In and Out of the Political 'Box'

Jabotinsky sometimes acted like a spoiled child, and Ben-Gurion stepped on bodies on his way up. An illuminating analysis of two formative Israeli and Zionist leaders.

Yechiam Weitz
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Yechiam Weitz

"Itzuv hayisraeliyut" ("The Shaping of the Israeli Ethos") by Zeev Tzahor, Sifriyat Sapir, Am Oved, 197 pages, NIS 79

In his new book, historian Zeev Tzahor, president of Sapir Academic College in Sderot, explores the subject of leadership through an analysis of two formative leaders of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel with whom he has both a professional and a personal connection. The first is Zeev Jabotinsky, to whom he is linked by name: Tzahor's father, Shmuel Weiss, a member of the Betar movement and the Etzel pre-state underground militia, named his son after the founder of the Revisionist movement, who died in 1940.

Tzahor focuses on two issues that are critical for understanding Jabotinsky's conduct as a leader - issues that interest me personally and, ultimately, all Zionist researchers. The first is the fact that Jabotinsky was an extraordinarily gifted man. Describing his intellectual abilities, Tzahor metes out the highest praise, calling him a "dazzling intellectual, an exceptional writer and a brilliant statesman ... A charming man fluent in many languages, sensitive to cultural nuances, and profoundly knowledgeable in a broad array of subjects." In the gallery of Zionist leaders, there was perhaps one other figure as gifted as he, albeit different in every other way: Moshe Sharett.

The second point is that despite this profusion of talents, Jabotinsky never became the leader of the Zionist movement. To understand why, Tzahor looks at two motivating factors in his life. One was his "total dedication to the movement, to the point of self-abnegation." Jabotinsky invested tremendous energy in political life. An example was the tireless campaign he waged in Poland in 1933 on behalf of the 18th Zionist Congress. He spent days and nights trying to persuade voters to support his movement. The other factor was the total reverse: "There were times in his life when he withdrew from all activity for long periods of time."

Jabotinsky's admirers regarded this as a marginal phenomenon, a kind of time-out, but it testifies to a personality trait that played a critical role in his life and career: his impatience with the political world, which sometimes turned to disgust. Tzahor realizes that fans of Jabotinsky will hotly dispute his claim that this aspect of Jabotinsky's personality was extremely dominant and had a profound impact on his leadership. Yet he says it could explain why, at critical junctures, when the opposition stood a good chance of grabbing the reins, Jabotinsky suddenly lost interest and consciously ceded the opportunity to promote his movement and his ideology.

The best example is his behavior during the crisis at the 17th Zionist Congress, in 1931. The story was a dramatic one: The president of the Zionist Organization, Chaim Weizmann, was forced to resign, which gave Jabotinsky and his movement a reasonable chance to become "a leading force in the new Zionist Executive." The Revisionist movement, which had been around for only six years (it was founded in 1925), arrived at the Congress as a major political force that might have been a key component of the new coalition, together with Hamizrahi and Faction B of the General Zionists (a group with Revisionist leanings).

Tzahor estimates that while Jabotinsky was not very likely to replace Weizmann as president of the Zionist Organization, he certainly had a good chance of becoming a dominant player in a future coalition. But instead of doing everything possible to take advantage of this rare opportunity, he contemptuously, even arrogantly, turned it down. He rejected the ideas for compromise and the basic principles that were a prerequisite for joining the coalition, and called the delegates of the Zionist Congress "500 heads of voting cattle."

The drama reached a peak when the Congress disagreed with his declaration that the "ultimate goal" of the Zionist Organization was "establishing a Jewish state in Eretz Israel." He climbed on his chair, ripped up his membership card and flung the pieces at the delegates. "This is no Zionist Congress," he declared, storming out of the hall in protest. Some of his colleagues reached the sad conclusion that he was not interested in becoming the head of a major national movement and "preferred the job of whistleblower." Tzahor concurs. He maintains that Jabotinsky's "all-or-nothing" stance, which was more emotional than political, reasserted itself at other junctures in his life, such as his "angry resignation from the World Zionist Executive in 1922, after the publication of the White Paper." Jabotinsky and his movement paid a heavy price for this, because in the context of political life, "all or nothing" culminates in nothing.

'One-job man'

The second leader Tzahor writes about is David Ben-Gurion, with whom he also had a personal connection: Tzahor was his personal secretary in the last days of his life. Tzahor's Ben-Gurion differs from Jabotinsky in two respects. First of all, he was not a "rising star" in the Zionist and pre-state firmament. His orbit was "slow and full of obstacles." He reached the status of a great leader when he was past 60, whereas Jabotinsky was already in the next world by that age. On his way to the top of the political pyramid, Ben-Gurion trampled on quite a few political bodies, among them that of Chaim Weizmann, whose ouster at the 22nd Zionist Congress (December 1946) was a key factor in Ben-Gurion's ascent.

Here, it is interesting to compare the two: When Weizmann was forced out the first time, Jabotinsky bent over backward to avoid taking his place. When Ben-Gurion pushed Weizmann out the second time, stepping into Weizmann's shoes was just what he wanted. Jabotinsky was like a spoiled child, who lost opportunities by putting on tantrums, while Ben-Gurion plodded along seizing every opportunity that came his way.

The other difference was that Ben-Gurion saw himself as a "one-job man." This could mean two things: (a) that he was fixated on one idea - redemption - and everything he did, all his thoughts and plans, revolved around that idea; and (b) that he was a politician in every bone of his body and remained so throughout his lifetime. In public life, he held responsible positions - chairman of the Jewish Agency, the first prime minister of Israel - and all his activities were inside the political framework, unlike Jabotinsky, who spent his life "breaking out of the box."

A good example was Ben-Gurion's attitude toward "vacations." He allowed himself to take some time off only when he was pushing 70, after many long years of heavy responsibility and tremendous tension. It was only a short break - about a year - and even then, he was up to his neck in politics. Jabotinsky's vacations were very long. They were a way of breaking out of the framework, of moving away from what he was doing.

Consider the role of resignations in their lives. Ben-Gurion resigned dozens of times, even at the height of the War of Independence, as part of a show of strength in his battles with colleagues and rivals. Jabotinsky, by contrast, slammed the door in order to "be alone with himself," until his next walkout.

Another example is their approach to culture. Ben-Gurion did not write plays or translate poetry like Jabotinsky, and his attitude toward culture was instrumental in a sense: Culture was yet another tool for carrying out the "sacred mission" of redeeming the country and society. For Jabotinsky, culture was equal in value to politics, as well as an alternative to it and a refuge from it.

Exploring these issues leads to a surprising conclusion: In some respects Ben-Gurion was closer to Jabotinsky's heir, Menachem Begin, than to Jabotinsky himself. Like Ben-Gurion, Begin used resignation from the party leadership as a political weapon to vanquish his foes, as in his bitter battle with Shmuel Tamir in 1966. Again like Begin, Ben-Gurion's world was all politics. They had the same special knack for getting into power.

The fact that Jabotinsky had a world beyond politics seems to have been the source of both his strength and his weakness. As a political figure, he was weak. He was incapable of devoting himself heart and soul to climbing to the summit. Berl Katznelson, who saw him in London in 1939, grimly described him as an "immigrant" and a "dangling man."

Prof. Yechiam Weitz is a historian and author, whose most recent book is "The First Step to Power: The Herut Movement, 1949-1955," published by Yad Ben Zvi.

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