A Tale of Two Zionists: The Terms of the Contemporary Divide over Israel's Identity Were Laid out Nearly a Century Ago by Two Fiery Journalists, Vladimir Jabotinsky and Abraham Cahan

By Heilbrunn, Jacob | The Washington Monthly, September-October 2014 | Go to article overview

A Tale of Two Zionists: The Terms of the Contemporary Divide over Israel's Identity Were Laid out Nearly a Century Ago by Two Fiery Journalists, Vladimir Jabotinsky and Abraham Cahan


Heilbrunn, Jacob, The Washington Monthly


Jabotinsky

By Hillel Halkin

Yale University Press, 256, pp

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Rise of Abraham Cahan

by Seth Lipsky

Schocken, 240 pp

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In 1923 a brilliant Russian Jewish journalist, poet, and soldier published an essay about the Zionist enterprise called "The Iron Wall." In it he outlined his view of relations between Arabs and Jews living in Palestine. He poured scorn on the notion that there could be anything like a "voluntary agreement" between the two. "Not now, nor in the prospective future," he wrote. It was childish to think that the Arabs could be brought around to the notion that the Jews did not represent a threat to them. They did. And the Arabs knew it. Cold, hard realism was the way to deal with them. The only road to reaching an accommodation, he said, was to create an iron wall, "which is to say a strong power in Palestine that is not amenable to any Arab pressure. In other words, the only way to reach an agreement in the future is to abandon all idea of seeking an agreement at present."

Two years later, yet another talented Russian Jewish journalist and novelist arrived at rather different conclusions. After visiting the Middle East, he wrote an article titled "Flowering of Palestine Depends on the Welfare of the Arabs." He went on to denounce Jewish "extremist chauvinists," even temporizing when it came to the idea of an explicitly Jewish state. His essay helped to ignite an impassioned debate among American Jews about the meaning of Jewish identity and Zionism in the twentieth century that continues until today.

The first writer was Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of the right-wing Zionist Betar movement and a lawyer, journalist, and orator extraordinaire who was fluent in seven languages. The second, and less well known, author was Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, a fiery socialist and anti-communist daily that was avidly read by much of New York's immigrant Jewish community. Squint a little bit and you can pretty clearly see the origins of the contemporary divide over Israel's identity in the disputes that took place eight decades ago between Jabotinsky's followers: to confront the Arabs with overwhelming force on one side, or try to engage with them, on the other.

At the time, Jabotinsky looked to be distinctly on the losing side of this debate. The founders of Israel were not right-wing Zionist Revisionists like Jabotinsky. They were decidedly men of the left and viewed Jabotinsky with disdain, suspicious of his militaristic views, in which they saw a distinct fascistic bent. (Ben-Gurion even referred to him as "Vladimir Hitler.") Chaim Weizmann, who was to become the first president of Israel, wasn't even all that intent on having a separate state for the Jews. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was a socialist and, like Weizmann, didn't believe that it was prudent to antagonize the British, who had just driven the Ottoman Turks out of Palestine, with demands for a Jewish state. There was also a peculiar cultural antagonism between these leaders: Jabotinsky, who spent his childhood in polyglot and cosmopolitan Odessa, in relative freedom, was somewhat contemptuous of the so-called "shtetl Jews" who lived proscribed lives, filled with fear of the authorities. Ben- Gurion, who grew up in just such a shtetl in Poland, regarded Jabotinsky as a somewhat inauthentic Jew. In a remarkable display of uncharacteristic pettiness, Ben-Gurion even refused permission for Jabotinsky's remains to be transferred to Israel after the latter's death in 1940.

But fast-forward to today, and matters look rather different. It is Jabotinsky who seems to be scoring a posthumous victory over his detractors. For now it is the left that is in distinct retreat politically. The peace process is in tatters. And Israel's prime minister is the son of a man who was a Jabotinsky protege--historian Benzion Netanyahu. …

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