Jabotinsky: A Life

Jabotinsky: A Life

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by Hillel Halkin

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Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880–1940) was a man of huge paradoxes and contradictions and has been the most misunderstood of all Zionist politicians--a first-rate novelist, a celebrated Russian journalist, and the founder of the branch of Zionism now headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. This biography, the first in English in nearly two decades, undertakes to answer central


Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880–1940) was a man of huge paradoxes and contradictions and has been the most misunderstood of all Zionist politicians--a first-rate novelist, a celebrated Russian journalist, and the founder of the branch of Zionism now headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. This biography, the first in English in nearly two decades, undertakes to answer central questions about Jabotinsky as a writer, a political thinker, and a leader. Hillel Halkin sets aside the stereotypes to which Jabotinsky has been reduced by his would-be followers and detractors alike.

Halkin explains the importance of Odessa, Jabotinsky’s native city, in molding his character and outlook; discusses his novels and short stories, showing the sometimes hidden connections between them and Jabotinsky’s political thought, and studies a political career that ended in tragic failure. Halkin also addresses Jabotinsky’s position, unique among the great figures of Zionist history, as both a territorial maximalist and a principled believer in democracy. The author inquires why Jabotinsky was often accused of fascist tendencies though he abhorred authoritarian and totalitarian politics, and investigates the many opposed aspects of his personality and conduct while asking whether or not they had an ultimate coherence. Few figures in twentieth-century Jewish life were quite so admired and loathed, and Halkin’s splendid, subtle book explores him with empathy and lucidity.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Increasingly forgotten except by the Zionist right, Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940), the founder of the movement's Revisionist wing, was an ideological father to Israeli prime ministers Menachem Begin and Benjamin Netanyahu. While conceding that, unlike Herzl, Weizmann, and Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky "never had their power to influence events," writer, critic, and translator Halkin (Melisande! What Are Dreams?) profiles a man who was as much an intellectual and writer as a political leader. Jabotinsky knew eight languages and penned a fictional work, The Five, which Halkin calls "one of the finest twentieth century Russian novels." Yet he also spearheaded the effort to found the first modern Jewish army, the Jewish Brigade, during WWI; was prescient about the Palestinians' fierce attachment to the land; and clashed bitterly with Ben-Gurion. Halkin's biographical pacing is sometimes off; he devotes too much space to Jabotinsky's early years in Rome and too little to the tumultuous pre-Holocaust years. And in an otherwise imaginative and thoughtful epilogue in which Halkin imagines speaking to Jabotinsky today in the Paris café the Revisionist leader used to haunt, Halkin romanticizes him as "the least ideological of all Zionists." These flaws aside, Halkin's work should return Jabotinsky to the minds of those seriously interested in modern Zionist and Israeli history. (June)
Chicago Jewish Star

"For many, [this book] will open up a man and his ideas whose influence is still felt today and who had an important role in the ideological struggles that shaped the Zionist movement and the modern Jewish state."—Chicago Jewish Star

FrontPage Magazine

"Hillel Halkin has done the impossible: He has gracefully condensed the story of this complex tragic figure into a page-turner that is at once concise and a rattling good read."—FrontPage Magazine

Wall Street Journal - Douglas J. Feith

"Mr. Halkin's book presents [Jabotinsky] in all his hardheaded but humane complexity."—Douglas J. Feith, Wall Street Journal

Arts Fuse - Harvey Blume

"Given the war, or rather, wars, roiling the Middle East, this is a particularly good time to rethink the legacy of Zionist leader Vladmir Jabotinsky, as Hillel Halkin invites readers to do in his compact and evocative new biography."—Harvey Blume, Arts Fuse

Washington Monthly - Jacob Heilbrunn

"[An] excellent biography . . . Halkin, an award-winning writer, critic, and translator, sets Jabotinsky, who was born in 1880, in the context of his time."—Jacob Heilbrunn, Washington Monthly

New York Review of Books - Avishai Margalit

"A beautifully written short biography of an exceedingly interesting man: a novelist, translator, poet, playwright, journalist, polemicist, and probably the most remarkable public speaker in modern Jewish life. Halkin’s account of him is credible and vivid."—Avishai Margalit, New York Review of Books

Jerusalem Post

"Concise and highly readable."—Jerusalem Post

San Diego Jewish World

"An intellectually deep book which is insightful and historic – and worthwhile reading for anyone interested in Zionist history and the life of a great Jewish hero. Every Jewish library needs a copy of Jabotinsky: A Life By Hillel Halkin."—San Diego Jewish World

Jewish Chronicle

"A revelatory exploration of Vladimir Jabotinsky."—Jewish Chronicle

Times of Israel

"Halkin’s exquisite translation strikingly reveals the personal side of a man so often vilified in the press for his uncompromising political stands. In a similar way, Halkin’s literary criticism offers unparalleled insights into little known aspects of Jabotinsky’s career, and his discussion of the Jabotinsky’s novel, The Five . . . is probably the best analysis of the novel to date."—Times of Israel

Jewish Week Well-Versed Blog

"Remarkable . . . Deftly traces and provides new insight into Jabotinsky's journey from Odessa childhood to Italian University dandy to renowned journalist to Zionist icon. Reading Halkin's book confirms Jabotinsky’s place as the 20th century’s most prescient Jewish political thinker."—Jewish Week Well-Versed Blog

Los Angeles Review of Books Marginalia Blog

"A well-written, passionate survey of Jabotinsky’s life and contributions to political Zionism from the perspective of an admirer who tries — and largely succeeds — to bring to life this multifaceted and divisive figure."—Marginalia Blog, Los Angeles Review of Books

Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs

"The author uses Jabotinsky’s literary works to analyze his character. At the outset, Halkin describes for the reader the problems of Eastern European Jewry, while creating a link to Jabotinsky and events that influenced and shaped his views. In so doing, he creates a broad perspective on Jabotinsky’s character and the events in his life. The book is unique in that Halkin enables readers to understand the link between Jabotinsky’s literary writings, his political ideas, and his lifestyle."—Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs

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A Life



Copyright © 2014 Hillel Halkin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-13662-3


The Young Jabotinsky

Although the Londonskaya in Odessa was the most palatial hotel my wife and I had ever stayed in, our room was a simple one on the top floor, where the servants' quarters once were. The grand suites started on the floor below, past which the elevator didn't go. To reach it we had to circumnavigate a long, dark hallway and climb down a narrow flight of stairs. Only then did we emerge in the broad corridors with their high, carved wooden doors, chandeliered ceilings, elaborate parquet floors, stained-glass windows, and great carpeted stairway sweeping down to the lobby as though for a Tsarina to descend on to a ball.

It wasn't all genuinely Tsarist. Built in 1827, the Londonskaya was extensively renovated at the start of this century after falling into disrepair during the long years of Communist rule. So was the entire old center of Odessa, which was founded in 1794 by Catherine the Great, on territory wrested from the Turks, to be Russia's Black Sea gateway to the world. Set on a flat promontory overlooking a gulf into which empty three of Europe's greatest rivers, the Danube, the Dniester, and the Dnieper, its once-again stately streets with their languorous names—Pushkinskaya, Longeronovskaya, Richelievskaya, Yekaterinskaya, Deribasovskaya—abut a strip of leafy greenery sloping down to a busy port. A few hundred yards to the Londonskaya's left, at the foot of a commanding statue of Odessa's second governor, Duke Armand de Richelieu, dressed in the toga of a Roman senator, the slope is cut by Odessa's famed "boulevard of stairs" Their nearly two hundred broad steps were made an icon of the city by Sergei Eisenstein's Soviet-era film The Battleship Potemkin with its melodramatic scene of troops firing, during the 1905 anti-Tsarist uprising, on a crowd of demonstrators that flees, falls, and tumbles down them, followed by a sleeping baby in a runaway carriage.

Farther away from the water, past Cathedral Square and its neoclassical Church of the Incarnation, renovated Odessa comes to an end and leaves the rest of the city still moldering. "It's all a big show," we were warned in advance by an ex-Odessan in Israel. Still, it's a fine show, especially if you've come to it on the trail of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the great Zionist politician and writer who was born in Odessa in 1880. Although Jabotinsky left Odessa when he was seventeen, lived in it only intermittently thereafter, and said a last goodbye to it before World War I, a part of him always remained there—and what remained in him of it, the city he grew up in, studied in as a boy, worked in as a young journalist, and wrote his wonderful novel The Five about, was either in or just beyond the elegant downtown above the sea now restored to its former architectural glory.

A gift of the sea is what the most gorgeous of its creations, Odessa's opera house and municipal theater, looks like. One of the first buildings you come to if you turn away from Richelieu upon leaving the Londonskaya and head in the opposite direction, its curving, sand-colored walls and conch-white pillars and porticos suggest a great, intricately whorled seashell. The story is told, tempting to believe, that its Italian construction workers sang arias as they laid and plastered its bricks. Unable to get a glimpse of its interior, I had to content myself with a description by The Five's narrator, a young journalist attending a performance of the opera Mona Vanna, of its "blazing crystal, gilt, caryatids, and red velvet chairs" that reflected "all the splendor of our carefree, contented Odessa."

Carefree, contented Odessa! Never mind that by The Five's end the city has become a bubbling stew of popular discontent, rising ethnic tensions, and that fumy mixture of decadence and revolutionary ferment that heralds the explosive ends of epochs. While this was the Odessa that Jabotinsky said farewell to and that helped make him an active Zionist, the Odessa he looked back on nostalgically was a lighter-hearted place. A gneyvishe shtot, "a thievish city," he once called it, using a Yiddish expression that meant not only that it was a freewheeling town in which one had to survive by one's wits, but that its roguishness stole one's affections. "Nowhere," he wrote in his memoirs, "but in Odessa—that is, in the Odessa of those years—was the air ever so full of soft gaiety and light intoxication, without the slightest hint of psychological complications." One of the striking things about these memoirs when compared with the reminiscences of other Jewish authors of the age who were raised in the shtetlakh, the villages and provincial towns of the Tsarist empire, is their untroubled sense of at-homeness in the world. "I have friends and acquaintances from many places [in Russia]," Jabotinsky remarked,

and I have often heard them speak of their formative years and felt (I'm referring to the Jews among them) that they grew up in an atmosphere thick with the grimness and bitter salt of Jewish tragedy.... Perhaps Jewish society in such places was more deeply and consciously "Jewish" and far better educated in Jewish terms. Yet I've always thought that in their psyches, from childhood on, these Jews lived in a harsh climate, under gray skies—always in a state of war in which they had to fight their way forward while defending themselves against countless enemies. This may have been, I admit, a better training ground for a Jewish existence; it created more profound, perhaps more finely attuned types. Odessa was never profound about anything—but for that reason it never pecked at the soul. Having no traditions, it didn't fear new ways of life or doing things. This made us Jews more temperamental and less hungry for success; more cynical, but not so bitter.

Odessa was indeed a unique place for nineteenth-century Russian Jews, the only large Russian city they weren't barred from. For Jewish inhabitants of the Pale of Settlement, the extensive area of rural western Russia to which they were legally confined after its acquisition by the Tsarist empire in the 1772, 1793, and 1795 partitions of Poland, cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiev were out-of-bounds; special permits, obtainable only by a limited number of wealthy or professionally trained Jews, were needed to live in them. Newly established Odessa, to which the Russian government sought to attract settlers, was the exception. Drawn by its boom-town economy, Jews flocked to it. By 1850 there were more than fifteen thousand of them, comprising twenty percent of the city's residents and over fifty percent of its merchant class; thirty years later, they were a quarter of a population that had swelled to three hundred thousand. A main street was named Yevreskaya or "Jews' Street," and "living like God in Odessa" was a proverbial Jewish way of saying "living high." The impressions of a provincial Jew arriving in the city for the first time are conveyed in a letter sent home to his wife by Sholem Aleichem's comic fictional character Menachem-Mendl, who has gone to Odessa to seek his fortune. "Words fail me," he writes,

in describing the grandeur and beauty of the city of Odessa, the fine character of its inhabitants, and the wonderful opportunities that exist here. Just imagine: I take my walking stick and venture out on Greek Street, as the place where Jews do business is called, and there are twenty thousand different things to deal in. If I want wheat, there's wheat. If I feel like wool, there's wool. If I'm in the mood for bran, there's bran. Flour, salt, feathers, raisins, jute, herring—you name it and you have it in Odessa.

Menachem-Mendl, who ultimately loses his shirt in Odessa's stock market, was writing about 1900, when no other major European city apart from Warsaw had such a high proportion of Jews. Yet Odessa's Jews differed from Warsaw's. Although they, too, were mainly Yiddish-speaking emigrants from the shtetl, they were at a greater remove from it geographically and psychologically. The first wave of them had come, often from considerable distances, to a new city with no Jewish institutions, and while these were built in the course of time, Odessan Jewry remained less traditional and less subject to rabbinical influence than other Eastern European Jewish communities. Warsaw's wealth of neighborhood synagogues, yeshivas, and Hasidic courts was not duplicated by Odessa; though the latter had its share of observant Jews, it had more than its share of laxer ones, and observance, too, took on more liberal forms in it. The Yiddish maxim that zibn mayl arum Odes brent der gehenm, "the fires of hell burn seven miles around Odessa," alluded as much to the alleged impiety of the city's Jews as to its brothels, gambling houses, speculators, racketeers, and port full of sailors and adventurers.

Ethnically, too, Odessa was unlike Warsaw. Warsaw had Jews and Poles, a large minority and a larger majority, each speaking its own language, living in its own social and economic world, and regarding the other with distrust. Odessa had only minorities. An international city from the start, its first planners and rulers were French and Italian aristocrats brought from abroad by Catherine and her successors; for a while, in fact, before yielding to Russian, Italian was Odessa's lingua franca. Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Moldavians, Greeks, Turks, Tatars, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, and Armenians mingled in its streets as equals. Of these groups, Jews were the largest, and while exposed to prejudice and even occasional anti-Semitic violence, they were not generally scapegoated or discriminated against. In a place where each "us" had many "thems," no single "them" was deemed the exclusive menace that Jews were elsewhere.

As a result, Odessa's Jews, who viewed the Russian language and its culture less as assimilatory lures or dangers than as a practical means of intercourse with their often equally non-Russian neighbors, underwent Russification more quickly than did the Jews of the Pale of Settlement, where the Tsarist regime sought to impose it from above. The son of small- town, Yiddish-speaking parents, Jabotinsky is a case in point. His father Yona—"Yoyne" to his Jewish friends and Yevgeni Grigorievitch to his Russian acquaintances—came from Nikopol, a river port on the Dnieper; his mother, Chava or Eva Zak, from Berdichev, a Ukrainian shtetl so heavily Jewish that even its Christians were said to know Yiddish. Yet though Chava spoke Russian so poorly that, as Jabotinsky put it, she "wreaked havoc" on it with every sentence, it was in Russian and not in Yiddish—as it would have been in Warsaw—that he was raised. Scolded by his Russian nanny if he uttered a Yiddish word, he nevertheless heard enough of what he called his mother's "juicy Berdichev Yiddish" to acquire a passive knowledge of it that, with the help of the remarkable linguistic facility he was gifted with, he fully activated as an adult.

The Jabotinskys lived on Bazarnaya Street, a fifteen-minute walk from the municipal theater. The two-story, grey stone building whose top floor they rented is still standing. Although like most of the houses of old Odessa it now faces a mournfully rundown courtyard entered by a gateway whose keeper and gate have long vanished, it was a dignified middle-class residence in the late nineteenth century. Yona Jabotinsky was a grain agent, a profitable occupation at a time when Russia exported, via the Black Sea, vast amounts of Ukrainian wheat to Western Europe. An employee of the Russian Navigation and Commerce Company, the largest of the wheat-exporting firms, he plied the towns along the Dnieper, arranging for the purchase, transport, and storage of the annual crop and its loading onto the boats that brought it to Odessa. Long after his death at an early age in 1886, he was affectionately remembered by his associates as a hearty, good-natured man with a gift for getting along. He died of cancer after an extended stay for medical treatment in Germany that ate up the family's savings, leaving Chava Jabotinsky a hard-pressed widow with her six-year-old son Vladimir or Volodya (his Hebrew name of Ze'ev was rarely used), and her ten-year-old daughter Tamara or Tania. Jabotinsky's lifelong dislike of Germany and the German language—in which, too, he developed an adult fluency based on a childhood foundation—went back to his association of them with his father's illness and death.

Chava opened a small stationery store on the corner of Richelievskaya and Yevreskaya Streets, opposite the Great or Choral Synagogue, Odessa's largest place of Jewish worship, renowned for its children's choirs and operatic cantors. (Its congregants were described by Menachem-Mendl, accustomed to the more intimate and less decorous services of the shtetl, as sitting as silently as theater goers while "chewing their cud in their little prayer shawls and ritzy top hats.... Try praying loud enough for God to hear you and a beadle comes over and tells you to hush!") The family moved to cramped quarters in the courtyard behind the store, and soon afterwards, to an even smaller attic apartment nearby, where it barely managed to make ends meet with the assistance of Chava's elder brother, a well-off businessman.

A second brother, a lawyer, tried convincing Chava to send her son to a vocational school to learn a trade, but the advice was indignantly rejected as unbefitting a boy from a good Jewish family and Volodya was enrolled in a private Russian elementary school. Jabotinsky's short story "Squirrel," whose nine-year-old protagonist lives in an unnamed Black Sea city with his widowed mother, depicts this as a progressive institution. Run by two women whose young charges called them by their first names alone, it had the reputation of being "a crazy establishment" because of its unheard-of practice of co- education. To encourage a spirit of sharing, the boys and girls were divided into couples that pooled their lunchboxes. If he happened to have a sardine, the narrator writes, his partner got the tail, "or even the body if she was nice that day," in return for which he was given half of her corn cob, although he sometimes had to pull her hair to remind her that she had already eaten its first half.

Though fatherless, Jabotinsky had by his own testimony a happy childhood. A high-spirited, independent, self-confident boy, he was remembered by a friend as once answering, when asked whose son he was so that he might be punished for a misdeed, "I'm just me." Another time, slapped by a Russian army officer for playing too loudly in a courtyard, he hurled himself at his far larger assailant and tried striking back. Perhaps his buoyancy came from the personality of the father he had not known for long; perhaps from the love and devotion of a mother who scrimped for his education by such things as eating the stale remains of the bread she bought every day for her children; perhaps from the streets of Odessa, in which he roamed freely without supervision, often playing hooky from school. Classrooms bored him. Writing decades later as a parent himself, he would say:

I've seen children who loved their schools. I envy them—but to tell the truth, I understand them no more than a blind man understands what sunlight looks like. To this day my instinct, which no other father would probably admit to, is to hate good students, those that always do their homework. The only kind I've ever loved were the mischief makers.

Like all Russian high schools at the time, Odessa's had a Jewish quota, and Jabotinsky's first applications to them were turned down. Only after attending a special preparatory school, from which he was nearly expelled for helping a classmate cheat on a Latin exam, was he admitted to the Richelieu Lycée; there he put his talents to better use, earning pocket money by writing compositions for his classmates. (At the start of one school year, he recalled in a later newspaper column, he produced an essay on "My Summer Vacation" for a large number of clients, taking care to invent a different summer for each.) Often, he cut classes to wander in the port and fish from its stone piers, and he preferred spending the hours after school with friends to preparing lessons. These were not always passed frivolously. He and his friends read serious books, and a group of them even produced a newspaper called Pravda, "Truth," using a hectograph or primitive printing device on which copies were made by being pressed on an inked screen. The paper's irreverent contributors had to be censored by its editor to keep it from being banned by the school authorities, and Jabotinsky's column, he later boasted, was blue-penciled the most. It was the start of his journalistic career.

Most of his friends were Jewish. As he was to recall:

There were about ten of us [Jewish students] in our class. We sat together, and if we met in someone's home to play, read, or just "shoot the breeze," it was always by ourselves. Not that some of us didn't have Russian friends—I myself, for example, was on very good terms with Vsevolod Lebedentsev, a capital fellow ... but though I often visited him in his home and was visited by him in mine, it never occurred to me to introduce him to my "gang," just as he never introduced me to his—nor did I even know if he had one. And even stranger was the fact that my Jewish gang had nothing Jewish about it. The literature we read wasn't Jewish, and we argued about Nietzsche, morality, and sex, not about the fate of Russian Jewry, though this was ultimately our fate, too.


Excerpted from Jabotinsky by HILLEL HALKIN. Copyright © 2014 Hillel Halkin. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Hillel Halkin is a writer, critic, and translator. He is the author of Across the Sabbath River and Yehuda Halevi, both of which won the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book is Melisande! What Are Dreams? He lives in Israel.

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Jabotinsky: A Life 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent read from Author Hillel Halkin. His take on Vladimir Jabotinsky was absolutely fantastic.