Jabotin­sky: A Life

Hil­lel Halkin
  • Review
By – September 29, 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.

Relat­ed content:

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions