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Revisiting the Revisionists

By: Michael M. Rosen
March 19, 2018

an Jews be fascists?

In this revelatory book, Daniel Heller argues that the youth wing of the early 20th century Revisionist movement’s “militaristic ethos, vehement opposition to socialism, and authoritarian leadership cult for the founder of right-wing Zionism, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, led many of their opponents—and some of their supporters—to describe its members as ‘Jewish fascists.’”

Heller, a professor of Jewish Studies at Canada’s McGill University, examines why many Polish Jews came to emulate the policies and practices of early 20th century right-wing movements, even as they condemned the antisemitism advocated by many of these groups. He meticulously mines the archives of numerous Polish and Israeli cities for Polish, Yiddish, Russian, and Hebrew youth group meeting minutes, correspondence, newspaper articles, police records, and other official documents reflecting Jabotinsky’s movement in its interwar Polish context.

Jabotinsky, who was born in Odessa in 1880, was one of the Zionist movement’s most celebrated orators, writers, and activists. His activism started in his youth, when he joined the nascent efforts at Jewish self-determination in the Holy Land, and flitted around European Zionist congresses before sojourning in Palestine. Upon his return to Poland, he founded the Alliance of Revisionist Zionists and Betar, the Revisionist youth group that energized the movement.

Heller locates the genesis of the Jabotinsky-inspired youth movement primarily in the mid-1920’s in three Polish cities: Warsaw, Krakow, and Stanislawow, with contributions from similar groups in Riga, Latvia. Scouting units in each city helped form the background of Jabotinsky’s fledgling efforts to galvanize a broader organization.

Those efforts centered around the myth of Joseph Trumpeldor, a Palestinian Jew with whom Jabotinsky formed the Jewish Legion during World War I, who perished in 1920 while defending the Zionist settlement of Tel Hai from an Arab onslaught. Trumpeldor coined the slogan “It’s good to die for our country,” and his Hebrew name forms the basis of the acronym Betar. Heller shows how Jabotinsky capitalized on Trumpeldor’s legacy by posthumously muting the latter’s socialist tendencies and extolling his militaristic ones, as well as by elevating the importance of holidays like Hanukkah, replete with the Maccabees’ Trumpeldorian, uncompromising defense of Jewish sovereignty against foreign invaders.

The rise of Betar was also fueled by the ascendancy of Josef Pilsudski, whose Sanacja movement surged to power in Warsaw in a bloody 1926 coup. Pilsudski promised to respect Poland’s minorities and forged a friendship with the Jewish community just as Jabotinsky and his acolytes struggled to position themselves on the ideological spectrum—“constantly accepting, rejecting, and reinventing interwar Europe’s political vocabulary in ways that could appeal to young Polish Jews.”

Just a few short years later, the movement’s socialist opponents found themselves openly calling its members “Zionist fascists” and Jabotinsky the “Jewish Mussolini.” In the late 1920’s, these epithets weren’t yet the subject of universal scorn; fascism hadn’t yet attained its Nazi-stained reputation. Still, Heller shows how Jabotinsky and his closest advisers mediated—some might say vacillated—between their fiercely authoritarian and “every-man-is-a-king” democratic instincts, at one moment indulging popular elections for the Revisionist executive and at another threatening to dissolve the executive entirely.

The movement, especially its youth, also had to mediate between their Jewishness and their Polishness, inflected as it was with Sanacjan militarism. Heller explores how some Polish Jewish Zionists thought that Zionism was as much a push to gain the respect of non-Jewish neighbors as it was about creating a Jewish state. Betar members in public schools and scouting groups labored to reconcile these identities. (Heller relates the fascinating anecdote that Menachem Begin, Jabotinsky’s ideological heir, arrived for the first time in Palestine clad in Polish fatigues.)

Jabotinsky also struggled to control his youth ranks, especially as Revisionists began to clash with Labor Zionists in Palestine and as the Polish Sanacja government gave way to a harder-edged nationalist regime that proved less congenial to even the most loyal Jewish groups. In this milieu, the specter of violence by and against Jabotinsky’s movement came into focus.

While Heller’s brilliantly-researched book is now the definitive treatment of Betar in Poland, he errs in assigning it fascism’s malignancy. The fascist movement as practiced by the Italians and absorbed by some Revisionists was always more style than substance, more pose than politics, more attitude than approach, more idiosyncrasy than ideology. Fascism’s cult of personality, militarization of society, nationalist mythologizing, and loyalty to the people and its charismatic leader are not merely, or necessarily, features of rightist politics; lefty strongmen from Stalin to Castro to the Kims favored the same conceits.

In Israel, too, the center-left and far left have traditionally embraced similar motifs in mustering support for their movements. Labor Zionism, for instance, against which Jabotinsky pitted his followers, established the Haganah—by far the most formidable fighting force in Mandatory Palestine—and insisted for decades on the subjugation of individual freedoms to the collective. Heller acknowledges that leftist Zionist forces, too, resorted to collective punishment of Palestinian Arabs amidst an unrelenting terror campaign.

Thus, the fascism Heller identifies in Revisionism as right-wing in fact transcends ideology and unfairly tarnishes the Zionist right.

Heller concludes, however, by accurately examining how Jabotinsky’s contemporary heirs on the fractured Israeli right invoke his name in support of a wide range of policies. It seems the Revisionist mastermind’s studied ambiguity, far more than any supposedly fascist tendencies, continues to resonate today among Jabotinsky’s great-grandchildren.