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Jabotinsky: A Life (Jewish Lives) Hardcover – 15 Jul 2014
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"Mr. Halkin's book paints a rich portrait . . . Showing Jabotinsky as a farsighted and profound moral thinker, Mr. Halkin places him at the intersection of philosophy and practical political action."--Douglas J./i>--Douglas J. Feith "Wall Street Journal "
"In his engaging and intelligent biography, Hillel Halkin, himself a brilliant Zionist man of letters--translator, novelist and essayist--illuminates Jabotinsky's multifaceted nature as a litterateur and polemicist, political thinker and activist, family man and frustrated politician."--Douglas J./i>--Douglas J. Feith "Wall Street Journal "
"Mr. Halkin's book presents [Jabotinsky] in all his hardheaded but humane complexity."--Douglas J./i>--Douglas J. Feith "Wall Street Journal "
"Given the war, or rather, wars, roiling the Middle East, this is a particularly good time to rethink the legacy of Zionist leader Vladmir Jabotinsky, as Hillel Halkin invites readers to do in his compact and evocative new biography."--Harvey Blume, Arts Fuse--Harvey Blume "Arts Fuse "
"[An] excellent biography . . . Halkin, an award-winning writer, critic, and translator, sets Jabotinsky, who was born in 1880, in the context of his time."--Jacob Heilbrunn, Washington Monthly--Jacob Heilbrunn "Washington Monthly "
"A beautifully written short biography of an exceedingly interesting man: a novelist, translator, poet, playwright, journalist, polemicist, and probably the most remarkable public speaker in modern Jewish life. Halkin's account of him is credible and vivid."--Avishai Margalit, New York Review of Books--Avishai Margalit "New York Review of Books "
About the Author
Hillel Halkin is a writer, critic, and translator. He is the author of Across the Sabbath River and Yehuda Halevi, both of which won the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book is Melisande! What Are Dreams? He lives in Israel.
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Nevertheless he was extraordinarily clear-eyed about the future of Zionism. Jabotinsky understood:
• The real need for Jewish Legion to assist in the British invasion of Ottoman Palestine thereby establishing the first organized Jewish fighting force in nearly 2000 years.
• The local Arab population would not be passive to a surge in Jewish immigration. He leads in the formation of the Haganah out of the remnants of the Jewish Legion. The Haganah was the forerunner of today’s Israel Defense Forces.
• The Nazi nightmare would wipe out European Jewry and urged the Jewish community to pack up and leave. He supplied chartered steamers to illegally transport Jews to Palestine.
• The Israeli economy organized along the socialist lines of Labor Zionism would not be viable and urged more market oriented policies.
Halkin discusses in great detail Jabotinsky’s long time and very acrid rivalry with David Ben Gurion. They fought each other for control of the Zionist Organization in the 1930s. To put it mildly they did not like each other and Ben Gurion prevented Jabotinsky’s reburial in Israel until after he stepped down as prime minister in 1964.
A failing of the book is that Halkin expends too many words on Jabotinsky the journalist and the writer and not enough on his leading his Revisionist Zionist group and his founding of Betar, its youth group. Menachem Begin was so inspired by Jabotinsky that he joined and became a leader of Betar. Nevertheless I would recommend “Jabotinsky” for those readers who want to go beyond the standard Labor Zionist version of the founding of the State of Israel. A great companion piece would be Daniel Gordis’, “Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul.”
So, who is Jabotinsky? Why is he worth reading about, especially if you, like me, are a Gentile Christian reader?
The answer to both questions is straightforward: Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky (1880–1940) was the founder and leader of Revisionist Zionism. He is worth reading about because of his influence on the Israeli Right, including Menachem Begin, Israel’s first Likud prime minister, and Benjamin Netanyahu, its current Likud prime minister. (Netanyahu’s father, Ben-Zion, was an aide to Jabotinsky.) And his form of Zionism complicates American Christian support for Israel in interesting ways.
That last point requires explication. Christian Zionists typically believe that the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. But the Zionists whose labors brought this about were not particularly observant Jews. (Religious observant Jews in Israel today tend to lean Right, often forming political alliances with Likud.) Moreover, they vigorously disagreed—occasionally to the point of physical fights—on political and military means and ends.
The dominant form of Zionism in the early years was Socialist and largely secular, the predecessor of today’s Israeli Left. (For anticommunist American Christians, this is always something of a surprise.) They tended to think peace with the Arabs was possible and often agreed with the various partition plans (prior to 1948) of the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations. Revisionists, on the other hand, prepared for battle from the get-go and were territorial maximalists. What united Left and Right was the dream of a Jewish nation in its historic homeland. To a certain extent, they collaborated as the British Mandate in Palestine wound down after World War II and then in the War for Independence against the Arabs. But that collaboration, rare before Independence, rare after it, was tactical rather than strategic. The divisions between Left and Right were bitter in Jabotinsky’s day. They have not become sweeter since. Jabotinsky was denounced by the Zionist Left as a “fascist,” a canard that is regularly applied by the Israeli Left to the Israeli Right in the present day, applied more generally to all Israelis by anti-Semitic streams in Europe and the Arab world.
I mention these things because Christian Zionists often have an uninformed view of Israeli history. I have met many sincere Christians who think they can skip directly from biblical Israel to modern Judaism, seemingly unaware of both the evolution of the religion of Hebrew Scriptures into rabbinic Judaism and of the prevalent secularism of Zionism in its earliest forms. (They are really shocked when they discover that some ultraorthodox Jews are not even Zionists at all!) Christian support for Israel should not be informed by such errors. If you’re going to support the nation, at least understand its history correctly.
There is another reason to read this book, however—aside from the light it will shed on a crucial chapter in Zionist history. That reason is the intrinsic interestingness of Jabotinsky’s life. He was born in Odessa, Russia. Odessa was a relatively new city, filled with all sorts of ethnic and religious minorities. While many other Russian and Eastern European Jews experienced pervasive discrimination, Jabotinsky grew up in a relatively liberal environment. He wasn’t a resident of the shtetl, he was a cosmopolitan. He didn’t become a Zionist out of a reactive mechanism of self-defense. He chose to become one.
Hillel Halkin pays particular attention to the cosmopolitan side of Jabotinsky’s personality through close and regular attention to his journalism, short stories, poems, books, and plays. The Russian author Alexander Kuprin once told a Jewish audience that Jabotinsky had “a God-given talent who could have been an eagle of Russian literature had you not stolen him from us” and drawn him into Zionist political activity. Kuprin went on to say, “What a great loss to Russian literature, only a few of whose writers have been blessed with his style, his wit, his insight into our soul!” Jabotinsky was educated, well traveled, fluent in several languages, and a man of letters who settled into politics, lured by the necessities of his age.
His life should not be reduced to politics, as important as they were to him and as enduring as his political legacy may be. No one’s life should be. The personal is always more than—and more interesting than—the political, even in the life of a man who gave himself to politics for the sake of Zion.
Hillel Harkin wants to set the record straight in this biography, showing that Jabotinsky was not quite the Jewish fascist which his opponents claimed. Rather, he was a man of many dramatic and self-contradictory impulses. An ardent Zionist nationalist, he lived in Palestine on and off, but appeared to prefer the cosmopolitan life of Paris to the rustic Holy Land. He fought hard for a robust, military Zionism, one expressed in the armed wing of his movement, the Irgun, but he was against tit-for-tat revenge attaches by Jews upon Arabs and urged restraint. He was not nearly as radical as the organization he helped found.
This is an excellent book to read it you want to get at the bedrock foundation of right wing Israel politics. Jabotinsky is the political father of Bibi Netanyahu, yet, as Harkin points out, it is difficult to say if Jabotinsky, if he was alive today, would have agreed with all the policies and opinions of those on the Israel right. He was far too independent minded and worldly to take narrow or parochial views on most geopolitical. He could embrace the little picture while keeping an eye on the wider field of events. His successors appear to lack this vital trait, to their detriment.
If you have a keen interest of the giants of Israel's foundation and absolutely buy this book. You'll find it well researched and well laid out but beware, it takes effort to read.
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