Jabotinsky: A Life, by Hillel Halkin (REVIEW)
The new book by Hillel Halkin, “Jabotinsky: A Life” (Yale University Press) is unlike any other book I have ever read about a man I consider to be a personal hero: Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Jabotinsky helped shape my life and my Judaism even though I was born 34 years after his death. Growing up in the Betar Youth Movement, Jabotinsky’s teachings have helped shape many of my world (and life) views.
His ideas have also helped shape modern Israeli politics, since he was the founder of Revisionist Zionism, which is now represented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As a former National President of Betar North America – Jabotinsky’s youth movement, I am well versed and well-read in the work and legend of this Jewish hero. Halkin’s book is rich in background about the man’s personal life, details about how being raised in Odessa shaped his worldview, details about Jabotinsky’s travels throughout Europe, his successful career as a journalist, and then the period of his life where “his Zionist activity dominated all else.”
Jabotinsky’s position as a visionary and brilliant political thinker – a prophet – is reconfirmed throughout the book as the author quotes many of Jabotinsky’s statements that still ring true today on the Middle East. Like many other great political leaders, the man was undoubtedly not an easy person and was conflicted on many issues. It is as clear as ever from reading this book that Ze’ev Jabotinsky is one of the leaders responsible for the existence of a modern-day State of Israel.
While Halkin’s own political slant is evident throughout the book, the background he provides is insightful. As this biography is the first written on Jabotinsky in nearly twenty years, it’s fascinating reading, and it’s amazing to see that while so much time has passed – in so many ways, so little has changed. The right and left in Israel still bicker about the same issues, and points of conflict with the Palestinian Arabs are seemingly quite similar. Jabotinsky’s ideology, which endorsed the need for free-market capitalism, freedom of speech and assembly, majority rule, and equality for all, are all positions that still benefit Israel.
In an entirely different era, he clinged to his firm-belief that Jews needed an army of their own. As quoted in the book, Jabotinsky asked in a speech to a Polish Jewish audience: “Is a situation moral in which one side can commit any crime or murder and the other is forbidden to react?”
These words are just as relevant today as no matter what happens to the Jewish State, Israel is to blame. Jabotinsky also asks a question that today can also be used to show the disparity between Arabs living in Israel, and the inability of Jews to visit Arab nations: “Jews can’t let themselves be seen on the roads of Palestine – but the Arab in Tel Aviv feels at home. He gets up in the morning and sets out and knocks on the Jews’ door and says ‘Good morning. I have brought some vegetables’ – and nothing happens. He’s not afraid of being harmed… How long can this go on? Forever? Why, under such circumstances should the Arabs stop what they are doing?”
There is discussion of Jabotinsky’s involvement – 85 years ago – with the issue Jewish prayer at the Western Wall and Temple Mount. And there are many other viewpoints and historical anecdotes, large and small, which I had never seen reported anywhere before. (Who knew that he stayed on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a neighborhood I’ve lived in for so many years?)
Ze’ev Vladimir Jabotinsky was one of the greatest Jewish leaders ever. While I would recommend, “Lone Wolf: A Biography of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky” by Shmuel Katz before Halkin’s book if one is seeking a Jabotinsky biography in English, this is nevertheless worthwhile reading. About a man whose viewpoints still have such a tremendous impact on the State of Israel.
Today, in my office, is a poster which bears one of Jabotinsky’s greatest sayings: “Tell them [the Jewish People] three things in my name, and not two: they must get iron [i.e. weapons]; they must choose a king; and they must learn to laugh.” This great quote is one every Jew should remember. As Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote in Shir Betar (The Song of Betar), “Silence is Despicable!”
Reading this book can undoubtedly inspire many to be more knowledgeable – and hopefully more active – in the continued enhancement and growth of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Halkin writes an intellectually deep book that is insightful and historic. It is 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”.
Ronn Torossian is a New York based PR Executive, and author of the best selling PR book “For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations.”