Jabotinsky's Children

Polish Jews and the Rise of Right-Wing Zionism

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Daniel Kupfert Heller
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , August
     2017.
     352 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691174754.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The key argument Daniel Kupfert Heller makes in Jabotinsky’s Children: Polish Jews and the Rise of Right-Wing Zionism is that one must look to “Warsaw, not Tel Aviv or Jerusalem … to begin explaining the rise of right-wing Zionism” (27). By this he means that this minority faction within the Zionist movement that would come to exert great influence on the creation and development of the state of Israel took shape primarily in Poland between the world wars, challenging a historical conventional wisdom that focuses mainly on events in Mandate Palestine. The result is the fascinating working out of the paradox that youthful Polish Jews, convinced of the need to establish a homeland for their people far removed from its threatened and precarious existence in Europe, nonetheless could avow patriotism for Poland, and find much to admire and imitate in both the style and substance of authoritarian politics on the rise in that country.

The theme of this excellent book is summarized in the double meaning of the title, referring to Vladimir Jabotinsky—the father of Revisionist Zionism—and his figurative “children,” first the members of the Betar youth corps he founded in Latvia in 1923, and second, the later Likud of Israel that inherited and carried on the traditions inculcated within his interwar following. In 1927 Jabotinsky introduced his combative brand of Zionism to Poland, only recently restored to independence, and home to the largest Jewry in the world. The response there to his appeal exceeded his modest expectations, and Poland quickly became the main stronghold of Betar and his Revisionist creed, and would remain so until the coming of World War II. Seeking to harness for his purposes the energy, idealism, and rebelliousness of the young, he deliberately employed ideologically ambiguous but thrillingly provocative rhetoric, calling upon his Betar charges to mold themselves into a new generation “proud, noble, and cruel” (104).

The main thing the author wants to tell us about Betar, the incubator of rightist Zionism, is how Polish it was. Contradicting the common impression that in Poland gentiles and Jews dwelt, as it were, in different and opposing worlds, Heller demonstrates convincingly that the Betar cadres, largely Polish-speaking and educated in public schools, accepted as their own the canon of traditional Polish patriotic and cultural values. Their willingness to borrow from the European nationalist or dictatorial Right, which led many to describe them as “Jewish fascists,” included a favorable view of the semi-authoritarian Sanacja (“Cleansing”) government of Poland instituted by Marshal Józef Piłsudski in 1926. Betar activists sang the Polish national anthem in street fights with Jewish socialist rivals, lauded Piłsudski and his regime, and pledged their devotion to Poland, the “beloved old Fatherland” (158).

In 1933, a 19-year old Menachem Begin, soon to become head of Polish Betar, received mention in a police report as one among a number of likeminded Jabotinsky disciples urging a Zionist gathering to defend the independence and contested frontiers of Poland (1). This sense of attachment to Poland coexisted uneasily with the galling everyday experience of antisemitism, and by the later 1930s the rising sense of danger to Jews both in Europe and Palestine led Betar and, by extension, right-wing Zionism to endorse the use of violence and force in defense of Jewish interests. While events in the Middle East certainly did much to form the credo of Revisionist Zionism, Heller concludes, “the influence of Poland was often no less decisive” (27).

The monograph is well written and convincingly argued, solidly based on careful archival research in Poland, Israel, the United States, and Canada, making excellent use of the letters and diaries of Betar members. Since even the best of books include minor shortcomings, one might note that the author’s tendency to describe the Piłsudski regime of Poland as nationalist or rightist can be misleading. In the context of Polish interwar politics, those terms are typically applied to Piłsudski’s main antagonists—the National Democrats and their offshoots, relegated to opposition after his seizure of power by coup d’état; Piłsudski’s appeal was, at bottom, charismatic and ideologically indistinct, not unlike that of de Gaulle, with whom he is sometimes compared—or, for that matter, not unlike the Jabotinsky of Heller’s depiction. This is a quibble when set against the many merits of Jabotinsky’s Children, which makes a valuable, original, and instructive contribution to the scholarly literature on the history of Poland, Zionism, and interwar European politics alike.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Neal Pease is Professor of Polish History at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Date of Review: 
September 23, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel Kupfert Heller is assistant professor of Jewish studies at McGill University.

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