Lenni Brenner


The Iron Wall


5. The Founder of the Haganah


Zionism After the First World War

Discharge from the army found Jabotinsky free of all responsibilities in the Zionist movement. While still in the military he had also acted as the political representative of the Zionist Commission set up as their liaison between the British and the Jewish communities of the Allied countries. But it rapidly became clear that his conception of what the relationship should be between Zionism and Britain differed so fundamentally from Weizmann’s that he had to be relieved of his post even before his discharge from the army. Jabotinsky was always for pressing London on every question for maximum concessions; Weizmann’s strategy was exactly the opposite.

Few political movements of this century have had a long-term leader as moderate as Weizmann. He was in no rush; the Declaration was the crucial victory, no doubt, but he knew that building Zion was going to take decades – if the British did not give them everything all at once, it did not matter. The ordeal of wartime Turkish tyranny had gravely weakened Palestinian Zionism both numerically and financially, and money could not be obtained from Eastern European Jewry, racked by the devastation and pogroms that accompanied the Russian revolution and the establishment of an independent Poland. American Jews, deeply involved with the troubles of their kin in Europe, were unwilling to divert relief funds to what they thought of as little better than a national museum. Weizmann not only tried to maintain good relations with Britain but he turned diplomatically to the Arabs whom he saw as primarily concerned that Faisal be allowed to set up a kingdom in Syria. On Allenby’s suggestion he made what was then an immensely difficult journey around Sinai to meet the Emir in Trans-Jordan. Ultimately, on 3 January 1919, the Hashemite signed an agreement to recognize the Zionists in Palestine, although the pact never explicitly mentioned a Jewish state. In return, Faisal expected Zionist support for his claim to Syria and their deal was conditional on his success in Damascus. In the end, the French drove him out of Syria and the treaty came to nothing, although the WZO never has stopped using the pact as one of its title-deeds to Palestine.


British Support

In those early years the Zionist position in Palestine was completely dependent on the British government’s goodwill and Britain’s benevolence towards Zionism was in inverse ratio to its hostility towards Jews as such. The British bourgeoisie had turned anti-Semitic in reaction to the Jewish migration from the Tsarist empire, its most representative figure in this regard being Balfour himself. The prime minister in 1905, he had made a notorious statement in support of curbing immigration. According to Hansard, he stated that

he undoubtedly thought that a state of things could easily be imagined in which it would not be to the advantage of the civilization of the country that there should be an immense body of persons who, however patriotic, able and industrious, however much they threw themselves into the national life, still, by their own action, remained a people apart and not merely held a religion different from the vast majority of their fellow countrymen, but only intermarried among themselves. [1]

It was his government that had offered “Uganda” to Herzl in the hope that the protectorate would divert some of the migration away from Britain. In 1914, after meeting Balfour for the second time, Weizmann wrote to a friend that the former prime minister “told me that he once had a long talk with Cosima Wagner in Bayrouth and that he shared many of her anti-Semitic ideas.” [2] The Bolshevik revolution, which occurred within days of the Declaration, was seen by most of the ruling class as a Jewish plot. Although in Britain itself official anti-Semitism never passed beyond immigration restrictions and social discrimination, the British government had no qualms in financing and arming the White Guard pogrom hordes in Russia, thus bearing fundamental responsibility for their slaughter of at least 30,000 Jews. Zionism was seen as another tool against Bolshevism: in a 1920 article, “Zionism versus Bolshevism”, Churchill wrote that Trotsky hated Zionism because it thwarted “his schemes of a world-wide communistic state under Jewish domination.” [3] For Churchill, Zionism helped thwart Trotsky, directing “the energies and the hopes of the Jews in every land towards a simpler, a truer, and a far more attainable goal”. [4]

From a purely colonial point of view Zionism had an additional appeal: the British ruling class swore by the maxim “divide et impera” and they always sought a local ally. They relied on the Muslims in India against the Hindu majority, the Turks in Cyprus against the Greeks, the Malays against the Chinese in Malaysia. Constantly before their eyes was the immediate example of Ireland. Sir Ronald Storrs, their first military governor of Jerusalem, later wrote that the Zionist enterprise was “one that blessed him that gave as well as him that took, by forming for England ‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism”. [5]



Palestine After the War

The army in Palestine had a different picture of Zionists and Jews; their anti-Semitism was much cruder. The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion had been introduced into the country by officers fresh from the anti-Bolshevik armies in the Caucasus. Many officials saw the Zionists not as the enemies of Communism, but as Communists. After all, they reasoned, were not most Zionists also from Russia? Very few of the military on the spot – and not just the anti-Semites – could accept the image of a “Jewish Ulster”. There, the Protestants were a majority in four contiguous counties, a million strong, 23% of Ireland’s 4.3 million people. There were only 56,090 Jews in Palestine in 1917, a paltry 8% of the population, and they constituted a majority in only two cities, Jerusalem and Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. And about half of the Jews were Chassidim who abhorred Zionism as the grossest heresy. The Northern Ireland Protestants could, with minimal British assistance, defend themselves – even without British assistance Irish nationalism would have found it difficult to gain a foothold in Ulster – but everyone understood that the tiny Zionist Yishuv would have been driven into the Mediterranean by the Palestinians and the millions of Arabs in the surrounding countries, but for the presence of the protecting British troops. The quantitative difference between the pro-imperialist populations of Ulster and Palestine was so substantial that the two situations were not comparable, certainly not then. From the beginning of the British occupation there was this contradiction between Westminster’s vision of a Jewish Ulster – or a Jewish Gibraltar as Colonel Patterson, the commander of Jabotinsky’s Legion once put it – and the practical reality, easily felt by the military satraps, that the Arabs were the real force in the land. The local administration knew that they had to do nothing for the Zionists, who could not do anything to harm them and were utterly dependent on them.

Weizmann’s pact with Faisal was designed to find an additional prop for Zionism by making a deal with the feudal class of the larger Arab society of the Middle East at the expense of the local landlord class. The pact came to nothing as the French ran the pretender out of Damascus but, even if his kingdom had ever come into being, it is impossible to believe that the Palestinians would have considered themselves bound by his signature on a treaty signing away their country. Unlike Weizmann, Jabotinsky never held the notion that Zion could come about as a result of a peace agreement with any Arab. He readily recognized that only the British kept the natives from throwing the Zionists out of the country, but that became the point of departure of his determination to constantly keep the pressure on the British. He insisted that the moment the Arabs saw that the British had the slightest hesitation in implementing their promises to build the national home, they would start exerting the strongest counter-pressure in the hope of making London abandon the Declaration. Therefore, he tirelessly argued, the Zionists had no choice but to unswervingly demand that the British back them to the hilt.

Nahum Goldmann once correctly pointed out that if the powers had decided, one hundred years earlier, to set up a Zionist state, the Arabs could have done nothing to stop them as they were, then, little more than tribesmen. And if, he maintained, the Balfour Declaration were not to have come about when it did, but were to be granted, say, in 2017, there would be absolutely no chance of its fulfilment because a united Arab nation could easily resist such an imposition. Post World War I Arab nationalism was far closer to its past than to its future. With the exception of three weak states on the Arabian peninsula, Hejaz, Nejd and Yemen, the entire Arab world was subject to Europe. Arab Palestine on its own was socially incapable of effectively resisting the combined onslaught of Britain and the Zionists. The vast bulk of the people were either illiterate peasants or bedouins. As there was virtually no industry in the country beyond the artisan level a modern working class did not exist. The Arab mercantile class, mostly Christians, was very weak. The dominant Muslim landlords, the effendis, were classic Levantines, a parasitic upper class who would never mobilize the peasants against the invaders for fear that once their tenants stood up to either the British or the Zionists they would turn on them. They saw in imperialism the perfect protector of their social position, they had fully accepted Turkish domination and, but for the abiding goad of the Balfour Declaration, they would have been only too happy to serve their new British masters.

There was no possibility of the Palestinian masses not trying to defeat the Balfour policy; their lack of education predetermined the form of resistance. Until the British gave the country to the Zionists there had never been any history of anti-Jewish outbreaks. Under the Turks much of the countryside was given over to banditry but it never was aimed at Jews as such. Jewish religious pilgrims had been settling in the country for centuries and had met with nothing worse than patronizing contempt. Everyone who encountered them, Arabs, Zionists, Christian travellers, the British, despised them. The ultimate in fanaticism, they came to pray at the Wailing Wall and to die on holy soil. Most were elderly, did not work and lived miserable lives on meagre charity from world Jewry. They never hesitated to beg from tourists right at the Wall. The Jewish quarter of the old city of Jerusalem was a caricature of the Jewish slums of Europe, decrepit and filthy. Palestine was an Islamic country and the Muslims considered them cowardly and found this their most offensive characteristic. But they were a people of the book, the Koran insists on their right to their religion, they harmed no one, and were left alone. There were some Sephardic families whose ancestors came centuries before, not so much as pilgrims but as refugees from Spain, these and some Ashkenazi Yiddish speakers who lived in Tiberias and some of the other small towns were more industrious and hence more respected. Sultanic Palestine was not a model of communal relations, but no one thought of the Palestinians as anti-Jewish. This changed with the Balfour Declaration. Although some of the educated understood that not all the Jews were Zionists, the illiterate masses were incapable of such a subtle distinction. All they knew was that, for no sin of theirs, the new rulers were giving their country to the Jews.

Jabotinsky saw the Arabs were agitated and realized the potential danger. At first it did not disturb him too much – there were Legionnaires in the army and he had no doubt that the British would not permit the natives to get out of hand. But his discharge and the disintegration of the Legion, both from above and below, began to concern him. He knew from his London days that the British upper classes were streaked with anti-Semitism. But as long as their methods suited his purpose he assumed his characteristic air of Machiavellian indifference. Wickham Steed, editor of the Times, was intensely anti-Semitic but he had been a strong backer of the Legion. As late as 1928 Jabotinsky could write:

He understood the mentality of Zionism as few Christians can understand it – the inner, spiritual, anti-assimilation aspect ... Naturally – as with any non-Jew who talks like a Zionist’ – many Jews accused him of anti-Semitism. This tendency among my fellow Jews – to see a Haman in every Gentile who permits himself to tell a Jewish’ anecdote (and his anecdote is usually a sugary compliment compared to those we tell against ourselves) – has always been completely incomprehensible to me. [6]

But while Steed’s anti-Semitism had no personal violence to it, in Palestine some of the military had been involved with the Whites in Russia, many others simply knew that Zionism had to generate a pogrom, and they would welcome it, believing it would shake off the British government’s pro-Zionist policies. Then they could get on with the serious business of coming to terms with the effendis and the rich merchants. Jabotinsky was a Russian and he could sense the danger of a pogrom: now he, who had eagerly worked with both Russian and British anti-Semites, began to denounce the military as anti-Semites! In July 1919, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, the leader of the Zionist Organization of America, came out for a visit. Jabotinsky warned him that the army’s complacency was going to assure a pogrom and that they would be happy to see it come. But Brandeis was incapable of believing evil of the British army; he dismissed Jabotinsky with a sneering “Sir, I can only see that we do not speak a common language.” [7] Jabotinsky quickly wrote an article saying that, while they should not cry wolf, nevertheless Zionist headquarters had to insist that the British government make it quite clear that Zionism was in Palestine to stay and that no pogrom would be tolerated. Weizmann and Brandeis were too moderate to ever contemplate using strong words with the rulers of such a respectable body as the British Empire, and Jabotinsky soon realized that it was up to him to set up Zionism’s own answer to what he knew had to come.



The Haganah

In December he convinced some other Palestinian Zionist leaders that they had to set up a Haganah or Defence. Such pro-imperialist paramilitary organizations are immediately confronted with the basic question of their relation to legality, and Jabotinsky insisted that they train openly even if some of them were arrested. Zionists had to have the right to defend themselves in the Jewish national home. His Haganah was designed to compel the imperialists to integrate their Jewish Orangemen directly into the military apparatus.

From the beginning, the army knew the Haganah existed. Jabotinsky had his men drill on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, the seat of the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration, and he asked Storrs to deputize his men as special constables. Storrs did nothing to either encourage or discourage him as far as building the militia, but in February, the British government did make it quite clear to the Arabs that it meant to back Zionism. On orders, the chief administrator officially read the Balfour Declaration to a delegation of Arab notables, provoking thousands into the streets.


The Nebi Musa Riot

Faisal’s coronation in Damascus on 8 March brought out even more people, and the authorities banned further political rallies. But the pogrom erupted on 4 April, due to incompetent handling of the traditional Nebi Musa religious festival. Even Weizmann, who happened to be visiting Palestine, had finally become worried that the situation could get out of control, and he went to the British with his fears. General Louis Bols told him not to worry: “There can be no trouble; the town is stiff with troops.” [8] Because that year Passover coincidentally fell on the same day as the Nebi Musa ceremony. Weizmann, for all of his concern, left Jerusalem to spend the holiday in Haifa. A situation developed in which a series of accidents led into each other and caused the tragic outcome of the day. Nebi Musa means the Tomb of Moses. Townspeople from outlying regions annually marched to Jerusalem to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque and would then leave the city to go down to Jericho to the traditional gravesite of Allah’s prophet, Moses. A contingent from Hebron had approached Jerusalem, and had swung into the Jaffa Road when it was stopped by Jerusalem’s Mayor, Musa Kazim al-Husayni, who addressed them from a balcony in favour of Faisal. Younger politicians started to harangue them from adjoining balconies. The police, wanting to make up for lost time, changed the route march. Usually the procession wound around the walls to the Damascus gate and then through the Muslim quarter to the mosque. This time they were diverted through the Jaffa Gate and the Hebronites went past the Jewish quarter. Stones started flying and soon stores were being looted and Jewish passers-by were attacked. The British preparations fell apart immediately. There were no British constables on duty in the old city and the general in charge had already left for Jericho. Storrs was supposed to have been told of the arrival of the marchers but no one had remembered to tell him; in the end the British force on the spot consisted of an Arab police detachment in the charge of a young British lieutenant.

There were no Haganah men in the Jewish quarter: most of its inhabitants were bitterly opposed to Zionism, they wanted no patrols there as they did not want the Arabs to identify them with the hated Zionists. When the riot broke out, Jabotinsky rushed his forces from the new city, but by that time British troops had blocked the gates, allowing no one to enter or leave. Eventually the police and troops succeeded in pushing the Hebronites into the mosque, but the final toll was six Jews killed, 211 wounded and two women raped. Haganah retaliation left four Arab dead and 21 wounded.

Nebi Musa was a profound disaster to the Palestinian cause. The murder of unoffending Chassids gave the world an impression of blind hatred and fanaticism. The mayor was forced to resign, and the British government hastened its preparations for replacing the OETA with a civilian governor firmly committed to its pro-Zionist policies. But in the immediate instance the OETA’s response was a textbook example of imperial bureaucratic procedure: they tried to arrest the Mayor’s relative, the 25-year-old al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni, who escaped; and Jabotinsky, who was allowed, as an ex-officer and a gentleman, to surrender himself into a more or less honourable political-prisoner status. Nineteen of his men were also arrested on weapons charges.



Jabotinsky’s Trial and Sentence

Jabotinsky was brought before an officer and his Arab secretary, who asked, in Arabic, for his name. When he remained silent the secretary asked again, in French, before finally getting around to English. Jabotinsky countered by refusing even to answer in English: “I shall not answer a court secretary who belongs to the tribe of the murders whose attacks upon innocent people, coupled with pillage and raping, are still going on.” [9] He was held in solitary so that he could not communicate with his men before being called as a witness at their trial. They were found guilty and sentenced to three years. His trial, also a special military field-court, was held only six days after his arrest; he was not given an attorney and the proceedings were in secret. The prosecution racked the Ottoman law books, which still applied, to find a suitable law to cover the case and could only come up with a charge of arming with the evil intent of bringing rapine and pillage. Jabotinsky had no difficulty in getting Storrs and other witnesses to admit that no one thought that the man who had come to them to plead that his men be deputized had any criminal intent. Nevertheless, he was summarily sentenced to 15 years, the same as two Arabs convicted of rape. Jabotinsky knew the case would ultimately be thrown out and, as a start, orders came from London to treat him as a special political prisoner. Storrs went to Jabotinsky’s home and brought him his clothes, and let Jabotinsky and his wife dine and drink wine in his specially furnished cell.

The Zionist prisoners and the two rapists were sent to Egypt to do their time, but the administrators there decided they did not want the complications of accepting Palestine’s political prisoners and they were sent back to serve their sentences in Acre fortress. The place was a crusader pile, complete with moat and picturesque walls falling to the sea, and his supporters, Jewish and Gentile, visualized him as a romantic sufferer. The 20 Jews were never thought of as criminals; they wore their own clothes and were allowed catered kosher food, and Jabotinsky received a constant stream of visitors. Everything was very honourable, the guards would put down their rifles to join their wards at meals. Jabotinsky started translating Sherlock Holmes into Hebrew, then turned to Omar Khayyam. He finally settled down to doing La Divina Commedia on contract for a Jewish publishing house in America, but he got bogged down almost immediately. Dante isn’t Conan Doyle, living Hebrew had stopped in the Middle Ages and modern translators had to constantly invent new words. Jabotinsky soon found that he had to first sit down and construct a rhyming dictionary before he even got going. All he was able to finish in his short incarceration were a few stanzas. (He returned frequently to the task though he was never to finish it. His Dante is seen as his major accomplishment as a translator.)

As is quite common in military court cases, the original sentences for Jabotinsky and his men were sharply reduced on review. Allenby took away 14 years, but naturally Jabotinsky wasn’t satisfied and neither was the movement. Jewish opinion both in Palestine and abroad was shocked at his arrest and the original sentence. The initial response of the Yishuv was a general Jewish strike on 19 April and another a week later. British public opinion was equally nonplussed at the sentence and sharp parliamentary questions were raised from the beginning. Jabotinsky expected the movement to keep up the pressure but Weizmann was never one to forcefully take on the British government and the campaign dwindled to little more than resolutions from Zionist bodies. But when Sir Herbert Samuel, a Jewish Liberal who had helped Weizmann get the Declaration, was sent out as the first civilian High Commissioner, he granted an amnesty to everyone connected with the riots, including the fugitive al-Husayni and the two rapists, and the prisoners were released on 8 July. Jabotinsky’s reaction was one of outrage at being put on the same level as the two common criminals, he sent Samuel a telegram: “Don’t make this mistake! Better leave me here in Acre, but don’t put me on the same level with a blackie.” [10] (Later he claimed he meant the two Arabs were morally black but Merriam Webster gives only one definition of a blackie: “a person belonging to a darkly pigmented race”. Certainly Samuel could have interpreted the term in no other way. When Jabotinsky told of the telegram at the 1921 World Zionist Congress there was an outcry at the word.) He was not content with simply being included in the amnesty. A highly verbal figure, by then used to the niceties of upper- class British bureaucracy, he had to prove his point. He insisted the WZO pay his legal fees while he fought to have the whole case expunged. At first they politely refused as, sensibly enough, they could see no point in wasting good money on a sheet of legal foolscap, but internal political considerations finally compelled them to indulge him and a year later the War Office dismissed the original charge.


The Jewish Legion Proposal Revived

Although no one knew it at the time, Jabotinsky was then at what was to be the high point of his official Zionist career. “Lieutenant Jabotinsky”, as he was referred to in keeping with the post-war usage of citing a gentleman’s war rank, had to be suitably rewarded and in March 1921 he was given a place on the World Zionist Executive. From the beginning he was the hardest of the hard-liners on the Executive. The British were considering a mixed Arab-Jewish militia to garrison the country along with British troops, and Jabotinsky got the Executive to successfully lobby against it. Few Jews would join such a force as the British never paid “colonials” as much as it did Britons; de facto, it would rapidly become an Arab army. Instead he got the Executive to propose a Jewish Legion, with the WZO promising to make up the pay differential. The Executive was genuinely concerned about the British organizing Arab troops but it never really took its own Legion proposal seriously; if the British had been at all interested in it they would have kept the original Legion. The real question facing the movement was recognizing the fact that the Legion was never to be, and that if they were going to be able to count on themselves for defence they had to build the Haganah as a clandestine organization. The question became pressing with the May 1921 pogrom in Jaffa. A fight between Jewish Communists and Labour Zionists at a Tel Aviv May Day rally had been broken up by the British; the gunshots were misunderstood by the Arabs in neighbouring Jaffa as the start of a Zionist attack on them and they started killing Jews. Before the riots ended 40 Jews were killed and menacing crowds had gathered in many other Arab cities as well. This time the sheer ferocity of the outbreak worked to Arab advantage. The British began to realize that backing the Zionists could only act to provoke the Arab masses and they temporarily banned further Jewish immigration as a gesture of concern for Arab susceptibilities. Eventually immigration was renewed but the Zionists understood that the Arabs had to fear retaliation in the event of another attack. If the pogroms continued it would only be a matter of time before the British government concluded that Zionism was too much of a burden and they would be abandoned.

Jabotinsky originally refused to have anything to do with an illegally oriented Haganah, insisting on the need to press for the Legion as a permanent component of the garrison. Were not the Zionists in Palestine by right, was not a Jewish national home official British policy? He asked the question: was Britain serious in patronizing Zionism? If so, a Legion followed automatically. The Arabs would always interpret its absence as meaning that the British were still unsure of their aims and they would never stop pressing the British government until they got their way. He was, as Schechtman conceded, more than a little fanatic in holding for a legal unit, slow to realize that it was grimly necessary to build a here-and-now Haganah while politically still calling for the Legion. The controversy discredited him among the local Zionist leadership who came to agree with Weizmann that he was totally unrealistic as to what could be got out of the British given the parallelogram of forces.


Retraction of British Support for a Jewish State

In November 1921 the Executive sent him to the United States for what turned out to be a seven-month tour for the Jewish national fund. In his absence the British decided that the Jaffa riots were a warning that they were courting disaster if they attempted to turn Palestine into an eventual Jewish state. On 3 June 1922, Churchill, then Colonial Secretary, sent the Zionist Executive a draft of a White Paper that clearly announced that it had never been the intention of the government to establish a Jewish state. Churchill drew attention to the literal wording of the Declaration which, he claimed, did not “contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded in Palestine”. [11] Worse yet, Trans-Jordan was summarily removed from the “national home”. The White Paper was an immense setback for, although the Declaration had not mentioned a Jewish majority or state, there was no doubt that Balfour had given the Zionists a chance to become the majority within the country and that, then, as Lloyd George later wrote in his memoirs, “Palestine would thus become a Jewish commonwealth”. [12]

Jabotinsky arrived back in London on 17 June. Churchill demanded the Executive’s reply for the next morning – if they failed to comply, there would be worse to come. Jabotinsky knew that Weizmann had not forcefully lobbied against the Colonial Secretary. He tried to get them to give a qualified assent. When they passively agreed to Churchill’s terms he refused to sign their final document. But he deliberately did not resign in protest; quitting them in the hour of defeat smacked too much of disloyalty for him.


Jabotinsky and the WZO

After the White Paper it was clear that Jabotinsky had matured into a total opponent of the WZO’s leaders. He was all aggression; they were modest, acquiescent, bourgeois and bureaucratic. Almost alone on the Executive in his ideas, he could do nothing against people such as these and being on the Executive in those circumstances was pointless, ultimately he could only resign and organize an opposition faction. The inevitable finally happened the next year, at the January 1923 Actions Committee meeting in Berlin. He presented the Committee with three resolutions:

  1. The government was to be summarily informed that tepid support was not enough, that uncertainty over the extent of British backing was causing investors and donors to hold back, thus bringing the Yishuv to ultimate bankruptcy.
  2. All anti-Semites and anti-Zionists were to be removed from the Mandatory administration.
  3. The WZO was publicly declare that it stood by its historic aims.

The other Executive members put it to him very simply: why did he not simply resign instead of wasting both his and their time trying to convince them? The Executive was Zionism’s cabinet, not its parliament. Their point was well taken, but not to Jabotinsky’s way of thinking. He saw himself as the point runner of Zionism, indispensable to the cause. He had done nothing to break discipline, they could not force him out and, as of 17 January, he refused to quit. Then, without warning, when the Actions Committee convened again on the morning of the 18th, a messenger handed their president his letter of resignation. He wrote later that his decision was taken after discussion with friends, but Schechtman, certainly no enemy, is convinced that he took the step strictly by himself. He did talk, or rather listen, to friends tell him not to quit. The point is important because that day, the 18th, he was supposed to face a special inquiry on his relations with the Ukrainian pogromist Simon Petliura (see Chapter 6). Jabotinsky was never again to hold an official position in the hierarchy of Zion.


The Situation in Retrospect

In 1923, Jabotinsky’s name was virtually unheard of – even most Jews would have hardly recognized it. But within the Zionist world he was probably better known than anyone except Weizmann. His role in the 1920 pogrom and his subsequent incarceration had made him a hero even to many outside the movement. In retrospect, we see that it was to be his finest hour. But even here, realistically, what can be said about both the pogrom and Jabotinsky except that it was a racist pogrom countered by a racist and a militarist? His best and his worst sides came forth. He was always brave. Certainly he was railroaded to prison; anyone utilizing such circumstances to translate Dante is hardly an intellectual fly-weight. But refusing to speak to the court secretary because he was an Arab was racism, and calling anyone a “blackie”, even a rapist or a pogrom instigator, is the same as calling him a nigger. Jabotinsky was an avowed believer in racial separation and the general cultural inferiority of the Arabs. At the very best he can only be seen as a brave ultra-rightist, nothing more. That Arab resistance to Zionism took the form of a pogrom should not blind people today, with their awareness of the hyper-intensity of nationalism, generated both by Nazism and then the post-war epoch of national independence wars, to the inevitability of a struggle against both Britain and the Zionists. Centuries of Turkish rule produced a poverty stricken province with a corrupt effendi layer and ignorance and fanaticism below it. This was the basis of Zionism’s ability to take root in the land. Rioting was always followed by long periods of mass exhaustion. The low level of Palestinian culture was, however, only a precondition for success. The presence of the British was indispensable. The Zionists point out that the British did not protect them in 1920-1. True enough, except that ultimately the British army did disperse the mobs. Without the British army, a Haganah based on the tiny Zionist Yishuv would have been driven into the sea even by such as the then Palestinian elite. Britain, of course, had no more right to be in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv than it had to be in Dublin and Belfast or Delhi and Karachi. It is only in the West, with its colonialist history, that Zionists still dare to come forth with such as the Balfour Declaration, the Faisal-Weizmann agreement and other legalisms from the age of empire and potentates as their title-deeds to another people’s country. To the great mass of humanity who suffered under the imperialist yoke, especially that of the British Empire, such citations only serve to demonstrate the reactionary nature of Zionism.




1. Hansard, 1905.

2. Leonard Stein (ed), Weizmann, Letters, vol. VII, p.81.

3. Winston Churchill, Zionism versus Bolshevism, Illustrated Sunday Herald, 8 February 1920, p.5.

4. Ibid.

5. Ronald Storrs, Orientations, p.405.

6. Jabotinsky, Story of the Jewish Legion, p.80.

7. Schechtman, Rebel and Statesman, p.321.

8. Weizmann, Trial and Error, p.254.

9. Schechtman, p.331.

10. Ibid.,p. 362.

11. Laqueur, The Israeli-Arab Reader, p.46.

12. Weizmann, p.212.


Last updated on 4.8.2001