Jan Zouplna. Israel Affairs. Volume 19, Issue 3. July 2013.
The hallmarks of the Revisionist political platform, such as opposition to the project of the enlarged Jewish Agency or the idea of fundamental land and fiscal reform in Palestine aimed at an intensification of the settlement endeavour, began to appear spontaneously, particularly in Russo-Ukrainian Zionist circles, during the second quarter of 1922. The so-called ‘Our Platform’, a series of articles setting out the Revisionist proposals, published in March 1924, was a joint undertaking and the culmination of numerous, sometimes inconclusive, discussions. The creation of the Union of Zionists-Revisionists sealed this process in 1925. The aim of this article is to investigate the three-year prelude to the organized Revisionist movement, highlighting the role performed by activists, almost all of whom have been forgotten over time (J. Brutzkus, S. Gepstein, J. Schechtman and I. Trivus, among others). It identifies the opposition to the enlarged Jewish Agency project (and not the rejection of the White Paper of 1922) as the main galvanizing point of the process. Last, but not least, it argues that many of the political notions commonly attributed to Jabotinsky actually originated with others among the Revisionist founders.
It is a kind of historical paradox that a political movement as incongruous as Revisionist Zionism has often been portrayed by its adherents and foes alike as a monolith, firmly built around its iconic leader and creator, Vladimir Jabotinsky. As Yaacov Shavit perceptively observed, when dealing with Revisionism one actually has to ask: does it mean the party or the Betar youth movement? Indeed, speaking of several manifestations of Revisionism might be more precise. The tiny nucleus of activists who established the Union of Zionists-Revisionists (RU) in 1925 conceived the party as an all-encompassing opposition, neutral in matters of class and religion. The RU remained technically part of the General Zionists, the Zionist (non-ideological) mainstream, until August 1932. In 1935, their younger peers (chaired by Jabotinsky) erected a successor body, the New Zionist Organization (NZO). The NZO was not part of the Zionist Organization (ZO) as such; its constitution backed the notion of the authoritarian principle of power and, among other things, defined the ‘implantation of the sacredness of Torah into the life of the nation’ as a task of Zionism. Among the military organizations associated with Revisionism, Irgun (1937) deserted the option of politics in favour of the armed struggle, disregarding the positions of the party on the subject, and the so-called Stern Gang (1940) pursued an anti-British campaign at a time when other Revisionist groups were willing to shelve, at least temporarily, their opposition to the British presence in Palestine. To make matters even more complicated, Betar rigorously guarded its special status during the whole era of the 1920s and 1930s, sidelining the party thereafter, and the allegiance of the Herut movement (1949) to the interwar Revisionist party(ies) was more rhetorical than real. Indeed, the road leading from Revisionist Zionism to the Israeli right was a protracted one.
Due to the outpouring of secondary sources during, approximately, the last two and a half decades, readers no longer need to depend on the bi-partisan accounts characteristic of preceding eras. All those interested in the subject owe a debt in that regard to the critical examination of the ‘Zionist right’ originating from the pen of Shavit, who also dismantled many of the appropriations of Jabotinsky by his self-anointed political heirs. Joseph Heller further exposed the uneasy cohabitation between the radicals and Jabotinsky in his work on the Stern Gang. Yehiam Weitz unmasked the discontinuity of leadership in his book on the establishment of the Herut movement, while Colin Shindler underscored the gradual radicalization of this political trend. In spite of that, some methodical flaws, borrowed from uncritical scholarship, continue to retain their spell. Among other things, the selective choice of sources, reflecting the language preferences of the authors rather than the significance of particular documents for the time period proper, ends up in a blurred picture of history; key protagonists often remain unidentified, with the underlying thoughts and actions being unreservedly ascribed to Jabotinsky.
When it comes to the initial set of leaders and the origins of Revisionism, information at our disposal is still limited. Michael Stanislawski portrays a complex picture in relation to the early processes that shaped Jabotinsky’s views, benefiting from the recourse to a variety of sources in different languages and making, in particular, full reference to the influence of the Russian culture upon Jabotinsky. Shindler provides a useful insight into the early 1920s, explaining the differences between Jabotinsky and the Zionist leadership and paying due attention to some other founders of the RU, notably Meir Grossman. His quest for a comprehensive assessment is nevertheless hampered by dependence on sources in English and Hebrew. Eran Kaplan presents the Revisionism of the 1920s and early 1930s as a dialogue between Jabotinskian thought and the ‘maximalists’ (A. Ahimeir, Y. Yevin and U. Z. Greenberg). What leads Kaplan to replace the actual leaders by those who were not among the RU founders and had no mandate to formulate formal positions within the party (their base being confined to Palestine, itself no major centre for Revisionism during this era) is open to debate. The early history of Revisionism is also the subject of a book by Joseph Schechtman and Yehuda Benari. While being the source of innumerable valuable insights, Schechtman, himself a one-time Revisionist politician, is also quite mystifying and his oeuvre (including the biography of Jabotinsky) should perhaps be treated as a (valuable) primary source rather than a (reliable) reference work.
The deliberate focus of this article is the formative process of Revisionism during the years 1922-25 and the respective roles played by the movement’s founders among the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia. In the context of the above excursion into the secondary sources, the inevitable question is: what makes this subject important? Well, apart from being a missing piece of a bigger story, it is indispensable for an accurate understanding of the political demands and personal tensions which accompanied Revisionism later on. For anyone acquainted with Revisionism, many of the notions outlined below will indeed sound familiar. However, they date to a period neglected by later historiography, having been penned by activists who, for the most part, have almost completely disappeared from collective memory. As such, much of the Revisionist political programme of the 1920s and early 1930s (in particular, the so-called Colonization Regime), reached its relatively well-defined contours prior to 1925. The emphasis placed upon identifying the personal input of various activists is a deliberate one. The aim is not to claim the preponderance of one over another, but to complement the one-dimensional story about the origins by reconstructing, wherever possible, the chain of people, ideas and events leading towards the establishment of the RU. In that regard, it is argued that Jabotinsky did not invent Revisionism single-handedly either conceptually or organizationally.
The article is based on a representative sample of more than 50 articles and other authentic documents authored by almost 20 activists. The relevant debates and events appear chronologically, yet focus primarily on the highlights. In individual cases, allusions to the post-1925 period are also included in order to illustrate the significance of relevant topics for Revisionism. It covers the three-year period from 1922 (the issuance of the White Paper and the re-appearance of Rassviet) to 1925 (the founding convention of the RU) as the insufficient pool of sources from the 1918-22 period does not provide for a fair assessment. The Betar youth movement, which originated during this time frame but started to make political headway only in the late 1920s is not included. The Russian language weekly Rassviet (Dawn) has served as the richest (though not exclusive) source of information. The periodical was established as an official organ of the ZO in Russia in 1907 and banned by the Bolshevik authorities in 1918-19. It started to re-appear in exile (initially Berlin) in early 1922 and came to be formally identified with Revisionism at the beginning of 1925. The choice of this periodical by the future Revisionists is far from surprising if we take into account the close links between Revisionism and Russian Zionism up until the influx of followers at the turn of 1929/30. Moreover, it was far from negligible. Colonel Frederick H. Kish, head of the political department of the Zionist Executive in Palestine, in his report of December 1926, estimated the number of subscribers as 3000, equalling that of the official Zionist organ ha-Olam. The number of actual readers was estimated by Kish to stand at 15-20,000, covering much of the Russian-speaking Zionist diaspora.
The Russophone Leaders and Revisionism of the 1920s and Early 1930s
The significance of the Russophone leadership for Revisionism during the 1920s and early 1930s reaches well beyond the person of Jabotinsky. During the time of the RU, the top party institutions were actually composed almost entirely of the Russophones. No other group could match the political impact or the intellectual imprint of this body on the first decade. As a matter of fact, the first co-optation of a Betar representative (Aron Propes) among the political elite did not take place until 1933.
In order to classify Revisionism we may draw a distinguishing line between the party and the Betar movement or to establish divisions according to relevant time periods and political formations (RU, NZO). For the purpose of the current article, I would rather emphasize the informal bonds, such as the common language, the social milieu or territory.
Centred on the weekly Rassviet, this group consisted of dissident intelligentsia (mostly lawyers and physicians by training, many of whom made their living by journalism) residing in exile after the Bolshevik takeover. This included the periodical’s editors (Shlomo Gepstein, Josif Schechtman, Israel Trivus), some other prominent figures of pre-war Russian Zionism, such as Julius Brutzkus and Vladimir Tiomkin, as well as two rather solitary figures who were to dominate the group later on – Meir Grossman and Vladimir Jabotinsky. Needless to say, Jabotinsky was the best known figure with the public. Still, this does not imply that he was surrounded by a cohort of yes-men, ready to implement his orders, as it is commonly suggested. These activists were no political lightweights by the Zionist (Jewish) standards of the time. To mention some examples, Brutzkus filled the post of minister for Jewish affairs in the Lithuanian government in the years 1922-23 and Tiomkin served as the chairman of the Jewish National Council in Ukraine in 1918. The second tier of leadership of the first decade was composed of prominent figures from German-speaking countries and the Anglophone world. These included, among others, Max Bodenheimer, one-time close collaborator of Theodor Herzl, Richard Lichtheim, a key wartime German-Zionist leader, Robert Stricker, veteran of Jewish politics in Austria and the head of local Radical Zionists and Jacob de Haas, Herzl’s first English-language biographer. This second set of leaders joined the Revisionist initiatives a bit later on (post-1926), eventually breaking away from the main Revisionist body of supporters in the early 1930s and participating in political projects (in concert with some of the Russophones), such as Judenstaatspartei (JSP), independently of Jabotinsky. Nevertheless, once again, neither legitimacy nor impact within Zionism was lacking. Stricker’s arrival among the Revisionists was, due to his influence among the Jews in Austria (and its former empire), hailed as a major boost for the party. The third group, consisting largely of Francophone Sephardic Jews from the Balkans, was part of the very founding group of the RU. Due to a variety of causes, particularly their close links to religious Zionism (the Mizrahi faction), as personified by its leader Abraham Recanati, whose strongly anti-British stand was mixed with messianic phraseology, the group never acquired a central position.
It should be noted that few of those referred to above eventually decided to join the NZO – namely Jabotinsky, Zinovy Tiomkin (junior brother of Vladimir), Schechtman and Jacob de Haas. Lichtheim, one of the leaders who refused to join the NZO, commented to the effect that the creation of the NZO did not constitute a new impulse for Revisionism, but its liquidation instead, something which turned Jabotinsky into a tragic figure.
The insubordinate nature and centrifugal tendencies had much in common with the unruly state of Revisionism in two countries: Poland and Palestine. Both branches acquired importance in the 1930s. Composed mostly of the younger generation (of lower middle class origin in Poland), reservations regarding the central party in Paris/London existed in their midst practically from the inception. This stand had its own logic. Interwar Poland was the single most important reservoir of manpower. Palestine was the focal point of the Zionist settlement agenda.
During 1930-35, approximately one-third of party members and more than a half of Betar members were Polish. According to the reports presented at the Fourth World Conference in 1930, the party in Poland had more than 300 local groups with about 10,000 registered members (out of around 30,000 for the entire RU). This was about 14 times more than the Palestine branch (750 members). Betar, which came into existence in Riga in 1923 (i.e. independently of, and prior to, the would-be party), was an almost exclusively East European affair, shifting its base from Latvia to Poland during this period. According to a report presented at the above conference, 12,000 out of 18,000 registered Betarim resided in Poland and an additional estimated 5-6000 were citizens of other East European countries (Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania). Anyhow, the process leading towards the creation of the NZO was not linear in the case of the Polish branch. Among other things, the idea of secession (Austritt) from the ZO, a key notion of (and the driving force behind) the process, was considerably disliked. The so-called ‘Calais Agreement’, a compromise formula between Jabotinsky and the opponents of secession in the Revisionist Executive, was already the subject of spirited debate at the Fifth All-Polish Revisionist Conference in late December 1931. According to a résumé of the conference published in Nasz Przegląd (Our Review), a Warsaw Jewish daily which closely monitored the event, delegates from the provinces came up with a resolute criticism of Calais, with the majority of speakers being against any severing of ties with the ZO. The unpopularity of the notion was reconfirmed at the Fifth World Conference in 1932. M. Leiserowicz (a delegate from Warsaw) declared himself to be against any severing of ties with the ZO. Mr Elperin (a delegate from Łódź) asserted that if a plebiscite were to take place in his country, the people would certainly back a decision to remain in the ZO.
Radicalism par excellence, including open calls for adopting the model of dictatorship in Revisionism, was to be identified with the faction in Palestine (the documents of the time distinguish between ‘radicals’, headed by Wolfgang von Weisl, and ‘maximalists’, headed by Abba Ahimeir). Although important for the retrospective of the Israeli right, the impact and following of this faction remained quite limited during the time of the RU. The Palestine branch was at the peak of its influence at the Fifth World Conference of the Revisionist movement (1932). Even then, it could claim no more than 24 delegates (out of 146 delegates elected by ballot), a number which paled in comparison to the Polish branch (47 delegates). Like the General Zionists and unlike Labour Zionism, the Revisionists might have been ideologically oriented towards the attainment of their political objectives in Palestine; yet their stronghold (and political headquarters) remained firmly in the diaspora.
The White Paper of 1922 and the Formative Nature of Criticism
The rejection of the White Paper of 3 June 1922 in general, and the exclusion of Transjordan from the territory of Jewish settlement, in particular, were among the few positions jointly shared by the entire Revisionist body, including its moderate offshoots, such as JSP. However, the initial reactions to the document were remarkably different from what we might have expected. Josif Schechtman, in the article ‘The Situation Abides’, which appeared on 30 July 1922, was indeed to characterize the document as a success for the supposed Arab negotiating tactics in general and pan-Islamic diplomatic pressure in particular, both of which could not have been matched by the ‘historical inevitability of a solution in favour of the Jewish people’. Nevertheless, his overall assessment of the incumbent settlement was quite positive. Schechtman described the document as a victory, enabling the Zionists to achieve a firm and universally accepted agreement with the Arabs, once it was clear what the National Home actually stood for. He further noted it was about the right time to reach such an agreement by free will and not under pressure from the British. About a month later, Schechtman’s assessment of the Mandate put forward in the article ‘New Orientation’ was full of optimism and alluded to a new phase of Zionist opportunity. Moreover, he noted that it was time to shift the focus of political contacts from the West, which had provided the Zionist enterprise with a political form, to the East, where it was to be provided with a concrete political content. Blaming the current leadership of the ZO for the lack of any concept regarding political relations with the Arabs, he even earmarked these relations as the ‘to be or not to be question’ of the Jewish National Home for the future.
Optimism regarding the terms of the Mandate and pragmatism in relation to any Arab-Jewish settlement were not, in Russian Zionist circles, unique to Schechtman’s contributions, as can be demonstrated in the case of Victor Jacobson. In his discussion of the Legislative Council in Palestine, which was to be an ongoing headache for practically all interwar Zionist elites, Jacobson reduced the Zionist demands in Palestine to a single demand for unlimited Jewish immigration, something which was to be guaranteed by a constitution and protected from any changes by a legislative body. In every other respect, the demands of the Arabs could have been met.
Indeed, Jacobson’s political stand did not evolve along the same path as the one of the Revisionists; he continued to advocate further compromises on behalf of the Zionists, eventually joining the Zionist Executive in the early 1930s. Yet, in the first half of the 1920s, these political activists apparently coexisted side by side. Regardless of the questionable veracity of the declarations of goodwill on behalf of the Zionists (which was in any case unlikely to have changed the principal opposition of the Palestine Arab leadership), it is clear that the intellectual milieu which formed the framework of Revisionism did not lack diversity and that the Revisionist political positions, even in cases of the most complicated (and controversial) matters, were not always doctrinaire or set in stone.
In this context it is worth noting how Jabotinsky’s future collaborators received the word of his resignation from the Zionist Executive (on 18 January 1923), followed by his departure from the ZO as such – commonly attributed to Jabotinsky’s uncompromising rejection of the White Paper. The incident provoked considerable turmoil within the Russian Zionist circles. Rassviet did not stand aside from the events and paid a large amount of attention to it. On 28 January, the periodical reprinted Jabotinsky’s letter of resignation, as well as his justifications for the step. Jabotinsky indicated three reasons which had led to his decision: (1) the failure of the Actions Committee to act with regard to the behaviour of the Mandatory administration; (2) its failure to dispatch a delegation to High Commissioner (HC) Herbert Samuel; (3) the engagement of the non-Zionists and anti-Semites in the implementation of the Mandate. Interestingly, the White Paper itself was not listed as a cause. In an interview undertaken by Yeshayahu Klinov, another intellectual who was to join the Revisionist cause in the future, Jabotinsky spoke in broad terms. He stated that he had barely had the opportunity to read the document (the White Paper) and that he could never have agreed to a document whose legal interpretation might have posed a threat to the creation of a Jewish majority in Palestine. The actual exclusion of Transjordan was not touched upon at all, even though the interview covered three sheets. Jabotinsky earmarked the planned creation of the enlarged Jewish Agency, and not the White Paper proper, as the ultimate cause for his decision.
The attitude and argumentation presented to Jabotinsky’s peers among the Russian Zionists did not contradict the positions taken vis-à-vis other audiences at that time, which were no more clear-cut on the issue. In a proclamation to the Anglophone public, published by The Jewish Chronicle, Jabotinsky pinpointed ‘deep differences in the appreciation of the political situation [in Palestine]’ between himself and ‘some influential members of the Executive’ as the cause of his decision. Regarding the White Paper, he commented that its tone and spirit was ‘decidedly humiliating’, but simultaneously concluded that one should not ‘attach overdue importance to the tone of official literature’. He further noted that the document did not ‘contain one line which…would formally preclude the attainment of the aim of Zionism’, defined as a Jewish majority in Palestine.
Even more noteworthy in this context is the response to Jabotinsky’s step issued by Schechtman, on behalf of Rassviet. Schechtman, who was one of the few Revisionist founding fathers who would accompany the revered leader during all stages of his turbulent political career in the years to come, showed no signs of unconditional approval at the beginning of 1923. He deemed Jabotinsky’s situation as understandable, but was not ready to tolerate his leaving ‘the sacred organization with an imprint of Herzl and Nordau upon it’. Overall, he characterized Jabotinsky’s actions as ‘totally self-indulgent’.
The tension surrounding the form of the relationship with the ZO was to remain, reaching a climax in the early 1930s. For the purpose of this article, it is interesting to explain the reason why different opinions appeared within the pages of a single paper (and were, sometimes, even voiced by members of the group of fellow-minded activists). Rassviet in the early 1920s was no shallow mouthpiece of Revisionist propaganda (it actually preserved much of its journalistic integrity even after the Revisionist takeover later on). The wide network of Russian-speaking readers and contributors, which included at one time mainstream Zionist politicians such as Lev Motzkin or the famous Russian writers such as Maxim Gorkii and Ivan Bunin, did not constitute a cohesive body with a common view. Subtitled as a ‘general political and literary weekly gazette, preoccupied with Jewish matters’, the periodical showed a surprising amount of political pluralism. It featured advertisements on books by the mentor of Marxist Zionism, Ber Borochov, obituaries on prominent Russian Jews, such as the liberal politician Maxim Vinaver, or communications about social events organized by the Gintzburg family (‘Russian-Jewish Rothschilds’, residing in Switzerland after the Bolshevik seizure of power).
When it comes to Revisionism, one has to be fully aware of the nature of the opposition as it tended to evolve within the pages of the periodical during the years 1922-24. The criticism mainly tended to target the utopian nature of Jewish settlement in Palestine, backed by insufficient political arrangements. An article by Julius Brutzkus of 23 April 1922, entitled ‘Problems of Colonization’, serves well as an example here. Brutzkus questioned the ‘romanticism’ behind Jewish settlement. According to him, people with no prior experience in agriculture or life in the countryside were sent to Palestine to become farmers overnight. It was the very essence and concept of the utopian commune that was problematic. While millions had been spent, all that Zionism had achieved was the creation of a ‘chimera’, bearing no relationship to economic reality, and a situation where farmers were on the state payroll, but as civil servants. Just four years after the war, Zionism found itself in a sort of ‘agrarian blind alley’, a catastrophe hovering above the entire movement. Brutzkus’ criticism was not shared by everyone. Shlomo Gepstein openly clashed with these views, further attesting to the multitude of opinions existing among the Revisionist founders. Gepstein (though in a far less gifted style) consented to some arguments about the lack of profit in the Palestine endeavour, but, overall, asserted there was no redress to romanticism in such a project as the Palestine Jewish settlement. Still, Brutzkus’ opinions were gaining ground. As a matter of fact, the argument about the priority of suitable (political) conditions and the attack on the philanthropic nature of the Zionist initiatives in Palestine became the leitmotif(s) of the Revisionist political offensive for future years. The self-declared allegiance to old-fashioned Herzlian Zionism, embodied in the refusal to establish its own economic wings and corporations along the lines of other factions, remained part of the Revisionist credo until the Fifth World Conference in 1932. Even then, the alternation was only endorsed after more than two years of debate, with many founders remaining sceptical about the new strategy; Grossman actually voted against the decision.
Brutzkus’ call was joined and supported by Schechtman, who by May 1922 had elaborated on these arguments, targeting the excessive emphasis on the cultural and educational projects of the Zionist movement. These were, according to his assessment, devouring three times as many resources as the actual credit provided to the settlements. Moreover, the schools were giving instruction in subjects of little use in relation to the development of Palestine. The settlement project as such was permeated by a sort of romantic spirituality and idolization of culture, lamented Schechtman.
As can be seen from Schechtman’s obituary on Nahman Syrkin, which appeared about a year later, a variation of Russian Zionism, adhered to by this Revisionist leader, was based on secularism and a critique of excessive ‘culturalism’, revolving around rigid ‘hyper-hebraization’, which negated the value of Yiddish. Indeed, the opposition to hyper-spiritual and (often simultaneously) practical Zionism must have been deep-rooted among the Russophone leadership of the RU. According to Taro Tsurumi, the anti-essentialist trend within Russian Zionism refused in principle to define the essence of Jewishness in terms of culture, seeing Jewish peoplehood/nationhood in terms of a social milieu or environment; many Russian political Zionists being in effect even more opposed to the concepts of spiritual Zionism than Herzl himself.
The third intellectual to join in on the attack was Israel Trivus, who targeted the insufficiency of the financial instruments at the disposal of the Zionists. In May and June 1922 Trivus disclosed some hints of a plan for recovery, which was to become, in a more elaborated form, the substance of all Revisionist economic proposals in the future. He asserted that the existing Jewish Colonial Trust (JCT) did not have an operational plan even after 23 years of existence and that it was time to open branches of the bank in the key centres of commerce and float the stocks on the stock exchange, with the ultimate aim of raising £2,000,000 in capital. Less than a month later, Trivus demanded the convocation of a financial conference to take place on an annual basis, the clear demarcation of Zionist financial institutions on the one hand and practical settlement agencies on the other and an elaboration of the systematic analysis, plans and budgets, based on up-to-date scientific economic methods.
Small wonder that such criticism was to offend many among the East European Zionists. Though deemed non-ideological in principle, the critique dared to ridicule concepts, such as the various social engineering schemes or the emphasis upon cultural revival, which were deeply ingrained in (and borrowed from) Russian Haskala. Bitter personal attacks, so characteristic of the Revisionist clashes with other interwar Zionist factions, may have been absent at this stage, yet poignant criticism was already there. As Trivus ironically pointed out, he did not doubt the moral qualities of the Zionist leadership in charge, he had simply reached the conclusion that the current scope of financial and economic tasks being faced, and the realization of the Balfour Declaration in particular, was considerably beyond the capabilities, knowledge and energies at its disposal. An unbiased observer may indeed question the applicability of the economic proposals the Revisionists themselves came up with (and were about to come up with). Besides, the very critique of naivety and insufficiency of settlement methods employed in Palestine was far from being something new, particularly in Russian Zionist circles. For our purpose, it is rather interesting to reiterate that some key aspects of the Revisionist political platform had started to attain relatively well-defined contours as early as 1922. Moreover, the intellectuals at the helm of the process did not hesitate to pull punches aimed at (rural) settlement activities led by a young dedicated avant-garde, sancta sanctorum of both Haim Weizmann, then president of the ZO, as well as the Labour movement. In any case, the existing set of critics (Brutzkus, Gepstein, Schechtman, Trivus), which did not yet constitute a fixed opposition group, strictly preferred to challenge the Zionist officialdom from inside the organization, under the banner of pragmatism, rationality and accountability. As such, it is clear that Jabotinsky’s political steps could hardly have received a positive response.
The above situation changed with the advance of time as frustration over the lack of progress in Palestine continued to intensify. By the last quarter of 1923 Jabotinsky had become a frequent and welcome contributor (though not yet an editor) of a periodical with increasingly anti-establishment features. The very context of some of Jabotinsky’s most famous pieces, such as ‘Majority’ or ‘About the Iron Wall: We and the Arabs’, is itself remarkable. The very article ‘Majority’ actually appeared as a part of an issue (no. 38-39) which openly challenged policies set in London by Weizmann, reiterating some of the earlier criticism of the activists mentioned above. Among other things, the editorial expressed ‘no hope in the success of a policy, whose authors had systematically downgraded our position [of a Zionist movement] for the period of the last two years’, further noting that the majority at the most recent Zionist Congress had opted for ‘daring words but diffident deeds’. Indeed, Jabotinsky’s articles were not lonely protests or a call to arms of an uncontested leader, but a piece of a mosaic, composed by Schechtman, Trivus and himself. Further down the road, his preoccupation with the security arrangements for Zionist settlement in Palestine may well have been the result of pragmatic reasoning, rather than stemming from some innate obsession with militarism. Additional important features of this concept had already been formulated by others.
‘Our Platform’ of 1924 and the Road Towards the Union of Zionists-Revisionists
By early 1924 it was obvious that the activists were more and more likely to publish statements as a body under a common banner. In the article ‘Secret but Apparent’, published on 13 January 1924, Schechtman minced no words, finally identifying Weizmann as the culprit of the current political malaise and the reason for the growing number of desertions from the executive. Furious verbal attacks were soon to follow and on 27 January a special issue, dealing with the enlarged Jewish Agency, appeared. Entitled ‘On the Path of Liquidation’ (Na putiakh likvidatsii), the issue contained articles by all of the above mentioned critics, namely Gepstein, Jabotinsky, Klinov, Schechtman and Trivus. In the words of the editorial, the planned Agency was labelled as ‘an organized assassination attempt at the democratic nature of the Zionist endeavour, prerogatives of the Zionist Organization and the sovereignty of the Congress and the Actions Committee’. A week later, the sharpest judgement was probably pronounced by Gepstein, who compared the official leadership’s activities in the realm of economic matters to the ‘actions of the Sleeping Beauty’. Disinterested in the actual functioning of the economy proper, it was, in his words, content to engage in plain and simple ‘overseas beggary’.
Such a stand was not unique. The notion of the enlarged Agency was challenged by several political groups; the supervision of the Palestine endeavour by the non-Zionists was seen as an even greater threat by many more. Both the Labour movement and the Radical Zionists rejected the notion (either at first or consistently thereafter). Nevertheless, within hardly any other group was opposition to the project enshrined so visibly in its constitutional process. The amount of attention as well as the rhetorical tirades were unmatched by any other topic. During the years 1924-26, not a single founding father among the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia missed a chance to declare an absolute and unreserved revulsion over the subordination to the ‘mischievous designs of assimilated plutocrats’. This included prominent activists, such as V. Tiomkin and Grossman, who were not otherwise particularly prolific within the pages of Rassviet. The second-tier leadership shared this conviction, sometimes using even sharper terminology (Bodenheimer was, to some extent, the only exception). Lichtheim delivered fiery speeches on the issue at the Revisionist conferences immediately after joining the party. To mention just one colourful example, in 1930, at the Fourth World Conference, he castigated the project in indiscriminate terms: ‘the Agency is a bluff and a swindle and it is a deliberate insincerity on the part of the Executive to hide itself with its own responsibility, when it wants to, behind this Agency’. Another second-tier politician, Jacob de Hass, in a letter to Julian Mack, dated 2 February 1927, described the Jewish Agency and L. Marshall as ‘a group of … flatterers and adulators [who were] opinion-less on everything except money getting’. In another letter he further quoted a certain Sam Rosensohn, who had compared the Palestinian effort, undertaken by Weizmann, to a ‘Ponzi affair’.
In March 1924 the critics came up with a joint manifesto, co-authored by no fewer than nine intellectuals, under the title ‘Our Platform’ (Nasha platforma). Published in three consecutive issues of Rassviet (2 March, 9 March and 16 March), ‘Our Platform’ consisted of a series of articles summarizing and re-emphasizing existing viewpoints. As such, major criticism was voiced against the usurpation of power by Weizmann’s followers, the amateurism and utopian nature of the Zionist projects in Palestine, the obstacles placed in the way of settlement by the Mandatory administration and so forth. Unlike previously, the group was no longer content with plain criticism and articulated a number of concrete political demands. Gepstein summed up the key arguments on behalf of the group, identifying four defining lines for Zionism, beyond which no compromise was possible: (1) the inviolability of the territorial integrity of Palestine; (2) Jewish immigration; (3) the right of residence/citizenship for all immigrants; (4) the development and colonization of Palestine.
Unsurprisingly, the enlarged Jewish Agency was again accorded an excessive amount of attention, accompanied, this time, by unconcealed anti-American phraseology. Apolinary Hartglass, a long-time veteran of Zionist politics in Poland, predicted a very gloomy future for any joint enterprise involving a popular movement of East European Jews and a group of American plutocrats. In his opinion, the ‘Yankee formulas’ of the philanthropists were centred on bureaucratic pedantry, being entirely unsuitable in the different conditions and leading only towards an ever greater degree of oppression and misery. The supposed beneficiaries were, in effect, to be treated by their new masters in no better a fashion than ‘a red Sioux in a distant far north’.
By contrast, the emphasis upon the inclusion of Transjordan in the sphere of the Jewish National Home was a certain novelty and ‘Our Platform’ could indeed be seen as a turning point. Needless to say, the would-be Revisionist leadership never openly toyed with the idea of withdrawing their claim to the East Bank, yet no major elaboration of the subject was to emerge between 1922 and 1924. Moreover, Schechtman, who had submitted most of the articles on the subject of the Middle East and British ultimate aims in the region thus far, tended to provide his readers with a general overview, with few direct demands. The first unambiguous declaration in relation to the matter, to the best of my knowledge, can be traced back no earlier than late 1923 when Trivus reached the conclusion that the Zionists, via the provisions of the terms of the Mandate, had acquired only about a third of what could have been achieved. Transjordan, defined as a ‘wasteland inhabited by 150,000 Bedouins’, was then correspondingly regarded as a land of enormous value for future political aspirations. In a similar vein, The Jewish Chronicle reported Jabotinsky as saying (during an address delivered in Berlin) that the ‘Palestine Question’ would have to be solved ‘in the sense of a greater Palestine, including Transjordania’ in January 1924, i.e. a whole year after his resignation.
‘Our Platform’ not only accorded considerable attention to the issue, but also transformed the debate about Transjordan into a cornerstone of the political demands. Jabotinsky, in his article ‘Political Offensive’, turned the issue of Transjordan into a necessity if ‘mass colonization’ were to become a reality. It was Klinov who submitted an entire article on the subject, comparing, in his own words, the exclusion of Transjordan to the de facto erection of a ‘Pale of Settlement’, which would exist within the very entity that was aimed at becoming the Jewish state.
‘Our Platform’ covered a variety of issues. Jabotinsky did not hesitate to submit an article on the Legion, divided into two parts. Economic demands were elaborated by Brutzkus and Trivus. Brutzkus grasped the economic needs of Palestine in more general (and geopolitical) terms. He concluded that the economic progress in the country had failed to match the political gains achieved; the country was heading towards an economic crisis. Brutzkus emphasized the need to alter the economic strategies of the British and Zionists alike. If these were to take into account the traditional acumen of the Jews in trading, Palestine could be turned into a centre of commerce for the entire region of the Near East and Egypt. Trivus, for his part, further investigated the prior concepts of reorganizing the JCT. Designating the emphasis on volunteerism and self-sacrifice as untenable, he emphasized the need to make capital investment profitable. ‘Mass colonization’ could, in his opinion, be achieved only by means of raising ‘a national loan’ on the international financial markets, particularly focusing on the countries with strong and affluent Jewish communities. The JCT would, in effect, be turned into a sort of investment bank, providing credit, not subsidies, to economically viable projects in Palestine. Simultaneously, it would provide consultancy services and surveys of economic opportunities for foreign investors.
A characteristic feature of the Revisionist arguments, for much of the 1920s, was blaming the misfortunes of the Palestine Zionist endeavour, first and foremost, upon the official Zionist leadership (seconded only by the Palestine Administration) rather than British imperialism or Arab intrigue. In particular, the latter group was often seen as only following their own self-interests by exploiting the apparent incompetence of the Zionist elites. ‘Our Platform’ confirmed (if not introduced) this approach. The article drafted by S. Perlman noted that the current project of Zionist leadership had turned an attempt at ‘solving the tragedy of a homeless nation’ into a plan for ‘creating a new ghetto in the old homeland’. The idea of Jewish Palestine had undergone such a reinterpretation that it was only a ‘sickly image’ of its former self, transformed into a Jewish minority concept with a right to bring capital, but not immigrants, to the country. Other contributors (Israel Rosov, Schechtman) were even more explicit in pointing the finger at Weizmann. Overall, it is surprising how relatively little attention had been dedicated explicitly to the future/perspectives of Anglo-Zionist relations proper during the whole formative process thus far. Jabotinsky, who had been interested in the subject ever since leaving the Zionist Executive, was the only exception. In the article ‘Political Offensive’, he mulled over what the National Home was about, ultimately reaching the conclusion that it stood for an entity with national (i.e. Jewish ethnic) character. In that context, he reminded his audience, a radical change of the regime in Palestine, necessary for an implementation of this interpretation, was unthinkable without England’s support.
Overall, ‘Our Platform’ was something of a milestone in the annals of Revisionism. The substance of the Revisionist political programme (i.e. hallmarks of the political and economic demands of the 1920s and early 1930s) acquired a more sophisticated form, being further jointly adhered to, at least in principle, by the entire body.
Ideas, similar to those noted above, continued to be voiced throughout the rest of 1924 and the first quarter of 1925. Indeed, ‘Our Platform’ as such was an agreement on a set of practical political demands and not a systematic ideology. To mention some examples, Brutzkus in his article ‘Our Economic Demands’, published as part of ‘Our Platform’, hinted at the necessity to replace the great landed estates in Palestine with small-scale intensive farms, something that was to be ushered in by the removal of the tithe in favour of a land-tax. It was Schechtman who provided this notion with its most sophisticated articulation in July 1924. Unlike many other Revisionists, Schechtman reached the conclusion that the transfer of state-owned lands from the Mandate to the Zionists would be of little use as most of these lands were either unsuitable for farming or already occupied by Arab tenants, whose eviction he considered unthinkable. It was the speculative nature of land possessions and acquisitions that was the source of evil. Schechtman suggested that the administration should pass a series of tax regulations, including a fine on uncultivated land, the progressive taxation of large landholdings in accordance with their size, and a land-tax, taking into account the market value of the land, rather than the established value of the crop-yield. This set of reforms was supposed to force the owners of big landed estates to sell their surplus land at reasonable prices, to the benefit of those who were land-hungry, i.e. both the Jewish farmers and the indigenous Arab fellahin. The last key aspect of ‘mass colonization’, i.e. agrarian reform, thus reached its first well-defined contours.
Trivus continued to elaborate on some of the advice provided earlier by Brutzkus on how to promote economic recovery in Palestine. He noted that it was a mistake to continue a one-sided settlement which reflected the interests of Jewish workers. Speaking of socialist experiments being undertaken in a semi-feudal country, he bluntly defined such activities as nonsense, which only had the effect of making the Zionist enterprise uncompetitive in relation to countries at a higher stage of technological development. Moreover, in terms of class allegiance, the Jews were craftsmen rather than proletarians. As there was little potential for heavy industry in Palestine, it would be better for the country to take heed of traditional Jewish skills and know-how, thus becoming a centre of light industry and commerce for the entire Middle East. It was to be the cultivation of these skills and this potential, rather than the achievement of a social utopia, concluded adamantly Trivus. Such a confrontational style was clearly unacceptable even to his fellow critics. The other editors openly dissociated themselves from the first part of the article. Yet it is clear that the framework of the opposition platform had been firmly established at this stage. About eight months afterwards (in January 1925), Trivus proposed a complex set of political demands on behalf of the whole group in the article ‘Crises of the Zionist Movement’. The political struggle to be waged in England as well as elsewhere abroad encompassed practically all the demands to be later approved by the founding conference of the Revisionist Union. Reference to the legal autonomy of the Jews in Palestine was the sole exception.
By 1924 the core of the opposition group shifted its base to Paris (after several years of intermezzo in Berlin), following the path taken by many Russian and Russian-Jewish émigrés. Apart from the activists mentioned above, the person of Vladimir Tiomkin deserves at least a brief reference in this context. Tiomkin was a widely recognized (and, unlike Jabotinsky, non-controversial) figure who was able to provide additional legitimacy and protection. An active participant of Jewish political life in Russia since the first decade of the twentieth century and portrayed by many as a close collaborator of Herzl, he was among the founders of the so-called Democratic faction in 1901 and continued to fill titular roles in Russian Zionism later on. Tiomkin publicly assumed patronage of the numerous opposition gatherings, which were accelerating in number throughout January 1925. He was also seen as the driving spirit behind the convocation of the First and Second World Conferences in the French capital. His involvement was particularly glorified in numerous obituaries which appeared after his death at the beginning of 1927. Lichtheim, for his part, hailed Tiomkin posthumously as a teacher, leader and ‘prince of Jews’ at the Third World Conference in 1928. The alternative Revisionist centre in London, with Grossman at its head, may not have been of equal importance until 1929, when the Executive Committee transferred there. Regarding the time period we have investigated, Grossman was among the few founding fathers who failed to take part in the drafting of ‘Our Platform’. Schechtman, in later testimony, actually characterized his attitude towards the oppositionist initiatives of the time as ‘rather lukewarm’. However, one cannot ignore Grossman’s instrument, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which provided the group with desperately needed access to public opinion. While the fragmentary information does not allow the precise nature of relations (or dependences) within the core group to be determined, some assertions seem justified.
The Russophone leadership constituted a sort of a political alliance (a loose set of partners) with everyone sacrificing some of his inner convictions. Tiomkin himself, as a former state rabbi in Russia/Ukraine, must have felt at odds within a group which was staunchly irreligious. Judging by the tone used in their correspondence, relations were civil rather than amicable, with most gentlemen preferring to address each other by the formal otchestvo (patronymic) instead of the first name. At this stage of Revisionist history, Jabotinsky needed a firm political footing/base no less than the rest of the group needed a political representative clearly identifiable to the public, and well known outside the ranks of Russian Zionism. It was in Paris in January 1925 that the term Zionists-Revisionists acquired frequent use.
The founding convention of the Revisionist Union, which took place on 26-30 April 1925, could be seen as an imprint upon the entire process with no major innovations added. The initial phase was completed and it took another three years (until the conference of 1928) for the movement to substantially complement or redefine its political positions and demands. Although there are no formal protocols of the convention preserved, one may assess the debates due to the semi-official summary published in French and the more informal briefing which appeared in Russian in Rassviet. Altogether, about 40 delegates attended the venue. Tiomkin, Jabotinsky and Grossman were elected to the presidium of the organization, presenting simultaneously Revisionist positions with regard to key policy aspects in relation to Palestine, international politics and within the ZO. Trivus presented his ideas on economic recovery, agricultural reform and land reform. Unsurprisingly, considerable attention was devoted to the need for structural reforms within the ZO, with N. Hoffman (Vienna) defining the existing electoral system as ‘feudal and medieval archaism’. The position of the movement as a whole was most aptly described by B. Weinschall, a delegate from Palestine, who remarked on a general absence of security in the country, no support for the Zionist endeavour on behalf of the administration and the bleak state of the local economy, with imports surpassing exports threefold.
The more informal assessment of the convention in Rassviet did not fail to disclose some of the disagreements as well. There was a sharp and spirited discussion concerning the terminology used in the key political demands of the party. Should the Revisionists explicitly demand the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine or should they be content to use the more ambiguous term ‘commonwealth’? Jabotinsky emphasized that the entity should be based on the principles of Jewish majority and self-administration in internal affairs. It did not matter whether the country was independent (sovereign) or not. Trivus, in reaction to Jabotinsky’s speech, stated that he was in favour of a Jewish state but against the usage of an explicit term. The term ‘self-administrative territory with a Jewish majority’ should suffice. The pragmatic approach was further supported by Grossman, who observed that it was not the terminology but the nature of the fulfilment of the British pledges that mattered. Yet, even among the founders, some, such as Berchin, were against the use of diplomatic language in the matter and, overall, a majority of the delegates preferred the term ‘state’, whatever the political cost. The compromise formula using simultaneously the terms ‘commonwealth’ and ‘Jewish majority’ was finally approved during a session starting on 28 April at 9 p.m., i.e. after more than two days of haggling. In a similar way, Jabotinsky had to tone down Trivus’ defence of the interests of the middle class and the mockery of the communal settlements echoed by some other leaders, noting that the movement was ‘neutral’ in its social policy, trying simply to balance the existing inequalities of subsidies. The divergence between pragmatism with regard to the Jewish education network in Palestine and the common delegates was even more palpable. Grossman and Trivus demanded that the Zionists hand over the Jewish education system in Palestine to the British as it had been their task to finance such a system, while for the common delegates the promotion of Hebrew culture was the task of Revisionism proper.
The differences in worldview, style and political strategy between the original Revisionist leaders and the common followers were to overshadow the movement’s capacity to act in the future. Indeed, by the creation of the Union of Zionists-Revisionists one phase of consolidation and alliances was concluded yet the party (and the movement to an even greater extent) continued to be inhabited by different viewpoints. It possessed a clearly articulated set of political demands, to be adjusted or changed later on, not a doctrinaire ideology, adherence to which would be essential for those who wanted to enlist.
Conclusion and Reassessment
The opposition political platform of the years 1922-25 commenced as an attack upon the utopian nature of the Zionist settlement in Palestine, sustained, as its critics asserted, only by philanthropy. Whether labelling the enlarged Jewish Agency project as a scheme based on beggary (Gepstein), a treason of national interests (Jabotinsky) or a hypnosis of hard currency (Trivus), its categorical rejection became a rallying point of the Revisionist Union. By the turn of 1924 and early 1925, the onslaught against the so-called ‘budget Zionism’ had reached its climax and contained most of the notions associated with Revisionism that were to characterize it until 1935. The allegedly non-democratic forms of contemporary Zionism (personified by the enlarged Agency), the inopportune forms of the Zionist endeavour in Palestine as well as the random and chaotic way of handling diplomatic relations with the British were to be replaced by an ultimate political settlement enabling the ‘mass colonization’ of Palestine by destitute (primarily East European) Jews. This transformation was to be achieved, it was believed, by the changed attitude of both the Zionist movement and the British policy makers in the region. A set of fiscal and agrarian reforms, the inclusion of Transjordan in the territory of Jewish settlement, and security arrangements to protect the settlement project were, it was claimed, to serve the joint Jewish and British (and presumably even the fellahi) interests. No matter how unrealistic and implausible these proposals may sound after almost a century, it is not the aim of this article to question the validity of the arguments but rather to trace the unfolding of Revisionist history and the origin of these ideas. From this perspective alone, the prelude to Revisionism analysed above is indeed far from insignificant. One may, thus, conclude that the Revisionist political platform reached its maturity during the three years prior to the convocation of the Revisionist Union in 1925, which sealed, rather than initiated, the entire process.
No less interesting in this respect is the actual role performed by the key protagonists. Although Revisionism has been portrayed as the brainchild of Jabotinsky, whose efforts were later complemented, or rather supplemented, by young radicals such as Ahimeir, the process outlined above provides a different set of relationships and a different hierarchy of intellectual primacy.
As we have seen, it was actually Schechtman and Trivus who defined the Revisionist platform in its most sophisticated form. The whole attack upon the Zionist establishment was launched by Brutzkus during the second quarter of 1922. At that time Jabotinsky was a member of the Zionist Executive and, whatever his misgivings might have been in private, he felt compelled to defend its record in public. This can be aptly demonstrated by the article ‘Zionist Administration in Palestine’, which he published in April 1922. Jabotinsky described the conditions in Palestine as ‘unimaginably hard’, further defending the work of the official bodies by highlighting some achievements: a 25% increase in the Jewish population, a 20% increase in Jewish owned acreage and a 100% increase in Jewish-owned areas in Jerusalem and Jaffa. While he did not fail to hint at some of the flaws of the Palestine endeavour, as did other critics (a lack of support for private capital investment, an excessive reliance upon the devotion of the volunteers), his line of thinking was relatively vague. His most profound article in this regard, ‘On Land Reform’, appeared on 15 February 1925, eight months after the publication of Schechtman’s piece dealing with the same subject and, in fact, proposed little that was new. Overall, Jabotinsky fully developed individual subjects (notably the notion of a re-established Jewish Legion and the propaganda strategy to use against the Palestine Administration), but not the entire platform (or even the bulk of proposals). Most significantly, Jabotinsky’s famous articles, such as ‘Leftists’, ‘Basta’, and ‘Fascists of Zionism’, openly challenging the ‘Weizmann regime’ and the nature of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine, began to appear no earlier than 1925 when the whole campaign had already been underway for several years. Albeit written in a brilliant style, these articles recycled, to a lesser or to a greater degree, many of the ideas articulated by his peers before him. This can be aptly illustrated by his article ‘Fascists of Zionism’ of December 1925, in which he accused the Zionist officialdom of having, in common with Italian Fascism, only a cult of personality and no programme at its disposal. This piece actually displays a striking similarity with the article ‘Trojan Horse’, written by Israel Rosov more than a year and a half earlier. Rosov, among other things, accused Weizmann of being a dictator with the title of a president. He further ironically noted that other dictators, such as Napoleon or Mussolini, had, unlike the Zionist leadership, at least a political programme or a plan of political action at their disposal.
Why was this the case? Several features should be noted. First, the actual issue of authorship may not have been so rigid, with each intellectual speaking, to some extent, on behalf of all the others, at least by 1924. To mention one example, the articles of Brutzkus and Trivus on economic demands shared a number of common points as well. Furthermore, there apparently existed ‘a division of labour’ within the group. The editors specialized in particular features and themes in common with other periodicals. Judging by the nature of the contributions, Trivus was charged with financial and economic matters, Schechtman covered international politics and, to a lesser extent, the economy. Klinov briefed his readers on events in Soviet Russia. Due to Jabotinsky’s background, it is not surprising that he was in charge of security matters in Palestine, Anglo-Zionist relations, and the development of the propaganda strategy. Jabotinsky’s main (and irreplaceable) task was to present these ideas to the public. The article ‘Political Offensive’, published as a part of ‘Our Platform’, was already a sort of a general summary of the aims and demands of the activists. Other articles could have simply followed the same path. The cult of his personality grew with time and may not have been so obvious in the mid-1920s. Still, the public presumably wanted to hear these words from Jabotinsky and not from anyone else.
Was it all part of a deliberate political or propaganda strategy, then? This will probably never be known for sure. One could speculate that the key figures of the RU (Grossman, Jabotinsky, Tiomkin) preferred, during the prelude, to concentrate their efforts on winning over followers to the new political agenda, leaving the elaboration of particular proposals and demands to their junior colleagues. Yet convincing proof for such an assumption is hard to find. What can be stated with certainty is that a detailed investigation of the authentic documents fails to attest to Jabotinsky’s dominance over every aspect of Revisionist life. One could clearly assert that the title of ‘ideologue’ of Revisionism ascribed to Jabotinsky jointly by the Israeli right and the later scholarship does indeed have considerable loopholes. There were clear limits to Jabotinsky’s status and these were reconfirmed by (the relatively modest) role he played in drafting the original political program. The feature of Revisionism during the first decade of its existence had all the marks of a joint undertaking. As a matter of fact, both Schechtman and Trivus continued to occupy key positions in the party until the Fifth World Conference of 1932. It was they, with the assistance of Eugeny Soskin, who produced the economic programme of Revisionism at the Third World Conference in 1928, which marked, in effect, ‘a point of no return’ in relation to other Zionist factions, Labour in particular, and the beginning of Revisionist ideology proper. Indeed, the early history of Revisionism had multiple faces and numerous heroes.