The paradoxical Jabotinsky

Ze’ev Jabotinsky was a man of paradoxes, and one of them has always been a source of some unease among certain of his followers. The founder of Revisionism had a secular view of the world, and practiced none of the rituals of Judaism. Yet the Likud, his political heir, owes its rise to power in good measure to traditional and religious Jews. 

Paradox? The historian Avi Shilon, over at Mosaic, has written an essay claiming that this isn’t such a contradiction, since the “mature” Jabotinsky had begun a personal reconciliation with the faith.

I’ve written a response to Shilon, and there I take a different stand on the question. (So did Hillel Halkin, a Jabotinsky biographer, in an earlier response.) But I then follow another paradox opened by Shilon’s essay: Jabotinsky’s view of Jewish settlement. Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion came down on opposite sides in a famous debate just over a century ago, surrounding a place called Tel Hai. Over time, Jabotinsky’s view has prevailed, but not in the way you might think. Read my full response here.

Will the real founders please stand up?

Here are three photographs, of three Israelis casting ballots in Israel’s first elections in January 1949. 

To the left is Chaim Weizmann, the elder statesman of Zionism, who helped defeat the Uganda Plan in 1903, who secured the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and who won Truman’s recognition of Israel in 1948. As he casts his ballot, he is 74 years old, and he is the first president of Israel.

In the middle is David Ben-Gurion, a pioneer who settled in Palestine in 1906, who for forty years steeled the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine against Arab violence and British royal commissions, and who declared Israel’s independence and founded the Israel Defense Forces in 1948. As he casts his ballot, he is 62 years of age, and he is the first prime minister of Israel.

To the right is Menachem Begin, who had commanded the Irgun (or Etzel) underground following his arrival in Palestine in 1942. His most notable achievements (at this point): in 1946 and 1947, he planned attacks on British troops including the bombing of the King David Hotel and the retaliatory hanging of two British sergeants. As he casts his ballot, he is 35 years old, and in this first election, the party he leads will finish in fourth place.

Who among these three men deserves to be called a “founder of Israel”? One could be generous and include all three, satisfying everyone. But would that be historically accurate? If not, where should the line be drawn? I answered that question to my own satisfaction in a debate over at Mosaic. Last week I posted the text of my argument. Now, if you prefer, you can watch me make it below.

It takes two to make history

The role of individual leaders in history is much-contested. But if leaders matter—and I think they do—then they have to matter to each other. Let’s call that factor “the other guy”—that other person, also a leader, whose opposition might block the way, or whose cooperation might open a door.

And the examples are legion. What’s Napoleon without Wellington? Franklin without Washington? Grant without Lee? Gladstone without Disraeli? Custer without Crazy Horse? Roosevelt without Churchill, Churchill without Hitler, and Hitler without Stalin? These questions fuel the fascinating genre of the dual biography. That’s when a historian takes two leaders, and intertwines their lives as a series of interactions, often culminating in a duel that changes the course of history. 

The examples in the history of Israel are also numerous—of the intertwined lives of Israeli and Arab leaders whose duels had huge consequences. David Ben-Gurion and King Abdullah (the First) of Jordan fought a war in 1948, and its political and demographic legacy is still with us. Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made peace in 1979, and it’s the pillar of Israel’s security to this day. Ariel Sharon and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat slugged it out time and again, and we still live in the ambiguous reality they created. These weren’t just three encounters. They were fateful.

In a new essay for Mosaic, I apply this dual approach to the first of these pairs: Ben-Gurion and Abdullah. There are crucial differences between the two, but you’ll discover more parallels than you might think. Go here to Mosaic, or download here.