Dr. Rubner is professor emeritus, James Madison College, Michigan State University
Jabotinsky: A Life, by Hillel Halkin. Yale University Press, 2014. 246 pages. $25.00, hardcover.
Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul, by Daniel Gordis. Schoken Books, 2014. 295 pages. $27.95, hardcover.
Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel, by Anita Shapira. Trans. from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris. Yale University Press, 2014. 273 pages. $25.00, hardcover.
The recent publication of these three biographies, portraying the lives of the most important Jewish political leaders of the last century, helps to remind us that the Zionist movement was rent from its very inception by deep ideological divisions and intense personal disputes. The chief rivalry pitted Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky (1880-1940), the founder of the Revisionist movement, and his disciple Menachem Begin (1913-92), the founder of the Herut party and eventual Israeli premier, against David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), the leader of Labor or Socialist Zionism, widely regarded as the founding father of modern Israel and its first prime minister.
While the leaders of the two camps agreed on the dire need for the establishment of a Jewish state with a Jewish majority in British-mandated Palestine, they advocated disparate means for achieving the goal. Cooperation between them was rare and fleeting, and the deep contempt in which Ben-Gurion held Jabotinsky (he referred to him as "Vladimir Hitler") outlasted the latter's life. Although Jabotinsky, who died in 1940 and was interred in New York City, had requested in his will to eventually be buried in the land of Israel, Ben-Gurion vetoed it. Jabotinsky was finally laid to rest on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem in 1964, after Levi Eshkol succeeded Ben-Gurion. The latter did not attend the reburial ceremony.
From the very outset of his Zionist activism in Odessa, young Jabotinsky advocated the creation of a Jewish self-defense force and mass immigration to Palestine in response to antisemitic pogroms (violent riots) that swept the Ukraine and Moldavia in the early 1900s. As a delegate to the sixth Zionist Congress in 1903, he opposed the so-called Uganda Plan, a British proposal to set up a Jewish national home in northwest Kenya as an alternative to Palestine.
As a result of his first visit to Palestine in 1908, Jabotinsky was convinced that a Jewish national home there could come into being only through the use of force, given the inevitable opposition of the Palestinian Arabs, who then constituted 90 percent of the local population. "Justice," he argued, "exists for those with the physical power and persistence to appropriate it for themselves." He also developed doubts about the viability of collective agricultural settlements that were being set up by the socialist pioneers of Labor Zionism under Ben-Gurion's leadership.
At the outset of World War I, there developed several basic disagreements between Jabotinsky and the leadership of the Labor Zionists. Unlike Ben-Gurion, who cast his lot with Turkey, Jabotinsky predicted that France and Britain would eventually defeat the Ottoman empire. He also believed that Zionism would need political support from the victorious powers in the future armed struggle against the Arabs in Palestine. He thus took issue with Ben-Gurion and his cohorts, who advocated self-reliance and creating "facts on the ground" that would materially benefit the local Arabs and thus persuade them to conclude peace with the Jews.
Consistent with his obsession with military power, Jabotinsky sought to organize a Jewish legion that would assist the British to conquer Palestine and then help maintain law and order against the inevitable violence he anticipated from Arab nationalists. As a result of his efforts, Britain approved the formation in July 1917 of a Jewish battalion of 800 soldiers, but it arrived too late to take part in the British takeover of Palestine that November.
After riots broke out in Jerusalem in April 1920, Jabotinsky became the leader of the Haganah, a Jewish self-defense force that served as the nucleus for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
As a member of the Zionist Executive headquartered in London beginning in 1921, Jabotinsky expressed vigorous opposition to the newly created General Federation of Jewish Workers in Palestine (Histadrut) that was headed by Ben-Gurion. He rejected its socialist orientation and its efforts to encourage new immigrants to become agrarian laborers.
In late 1922, Jabotinsky demanded that Britain restore Transjordan to the Palestine Mandate in order to provide sufficient space for the eventual immigration of millions of Diaspora Jews. As a territorial maximalist, he envisioned the emergence of a Palestinian state on both sides of the Jordan River in which Jews and Arabs would share power in a polity controlled by a Jewish majority. In January 1923, Jabotinsky resigned from the Zionist Executive as a protest against both the pro-Arab policies pursued by the British mandatory administration in Palestine and the reluctance of the Labor Zionist leadership to resist them.
In April 1925, Jabotinsky founded the Union of Zionist Revisionists, a dissident party that selected its own delegates to several ensuing Zionist congresses. It called for a revival of the Jewish Legion, advocated the emergence of a Jewish commonwealth in all of historic Palestine, and criticized the Labor Zionist-controlled Histadrut for channeling foreign investment capital away from small urban enterprises and into collective agricultural settlements. Rejecting socialism, the Revisionists advocated a benign form of welfare capitalism, with government provisions of free education, health care, housing and food to all needy persons.
Two years later, Jabotinsky was elected as perpetual commander of Betar, an amalgamation of European and Palestinian-based Jewish youth groups influenced by Revisionist ideology. In marked contrast to the socialist-leaning, Labor Zionist youth groups, Betar promoted paramilitary indoctrination, with an emphasis on martial arts, self-defense and parading. According to its founder, the major objective of Betar was to imbue its members with what Jabotinsky termed hadar, a majestic or dignified and graceful code of conduct. This was to be a substitute for the lack of etiquette and cultivated behavior that made Diaspora Jews and Labor Zionists in Palestine so loathsome to Jabotinsky and his adherents.
Betar became a thorn in the side of the Labor Zionist leadership in Palestine. After staging a nationalist demonstration at the Western Wall in August 1929, it was accused by Ben-Gurion of instigating a series of Arab riots throughout Palestine that included the murder of 67 Jews in Hebron. From 1931 through 1934, numerous violent clashes occurred between Betarist immigrants demanding the right to work without joining the Histadrut, and labor-union members striking against non-union enterprises.
During the eighteenth Zionist Congress in 1933, Jabotinsky clashed openly with Ben-Gurion over the future direction of the world organization. While the Revisionist leader argued that a Jewish state could be attained only through vigorous and open diplomatic campaigns, Ben-Gurion advocated a slower and more nuanced strategy in order to gain more time for the creation of more facts on the Palestinian ground. Following that Congress, Jabotinsky founded the National Labor Organization to rival the Histadrut.
In an effort to reach peace, Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion held a series of meetings arranged by a mutual friend at a London hotel in October 1934. They reached preliminary agreements to stop violence and inflammatory language, mutually recognize the two competing labor unions, and increase the immigration quotas to non-union Betarists. The accords fell through, however, in March 1935. Ben-Gurion insisted on the Revisionists' full return to the World Zionist Organization, and his Mapai (Workers' Party of the Land of Israel) rejected the proposed agreements. In retaliation, Jabotinsky founded the rival New Zionist Organization (NZO) in August 1935.
In the early 1930s, some Palestinian Betarists seceded from the Haganah and established a military unit known as Etzel, the Hebrew acronym for the National Military Organization, also known as the Irgun. When the Great Arab Revolt broke out in 1936, the Haganah pursued a defensive strategy that included self-restraint against Arab-instigated violence and maximum collaboration with the British mandatory authority. The Irgun, on the other hand, adopted a policy of retaliation and forceful response to attacks by Arabs against Jews. In late 1936, the Irgun affiliated itself with the NZO under Jabotinsky's command.
Shortly thereafter, Jabotinsky rejected the Peel Commission's proposal for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states because the British plan excluded Jewish settlement east of the Jordan River and envisioned a Jewish state in a very truncated area west of the Jordan. He argued that the relatively small area proposed for the Jewish state could not possibly accommodate the millions of immigrants that he anticipated. On the other hand, Ben-Gurion and the WZO reluctantly accepted the Peel partition proposal because, as noted by Shapira, "it was one of those historic opportunities in which the heavens open and what was impossible suddenly becomes possible."
With Jabotinsky's approval, the Irgun launched a series of reprisal attacks in autumn 1937 in retaliation for Arab assaults that maimed and killed settlers of the yishuv (the Jewish community of Palestine). A year later, he urged Irgun to conclude an agreement with the Haganah in order to forge a united front against Arab terrorists. Those efforts came to naught because Ben-Gurion insisted on the dissolution of the NZO as a precondition for a potential unity accord between the two paramilitary organizations.
In August 1939, after Britain issued yet another White Paper that would have doomed the yishuv to permanent minority status in a future independent Palestinian state, Jabotinsky planned with the Irgun an armed revolt against the British mandatory administration in Palestine. One month later, however, at the outbreak of World War II, such plans were laid aside as Jabotinsky urged the NZO to mobilize a Jewish army of 100,000 volunteers to fight against Nazism alongside British forces, hoping thereby to generate world sympathy for the Zionist cause. That plan was rejected, not only by Britain but also by Ben-Gurion, the WZO, the Haganah and the Jewish Agency.
Following Jabotinsky's untimely death in August 1940, the mantle of leadership of the Revisionist camp fell upon Menachem Begin, who had joined Betar in his native city of Brisk, Poland, at age 13. Three years later, he was promoted to commander of the local Betar and eventually headed the Organizational Department of Betar in Warsaw. While regarding Jabotinsky as his ideological mentor, Begin took issue with him in several instances. For example, whereas Jabotinsky unleashed the Irgun in violent reprisals against the Arabs while advocating diplomacy with the British, Begin insisted that the Irgun needed to fight the British mandatory administration simultaneously as well. He also denounced Jabotinsky's attempt at reconciliation with Ben-Gurion in 1934, announcing in a speech, "Unlike my teacher, I have not forgotten that Ben-Gurion called him Vladimir Hitler. Furthermore, while Jabotinsky ordered Irgun to issue warnings to civilians before undertaking attacks and to attack only in self-defense, Begin argued that preemptive actions were necessary and justified.
Despite these disagreements, Jabotinsky appointed Begin in 1939 as commander of Betar in Poland. Begin arrived in Palestine as a soldier in the Free Polish Army in 1942 and two years later assumed the leadership of Irgun. Under his command, Irgun initiated an armed struggle against the British in Palestine that lasted until their forced departure in May 1948. The reliance on military force and violence was intended to demonstrate to the world that the British presence in Palestine was superfluous, because the yishuv could defend itself against the Arabs, and ineffective, because the Mandatory authority was unable to maintain law and order. The British regarded Begin as a terrorist, forcing him to go underground from February 1944 until April 1948.
During the remaining pre-state years, relations between Ben-Gurion and Begin and between their organizations consisted of extended periods of hostility interrupted by momentary cooperation. From November 1944 to March 1945, the Labor Zionist leadership under Ben-Gurion unleashed what became known as the saison, "hunting season," against Etzel and Lehi, another extremist underground group also known as the Stern Gang. In November 1944, two Lehi members assassinated Lord Moyne, the resident British minister of state in Cairo. Believing that a Jewish state would not emerge in Palestine without British support, Ben-Gurion ordered the Haganah to hunt down and hand over to the British the Etzel and Lehi militants, who were then arrested and in many cases deported to East Africa.
However, in October 1945, after Ben-Gurion finally came around to acknowledge that a Jewish state would never arise in Palestine without the use of military force against the Mandatory power, the Haganah, Etzel and Lehi formed the United Resistance Movement and initiated sabotage attacks against British targets. After the arrest of some 2,700 yishuv leaders, Begin proposed attacking the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, then the administrative headquarters and symbol of the British mandatory authority in Palestine. According to Gordis, on July 1, 1946, the Haganah approved the bombing of the hotel and agreed that the plan should be carried out by Etzel. Shortly thereafter, however, the Haganah rescinded its approval, and Begin decided to go it alone. The dynamiting of the King David on July 22, 1946, killed 92 people, mostly British personnel but Jews and Arabs as well. The Jewish Agency denounced the sabotage, and Ben-Gurion and the Haganah denied having been involved early on in its planning.
The bombing of the hotel ended the United Resistance Movement and hastened the British decision to abandon Palestine and leave its fate in the hands of the United Nations. In late November 1947, when the General Assembly approved the partition of Palestine west of the Jordan River into two states, one with a Jewish majority and another with an Arab majority, Ben-Gurion and the Labor Zionists supported the plan, whereas Begin and the Revisionists rejected it. The Rightist opposition to partition came as no surprise to those who knew the Betar anthem, composed by Jabotinsky himself, proclaiming "the Jordan river has two banks — this one is ours, but so is that."
The friction between the two camps continued during the civil war that broke out in Palestine immediately after the passage of partition. According to Gordis, in early April 1948 the Haganah initially approved a joint Irgun-Lehi plan to take over Deir-Yassin, an Arab village on the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. After the assault went awry, however, killing 100 to 250 unarmed civilian Palestinians, mostly women, children and the elderly, Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency denied responsibility, and the Haganah denied that it had approved the operation.
Begin emerged from hiding shortly thereafter and, on May 10, 1948, announced the formation of a new Revisionist party, Herut (Freedom), the predecessor of present-day Likud. Four days later, Ben-Gurion excluded him from the roster of distinguished Zionist leaders invited to the ceremony at which he announced the establishment of the state of Israel.
The personal and ideological rivalry between Ben-Gurion and Begin deteriorated more seriously in early June 1948, after the United Nations had imposed a ceasefire during the first Arab-Israeli war that included a full arms embargo against all parties. The Irgun had bought a surplus American naval ship, renamed it Altalena (a pseudonym used by Jabotinsky), loaded it with ammunition and sailed it to Israel in violation of the embargo. Begin offered to hand over to the Haganah about three-quarters of the ammunition, leaving the rest for Irgun fighters defending besieged Jerusalem, with the expectation that the Irgun and Lehi would retain their soldiers as distinct and semi-autonomous units within the newly established IDF. None of this was acceptable to Ben-Gurion, who regarded the entire Altalena affair a dangerous challenge to legitimate state authority by separatist quasi-military dissidents. When the ship eventually anchored off the coast of Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion ordered the Haganah to open fire on it, leading to the deaths of 16 Irgunists and three IDF soldiers. In the ensuing public exchange of insults, Begin referred to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion as an "insane dictator" and "that fool, that idiot." Ben-Gurion called the Irgun "armed gangs" and "evil." At Ben-Gurion's insistence, Irgun and Lehi were dissolved as autonomous units shortly thereafter, and their members were integrated into the IDF.
The acrimony between these rivals intensified in early January 1952, when Ben-Gurion announced that his government was considering accepting reparations from West Germany for the millions slaughtered in the Holocaust. A powerful orator, Begin spoke to a crowd of thousands in a Jerusalem public square and threatened to resort to armed revolt against Ben-Gurion. An ensuing riot near the Knesset resulted in the arrest of 140 protesters and injuries to hundreds of policemen. Both Gordis and Shapira note that for Ben-Gurion, accepting money from the German government was justified by practical considerations and sheer economic necessity. For Begin, who had lost many family members in the Holocaust, accepting German reparations was a shameful and dishonorable policy that violated the Revisionists' conception of "hadar."
Note that Ben-Gurion and Begin approached the Holocaust from entirely different perspectives. When Ben-Gurion announced the capture of Adolf Eichmann in May 1960, he intended to put the former Nazi criminal on trial for two main reasons: to bring him to justice and to use the trial as a means of educating uninformed new generations of Israelis and Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants about the horrors of the past. Begin, however, repeatedly invoked images of World War II and the Holocaust for purely political purposes and as excuses for unleashing the IDF during his premiership (1977-83). For example, the destruction of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor by Israeli Air Force planes on June 7, 1981, was described by Begin as a necessary attack designed to protect Israel from a repeat of the Holocaust. Exactly one year later, Begin justified the costly war that he launched against Lebanon as a conflict for Jewish survival, equating the PLO with the Nazis and portraying Yasser Arafat as Hitler.
Ben-Gurion and Begin clashed on several other issues. Begin lamented the absence of a written constitution that would protect personal and minority rights. Ben-Gurion was determined, by contrast, to avoid eternal disputes over the proper relationship between religion and the Israeli polity and hence preferred a series of basic laws along the British model. Likewise, when Begin introduced a proposal to prohibit Israeli Arabs from using Arabic (so much for protecting minority rights!), Ben-Gurion insisted that Arabic be allowed, even inside the Knesset. In order to delegitimize the Revisionists and express his personal contempt for Begin, Ben-Gurion never referred to him by name during Knesset sessions, calling him instead "the man sitting next to MK [Member of Knesset] Bader."
Immediately after the June 1967 War, fundamental differences emerged between Ben-Gurion and Begin regarding the disposition of the territories taken over by the IDF. While the two agreed that Israel ought to annex East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, Ben-Gurion opposed the annexation of the West Bank, determined to preserve Israel as both a predominantly Jewish state and as a democratic polity. In essence, Ben-Gurion was prepared to trade the West Bank territory in return for peace.
Begin and the Revisionists, on the other hand, favored the resettlement and annexation of the West Bank, which they regarded as ancient Jewish land that was not "captured" or "occupied" but to which Jews had "returned" after centuries of absence. As prime minister, Begin was an ardent supporter of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), a religious-nationalist movement that insisted on the right of Jews to resettle in what they referred to as Judea and Samaria, their biblical and ancestral home. Not surprisingly, during Begin's tenure, the number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank doubled from 75 to approximately 150. And at Camp David in 1978, Begin agreed to return the Sinai to Egypt in order to cement Israeli control over the West Bank.
Begin resigned as prime minister in fall 1983 following the debacle of the war in Lebanon. Since then, Labor Zionism has been in almost continuous decline, while the Revisionist heirs of Jabotinsky have ascended to dominate Israeli politics. Begin was followed by Likud prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu (four terms), Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. To paraphrase what Gordis originally said about Begin, "There is no understanding of Netanyahu without understanding Jabotinsky." Netanyahu's preference for and reliance on military force, his refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians, his opposition to an independent Palestinian state, his willingness to alienate an indispensable foreign ally, his invocation of the memories of World War II and the Holocaust, and his portrayal of world Jewry as a defenseless people — all embody the basic principles of Revisionist Zionism initially articulated by Jabotinsky and Begin close to a century ago. The clearest lesson from these three biographies is that the prospects for attaining a just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace will continue to be very dim so long as Revisionist Zionism exerts a dominant influence over Israel's political leadership.