The Palestinian Question: Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the Ethics of Zionism

Much can be learned from the moral standards of the leader of Revisionist Zionism.

Shaul Arieli
Shaul Arieli
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Ze'ev Jabotinsky.
Ze'ev Jabotinsky.Credit: Government Press Office
Shaul Arieli
Shaul Arieli

Do universal moral criteria appropriate for every person and society, wherever they are, exist? It is common thinking. But in everything concerning morality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it seems the statement that everything’s relative is more appropriate. Morality is always dependent on whoever defines it, the context and time – and how much more so in the case of this conflict.

The dramatic changes that have occurred over the years since the “opening shot” was fired in 1917 with the Balfour Declaration, in the status of the parties involved and the balance of power between them, have also changed the positions and values that guide the sides.

The international decision after World War I on the establishment of a national home for the Jewish People in the Land of Israel was different from the way new countries were established at the time – based on the principle of self-determination, which came to guarantee that sovereignty over the land would be given to its residents and not its conquerors. “Palestine-E.Y.” (for Eretz Yisrael, as it was officially called in Hebrew under the British Mandate) was given to the Jewish People even though almost all of it lived outside the land, although the Arabs, who made up over 90 percent of the population, demanded to fulfill their national aspirations on the same plot of land.

The announcement in the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine’s 1947 partition plan that the principle of self-determination was not applied to Palestine at the time the Mandate was granted in 1922 because of the aspiration to establish a national home for the Jewish people, was justified by various explanations: for example, no separatist Palestinian nationalism existed at the time, or the urgent need to save the Jewish people immediately.

Crowds celebrating the UN General Assembly's decision to end the British Mandate and adopt the partition plan, Nov. 29, 1947.Credit: GPO

But it was Ze’ev Jabotinsky who asked, in one of his letters from 1922, to put the Zionist demand for a state to a moral test in order to base it on one of the fundamental principles of human society and implement the declaration of the First Zionist Congress from 1897: “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under international law.”

Jabotinsky said the Jewish people meet the three conditions of the moral test that justifies establishing a Jewish state in the Land of Israel: First, they are a people without a land. Second, the establishment of the Jewish state will not leave behind those whose land is taken from their control without a state of their own. And third, the demand of the Jewish People for a nation in the Land of Israel rests on historic rights.

Today, after a century has passed, it is actually quite interesting to examine the contemporary Palestinian demand for the establishment of a Palestinian state in light of Jabotinsky’s “moral test.” His first question is: “Do you need land? If you don’t, if you have enough, historic rights cannot be invoked.” The Arabs’ attempts in the early 1920s to deal with the Jewish demand for a state with the claim there is no separate Jewish people that needs its own land, or as the Palestine Liberation Organization charter later stated: “Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.”

The League of Nations rejected this claim and in the document granting the Mandate in 1922 wrote: “Recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”

When we apply Jabotinsky’s first condition to the reality of Palestinian life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip today, we find it very much holds true. They are a people living in their own land, but lacking political independence. The claim of the right wing in Israel that “there is no Palestinian people” does not meet the test of reality. David Ben-Gurion said back in 1947: “Certainly the Arab community in Israel has the right to self-determination and self-government, we will not think of depriving them of this right or reducing it.” In the Partition Plan resolution later that year, the UN recognized the Arabs’ right for a state in their homeland, and in 2012 the UN accepted Palestine as an observer state.

David Ben-Gurion at his home in Sde Boker in 1968. Happily accepted American Jews' money while discouraging them from further interest in Israeli politics or society.Credit: Fritz Cohen / GPO

Jabotinsky’s second condition for his “morality test” is that “even if you need land, the second question would be: Can the people, from whose possession you claim a portion, spare that portion; won’t it leave them landless?” Jabotinsky’s answer in the context of the Palestinian Arabs is based on the claim that the people required to give up its land is the entire Arab people, which controlled over 99 percent of the non-Turkish territories of the Ottoman Empire.

In his testimony before the Peel Commission in 1937, Jabotinsky repeated his position: “What I do not deny is that in the process the Arabs of Palestine will necessarily become a minority in the country of Palestine. What I do deny is that this is a hardship. This is not a hardship on any race, any nation, possessing so many national states now and so many more national states in the future. One fraction, one branch of that race, and not a big one, will have to live in someone else’s state: Well, that is the case of all the mightiest nations of the world.”

In place of this “branch,” read the Jews of the Land of Israel, promised Jabotinsky even earlier, in “The Iron Wall” in 1923: “First of all, I consider it utterly impossible to eject the Arabs from Palestine. There will always be two nations in Palestine – which is good enough for me, provided the Jews become the majority ... I am prepared to take an oath binding ourselves and our descendants that we shall never do anything contrary to the principle of equal rights, and that we shall never try to eject anyone. This seems to me a fairly peaceful credo.”

In this context, Jabotinsky ignores the fact that the entire Arab region, which promised to Hussein bin Ali from the Hejaz that it would become the kingdom of all the Arabs, was divided up into countries in an artificial manner based on British and French interests. That is why he sees the demand of Palestinian Arabs to be a form of greediness, and writes: “Of course the Arabs have a strong case, of course they would prefer Palestine to be the fourth, fifth or sixth independent Arab state, but when the claims of the Arabs are presented against the demand of Jews to be saved,” then it is similar to the claims of “appetite” against those of “starvation.”

Accepting the idea of the division of Palestine by the Zionist movement in 1937, and the adoption of the UN Partition Plan in 1947, are actually what provide Zionism with the “passing” grade concerning Jabotinsky’s second condition. After all, the founding of the Jewish state on only part of the land, 55 percent, left the Arab residents with their share, 45 percent. So any attempt by the right-wing parties today to demand ownership of the entire Land of Israel immediately gives them a “failing” grade on Jabotinsky’s morality exam.

The right-wing claim that the Palestinians have 22 Arab countries where they can settle does not meet the test of reality. Arab nations, which united in their civil nationalism before 1948, refused to accept the Palestinians, except for Jordan before 1988, or grant them citizenship. Even the claim that Jordan is Palestine does not hold water. Since if it was true, then Israel should immediately annex the territories and grant all the Palestinians living there Israeli citizenship, based on the Mandate document, and even accept all the Palestinian refugees in other Arab countries, as promised by Jabotinsky. In other words, the end of the Jewish State.

On the Palestinian side, the positions concerning Jabotinsky’s second condition are similar today to the Israeli positions. The official position of the PLO, the recognized representative of the Palestinian people, is to settle for political independence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip only, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stated in an interview with the Al Arabiya television network in 2008: “The opportunity for the 1947 partition has been lost, and before that the opportunity for the Peel Commission partition was lost. But we do not want to lose another opportunity. That is why we have accepted the 1948 and 1967 partition, which do not include more than 22 percent of historical Palestine.”

Mahmoud Abbas.Credit: Reuters

Among the Palestinians, others – especially Hamas – think this is not enough; for the good of the refugees they demand all of “Palestine,” from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, as the deputy head of the Hamas political bureau Moussa Abu Marzouk explained in 2007: “Why does someone need to recognize Israel’s ‘right’ to exist, when it has never recognized the fundamental crimes of murder and ethnic cleansing as tools which it has used to take control of our cities and villages, our farms and orchards, and turned us into a nation of refugees ... These are not empty questions, and our refusal to abandon the victims of 1948 and their descendents is not rejection for its own sake.”

In other words, because Hamas wants to deprive the Jewish People of its own country – it fails the second condition of Jabotinsky’s moral test. The PLO, in comparison, receives a passing grade.

As for the third condition, Jabotinsky writes that only if the first two conditions are met, then the third question may be asked about the “historical rights in support of the claim to a definite piece of territory.” Here is the moral basis for the claim, he says. The recognition of the historical rights of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel by the international community was widespread and total.

Winston Churchill, the British colonial secretary at the time, said in 1919: “It is manifestly right that the Jews, who are scattered all over the world, should have a national center and a National Home where some of them may be reunited. And where else could that be but in the land of Palestine, with which for more than 3,000 years they have been intimately and profoundly associated? We think it would be good for the world, good for the Jews, and good for the British Empire.”

And where does the right of Palestinian Arabs to the land stand? They, who everyone agrees were the clear majority in Israel at the time the new arrangements were created after World War I, have received international recognition from 1947 on. The Partition Plan resolution of 1947 stated that only through partition could these two opposing national aspirations be expressed. Only in 1988, after the PLO recognized UN Security Council Resolution 242, did a series of UN resolutions grant the Palestinian right to an independent state on 22 percent of the land of Mandatory Palestine.

So where does this leave us? Three moral principles, obelisks of justice, on which the founding father of Revisionist Zionism relied when he came to justify the Jews’ right to live in their own land. And now, some 100 years later, the mental experiment that applies these same principles to the reality of the lives of the Palestinians. The conclusions from this attempt necessarily lead us to a solution of compromise, which will leave each side with only half their appetite satisfied.

And one more important conclusion: Those on both sides who oppose such a solution with Messianic claims, and say “it is all mine,” based whatever interpretation they choose, are light-years away from the morality that Jabotinsky thought was so important and is as necessary today – the same as back then – to resolve the conflict.

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