Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Public Domain)

The Jabotinsky’s Children exchange, part 3: On Jabotinsky in current Israeli politics


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). Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

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Dear Dan,

In the previous round, you presented an ambivalent picture of Jabotinsky as a leader who was “increasingly willing, when it was politically expedient to do so, to embrace a leadership style that his contemporaries associated with fascism,” but who also “relished his persona as a champion of democracy and individual rights.”

In this last round, I would like to focus on where this ambivalence leaves Jabotinsky’s legacy and our understanding of the “Jabotinsky way,” which many Israeli leaders still claim allegiance to.

Where does your account leave Jabotinsky as a possible source of Ideological inspiration for where Israel is currently at? What can modern-day leaders and thinkers learn from his thought? In what way, if at all, is Jabotinsky’s thought and practice still relevant for thinking about the challenges facing Zionism today?

We’d like to thank you once again for participating in this exchange.

Shmuel

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Dear Shmuel,

Like many historians, I believe that the study of the past, with all of its complexities and contradictions, can rarely (if ever) offer neatly packaged lessons for the contemporary world. More often than not, political activists distort history in order to create lessons that justify their actions in the present and visions for the future. This includes making sweeping generalizations for which there is not adequate evidence, and ignoring or suppressing evidence and facts that challenge their preferred view of the past.

Part of what makes Jabotinsky’s ideological legacy so fascinating is that, in many respects, his afterlife in contemporary Israeli politics proves this very point. Zionists of every persuasion invoke his name to justify their views on a staggering array of issues facing Israeli society, from the role of the rabbinate in legislating the lives of Israel’s Jewish citizens and the status of women in civic life to the repercussions of economic inequality. Perhaps the most powerful testament to Jabotinsky’s persistent presence in Israeli politics comes from debates among leaders within the increasingly fractured Israeli Right. Drawing on certain statements by Jabotinsky while deliberately ignoring others, these politicians continually produce contradictory interpretations of his legacy to provide legitimacy for their competing views on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In 2005, for example, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sought to justify to Israelis the disengagement from Gaza, he turned to Jabotinsky’s prose, including a passage from a 1915 essay insisting that settlement was not “an end in and of itself.” Opponents of disengagement responded to Sharon’s speech by citing passages from Jabotinsky’s prose calling for a Jewish state that stretched from the Mediterranean sea to the western borders of today’s Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Inspired by Jabotinsky’s articles promising the equal treatment of an Arab minority within a future Jewish state, president Reuven Rivlin has argued for extending citizenship to Palestinians in the West Bank while retaining Israeli control of the area. In contrast, Avigdor Lieberman, who describes his party, Yisrael Beitenu as “a national movement with the clear vision to follow in the brave path of Ze’ev Jabotinsky,” has called for a two-state solution that would include a population transfer of Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jews living in the West Bank. He could easily turn to Jabotinsky’s musings in 1940 on the potential merits of Arab emigration from the future Jewish state.

Lieberman has also called to strip Palestinian citizens of Israel of their citizenship if they do not publicly pledge loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” Referring to Palestinian citizens of Israel at a conference in March 2015 devoted to the future of Israeli politics, Lieberman mused, “Those who are against us, there’s nothing to be done — we need to pick up an ax and cut off his head. Otherwise we won’t survive here.” A spokesman for the party quickly “clarified” Lieberman’s comments by noting that he was, in fact, “paraphrasing Jabotinsky, who said that we should be very generous to those who stand with you and cruel to those [who] physically stand against you.” Israeli journalists appalled by Lieberman’s statements assembled passages from Jabotinsky’s writing, accusing him of betraying the founder or right-wing Zionism’s commitment to protecting minority rights.

Had Jabotinsky observed Israelis at war over his legacy, he would have discovered that his political prose remains just as elusive as he had intended it to be between the two world wars. The tensions and contradictions that characterize Jabotinsky’s lessons are, perhaps, the key to his staying power.

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