The Rise of the Israeli Right: From Odessa to Hebron (REVIEW)
The Rise of the Israeli Right: From Odessa to Hebron, by Colin Shindler, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2015, 411 pp.
Finally, the student of the intellectual and cultural history of Israel’s pre-state non-religious Zionist nationalist camp, founded and led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky and then by Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and currently Binyamin Netanyahu, is presented with a broad and deep review of the development of the internal ideological and political underpinnings of this phenomenon in English. It is also a study that is neutral in terms of bias of personal persuasion, balanced in relation to the events within which the movement proceeded and set within a framework that permits a perception of what happened and what was to happen but didn’t on the backdrop of both internal and external tapestry.
Professor Colin Shindler has mined a wide variety of archival and printed material, in several languages, which provide a rich picture of the people, movements and institutions that made up what is termed the Israeli Right.
The book has earned Shindler the gold medal in The Washington Institute’s 2016 Book Prize competition, which is accompanied by a $25,000 prize. The judges decided the work “expertly traces the evolution of this [Revisionist] stream of the Zionist movement” as a “myth-defying book.”
I found it an excellent read, but it is not quite all-inclusive, on the one hand, and on the other, the author has made a choice, a correct one in my opinion, to focus on several “heroes,” as well as on a limited selection of events and incidents that highlight the inner core of the workings of Zionism’s nationalist camp. It is not free of errors, and I take exception to certain presentations, but nevertheless, this is an essential book on the shelf of Zionist ideology and politics.
This is Shindler’s third volume of research, preceded by Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream (1995) and The Triumph of Military Zionism (2005), and it is obvious that he has become especially knowledgeable on the subject, which can be complex, confusing and even contradictory.
Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement was born in protest, in its founder’s search, for all his contrarian personality, for justice for his people and truth and honesty in relations between peoples and nations. He was a liberal democrat who wielded, at times, authoritarian power and who found himself multiple times confronting his own closest aides and acolytes. Shindler presents Jabotinsky fairly, with great insight and a close reading of the man’s writings and actions. There is empathy here that is not quite matched by his treatment of those who followed Jabotinsky as leaders of Zionism’s nationalist camp: Begin, Shamir, Sharon and Netanyahu. But that more critical view is based on solid research.
Despite the book’s major contributions, one element working against it is that Shindler devotes 238 pages out of 365 to the period up until the end of the 1948 war. There is imbalance in this division, if not outright inadequacy, considering the content of the next six decades of political activity of Herut, Gahal and Likud, the evolving successors to the Revisionist Movement, 26 of those years in the opposition wilderness. Indeed, because of this, Shindler finds himself cutting corners and at times leaving the less-than-knowledgeable reader in the lurch.
Moreover, when Shindler moves from a descriptive approach to a more analytical and judgmental frame, he opens himself up too easily to a counter-narrative of history.
I would strongly dispute Shindler’s description of the last seven years of the 20th century’s third decade as Jabotinsky’s “declining years,” and claim that during this time, he he was “paralyzed politically and intellectually.” That is much too harsh a judgment call and cannot be upheld by the events.
In 1935, Jabotinsky established the New Zionist Organization with its half-million members; directed the covert immigration operation that brought in thousands to Palestine; launched a petition drive with over 600,000 signatories; engaged in diplomatic negotiations with the foreign ministries of Poland and Romania; influenced Winston Churchill to oppose the Peel Commission Report; and, in his final year of life, transferred activities to the United States, where he initiated the call for a Jewish army in 1940, with tens of thousands attending the rallies called to support this goal. His literary output was enormous and stirred disputes with leading Jewish and non-Jewish figures. If Shindler’s intention is the decline of Jabotinsky’s influence over the path of Betar and the Irgun, that, too, is a debatable conclusion.
Sometimes he describes a situation without fully relating to the circumstances surrounding it. For example, despite the distancing between the New Zionist Organization and the Irgun during the two-year campaign of 1937-39 by the latter to combat Arab terror with Jewish counter-terror, he writes, the British arrested mainly Revisionists. Of course, one reason could have been that the Irgun, as an underground enterprise, was out of the reach of the Palestine police, or that to the British, the two groups were interconnected, which, of course, they were.
At other times, he is just off the mark with historical events, such as when he writes that courses for Irgun instructors, overseen by the Polish military, took place at four locations in Poland. He does not note the year, 1939; he leaves out several other locations; and in only one place, Andrychow, were Polish army officers present. Also, it was the graduates of this three-month course who instructed the other courses.
He asserts that the activism of the religious Right “also accentuated exclusionism in Israeli society,” a charge I fail to comprehend or agree with. Outreach as both a religious and political activity is greatly practiced and, for example, Gush Emunim always had secular Jews in its leadership. The Tehiya Party (1979-1992) joined religious and non-observant MKs as the leading right-wing parliamentary faction.
He also suggests that the April 1920 Arab anti-Jewish riots in Jerusalem “induced Jabotinsky to establish a hagana – a self-defense force.” Shindler has it backwards. Jabotinsky was appointed as the commander of a proposed self-defense unit by the Zionist Commission in the fall of 1919, after the Arabs finally learned of the Balfour Declaration, news of which was censored during the war. During the 1920 riots, it was active in protecting Jewish life and property for which Jabotinsky was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
Oddly, Shindler erroneously decided that Yehoshua Heschel Yeiven’s middle name was, for some reason, actually Hirsch, an error repeated many times over. Nor is the pseudonym of “D. Rash” the amalgamation of the surnames of David Raziel and Avraham Stern, but rather an abbreviation of the initials of their first and family names: Dalet-Raish-Alef-Shin. To illustrate geographical remoteness, as in the locations of Betar branches, Shindler uses Ozierany as an example, but it would have been helpful to inform us where that town is on the map.
Shindler seems to intimate that Jabotinsky, in his 1923 “The Iron Wall” essay “about ‘Palestine’ and not about ‘Eretz Israel’” in the original Russian seems to award a recognition of “the unique character of Palestinian national character” to Arabs, basing himself on Jan Zouplna’s research. That seems to me a bit of a stretch, especially as Jabotinsky clearly does recognize a local Arab national feeling.
Shindler also greatly errs when describing the end of the Ben-Gurion-Jabotinsky agreement signed by the two leaders towards the end of 1934, writing, “Their accord was rejected in shock and disgust.” As far as the members of the socialist Histadrut members’ vote was concerned, that is true. The vote on March 24, 1935 was against Ben-Gurion, although a minority of members had participated in the voting. Jabotinsky’s followers actually voted for the agreements which would have put to end intra-party disputes within the Yishuv and the World Zionist Organization.
Inexplicitly, some minor errors crept in which, considering Shindler’s vast knowledge, are fairly annoying.
He correctly notes that Polish Jewry’s situation worsened after Marshal Pilsudski’s death. But why? He writes that “this was the blueprint for the Altalena ten years later,” without any further elucidation, which leaves the reader quite in the dark — since the Altalena incident is only discussed later. It was a boat, by the way.
Jabotinsky was accused of fascism by his political opponents and therefore it would have been appropriate for Shindler to note that whereas the so-called mainstream moderate Zionist, Chaim Weizmann, had met Mussolini four times, Jabotinsky declined to do so.
Other example abound.
Still, such commissions and omissions do contribute to the book’s stirring debate, challenging assumed knowledge and even undermining previously held prejudices. The Washingtion Institute highlighted that the volume puts forth some unknown, or, purposefully concealed, character traits that make up the Israeli Right, “its liberalism and militancy, pragmatism and idealism.” And for that, thanks are due to Colin Shindler.