Vladimir Jabotinsky (with eyeglasses) and members of the Betar youth movement, Lublin, 1930. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)

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Jabotinsky, Vladimir

(1880–1940), Zionist leader, founder of Revisionist Party. Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky was born in Odessa to an assimilated, middle-class Jewish family. He was educated entirely in Russian, and as a teenager spent two years in Bern and Rome studying law. Even before leaving Odessa, he had written poetry and articles for local liberal publications, and continued this work while in Rome. After his return to Odessa, he was the chief cultural correspondent for the prestigious Russian daily Odessa News, for which he wrote daily reviews of cultural events under the pseudonym Altalena.

In 1903, Zionist groups in Odessa asked Jabotinsky to join their ranks, and at their bidding he attended the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel. There he became committed to the movement, voting with the Russian delegates against the Uganda proposal but developing nonetheless a profound admiration for Theodor Herzl. Upon his return to Russia he campaigned actively for Zionism, at first emphasizing its cultural goals and especially supporting the founding of Hebrew language schools in the Diaspora and in the Land of Israel. At that point, Jabotinsky’s political concerns centered mainly on his opposition to the Bund and other non- and anti-Zionist Jewish parties. In 1908 he was sent to Istanbul to advance the Zionist cause there. Soon, however, he became a forceful advocate of a Jewish fighting force under the auspices of the Zionist movement.

With the outbreak of World War I, Jabotinsky became a founder of the Jewish Legion in the British Army, and after the conquest of Palestine by the British, he helped organize the Jewish defense force Haganah, an action that led to his arrest for seditious activity and his subsequent sentence to hard labor. While in the Acre prison, and then in the aftermath of his release and amnesty as a result of worldwide protests, he developed an idiosyncratic version of Zionism, which he called Revisionist Zionism, signaling a return to the original political goals of Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau. Revisionism advocated a majority Jewish state on both banks of the Jordan River, and opposed the socialism and class-conflict politics of the Socialist Zionist parties. After the creation of Transjordan, Jabotinsky forcefully opposed Chaim Weizmann’s continuing cooperation with the British, and thus came into sharp conflict both with Weizmann and the leaders of Labor Zionism, particularly David Ben-Gurion. Jabotinsky’s alienation from the mainstream of the Zionist movement was heightened in 1921, when, while still a member of the Zionist Executive, he signed a highly controversial agreement with the Petliura regime of Ukraine. While Jabotinsky had been a lifelong advocate of Ukrainian culture and had supported political independence from Russia, the regime was widely regarded by Jews as antisemitic and responsible for mass pogroms. This act further alienated Jabotinsky from the mainstream of the movement.

In 1923 Jabotinsky founded the youth organization Betar as a platform for his increasingly right-wing militant Zionism. Emphasizing the concept of hadar (Heb., pride), Betar demanded strong discipline and military training. This movement soon spread throughout Poland and the Baltic States, as well as to Palestine and North and South America, occasioning both great loyalty among its ranks and severe attacks from other Jewish movements that regarded it as emulating the militarist and fascist youth movements then gaining strength in Italy and Germany. In 1925, Jabotinsky established the World Union of Zionist-Revisionists; under his strong leadership this movement seceded from the World Zionist Organization. In 1935 the Revisionist movement itself split, with Jabotinsky heading the more moderate forces renamed the New Zionist Organization, as opposed to a more extreme, protofascist segment of the party. This split was later manifested in Palestine in the formation of the Irgun, under Jabotinsky’s spiritual command, as opposed to Leḥi, known in English as the Stern Gang. At the deliberations of the Peel Commission in 1937, Jabotinsky spoke out vehemently against the partition of Palestine, arguing for Jewish rights to all of Palestine including Transjordan. He also soon came to advocate the Nordau plan of mass emigration from Eastern Europe, fearing the fate of East European Jewry in a new world war. During a tour of the United States in 1940, he died suddenly, and due to the animosity toward him on the part of Ben-Gurion, his remains were not returned to Israel until after Ben-Gurion’s final resignation as prime minister in 1964.

Apart from his many volumes of political prose, Jabotinsky was an accomplished essayist, poet, translator, and novelist who wrote in Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. A world-famous orator, Jabotinsky spellbound his audiences in a dozen languages. Decades after his death, he is still revered in Israel and the Jewish Diaspora by Revisionist Zionists and their political representatives in the Likud Party of Israeli politics.

Suggested Reading

Joseph B. Schechtman, The Vladimir Jabotinsky Story, 2 vols. (New York, 1956–1961); Jacob Shavit, Jabotinsky and the Revisionist Movement, 1925–1948 (Totowa, N.J., 1988); Michael Stanislawski, Zionism and the Fin-de-Siècle: Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism from Nordau to Jabotinsky (Berkeley, 2001).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1139, Abraham Cahan, Papers, 1906-1952; RG 208, Chaim Zhitlowsky, Papers, 1882-1953; RG 211, Samuel Rosenfeld, Papers, ca. 1900-1942; RG 713, Herman Bernstein, Papers, 1897-1935 (finding aid).