Jabotinsky: A Life

Yale University Press  2014


Young Vladimir Jabotinsky, popular journal­ist, man about town and nonpracticing Jew, was an unlikely candidate to become a leading advocate of Zionism. In this sympa­thetic and accessible biography of Jabotinsky, Hillel Halkin, an American-Israeli writer, traces the twisting course of Jabotinsky’s life, explor­ing the contradictions and consistencies that make Jabotinsky, decades after his death, a politically and intellectually interesting figure.

Born in Odessa in 1880, Jabotinsky grew up in an easygoing cosmopolitan city where people of many nationalities, religions, and occupations—respected and otherwise— mingled freely. His mother kept an observant kosher home, and Jabotinsky was fluent in Hebrew, but he seldom entered a synagogue before or after his bar mitzvah. Jabotinsky left Odessa as a teenager, working in Bern and then Rome as a journalist. An array of political movements was bursting into activity in turn-of-the-century Europe, and Jabotinsky, although largely a bystander, was introduced to Zionism, but it did not take fire in him until the Kishinev pogroms of 1903. His first response was to call for a Jewish self-defense force. Active self-defense, a call made again and again in Jabotinsky’s career, is perhaps the hallmark of his fervent Zionism, leading to deep hostility from the diplomatically inclined followers of David Ben-Gurion and inspiration for Menachem Begin and his followers.

Halkin covers Jabotinksy’s part in the complex political machinations and maneuvers in the struggle for Zionist leadership. Like that of many stateless political movements, it is the story of coalitions and compromises, and Halkin cites Jabotinsky’s differences with other Zionists, from Herzl to Weizmann to Ben-Guri­on. In some respects Jabotinsky was prescient, recognizing that the Arabs would not give up their land without an armed struggle; in some ways he was impractical, opposing proposals for separate Jewish and Arab states in the Pal­estinian mandate but offering no alternatives. In all the important ways, however, he, like the other Zionists, clung tenaciously to the goal of a Jewish homeland, which by the 1930s, had become a struggle for Jewish survival.

Ultimately Jabotinsky achieved few of his goals. He died in 1940, sick and alone in New York at not quite sixty. But from Halkin’s biog­raphy there emerges a portrait of a passionate and committed man who sacrificed profes­sional success and prosperity for the cause he believed in. Although Halkin does not devote much attention to Jabotinsky’s personal life, particularly to his wife and son, they, too, suffered long absences and frequent moves as Jabotinsky went from one place to another to advance Zionism. Halkin also rounds out the picture of Jabotinsky as an accomplished writer; among the pleasures of the book are the many excerpts from his writings, from letters to creative work in almost every literary genre. Halkin clearly admires his subject and has written a biography that argues for that point of view. Published not long after two sympathetic biographies of Menachem Begin by Israeli writers, Jabotinsky is a thoughtful and useful look at another tough-minded Jewish thinker. Index, sources and acknowl­edgments.

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