Zeev Jabotinsky at 1931 Zionist Congress by Ze'ev (Wilhelm) Aleksandrowicz [Public Domain] via Wikimedia
World Jewish Congress (WJC) President Ronald Lauder followed up his March 18 New York Times tirade ("Israel’s Self-Inflicted Wounds") against Israeli “settlers” and several other targets by doubling down with a second Times op-ed on August 13, this time attacking Orthodox Jewish influence on Israeli politics ("Israel, This Is Not Who We Are") vis-a-vis the Jewish Nation-State Law. Many opponents of Lauder's views on Israel have taken pen in hand and pointed out where they believe Lauder went wrong in each of his articles. Authors have also attacked Lauder for what they (correctly) saw as his hypocritical claim that "democratic and egalitarian dimensions of the Jewish democratic state are being tested," given that a general election of the WJC membership did not elect him to his position as its president — a position he has held for over 11 years. It seems he faces no term limits. In his recent op-ed, Lauder wrote, "Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir always emphasized the need to combine Jewish nationalism with universal humanism. So now, when Israel’s government appears to be tarnishing the sacred value of equality, many supporters feel it is turning its back on Jewish heritage, the Zionist ethos and the Israeli spirit."
Who Was Jabotinsky?
Thanks are due to Lauder for rightfully ranking Jabotinsky where he belongs among the builders of Zionism and the Jewish State. Jabotinsky (1880-1940) was a Zionist leader, orator, and writer who founded the Jewish Legion during World War I as well as the Haganah self-defense units in Jerusalem in 1920. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's father, Benzion, served as Jabotinsky's personal secretary just after the outbreak of World War II.
So let us examine the Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who perhaps to most — if not nearly all — American Jews was the least recognizable name in the pantheon of important heroes from early Zionist history mentioned in Lauder's essay.
Noted political science scholar, Professor Daniel J. Elazar, recalled Jabotinsky’s legacy in the May 15, 1981 edition of the Jewish journal Sh’ma, writing:
“Would there be serious public commemoration of the 100th birthday of Ze'ev Jabotinsky had it not been for the fact that the Likud won the election in Israel in 1977? Not likely. For 30 years and more, Jabotinsky was one of those non-persons in Israel and the Jewish world…
“The ruling Labor Party made him a non-person for the same reasons that it portrayed Menachem Begin and his supporters as uncivilized fascists — it is easier to beat the opposition by painting it as irrelevant, intolerable and non-existent, until it is too strong to be dismissed.”
The active supporters of Jabotinsky, involved with the Irgun paramilitary organization his followers created, were the parents of a generation of Israel’s leaders, including Ehud Olmert, Benny Begin, Tzipi Livni, Uzi Landau, Dan Meridor, and many other central figures in Israel’s political life up until today. J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami as well as Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel also had parents in the Irgun.
What Jabotinsky would advocate given today’s current events is often debated in Israel. What were Jabotinsky’s vital contributions? His words and ideas animated a generation of young Jews to resist the Nazis, rescue fellow Jews from Hitler's forces, and fight for the freedom of Israel as soldiers in the Irgun and Stern Group/LEHI. Later, the movement to free Soviet Jewry both in the U.S. and inside the U.S.S.R. itself was led by Jabotinsky Zionists.
It is a fair question to ask if Israel would even exist today if it were not for Jabotinsky and the sacrifices of the Irgun he molded and inspired. That question would be impossible to ask, though, if Menachem Begin had not won power in 1977.
Since then things have fundamentally changed in Israel. No party claims to continue in the tradition of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, or his protege Golda Meir. Their socialism lost all its chic long ago. However, the legacy of Jabotinsky is openly invoked not only by Menachem Begin’s Likud party but also by the National Union (HaIhud HaLeumi), Kadima, and Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) as well as several smaller parties.
Perhaps Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party made the most of invoking Jabotinsky’s name and attitude (even if that party is the least obvious in terms of its allegiance to his ideology) when it described itself as “a national movement with the clear vision to follow in the brave path of Ze’ev Jabotinsky.” What could be meant by this “brave path?” A strong national defense, national pride, connection to authentic Jewish observance, love of the Land of Israel, and belief in both free markets and modern democratic values.
“Two Banks has the Jordan”
Jabotinsky’s own words help illustrate just how far apart Lauder stands from him. This verse from one of Jabotinsky's most beloved poems, “Two Banks Has The Jordan,” defines his view of the Land of Israel:
Two Banks has the Jordan – This is ours and, that is as well. From the wealth of our land there shall prosper The Arab, the Christian, and the Jew, For our flag is a pure and just one It will illuminate both sides of my Jordan.
In “The Betar Song,” Jabotinsky writes a timeless message for Jews who question Jewish uniqueness:
Even in poverty a Jew is a prince Whether slave or vagabond beggar You have been created the son of kings Capped with the crown of (King) David.
Jabotinsky wrote his greatest novel, “Samson, The Nazirite,” about the Biblical champion. In the most well-known passage of the book, Samson declares: “Tell them [the Jewish People] three things in my name, and not two: they must get iron [i.e. armaments]; they must choose a king; and they must learn to laugh.” By “learn to laugh,” Jabotinsky meant, in part, the necessity to develop confidence on a national level. With rapidly changing Middle East realities and the abuse of self-proclaimed friends such as Lauder, Israelis may need that message now more than ever. Or do they? After all, smart Israelis know that Lauder's name won't ever make it into future Israeli history textbooks, while Jabotinsky's importance grows every year.
The interested reader may enjoy Lone Wolf: A Biography of Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky by Katz (1996). This author highly recommends it as a masterful work about the man and his tremendous impact on Zionism.
Moshe Phillips is the national director of Herut North America's U.S. section. Herut is an international movement for Zionist pride and education. More information about Herut is available at www.herutna.org