On November 2nd, the same day the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration was marked, another, related anniversary in Zionist history passed with far less fanfare.
- Children of Revisionist Zionist leader retrace his colorful past in Belarus town
- Words that can't be retracted
- The Balfour Declaration's deep anti-Semitism and racism - and why it still matters
- Why Israel's occupation isn’t more 'brutal and ferocious' than Britain's in Ireland
This was the 120th birthday of Abba Ahimeir, the leader and primary ideologue of what is known as 'Maximalist Revisionist Zionism'. The first event has become part of the Israeli, indeed Jewish, collective psyche; the second, certainly less so.
A third, related, important anniversary, and one probably even less well-known, is the fact that Wednesday November 15 marks 90 years since Ahimeir penned an article for Haaretz, which used Hillel the Elder’s well known saying ‘If I Am Not for Myself, Who Will Be For Me?’ as its title (‘Im Ein Ani Li, Mi Li?’, Haaretz, 15.11.1927).
What is perhaps surprising to the Haaretz reader of today is not only the fact that, from 1925-1927, Ahimeir was a regular contributor to the paper, which certainly leant slightly more to the right than it does today, but that it was in this particular article where he introduced the concept of 'Revolutionary Zionism' for the first time.
The 30-year old cultural historian and journalist had returned to British Mandate Palestine in the summer of 1924 after an absence of ten years, having completed a doctorate at the University of Vienna on Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. Ahimeir had originally come to Ottoman Palestine from Bobruisk (then Russia, now Belarus) in 1912, at the age of 14, to study at the Herzliya Gymnasium, a prestigious high school.
For three years after his arrival, Ahimeir was an active Zionist pioneer (halutz), kibbutznik, and member of Hapoel Hatzair, who worked as a librarian for the Cultural Committee of the Histadrut, taught in the agricultural villages of Nahalal and Geva, and contributed regularly to the party’s eponymous journal.
By 1926, however, Ahimeir had clearly become disillusioned with Hapoel Hatzair, and with Labour Zionism in general.
In his Haaretz article, (written, notably, while still a member of Hapoel Hatzair) Ahimeir bemoaned the fact that, in the 10 years since the Balfour Declaration, not even the minimum hopes of the Zionist project had been realized. A Jewish national homeland had not yet come into existence, and indeed, the whole process appeared to be deadlocked in a political and bureaucratic quagmire.
For this sorry state of affairs, Ahimeir blamed not only the British Mandatory administration, but also the "immaturity" of the Yishuv leadership, which was not only saturated with partisan self-interest, but also all-too-willing to compromise with the British.
The only way out of the mess, he believed, lay in the return to Herzlian Political Zionism that was being offered by the relatively young Revisionist Party. At the time of Ahimeir’s article, the Revisionists represented the first foray of a Zionist party into right-wing political (albeit at that time still center-right) organization. Indeed, he would join Zeev Jabotinsky’s party only two months later, in February 1928, along with the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg, and writer Yehoshua Yevin.
For the time being, Ahimeir declared, in the article, that the era of Zionist pioneering was over, and called on the Zionist movement – "like the Sinn Fein in Ireland" – to adopt both the attitude and means of other national liberationist groups.
Ahimeir, himself, would become no stranger to controversy.
One year after joining the Revisionists - in the wake of the 1929 riots in Palestine - he formed the ‘Maximalist’ wing of the party with Greenberg and Yevin, which embraced the ideology of Italian Fascism (which, at the time, offered the only real new political alternative to Communism, and, as with its adherents in the Yishuv, increasingly appealed to disillusioned socialist intellectuals), and – unlike Jabotinsky and the general Revisionists – saw Britain as the real enemy of Zionism.
Ahimeir was an outspoken agent provocateur in every way: as a leader for the party’s youth group Betar and who trained other youth leaders for the Betar Leadership Training School, as a political activist and journalist (he called the British Mandatory administration ‘Perfidious Albion’ and referred to them as ‘foreign occupiers’ in print already in 1929), and not least as an ideologue.
He formed the first anti-British resistance group, Brit HaBiryonim in 1930, and the group, while limiting itself to acts of civil disobedience, such as removing the Nazi flag from the German consulates in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and blowing the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur services (an action banned by the British) at the Western Wall, was the ideological precursor to the more extreme Irgun and Lehi.
Ahimeir was arrested, in June 1933, with fellow Revisionists Avraham Stavsky and Zvi Rosenblatt, in connection with the murder of Chaim Arlozoroff. The event would hang like an albatross around his neck for the rest of his life, in spite of being acquitted for lack of evidence before even going to trial.
Ahimeir finally went did go to prison in 1934 for his involvement with Brit HaBiryonim, after which he more or less retired from active political life, and devoted himself to his first love, the writing of history. His articles for the Hebrew Encyclopaedia, including the entries for ‘Bobruisk’ and ‘Hitler', bear testimony to Ahimeir’s rich knowledge of European and Jewish history.
Indeed, as a historian who had experienced first-hand both WWI and a Bolshevik Revolution that had claimed the life of his younger brother Meir, Ahimeir was better situated than most of his colleagues in the Yishuv to see the historical meta-picture as it was developing – and rather worryingly so, in his estimation – between Yishuv Zionism and the British Mandatory power.
He recognised the futility of the Yishuv leadership’s willingness not only to compromise the Zionist territorial-political end-goal (in light of the 1922 Churchill White Paper, which sought to temper Britain’s apparent initial promise of a Jewish national homeland on all of the biblical Land of Israel) by acquiescing to British demands, but also to dilute Zionism with socialist ideology.
Thus, his call for Revolutionary Zionism in 1927 was the call of a frustrated historian who could see no other logical solution than a political-insurrectionary revolt in order to supplant British rule in the Yishuv, and bring about the establishment of a Jewish state; his eventual embrace of fascism, no less so.
His advocacy of the latter ideology, which sounds difficult to our ears, today, must be understood not only within its historical context, but more importantly, as merely a function to his concept of revolution.
History has perhaps been unfair to Ahimeir in this respect, and has preferred to focus on his embrace of Italian Fascism to the detriment of his concept of Revolutionary Zionism. He was much more of a revolutionary than a fascist, and it is his legacy of Revolutionary Zionism that is more pertinent, and - in fact - more interesting, from a contemporary historian’s perspective.
Indeed, the cynic might see Menachem Begin’s call, at the Third World Convention of Betar in 1938, to usher in a new period of ‘Military Zionism’, and David Ben-Gurion’s call, two months later, for ‘Fighting Zionism’, as nothing more than an opportunistic rebranding of Ahimeir’s concept of ‘Revolutionary Zionism’ from 10 years before.
Yet, by the time of Begin’s speech in 1938, Ahimeir’s political revolution had already been gaining ground for almost a decade, even if it was not yet recognized as such.
And without a doubt, the continued campaign of anti-British resistance that was waged in the Yishuv, from 1939 onwards, by the Irgun, Lehi, and eventually also the Haganah, was one of the major factors for Britain’s decision, in 1947, to withdraw from its obligations under the Mandate for Palestine. ‘Revolutionary Zionism’ had proved itself more than an intellectual term.
Abba Ahimeir was certainly a controversial figure who espoused, at times, some rather controversial ideas. Nonetheless, recognition of this reality should not mitigate the fact that he played a decisive role in the genesis of what we might well consider – in respect of the increasingly proactive, anti-British resistance, and eventually violence, on the parts of all groups in the Yishuv, left and right – to be a Zionist political revolution in Palestine, one which was eventually responsible for the end of the British Mandate and the foundation of the State of Israel.
Dr Peter Bergamin wrote his doctoral thesis at the University of Oxford on the ideological development of Abba Ahimeir. He tutors at the university’s Visiting Student Program at Mansfield College, and is researching for a new project on Britain’s withdrawal from Mandate Palestine