This Day in Jewish History |

1940: Zeev Jabotinsky, Zionist Visionary, Dies

Jabotinsky campaigned to save European Jewry while in exile after the British kept him from returning to Palestine.

David Green
David B. Green
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Ze'ev Jabotinsky.
Ze'ev Jabotinsky.Credit: Government Press Office
David Green
David B. Green

On August 4, 1940, Zionist visionary Zeev Jabotinsky died, at the age of 59.

Born Vladimir Yevgenyevich Zhabotinsky, on October 18, 1880, Jabotinsky spent most of his childhood in Odessa, then part of the Russian empire. At age 16, Jabotinsky began writing for Russian newspapers in his hometown, with great success; at 18, he left for Spain and then Italy, where he studied law and continued writing journalistic dispatches, using the pseudonym “Altalena” (“swing” in Italian, although Jabotinsky later confessed that he thought the word meant “elevator”).

Despite growing up in an assimilated Jewish family, Jabotinsky, who had returned to Odessa in 1901, found himself powerfully affected by the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. The popular anti-Semitic riots had their origin in a blood libel that was partly disseminated by that city’s Russian Orthodox clergy. Jabotinsky joined the Zionist movement, began learning Hebrew, and changed his given name to Zeev.

Anticipating additional pogroms in Russia, Jabotinsky began organizing Jewish defense organizations around the empire. As early as 1903, he attended the World Zionist Congress as a delegate, and quickly became a well-known orator for the cause.

After the outbreak of World War I, in 1914, Jabotinsky became a war correspondent for a Moscow newspaper. While on assignment in Alexandria, where thousands of Jewish deportees from Palestine were staying, he met Josef Trumpeldor, the Jewish war hero from the Russo-Japanese War, and a Zionist. Together they developed the idea of organizing a Jewish Legion, an independent militia that would fight side-by-side with the British in the war.

The first unit they helped to create, the Zion Mule Corps, fought with the Allies at Gallipoli. When the corps was disbanded, Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor convinced the British to form additional Jewish battalions, which became the Jewish Legion. Jabotinsky himself served as an officer with the Mule Corps, which was attached to the 38th Royal Fusiliers, crossing the Jordan into the Land of Israel, when the British conquered it from the Turks.

After he was demobilized, Jabotinsky remained in Palestine, and was involved in the organization and arming of the newly found Hagana, for Jewish self-defense. After the anti-Zionist riots of 1920, the British arrested him for possession of arms, and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. After a public outcry against the sentence, the British released him.

Jabotinsky remained in Palestine, and during the 1920s, Jabotinsky became increasingly active in the new Zionist institutions, and was among the founders of Keren Hayesod, the Zionist fundraising body. By 1923, however, a dispute with Chaim Weizmann led him to resign from the Zionist Executive, and he founded a new movement, the Union of Zionists-Revisionists. It and the New Zionist Organization he founded in 1935 both advocated for immediate establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, in contrast to the mainstream Labor Zionists, who believed in cooperating with mandatory rule. Jabotinsky was also anti-socialist, and his movement had more appeal among urban Jews.

Three principal bodies represented the movement headed by Jabotinsky in his final years: the NZO, the political branch; the youth organization Betar; and eventually, the paramilitary organization Irgun Tzva’i Leumi (National Military Organization, Irgun for short). During the entire period, he continued writing, both journalism and fiction – Jabotinsky wrote two well-regarded works of fiction, “Samson the Nazirite,” a historical novel, and “The Five,” about Jewish life in Odessa. He also translated a number of classic works of literature into Hebrew.

During a trip to South Africa, in 1929, Jabotinsky learned that the British would not readmit him to Palestine, and he never did return. For the next decade, he remained without a permanent home. Early on, he recognized the threat that Nazism posed to European Jewry, and became convinced of the need for the evacuation of the Jews of Poland, Hungary and Romania to Palestine. Although discussion with the leaders of those three countries led to their agreeing to the plan, it was vetoed by the British and dismissed by the World Zionist Organization.

Once World War II started, Jabotinsky expressed his belief in the need for cooperation with the British. At the same time he advocated for the creation of a united Jewish political front and for a Jewish army to fight with the Allies. Most of his time was divided between London and New York.

At the time of his death, Jabotinsky was visiting a Betar summer camp in Hunter, New York, in the Catskill Mountains. On the evening of August 4, 1940, shortly after reviewing a parade of campers, he suffered a massive heart attack. He died shortly before midnight.

Jabotinsky’s written will expressed his determination “to be buried outside Palestine, [and] NOT be transferred to Palestine unless by order of that country’s eventual Jewish government.” His funeral took place in New York, with burial at New Montefiore Cemetery, in Queens. During the first two decades after the establishment of the State of Israel, the government, led for most of that time by David Ben-Gurion, was unwilling to transfer Jabotinsky’s remains for reburial here. Only in 1964, after Levi Eshkol became prime minister, did Israel authorize the reinterment of Jabotinsky and his wife, Yohana, at Mt. Herzl Cemetery, in Jerusalem.

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