Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Book Review on the Revisionist Zionist Movement

Zionist History / The path to secession

A rare study of the Revisionist movement in the critical years leading up to the Holocaust examines how Jabotinsky's unwavering belief that Zionism must move toward statehood indirectly contributed to his movement's growing alienation from the majority.

By Yechiam Weitz

Se'ara Mesaya'at:Hatnua Harevizionistit Bashanim 1925-1940 (A Useful Storm: The Revisionist Movement 1925-1940 ), by Rinatya Robinson. Yad Ben-Zvi Press and the Jabotinsky Institute (Hebrew ), 344 pages, NIS 99

Herut, the nationalist party founded by Menachem Begin, has, in the form of its successor, Likud, been the ruling party for more than a generation - almost as long as the previous ruling party, Mapai and its successor, the Labor Party. Nonetheless, historical research about Herut and the Revisionist movement, from which the party sprang, has proceeded at a slow pace. Very few doctoral theses have been written about it, and the fact that Rinatya Robinson's thesis is now being published as a book should be cause for celebration among researchers of the Zionist right.

"A Useful Storm" deals with the movement's earliest period - from the founding convention of the Union of Revisionist Zionists, held in Paris in April 1925, to the 1940 death, at age 59, of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the movement's founder and leader. The organization was founded as an ideological body clearly connected to the Zionism of Theodor Herzl and as a political body opposed to the official Zionist policy, which was identified with the Zionist movement's leader, Chaim Weizmann.

The opposition focused on Weizmann's positive attitude toward Britain and the large amount of aid given by the movement he headed to rural cooperative settlement in Palestine. Jabotinsky and his followers argued that urban settlement should also receive assistance. They said the pioneers living in Tel Aviv were just as important to the Zionist project as those in Kibbutz Ein Harod and Moshav Nahalal. Their organization also held that the mainstream Zionist movement's leadership was operating without a broad vision (Jabotinsky defined its narrow approach as "concern for the moment" ). The Revisionists demanded avoidance of "actions for the moment," such as settling the land, and instead urged a focus on the main issue: advancing the idea of statehood.

Despite its oppositionist positions, the Union of Revisionist Zionists saw itself as operating within the framework of Weizmann's World Zionist Organization. The resolutions of the union's founding convention "show a clear connection between the movement and the WZO," writes Robinson, who received her doctorate from the Hebrew University. It was decided that "the demands regarding the appointment of a high commissioner, supervision of Jewish immigration and the transfer of uncultivated real estate in the Land of Israel ... would be brought up for discussion by the WZO."

Over the years, the partial affinity with the WZO gradually dissipated. In 1927, for example, the Union of Revisionist Zionists agreed to pursue its political goals "in a way that will ensure the justified right of way of the Zionist Executive regarding matters of foreign relations." But only a year later, Jabotinsky proposed establishing a Revisionist political office in London to pursue an independent policy that ran counter to that of the mainstream Zionist movement. His proposal led to disputes with moderates among the Revisionists, such as Meir Grossman, who had previously been Jabotinsky's close aide. In order to prevent an internal crisis, Jabotinsky stressed that the Zionist Executive had priority when it came to diplomatic activity.

Jabotinsky's desire to quit the WZO grew during the days of the 17th Zionist Congress, which was held in the summer of 1931 in Basel. More than 20 percent of the delegates were Revisionists, three times the faction's strength in previous conventions, and they attempted to pass a sweeping resolution saying the Zionist movement's ultimate goal was to establish a Jewish state. But the Revisionists suffered a bitter defeat, winning only about one third of the votes and losing support even from allies like Menachem Ussishkin.

Jabotinsky's reaction was pointed and dramatic. He rose, tore up his delegate's card and swept out of the hall in a rage, surrounded by the other Revisionist delegates. The walkout left the congress dumbstruck and taught Menachem Begin a lifelong lesson. Begin, who represented himself as Jabotinsky's disciple throughout his political career, never did the equivalent of tearing up his delegate's card, taking care to follow the rules of the game even when he disagreed with the other players.

After events at the congress, the inclination to secede picked up momentum, and at the same time the internal dissension among the Revisionists also increased. At the movement's international council, held in March of 1933 in the Polish city of Katowice, Jabotinsky spoke about the primacy that should be granted to the Revisionists over the Zionist movement and the importance of his movement's political sovereignty. He tried to bring into the organization's directorate people who supported his path, "on the grounds that the makeup of the directorate does not reflect the opinions in the movement" (most of the members of the directorate were decidedly against breaking away from the mainstream Zionist movement ). The discussions of the council ended without a resolution and with a sense of total rift; Yohanan Bader, who participated there as a young delegate, wrote of this that "the schism was already sensed in the air."

Jabotinsky's reaction to the dead end at the council was drastic: He published a manifesto in which he declared the dissolution of the movement's institutions and his takeover of all its responsibilities. In an organizational referendum held to decide on the moves, one that was boycotted by Grossman and his people, Jabotinsky won an absolute majority (94 percent ). The radical elements in the movement, like Abba Ahimeir and his associates, "saw boldness in Jabotinsky's move, in the manner of leaders of national movements in the history of nations." Ahimeir viewed Jabotinsky's non-democratic methods as a personal achievement. Robinson writes: "He had wanted since its inception for Jabotinsky to act like a dictator, a title Jabotinsky found repugnant and by which he refused to be called."

Nonethless, Jabotinsky became a solitary leader - a fact his disciples prefer to ignore. Grossman argued bluntly that "Mr. Jabotinsky's dictatorship is really comic. This is a putsch and nothing more." Even Jabotinsky's most devoted disciples were flabbergasted by his conduct. Shmuel Katz, who was one of the heads of the Revisionist movement in South Africa at the time, wrote in a biography of Jabotinsky called "Lone Wolf" that he had been alarmed and horrified by Jabotinsky's takeover of the movement.

After the referendum, Grossman and his supporters quit the Revisionists, creating a breakaway party called the Hebrew State Party, which was the only group in the WZO that adhered to Revisionist ideology once the Jabotinsky Revisionists left, in 1933. It was Jabotinsky who had pushed Grossman's group to secede, but from his perspective that action was quite a blow. Robinson writes that the Grossman supporters had been considered "pillars" of the Revisionist movement "who had contributed much to the movement's development."

In the 1930s, when Jabotinsky was facing members of the radical younger generation who had not accepted his political way - including Avraham Stern, Menachem Begin, Israel Eldad and Shmuel Marlin - his political standing was hurt by the absence of activists with moderate leanings.

The 18th Zionist Congress, held in 1933, was the last one in which the Union of Revisionist Zionists participated. For them it was a depressing experience. They failed in the elections to the Congress and saw sadly how Mapai managed to take control of the WZO. After the congress, the Revisionist leaders took new steps, the most significant of which was the establishment of the National Workers Organization (Histadrut Ha'ovdim Haleumit ), an act that was "the first organizational move toward resignation from the WZO and its institutions."

Uniqueness of the way
In 1935 the New Zionist Organization established by the Revisionists, of which Jabotinsky was the president, held its founding congress. He spoke about how the new group differed from other Zionist groups on issues including its attitude toward Germany. Whereas the Jewish Agency had signed a "transfer agreement" with the Third Reich, to arrange the immigration of German Jews to the Land of Israel, as well as the transfer of their property, the Revisionists took the extreme and non-pragmatic stance of supporting a boycott of Germany and its economy. This impaired efforts to get Jews out of Germany, an increasingly important goal as their situation worsened with the 1935 Nuremberg Laws.

"A Useful Storm" makes the argument that the Revisionists were aware of what was happening and realized that German Jews were in increasingly dire straits. At a time when it was looking more and more like the Revisionists were going to pull out of the WZO and they were trying to expand their membership, the movement saw widespread support for the boycott - and not only among Revisionists - as a measure of its strength and appeal. Its stance on the boycott gave the movement's leaders the sense that they had extensive public backing in Palestine and elsewhere. Indeed, the book's title comes from an article Jabotinsky wrote in the early 1930s, in which he argued that the "storm" in Europe could be useful to the Zionist project.

Robinson also shows how the Revisionists used the subject of the worsening situation of European Jewry as a tool to emphasize their uniqueness as a Zionist movement, with the goal of chipping away at the official status of the Jewish Agency, which derived from the writ of the British Mandate. In another attempt to undermine the Jewish Agency while using the period leading up to the Holocaust to further their own goals, the Revisionists sought to submit petitions about the worsening situation in Europe to international organizations and states "that were involved in the fate of the Jewish people" and establish direct connections with the League of Nations and with Britain behind the Jewish Agency's back.

"A Useful Storm" is an interesting read and contains quite a number of new insights. It constitutes a significant contribution to the research on the Revisionist movement and especially to the understanding of its political path during the first period of its history.

Prof. Yechiam Weitz is a historian.
blog comments powered by Disqus