For anyone seeking to understand the continuing prominence of the Likud Party in Israeli politics the story of its progenitor, Vladimir Jabotinsky, is essential. A talented writer raised in an assimilated Odessa family, Jabotinsky threw himself into Zionism after witnessing the 1903 Kishinev pogrom. He spent the rest of his life advocating for a Jewish state in Palestine, and died in 1940 in New York while campaigning for a Jewish army to fight the Nazis.
For many years, little of Jabotinsky’s original work was available in English. That situation has changed, however, with the 2006 publication by Cornell University Press of an English translation of Jabotinsky’s novel “The Five.” Now with Brian Horowitz and Leonid Katsis’ edited and annotated version of his autobiographical “Story of My Life,” published by Wayne State University Press. This version is based on a translation the editors discovered in the Jabotinsky Institute in Tel Aviv, and while their intent may be to make the Zionist-Revisionist leader’s work more available for literary purposes, the translation is also valuable for those interested in understanding his political trajectory.
The narrator of “Story of My Life” is not the militant Zionist and enemy of labor depicted by his opponents in the mid 1930’s, but rather a sensitive intellectual journalist recounting his life from birth through the start of the World War. Jabotinsky opens the story with the confession that the book is the story of the writer and public figure but “not the private life of the man.” Yet in the in the first section, “My Origins,” he discloses some important personal factors, including his mother’s efforts to save his ailing father. Jabotinsky writes “Only yesterday she had a home full of every refinement; her husband, a nobleman, king, and ruler in his own milieu, and she, his queen.”
Most striking is Jabotinsky’s discussion of his father, a grain dealer, and leading agent for the purchase of wheat from the region around the Dnieper River, which supplied food for the entirety of Europe. Jabotinsky recounts that the praise the grain merchants heaped upon his father left a “powerful impression of the intricate combination of connections, relations and networks of influence” uniting different parts of the world. In this discussion we can see the source of his vehement articles in defense of the economic role of the Jew as a middleman in an era where Labor Zionism was the dominant ideology, as well as a parallel to his fellow Odessan and Red Army founder Leon Trotsky, whose farmer father was nearly ruined by the same grain industry.
One thing the autobiography discloses is that Jabotinsky did not come to Zionism in a single jolt, but rather through a gradual process. Though he recalls his mother’s early remarks that the Jews would one day have a state, his teenage years were mostly devoid of Jewish identification. Later, in the summer of 1898, after he had journeyed to Bern, Switzerland, and before he went to study in Rome, he began to write Zionist literature.
These initial Zionist sentiments come to a head in the chapter, “Kishinev,” which detail his efforts to form a Jewish self-defense force in Odessa. The pogrom, however, did not come in Odessa, however, but rather in the city of Kishinev. Curiously, Jabotinsky recounts that he could not remember the effect the pogrom had on him nor was he surprised by the Jewish cowardice he saw revealed in Kishinev, though the repudiation of such cowardice would come to be a hallmark of his political program.
Between 1904 and 1908, Jabotinsky wandered through Russia speaking on Zionism while writing for the Russian press. Contrary to rumor, he was not considered one of the top-ranking journalists in Russia at the time. The Zionist firebrand’s work in those years largely consisted of polemics against assimilationists and the Bund and propaganda in favor of self-defense and national rights for Russian Jewry.
From a political point of view one of Jabotinsky’s most illuminating insights is his discussion of Ber Borochov, the socialist Zionist thinker he recalled as standing on the threshold of genius. Borochov theorized that there were two types of galut, or diaspora — “normal” and “acute.” While the “acute” was marked by pogroms, the normal galut, even one with honors, was nevertheless still a diaspora, according to Borochov. In response to Borochov, Jabotinsky tried to formulate his own modest theory, that the national rights Jews in the diaspora demanded were simply the organization of the ultimate exodus to Palestine.
After the Turkish revolution of 1908, Jabotinsky wound up editing several Zionist newspapers in Turkey. There in 1910 he opposed the distribution of Jacobus Kahn’s book calling for a Jewish army, political autonomy, and a Hebrew government for Palestine. Jabotinsky feared it would prompt the Turks to close down the Zionist office in Constantinople. Ironically, Jabotinsky would later himself be attacked by less aggressive Zionists for advocating the same things.
While Jabotinsky’s full life has been covered in a number of biographies, “Story of My Life” is a must read for anyone seeking to understand his early years. Good for the editors who saw the English version to publication. The editors include but one picture in the volume, the cover of a 1933 issue of the Betar journal, a publication of the youth movement founded by Jabotinsky. Listed in the table of contents is an article by B. Netanyahu, father of the current Israeli Prime Minister.