From Jabotinsky to Netanyahu: How the Israeli Right Got Its Might

A new book tells the story of how Zionism's outsiders became its power elite.

Raphael Magarik
Raphael Magarik
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participates in a forum hosted by the Center for American Progress in Washington November 10, 2015.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participates in a forum hosted by the Center for American Progress in Washington November 10, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Raphael Magarik
Raphael Magarik

"The Rise of the Israeli Right: From Odessa to Hebron," by Colin Shindler, Cambridge University Press, 440 pages, $34.99

Why have President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu failed so completely to understand each other? Partially, perhaps, because Obama was initially baffled by the very idea of a right-wing Israeli. Obama, like many American liberals, seems to have encountered Israeli politics for the first time through Leon Uris’ “Exodus,” which celebrated a fuzzy kibbutz communitarianism while reducing Revisionist, conservative Zionism to a marginal caricature. Americans’ image of a progressive, underdog Israel is hard to shake. Even the leftist critic of Israel Noam Chomsky still reminisces fondly about his utopian socialist experiences on a kibbutz.

To be fair, for much of Israel’s history, this image has been reasonably accurate. The marginality of the right is written into Israel’s origin myth, particularly Ben-Gurion ordering the army to fire on the Altalena, a ship commanded by Menachem Begin and bearing arms for right-wing Revisionists. Revisionists favored a “greater Israel” on both sides of the Jordan, were skeptical of diplomacy with either the British or the Arabs, and rejected the socialism of the Zionist mainstream. Imposing order on the messy array of pre-state Zionist organizations, Ben-Gurion insisted that Israel could not have an “army within an army,” and the orderly nation-state defined itself against deeply conservative, paramilitary dissidents.

Even after the 1977 Likud revolution — in which Begin wrested power from Labor by harnessing Mizrahi exclusion, anger at the security establishment’s failure to anticipate the Yom Kippur War, and discontent with perceived Labor corruption — the right continued to struggle in Israeli politics. The party’s coalition of secular middle-class moderates and populist radicals foundered after the Camp David accords, and Likud lost its coalition in 1983. Only since the second intifada has the right-wing bloc consistently maintained a majority in Knesset, and only in the last few years have once-fringe parties like Habayit Hayehudi entered the mainstream. Not only nave Americans may find themselves asking: Where exactly does this Israeli right come from? How did it achieve dominance? And now that it has power, what will it make of its radical, oppositional, violent past?

Colin Shindler has attempted to answer these questions in “The Rise of the Israeli Right: From Odessa to Hebron.” As its name implies, the book tells a sweeping story, spanning several continents and more than a century, and covering the major events of Israeli political, diplomatic and military history. Shindler manages to pack all this in by economizing on argument and coherence. His introduction summarizes the events described in the book, without explaining why it was written or what it shows, except for a few sentences claiming that Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, was “more complex in his political thought” than his right-wing inheritors and represents “the hope for a regeneration of political life in Israel.”

Shindler leaves the nature of this hope vague. My best guess is that he means Jabotinsky offers an alternative to the religious, anti-democratic, and paranoid far right — an alternative that is capitalist as well as militarily and diplomatically tough-minded, while also being sane.

This theme loosely structures the book. (Very loosely — the chapters and sections are divided only chronologically, reinforcing the sense of unmotivated regurgitation of information.) Its first and better half, without being a biography, focuses on Ze’ev Jabotinsky, telling the story of pre-state Revisionist Zionism through its founder. Though Shindler writes in a particularly graceless dialect of dry British political history, he sniffs out lovely details from this earlier period — that Mandate officials flummoxed by Jabotinsky’s name called him “jug-of-whiskey,” for instance, or that Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, the Czech Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, and the exiled Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie joked about buying a London house to be shared by nationalists disappointed with England’s fickle promises. After Jabotinsky’s death in 1940, the book turns halfheartedly to Begin but gradually disintegrates into an unfocused summary of Israeli political history.

A reluctant reactionary

Does Jabotinsky represent a path forward for Israel? Shindler portrays the great Revisionist as a complex cosmopolitan who, raised in multilingual Odessa and politically educated in the ideological vortex of pre-war Italy, translated Dante into Hebrew and debated Europe’s most brilliant Marxists. Modeling himself after Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian general who helped unify Italy, Jabotinsky valorized both Jewish military force and 19th-century European liberal ideals, particularly freedom of thought, secularism and an open market.

Shindler emphasizes the importance of Jabotinsky’s “monism,” that is, his assertion that Zionism and Marxism were incompatible. Pre-state Revisionism defined itself by advocating territorial maximalism — greater Israel — and a Jewish army, and also by championing individual proprietorship against the more popular state socialism.

Jabotinsky believed that Arabs would never willingly accept Jewish settlement, and he straightforwardly advocated forceful conquest of the land, beginning an ideological tradition carried today by Moshe Feiglin and Naftali Bennett. By contrast, mainstream Zionists were more circumspect. For instance, up to 1931, the Executive of the World Zionist Congress refused to endorse even the goal of a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. (It is a striking reflection of Revisionism’s victory that Netanyahu, who demands that his Palestinian counterparts recognize a Jewish state, would apparently be unwilling to negotiate a peace accord with the Zionist Congress.) In Shindler’s telling, Jabotinsky was a reluctant reactionary. He would have preferred to have lived before Marxist radicalism and settled borders, in an era when military nationalism had been the ally of progressive movements toward secular, republican and capitalist governments.

But ironically, this urbane intellectual led a movement increasingly composed of young Fascists. Abba Ahimeir, the Russian-born leader of the Maximalist Revisionists, wrote a series of articles in the 1920s called, “From the Notebook of a Young Fascist,” in which he prophesied, “Our messiah will not arrive as a pauper on a donkey. He will come like all messiahs, riding a tank and bringing his commandments to his people.” Where Jabotinsky admired Garibaldi, Maximalists like Ahimeir preferred Mussolini and, initially, even Hitler. They wanted the Revisionist party to be led by a “duce,” and they traded Fascist salutes.

Ze'ev Jabotinsky.Credit: Government Press Office

As England hemmed and hawed about Jewish immigration, Jabotinsky’s belief in diplomacy came to seem quaint and ineffectual. Betar, the Revisionist Zionist youth movement, pressed for anti-British and retaliatory anti-Arab violence, and its commander David Raziel ordered “bombings of Arab coffee houses in Haifa and Rosh Pinah.” When, in 1938, 25-year-old Revisionist Shlomo Ben-Yosef attacked a civilian Arab bus with grenades and was hanged by the British, Betar organized a massive funeral and a general strike.

Though Shindler valorizes Jabotinsky’s sophisticated, nuanced conservatism, Jabotinsky regularly yielded to the far right under pressure — not unlike Netanyahu. Jabotinsky understood that “every generation is a separate country with a different climate,” and whatever his bourgeois scruples about democracy and conscience, he was happy to harness the popular appeal of the fascist, thuggish Maximalists. Though he privately repudiated the idea of a “duce,” this did not prevent him from suspending the movement’s ordinary institutions and seizing personal control in 1933, prompting the Polish press to declare, “The Jews Have a Dictator.”

Jabotinsky hedged on Jewish terrorism, at once obfuscating the Revisionist involvement in certain attacks while also opposing the official Zionist policy of havlagah, or restraint, and arguing, as Shindler writes, that “the choice was between retaliation against a hostile population and not retaliating at all.” Refused reentry to Palestine by the British in 1930, Jabotinsky remained somewhat an outsider to the on-the-ground work of Betar’s radical vanguard, and he ceded total operational autonomy to the militant Revisionists’ Palestine branch.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the sophisticated, nuanced intellectual bowed to his radical, unscrupulous disciples. They, after all, were merely realizing his ideals. You cannot introduce rifle training, as Jabotinsky did, and then complain when the youth want more than target practice. But Jabotinsky’s concessions to the Maximalists suggest that what Shindler takes to be complexity is perhaps better thought of ideological confusion or ambivalence. Jabotinsky wrote his Italian articles under the penname “Altalena” — after which the Revisionist ship was named — which means “swing” in Italian. His true legacy may have been exactly this capacity to waffle back and forth, the pragmatic ability to oscillate between responsible international diplomacy and the base violence of the mob.

Appeasing liberals, pacifying rightists

In this waffling, Jabotinsky presents no alternative to the contemporary right. Quite the opposite: Netanyahu seems to have inherited his forerunner’s mixture of reasonable rhetoric and pliability to his coalition’s extreme demands. Just this month, for instance, speaking to the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank, Netanyahu said the question of Jerusalem was “unsolvable” but allowed for the possibility of Israeli unilateral steps in the West Bank. To Obama, he reaffirmed his commitment to a two-state solution, despite having told CAP that mutual recognition with Palestinians was all but impossible. To right-wing Israelis, he immediately clarified that he has no intention to “uproot or evacuate settlements” while quietly protecting a settler synagogue in Givat Ze’ev whose purchase documents from Palestinians turned out to be forged.

In other words, Netanyahu can easily pivot from appeasing American liberals to pacifying his right-wing base. Like Jabotinsky, Netanyahu swings back and forth — but somehow, his swing always settles slightly closer to punitive violence, weakened democratic institutions and increased settlement building. Unfortunately, Shindler does not offer detailed analysis of this story. He races through the last 40 years of Israeli politics, giving short shrift to the “Hebron” promised by his title. Nonetheless, those seeking to crack the cipher of the Israeli right can use this book, as Shindler suggests, to return to Jabotinsky — not as a cure, but rather as a warning.

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