Heller, Daniel Kupfert. “Jabotinsky’s Children: Polish Jews and the Rise of Right-Wing Zionism”, Princeton University Press, 2018.
The Shaping of Ideology
Note: Some of you might want to have a look at the definition of Revisionist Zionism before reading this review.
Having been a product of a Zionist youth movement, albeit not quite as radical as what was in Poland, I am quite aware of the power of the youth in shaping ideology. In Poland, between the two World Wars, both Jewish adults and youth were instrumental; in shaping the ideology of right-wing Zionism. By the end of the 30s, there were some 50,000 young Polish Jews who were members of Betar, the youth movement that grew out of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s revisionist Zionist ideology. Poland was home to Jabotinsky’s largest following as well as the place where right-wing Zionism developed. Writer David Heller through extensive archival material has found how the young people in Betar were instrumental in shaping right-wing Zionist attitudes about the roles that authoritarianism and military force could play in the quest to build and maintain a Jewish state.
I believe it is important to stress the importance of “to build and maintain a Jewish state.” This is what all Zionist youth groups shared and they differed on just how to do this, It was certainly not easy to be young and Jewish on the eve of the Holocaust and we see here through letters, diaries, and autobiographies, the turbulent lives that these young people lived. Jabotinsky has been called many names firebrand fascist to steadfast democrat, yet he deliberately delivered multiple and contradictory messages to his young followers, leaving it to them to interpret him as they saw fit. Betar had a surprising relationship with interwar Poland’s authoritarian government and in this book we popular misconceptions about Polish-Jewish relations between the two world wars overturned and we become very aware of the fervent efforts of Poland’s Jewish youth to determine, on their own terms, who they were, where they belonged, and what their future held in store. It is important to remember that we are dealing with young minds here but these young minds had every intention of staying alive and witnessing the birth of the Jewish nation.
This is a chapter in the history of Zionism that has been ignored and often we forget about the importance of our young people. Granted a lot of the Zionist education came from the home, the right-wing Zionist ideology came from the youth themselves. Much of what they developed still has a certain allure today.
Heller reclaims little-known events in Poland before the Holocaust and uses these to produce a highly original work that is a tremendous contribution to our understanding of the origins of the Zionist Right. What he has found are the stories of ordinary Betar members through their letters and diaries and autobiographies and uses these in an attempt to understand the distinctively Polish roots of right‐wing Zionism and how it developed between the two world wars in Poland under the leadership of its founder, Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
We read how Jewish youth in Poland actually understood their political and social options, and how they made sense of a world that was changing its course right in front of them. We forget that right-wing fundamentalism was on the rise throughout Europe and America as well. In effect, this book becomes the first social history of right-wing Zionism. The Revisionism that Heller shows us moves Jabotinsky from the center and we see that interwar Poland and Palestine were in constant negotiation between the leader and his base, and between youth and their elders. Heller analyzes the conditions under which Zionists come to embrace the authoritarian Right and this becomes very relevant to both contemporary life and history.
I was totally mesmerized by what I read and, in fact, I read the entire book in one sitting having been inspired by a group that I had been with earlier that day. I have always considered myself to be a knowledgeable Zionist but I suddenly realized how much I do not know and how much I have misunderstood.
Many thought that Jews were seeking a better world through Communism and were aware of the violence and repression that had accompanied the early years of Soviet rule. There were socialist Zionists who loved “the romance of the Communist revolution, with its promise to promote social justice, abolish unearned privilege, and fight anti-Semitism.”
Jews and Communism went beyond membership in the Communist Party itself. We learn that the apolitical Hashomer Hatzair movement redid itself in the cities of Warsaw, Bialystok, and Lodz and became quite radical. The youth movement’s leadership in central Poland, and soon after in Galicia, were drawing battle lines at their conferences between those who endorsed communism and called for class warfare and revolutionary struggle, and those who did not. This was already in 1925 and those who defended the youth movement’s original commitment to transcend party politics were outflanked by leaders who adopted a pro-Soviet position.
Jabotinsky reached out to the National Democrats, and expressed no concern when they praised him and referred to him as a “Jewish fascist.” There was an apparent symbiotic relationship between Betar and the Polish government. Some saw it as an expression of mutual affection but in reality it was a complex and sometimes-contradictory give-and-take between the Poles and Betar members had no intention of becoming “Poles” and they were above all else Zionists.
Toward the of the 1930’s, Jabotinsky met with the post-Pilsudski Polish officials to put into action his “Evacuation Plan”, which called for the emigration of 1.5 million eastern European Jews to Palestine in the next 10 years. He learned that Polish anti-Semitism was the byproduct of economic rivalry between Poles and Jews in a poor and overcrowded Poland. overcrowded poverty-stricken nation.
Many young Jews were politically promiscuous, frequently changing party affiliations and Poles thought of them as having ephemeral loyalties. By July 1944, Revisionists were meeting with Soviet officials in order to solicit Soviet support for the State of Israel. (p. 246).
When we speak of fascism we begin to understand that there is really no straightforward or objective definition of a fascist. It was said that the Revisionists are Jewish fascists and many Betar members agreed, but many did not. Some Betar leaders suggested that the Revisionist movement had a great deal to learn from Germany’s Nazi Party. Jabotinsky always maintained his belief in democracy, although he was known to say that “fascism has many good ideas”.
Heller maintains, in opposition to others that thought differently that Jabotinsky did not anticipate the Holocaust. Jabotinsky said that Jews needed to leave Europe because of the economic boycott of Jews and not because of the Nazi reign of terror.
I was a bit disappointed that Heller did not cover Jabotinsky’s views with those of fellow-Revisionist Jacob Gens, the eventual Judenrat leader of the Vilna Ghetto under the Nazi German occupation. Jacob Genes had that Jews, while seeking their own homeland, should be unswervingly loyal to the nations in which they live. They should not be separatists demanding special rights or deny patriotic bonds.
A definition of Revisionist Zionism:
Revisionist Zionism (Union of Zionists-Revisionists; abbr. Hebrew name, Ha-Ẓohar; later New Zionist Organization) was the movement of maximalist political Zionists founded and led by Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky in Poland. In the later 1920s and in the 1930s, the Revisionists became the principal Zionist opposition party to Chaim Weizmann’s leadership and to the methods and policy of the World Zionist Organization and the elected Jewish leadership in the Land of Israel. The initial nucleus of the Revisionist movement consisted of a group of Russian Zionists who had supported Jabotinsky during World War I in his campaign for the creation of a Jewish Legion.
the main instrument of economic activity, and to conduct a “political offensive” which would induce the British government to adapt its policy in Palestine to the original intention and spirit of the Declaration. The Revisionists based their ideology on Theodor Herzl’s concept of Zionism as essentially a political movement, defined by Jabotinsky as follows: “Ninety per cent of Zionism may consist of tangible settlement work, and only ten per cent of politics; but those ten percent are the precondition of success.” The basic assumption was that as long as the mandatory regime in Palestine was essentially anti-Zionist, no piecemeal economic achievements could lead to the realization of Zionism, i.e., the establishment of a Jewish state with a Jewish majority in the entire territory of Palestine, “on both sides of the Jordan.”
At its inception, the Revisionist program centered on the following demands: to reestablish the Jewish Legion as an integral part of the British garrison in Palestine, to develop the Jewish Colonial Trust as the main instrument of economic activity, and to conduct a “political offensive” which would induce the British government to adapt its policy in Palestine to the original intention and spirit of the Balfour Declaration.