go to Israel, and the Rumanian government, who supplied these immigrants with passage documents to Constanza (the seaport of Rumania) without any visa for a specific country. The cooperation of these governments was acquired by virtue of relationships which Jabotinsky developed with them, and so the ‘illegal immigration’ under the NZO grew significantly.
As a result of this activity, other private organizations began to operate on behalf of immigration, most of whom were also members of Jabotinsky’s party. In the end the ZO itself, under the leadership of left wing parties, also joined in, even though they had originally opposed the idea and vilified it. The British intelligence services reported that this movement was connected to the Etzel (Irgun Tzvai Leummi, the military arm of Jabotinsky’s party), because they believed that the push to organize and implement ‘illegal immigration’ primarily came from that group; and their estimates of the number of ‘illegal immigrants’ until the end of 1940 was 50,000.
At that time this immigration was very important from several aspects – first because it saved tens of thousands of Jews; second, it increased the strength of the Jewish settlement; and third because it strengthened the Etzel, by providing many new soldiers. One of Jabotinsky’s most important successes was the founding, or rather the forming, of the Etzel in 1937. It’s first large action – after many smaller ones – was the breaking of system of ‘havlagah’ which was the default approach of the ZO.
Jabotinsky scrupulously probed and weighed the significance of breaking ‘havlagah’, and he reached the conclusion that it was the moral thing to do as well as a necessity from a military and political point of view. He viewed the phenomenon of Arab terror not as the actions of a few independent gangs, but rather a system of war between one nation and another nation, and in such a war, between nations, Jabotinsky claimed that it is impossible to avoid injury to innocent people. In 1938 he wrote that ‘if war breaks out’, and he referred to a war between the Axis powers and its opponents, ‘we will all need unanimously to support a sea and land blockade of the enemies territories, to starve its inhabitants, including women and children, who are innocent; and after the first air attack on London and Paris we must organize airstrikes of our own on Stuttgart and Milan, also which have many women and children. There is no war without harm to innocents, just as there is no war without battles between brothers. Therefore all war is accursed, any war in any form, provocation or defense.” These reasons motivated Jabotinsky to permit without restraint the breaking of ‘havlagah’, and the reaction of this permission against the Arab terror organization was not far behind. This reaction, which at first was incremental, but ended up very strong, following Jabotinsky’s orders, forced the Arabs to curtail and then to cease their attacks on Jews, and they turned their attention mainly against the British. This result established the Etzel at the time as an important factor in the times, and its subsequent growth and development were enabled to a great extant by the Polish government, which supplied it with large quantities of weapons and trained many of its soldiers and officers. This was also enabled because of the relationships that Jabotinsky had created with Poland in his diplomatic activities.