Jabotinsky's Embarrassing Offer

A little-known 1921agreement between anti-Semitic ruler Symon Petliura and Ze'ev Jabotinsky is a complicated and embarrassing episode that teaches us of the complexities that arise in every nationalist movement.

Shlomo Avineri
Shlomo Avineri
Shlomo Avineri
Shlomo Avineri

Last week, Haaretz reported that Kiev plans to name a major street after Symon Petliura, who headed the short-lived Ukrainian state that was founded after World War I. In Ukrainian eyes, Petliura is one of the founding fathers of Ukrainian nationalism, much like the leader of the 17th-century Cossack rebellion, Bohdan Khmelnytsky. In the Jewish narrative, Petliura is identified with pogroms in which tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered.

In 1926, Petliura was assassinated in Paris by Sholom Schwartzbard, who was seeking to avenge the murder of his family. Schwartzbard was acquitted in court and later passed away in South Africa. For years, he served as a symbol of Jewish pride among right-wing Zionists, and in 1967 his body was exhumed and transported to Israel for reburial in an official state ceremony initiated by Menachem Begin.

Petliura's name is barely known today in Israel, yet before the Nazis' rise to power it represented murderous anti-Semitism. The pogroms in Ukraine were one of the factors that pushed Jews into the ranks of the Red Army, which waged war against Ukrainian nationalism. Ukrainian nationalists, on the other hand, viewed Schwartzbard's act as part of a Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy.

What is less known is that after the fall of Petliura's regime, none other than Ze'ev Jabotinsky signed an agreement with him in 1921. This is a complicated and embarrassing episode that sent huge shockwaves through the Zionist movement, of which Jabotinsky was then a leader.

After independent Ukraine was defeated by the Red Army, Petliura found refuge in Poland, which had fought against Soviet Russia. He planned to return to Ukraine at the head of an army of exiled expatriates. Jabotinsky suggested that Petliura enlist units of Jewish soldiers. Clearly Jabotinsky's rabid anti-Communism was one reason behind the proposal. Publicly, he rationalized the offer by claiming that the Jewish divisions in Petliura's army would defend the Jewish population from possible pogroms. The suggestion allowed Petliura to claim that he was not anti-Semitic, and that the pogroms were simply "unfortunate" events that had occurred in the heat of battle.

The agreement never materialized, but it did ignite serious controversy during the 12th Zionist Congress in Carlsbad. It created a deep schism between Jabotinsky and the Zionist leadership headed by Chaim Weizmann, and was one of the reasons for the establishment of the Revisionist movement, which subsequently broke off from the World Zionist Organization. It is no wonder the movement's members did everything to sweep the affair under the rug.

This story teaches us of the complexities that arise in every nationalist movement - be it Jewish or Ukrainian. It should not surprise anyone familiar with the philosophy espoused by Jabotinsky, who throughout his life harbored an affinity for Ukrainian nationalism despite its shades of anti-Semitism. In 1911, when Ukraine celebrated the golden anniversary of the death of beloved poet and cultural icon Taras Shevchenko (another notorious anti-Semite), Jabotinsky published an essay in which, while acknowledging Shevchenko's attitude toward Jews, added that "more important than that is the fact that he gave to his people, to the entire world, clear and solid proof that the Ukrainian soul was blessed with the talent of independent cultural creativity which rises to the highest spheres."

History is complex, and it would be worthwhile to confront this complexity in a straightforward manner. Perhaps we can learn something about the future.

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