Daniel Kupfert Heller is assistant professor of Jewish studies at McGill University. Dr. Heller received his PhD from Stanford University and his undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto.
This exchange focuses on Dr. Heller’s new Book, Jabotinsky’s Children: Polish Jews and the Rise of Right-Wing Zionism (Princeton University Press, 2017). Part 1 can be found right here.
The second chapter of your book examines one of the most controversial aspects of Jabotinsky and the movement he started: their curious, complicated relation to Fascism. I’d like to quote a particularly interesting excerpt:
Prior to Jabotinsky’s split with the Zionist Organization, he told Weizmann during a trip to Italy in 1922 that Zionists would be able to find a “common language” with several Italian Fascist leaders. Perhaps bearing in mind his comments to Weizmann, he wrote to Mussolini that very same day and explained Zionist behavior in the following way: “If you want to understand our level of vitality, please study your own fascists and add only some tragedy, some tenacity—perhaps more experience.”
Even if Jabotinsky’s comments were designed to impress Mussolini, rather than accurately describe the Zionist movement, many of his acolytes took seriously the claim that fascism and Zionism had much in common…
Throughout the book you describe Betar members learning from, discussing, admiring, but also sometimes criticising, fascism. The picture you paint is a multi-layered one that could surely move different readers in different ways.
My question: What do you think modern-day Zionists, both on the right and on left, can learn from your complicated narrative of Jabotinsky and Betar’s “flirtations” with fascism?
For some of my readers, the notion that a Jewish political movement in interwar Poland could embrace, let alone admire, the beliefs and behaviors associated with fascism might seem outrageous. Antisemitism, after all, was a critical, if not central, component of most fascist movements throughout interwar Europe. When we hear the term “fascism,” the first images that often come to people’s minds are those of Hitler and the Third Reich.
I hope that my book will allow readers, no matter their political orientation, to see Jabotinsky and Betar’s flirtations with fascism within their historical context.
The history of fascism does not begin with the rise of the Nazi state in 1933. In the mid-1920s, when the Betar movement was founded, Europeans were turning to Fascist Italy, not Germany, as the model for what a country could look like if right-wing politics reigned in full force. At the time, antisemitism was not a critical component of the Italian fascist worldview. When Mussolini seized the reins of power, several Jews could be counted among his innermost circle. Fascist Italy also had many admirers worldwide. On more than one occasion, government officials in Britain, France and the United States turned to Fascist Italy for inspiration to restore order, reinvigorate their economies, prevent the spread of communism and create a mobilized community of loyal followers.
Fascist Italy appeared all the more successful to onlookers when they compared the country to the new parliamentary democracies of Eastern Europe. Established following the First World War, these new democracies were plagued by political corruption, factionalism, legislative gridlock and violence. Poland was one such country. In the first eight years of Poland’s existence, fifteen governments collapsed, wreaking havoc on the country’s already miserable economy. Many Polish Jews viewed Poland’s democratic political process as a breeding ground for antisemitism. In the lead-up to parliamentary elections, Polish Jews could expect a surge in antisemitic propaganda from Polish nationalist parties. When an opponent of right-wing Polish nationalists, Gabriel Narutowicz, was chosen as Poland’s first democratically elected president in 1922, his opponents branded him a “Jewish president.” Within hours of his victory, bloody antisemitic riots shook Warsaw. He was assassinated less than a week later.
Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that some Polish Jews could admire Fascist Italy’s calls for order, unity and stability, or that or that some Zionists in Poland viewed authoritarian politics as a potential political vehicle for bringing about their aspirations.
We also have to understand the nature of Fascist ideology between the two world wars in order to make sense of Betar’s flirtations with fascism. As much as Italian fascists issued sweeping political declarations, they saw little need to present an ideologically seamless world to their followers. They were constantly redefining their aims and practices. As a result, Betar leaders who described themselves as fascists often disagreed about what the term “fascism” meant in the first place. Throughout the interwar period, when Betar leaders wrestled with whether or not Fascism offered a compelling ideological and behavioral code, they continually debated its very definition.
Keeping in mind the historical context of interwar Europe as well as the elusive nature of fascist ideology, I set out in my book to assess the extent to which Betar adopted components of Fascism’s ideological repertoire. Drawing upon the youth movement’s curriculum guidelines, newspapers, and meeting minutes, I found that the Betar’s relationship to Fascism was as dynamic as it was complex.
On the one hand, most of the youth movement’s leaders in Poland made clear Betar’s unapologetic, unflinching support for several crucial features of Fascist Italy’s ideological repertoire. When Betar members proposed models of economic relations for the future Jewish state, they were likely to turn to Fascist Italy’s corporatist policies. The movement’s leaders and members insisted that only a society mobilized along military lines could bring about nationalist goals. In the context of Betar, this meant subordinating oneself to the needs of the Jewish nation and obeying one’s commander. Like others on Europe’s radical right, Betar made clear the necessity of waging war on socialists, communists and any other enemies of their project to create a nation-state. Some of them envisioned violence as a cleansing, cathartic experience, and insisted that it was a national imperative to murder anyone who sought to kill Zionists.
At the same time, however, Betar leaders and members in Poland rarely, if ever, celebrated institutions of the fascist state designed to suppress political dissent, whether through censorship, a secret police or a militia. Although some Betar members and leaders continued to draw links between their youth movement and fascism after Hitler’s rise to power, many if not most of the youth movement’s members from 1933 onwards shied away from directly invoking Fascism as an ideology to emulate.
Jabotinsky’s attitudes towards fascism were no less complicated. As much as he cherished his role as Betar’s commander, he also relished his persona as a champion of democracy and individual rights. He criticized fascist movements that infringed on basic freedoms of association and sought to dictate the attitudes and behaviors of its citizens. He occasionally insisted to his followers that he was repelled by Fascist Italy’s cult of leadership for Mussolini. In 1933, in no uncertain terms, he condemned several Betar leaders who expressed admiration for Hitler’s leadership style and elements of Nazi movement’s nationalist program.
That said, Jabotinsky also conceded, as he did to one admirer in 1930, that fascism had “many good ideas,” and willingly borrowed from fascism’s ideological repertoire. In the previous year, for example, he thanked a right-wing Zionist living in Italy for teaching him the value of describing Jews as a race in order to mobilize support. Throughout my book, I trace how Jabotinsky was increasingly willing, when it was politically expedient to do so, to embrace a leadership style that his contemporaries associated with fascism, even if it was at the expense of his self-image as a democrat.