Abba Ahimeir, writer, journalist, historian and thinker, began his public life as a socialist, but subsequently moved toward the rightward extreme of Zionist ideology. In 1928, when he was 31, he published a series of eight articles in the Doar Hayom daily under the collective title "From the Notebook of a Fascist"; at that time he revered Mussolini.
Ahimeir was among the earliest opponents of the British Mandate, and in 1930 founded a radical right-wing organization called Brit Habiryonim (the Union of Zionist Rebels ). A series of protest actions against the British led several times to his arrest.
In June 1933 Ahimeir was arrested on suspicion of having incited the murder of Chaim Arlosoroff, a senior official of Mapai (a forerunner of the Labor Party ) who had devised an agreement between the Zionist movement and Nazi Germany, to make it easier for Germany's Jews to immigrate to Palestine. Ahimeir and the Biryonim opposed the agreement. Ahimeir was held in custody for a lengthy period, but in the end was not charged in connection with Arlosoroff's murder. During those years the Biryonim climbed up to the roofs of Nazi Germany's consulates in Jerusalem and Jaffa, and removed the swastika flags.
Next month will mark 50 years since Ahimeir died. In Ramat Gan there is a little museum that commemorates his legacy, more than a dozen cities have streets named after him, and his portrait also appears on an Israeli stamp. But it wasn't always like this: Before the Likud came to power in 1977, Ahimeir was not considered worthy of commemoration, on the grounds that he praised not only Mussolini, but Hitler too. For this reason it was also not easy for his offspring to bear the family name.
The elder of the two Ahimeir sons, Yaakov, will be receiving the Israel Prize this year for his journalistic work on Israel Radio and television. On the occasion of this event, he related recently that during his youth, and when embarking on his career, he was harassed because of his surname. The younger brother, Yossi, a former Likud member of Knesset, nurtures the memory of their father on a special memorial website. Among other things he grapples there with the things his father wrote about Mussolini and Hitler. That is not easy either.
In 1955, Abba Ahimeir himself had an opportunity to explain the moniker "fascist" he had given himself. In an article from that year, which appears on the website in his memory, he wrote: "In 1928 Mussolini appeared to be a great statesmen in the eyes of one, Winston Churchill is his name, and in the eyes of a German writer of Jewish origin and his name was Emil Ludwig, without citing others. And in 1929 there was only one man in Israel who predicted Mussolini's future and end. That was Ze'ev Jabotinsky ... A man may alter his opinions and especially at a young age, and one does not attribute to a person views which he espoused in the past without espousing them in the present ...
"Up until 1915 Mussolini was a socialist, and when he founded fascism nobody held him to account for his past as a leftist socialist. At age 20 I championed Tolstoy and I saw the greatest of Zionists not in Herzl but in A.D. Gordon. A year later I was close to communism. But when I learned of the horrors of the Russian Revolution, I saw for a time in fascism ... the real power, which could successfully fight Bolshevism. But when I saw that Mussolini had turned to narrow-minded nationalism ... I turned my back on the fascist moods, and at the beginning of 1929, Jabotinsky showed up in Israel and cured me absolutely of this adolescent disease."
People were indeed as enthusiastic about fascism as they were enthusiastic about communism, and later came to their senses. It is hard to be so forgiving of the things that Ahimeir wrote about Hitler. In late March 1933 - in other words, two months after Hitler's rise to power - Ahimeir came out in favor of quitting the Zionist movement, and wrote: "They frighten us with a scarecrow called 'separation.' But separation is the path taken by the national movements that are affiliated with the glorious names of Ataturk, Mussolini, Pilsudski, de Valera, Hitler."
Ahimeir and his ilk tended at that time to draw a distinction between Hitler's nationalism, which in their opinion "saved Germany," and his anti-Semitism, which they condemned, naturally. In an article published in 1955, Ahimeir denied that he cited Hitler among the names of those deserving glory.
For his part, Yossi Ahimeir tries to excuse his father's words with these: "It took Abba Ahimeir a few days, from the time Nazism came to power in January 1933, to realize, that this was not an innocent national movement, but rather a government whose top priority was annihilating the Jewish people. When he spoke of 'the glorious name' Hitler, he meant 'glorious' in the sense of outstanding - a name that was up-and-coming at the time, a national leader - without knowing at the time of writing, and without others knowing it, about [Hitler's] anti-Semitic 'interior.'"
That is a forced explanation: Anyone who was following the political developments, as Ahimeir did, by 1933 would not have needed even "a few days" to know that Hitler was not worthy of a single good word. Jabotinsky scolded Ahimeir harshly and threatened to kick him out of his movement if he did not stop praising Hitler's nationalism: "To find in Hitlerism some feature of a 'national liberation movement' is sheer ignorance," Jabotinsky said.
As for Menachem Begin, he said about Ahimeir in 1963: "Abba Ahimeir was among the mentors of the generation of revolt. But it is true, Abba Ahimeir made mistakes."