A Tale of Two Jewish Prophets
A leader is abreast of his or her times. A prophet is in advance of theirs — sometimes, by too much. And we now have Peter Bergamin’s biography of Abba Ahimeir, Revisionist Zionism’s controversial prophet.
Let’s compare Ahimeir to another prophet, Haim Arlosoroff. Brilliant young men born in the Czarist empire, both came to British Mandatory Palestine during the 1920s. But then Arlosoroff was assassinated in 1933 (by whom is still debated) — and deprived of the chance to mature into Israel’s first Mapai prime minister. Yet martyrdom immunized him from a full measure of blame for some controversies. Arlosoroff has many more streets and settlements named after him than Ahimeir.
Abba Ahimeir lived on until the year before President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination — more than enough time for his enemies to complete his vilification, and enough time for many disciples to conveniently forget him before they achieved power.
Before making aliyah, Ahimeir wrote a doctoral dissertation at the University of Vienna on Oswald Spengler’s theory of European civilization’s decline, which he embraced. In Palestine, he joined the Labor Zionist mainstream, but opposed Jewish redemption through either socialist or communist revolution. He also praised Mussolini as a “man of action.” More significant than his fascist posturing, however, was his commitment to a Zionist national rebellion to expel the British occupiers.
Ahimeir and Hebrew poet Uri Zvi Greenberg founded the Revisionist Maximalist Bloc, whose newspaper Ahimeir edited, and then the clandestine Brit HaBirionim. Inspired by the Sicarii Zealots or “dagger men” during the Jewish revolt against Rome, this became a model for violent underground movements like the Irgun.
From 1933, Ahimeir’s “Revolutionary Zionists” preached a direct confrontation with Nazi Germany. They demonized Haim Arlosoroff for concluding the Transfer Agreement with Berlin, which was a complicated arrangement that resulted in the admission of 60,000 German Jews to the British Mandate. There is no evidence that Arlosoroff was motivated by anything other than what he thought were the best interests of German Jews, and of course, he was assassinated before espousing any further views on relations with Nazi Germany.
After Arlosoroff’s assassination on a Tel Aviv Beach in June 1933, Ahimeir and two followers were arrested. He was released for lack of evidence — but then the British convicted him of organizing an illegal clandestine organization; he was incarcerated until August 1935, only then to be rearrested in 1937 with Irgun activists.
The taint of being accused of assassinating Arlosoroff haunted Ahimeir. Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky derided his “flirtation with fascism.” Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir distanced themselves from Ahimeir and his legacy.
The realization of Ahimeir’s Zionist vision came with Israel’s costly triumph in 1948 over great odds. But military victory ironically consigned Revisionist Zionism to the political wilderness for a generation.
Even after a long generation of Likud rule, is Arlosoroff the greater prophet today because of the Abraham Accords — a trifecta brokered by the US, blessed by the Arab world, and accepted by the UK? Time and the tides of history will tell.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).