Bitter Foes with Much in Common: A Revised View of Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky

By Shoval, Zalman | Midstream, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Bitter Foes with Much in Common: A Revised View of Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky


Shoval, Zalman, Midstream


An analysis of the positions of David Ben-Gurion and Ze'ev Jabotinsky on a long list of political, defense, social, and cultural issues leads to surprising conclusions. Even though Jabotinsky died eight years before the establishment of Israel, he had a huge influence on the first prime minister's doctrine of "mamlachtiyyut."

Who are you, Ze'ev Jabotinksy? At first glance the question seems superfluous, given the fame of the founder of Revisionist Zionism. As the ideological father of Israel's ruling party, the Likud, and the mentor of that party's long-time leader, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Jabotinsky and his doctrines have been part of the Zionist and Israeli discourse nearly since the beginning of the twentieth century. But do even supporters of the Likud really understand his teachings today? The same could be asked in the offices of the Labor party, where the walls are festooned with photographs of David Ben-Gurion. Do Labor supporters today know that Ben-Gurion, in his final years, got fed up with the Labor party and left it, never to return? This brief article offers a comparison of Jabotinsky's and Ben-Gurion's positions on a number of issues, both in historical context and in light of the challenges Israel faces today.

Objectively and historically, Ben-Gurion is indisputably the more dominant and important figure. One reason is that circumstances kept Jabotinsky away from Palestine for a very long time. Another is that, tragically, he died when he was only 59 and did not live to see, and become a leader of, the state of Israel. During the decisive years of state formation, Ben-Gurion was the political leader of the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community under the British Mandate in Palestine. He enjoyed the support of most members of the public and guided the political and diplomatic efforts to establish a Jewish state. Ben-Gurion went on to head Israel's government during its early, formative years.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that Jabotinsky and the movement he founded made seminal contributions to the Yishuv's struggle to achieve independence from its British colonial rulers. In fact, the greater part of his positions and doctrines were, and continue to be, highly influential in shaping the Israeli state and its democratic system.

The two men came from very different backgrounds. Odessa, where Jabotinsky was born in 1880, was probably the most cosmopolitan city in Russia. Ben-Gurion, in contrast, was born in Plonsk, a town of a bit more than 12,000 inhabitants, some 64 percent of whom were Jews. Jabotinsky attended a Russian high school and went on to study law at liberal Western universities in Bern and Rome. As a boy, Ben-Gurion attended a traditional Jewish heder, and when he decided to study law--after his aliyah (immigration) to the Land of Israel--he did so in the confines of the Ottoman Empire, in Saloniki and Istanbul. Jabotinsky's family was not particularly religious. He took up Zionist activism only after the Kishinev pogroms of 1903. Ben-Gurion, six years younger, received a Jewish and Zionist education in his father's house and was determined from a very young age to make his life in the Jews' ancestral land. Jabotinsky was a man of the world, an intellectual, both in the Russian and Western European senses. Had he not become a Zionist leader, he would still occupy a position of honor in Russian literature, thanks to his prolific output of fiction, essays, journalism, and translations. Ben-Gurion, more provincial and lacking Jabotinsky's facility with Europe's major languages, was to a large extent self-taught. He gained broad horizons mostly by reading extensively throughout his life. Both men were zealous advocates of the Hebrew language. Readers of their Hebrew writings, and the audiences that heard their speeches, were awed by both men's linguistic and stylistic richness, which they first displayed at a young age.

As a Zionist, Jabotinsky viewed himself as Theodor Herzl's heir. …

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