On Political Books

September/October 2014 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 Jacob Heilbrunn


Jabotinsky, by Hillel Halkin, Yale University, 256 pp.


The Rise of Abraham Cahan, by Seth Lipsky, Schocken, 240 pp.

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 protégé—historian Benzion Netanyahu. When Benjamin Netanyahu states that it’s premature to have real negotiations with the Palestinians, as he always does, he’s channeling his inner Jabotinsky. The reasoning is circular: the only way to reach an agreement, after all, is to not reach one.

In his recent, excellent biography, Jabotinsky, Hillel Halkin is careful not to freight his study with too much contemporary significance, though he does allude to the present in the form of an imaginary conversation with his subject about the prospects for peace in Israel. Halkin, an award-winning writer, critic, and translator, sets Jabotinsky, who was born in 1880, in the context of his time. Implicit in his book is the contention that Jabotinsky was not a crude fascist but a rather complicated character who was himself sometimes assailed by doubts about his enterprise and whose true talents rested in the literary sphere. (V. D. Nabokov, the father of Vladimir, said Jabotinsky was the finest orator in all Russia.)

Something similar might be said about Cahan. The twentieth century, with its ideological feuds and bloodletting, pushed both men away from literature and toward politics. As Seth Lipsky shows in his erudite The Rise of Abraham Cahan, this indefatigable newspaper editor felt a virtual compulsion to weigh in on the tumultuous years, from the Bolshevik revolution to the rise of Nazism, that were shaking the world. He denounced the 1938 Munich Agreement as a “shameful document” and said that Hitler was a “fascist devil” who had “made a fool of his terrified opponents, of the democratic countries, and of the whole civilized world.” But Cahan’s loathing of Nazism did not prompt him to suppress Stalin’s failings, as some on the left did. On the contrary, he played a key role in forging an anti-communist consensus among New York unions, politicians, and intellectuals. To an extraordinary extent, the most fervent anti-Bolsheviks were former Jewish radicals from the Soviet Union who had watched as their socialist ideals were hijacked by a ruthless and violent revolutionary movement that perverted them. In the 1920s, the Forward was one of the first newspapers in the U.S. to report about the Siberian prison camps. In 1923 the Daily Worker, mouthpiece of the American Communist Party, described Cahan’s remarks as a “compilation of the most loathsome back stairs gossip against Soviet Russia, emanating from the journalistic house of prostitution of the entire capitalist world.”

Despite his prescient opposition to totalitarianism, Cahan recoiled at the idea of a Jewish state before World War II. After Jabotinsky spoke at the Manhattan Opera House in March 1940 to demand “an exodus from Europe and the settlement of six million Jews on both sides of the Jordan,” Cahan attacked him. “How to take care of five million or six million homeless Jews and provide them with homes is a question that is loaded with incredible difficulties and problems,” he wrote. What Cahan did not foresee was just how radical the Nazi movement would become in wartime, as they embarked on a campaign to exterminate world Jewry. Jabotinsky, it would seem, had the clearer view.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.

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