Daniel Heller joins us in this episode of Jewish History Matters to discuss his book Jabotinsky’s Children: Polish Jews and the Rise of Right-Wing Zionism and the big issues it brings up: The rise of the Revisionist Zionist movement in interwar Europe and its relationship with right-wing politics and fascism; Jabotinsky and his ideological and political legacy, particularly in Israel; the importance of youth and youth movements in the history of Zionism and politics broadly speaking; the history of fascism and how it relates to the present; and the implications of studying the history of politics for understanding our own world.
Jabotinsky’s Children traces the development of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s breakaway party within the Zionist movement, the Revisionists, founded in 1925; the book also reconstructs the Revisionist youth movement Betar and its culture. By focusing on Poland, Daniel Heller demonstrates how a great swell of right-wing Jewish politics in the interwar period was related to the political and cultural developments of the time. He argues that, in a way, we are somewhat blinded by the rise of Nazi Germany—it makes us assume that Jews would always find right-wing and fascist politics, given that it ultimately led towards the Holocaust. But the Revisionist movement and Betar took their cues from the authoritarian and fascist movements of this era. At the same time, he points out how Betar leaders actively participated in Polish nationalism, indicating some of the ways in which Diaspora cultures and the effort to build a state in Palestine were not always in conflict with one another.
Daniel Heller is assistant professor in the Department of Jewish Studies at McGill University, and an associate member of the Department of History and Classical Studies there.
Links to some other books, articles, and topics mentioned in our conversation:
- Vladimir Jabotinsky
- Betar youth movement
- Yosef Trumpeldor
- Revisionist Movement
- Norman Podhoretz, Why Are Jews Liberals?
- Agudas Yisroel
- Philipp Nielsen, “„Blut und Boden.“ Jüdische Deutsche zwischen Heimat und Deutschtum, 1892 –1936” (“Blood and Land”: Jewish Germans Between Homeland and Germanium, 1892–1936)
- Also see: Hans-Joachim Schoeps
- Nir Kedar, “Ben-Gurion’s Mamlakhtiyut : Etymological and Theoretical Roots,” Israel Studies 7, no. 3 (2002): 117-133
- Paul Brykczyński, Primed for Violence: Murder, Antisemitism, and Democratic Politics in Interwar Poland
- Celia S. Heller, On the Edge of Destruction: Jews of Poland between the Two World Wars (no relation to Daniel Heller)
What follows is an edited version of the conversation.
Jason Lustig: I was really glad to get a chance to read your book. It’s a very exciting piece of research, and it opens up some really interesting questions about the nature of Jewish politics and the history of Zionism. I was really struck by a profound argument that you were making, but one that might seem somewhat counterintuitive to some inasmuch as some people believe that Jews are sort of “naturally” politically liberal, but you’re making a case in your book about Vladimir Jabotinsky and the Revisionist Zionists that Jews were not necessarily exclusively liberal. What’s the importance of this intervention, about this question of Jews and liberal versus conservative politics?
Daniel Heller: I imagine that you’re probably not the only reader of the book to be potentially surprised by the protagonists of my book. We’re talking about some 50,000 Polish Jewish youth between the two World Wars who admired a variety of policies and beliefs that are associated with the European right between the two World Wars, I mean perhaps to some readers, the ideas that a Jewish group could admire those sorts of beliefs might even seem outrageous because antisemitism was a critical, if not a central component of most right-wing movements throughout interwar Europe. I mean, usually when we hear the term “right wing,” and when we associate it with interwar Europe—certainly in the popular imagination—the first image that comes to people’s minds as the image of Hitler and perhaps the image of the Third Reich.
What my book really sets out to do is to situate the history of right wing politics, and the Jewish relationship to right wing politics in Europe, within a broader historical context that doesn’t simply begin with 1933 and the rise of Hitler. In fact, the history of fascism itself doesn’t begin with the rise of the Nazi state. In the mid-1920s, that is the time that roughly the Betar youth movement was founded—and this youth movement was the youth movement of right-wing Zionists—Europeans across the continent were actually turning to fascist Italy, not Germany, as the model for what a country might actually look like if right wing politics reigned in full force. And what’s critical to know about the mid 1920s, and fascism in Italy, is that antisemitism was not a critical component of the Italian fascist worldview. In fact, when Mussolini seized the reins of power, several Jews could be counted among his innermost circle.
And fascist Italy really had a tremendous amount of admirers worldwide. On more than one occasion, government officials in places like Britain or France even in the United States turned to fascist Italy for inspiration for all sorts of different things: inspiration to restore order, inspiration to reinvigorate their economies, inspiration to prevent the spread of communism. And perhaps most importantly, inspiration to create a mobilized community of loyal followers. Jews, of course, are among those in the world at this particular moment in time—or at least I should say some Jews—that also admire fascist Italy for these reasons. And if you were a Polish Jew living in the mid-1920s, fascist Italy would look successful to you, if you compared fascist Italy to the way in which parliamentary democracy was running in your country. And in this particular way, many of the Jews that come to support right-wing Zionism are really not unlike those non-Jews in Europe that would come to increasingly embrace authoritarian politics.
Much of this has to do with their very negative experience with parliamentary democracy. The new parliamentary democracies of eastern Europe, established in the immediate wake of the First World War, Poland among them, were, if not to say stillborns, they were beset by numerous challenges from their inception. They were plagued by political corruption, by factionalism, by legislative gridlock, even by violence on the parliamentary floor. And Poland was was one such country. In the first eight years of Poland’s existence, for example, fifteen governments came and went, and it really wrecked a tremendous amount of havoc on the country’s already-miserable economy.
Polish Jews had another reason to be very suspicious, let’s say, of the democratic political process as it was unfolding in Poland, and that was that the democratic political process was seen by many as a breeding ground for antisemitism. There’s an extraordinary book by Paul Brykczynski, called Primed for Violence. that explores how democratic politics as it unfolded in the early 1920s in Poland was a breeding ground for antisemitism. And indeed elections saw a massive surge in antisemitic propaganda from Polish nationalist parties. To give one fairly well-known example, in 1920 when an opponent of right-wing Polish nationalists, a guy by the name of Gabriel Narutowicz, was chosen as Poland’s first democratically-elected president, his opponents branded him as a “Jewish” president. And within hours of his victory, bloody antisemitics riots shook the capital city of Warsaw, and he was assassinated less than a week later.
All of this is simply to say that against the backdrop of the interwar period, and against the backdrop of the 1920s especially, it is utterly unsurprising that some Polish Jews could admire the calls among many right-wing movements in Europe for order, for unity and stability. And this gravitation, let’s say, towards right-wing politics amongst some Jews in Poland also translated into for some Jews their Zionist ideology or their Zionist worldview. Zionism was, but one of a multitude of political movements that circulated among the Jews throughout interwar Poland. Poland was really this incredible little laboratory for modern Jewish politics. And Zionism was one of the great ideologies of the period. Some of the Zionists in Poland viewed authoritarian politics as a potential political vehicle for bringing about their aspirations. And that’s really the topic that my book sets out to explore
JL: What I find to be so interesting about this that the concept of the state of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” might seem like a bedrock of the idea of modern Zionism, that this would be what modern Zionism is to try to achieve, to create a state that was Jewish in character, but also that represented the liberal democratic tradition of Europe. That is, that just as Jews were seeking emancipation in Europe, that they would try to emulate the same political ideals in their new state. But you seem to be making the case that this was not necessarily the only model that that modern Zionists pursued.
DH: That’s exactly right. I should say that I’m not the only scholar that is revisiting this question of the relationship between Zionism and democracy or a creation of the state and democracy. A scholar by the name of Nimrod Lin examines the ways in which Labor Zionists, that very group that we might presume aspires to and espouses democracy, the ways in which they themselves had grave doubts about the question of whether or not democracy or the democratic political process could actually lead to the creation of a Jewish state. What’s critical to know about the 1920s is that the very term “democracy,” what it is supposed to do, and what it actually means is something that is continually debated in the public sphere. Some argue that democracy can be implemented immediately. Others argue that the political landscape of the postwar era demanded that emergency measures, let’s say, be put in place that would suspend or postpone democracy until the conditions were right for it to be implemented.
Betar is one such group, and Vladimir Jabotinsky, certainly increasingly through the 1930s, was one such political leader who despite insisting time and again that they were committed to the principle of democracy, also raised doubts in full public view about the ability of democracy to respond to the immediate needs of people in the interwar period and specifically of Jews seeking the creation of a Jewish state. Even though the Revisionist movement and Betar, or I should say at least some ideologues in Betar, could imagine an idealized democratic future and a Jewish state, many of them insisted that in order to get there, and in order for the creation of the state to take place in the first place, authoritarian modes of believing and behaving would have to be adopted by Jews.
JL: I think it’s important to note that when we talk about “left-wing” and “right-wing” politics, this is an over-simplification. “Left” versus “right” is sort of contentless in it’s division. The way you’re talking about it as this question of authoritarian components to a political vision is more specific in the way in which you are trying to assess these various political ideas and movements. But one of the things that is interesting, and if you’ll forgive me for continuing to use the liberal versus conservative or the left wing versus right wing terminology, is that some people have suggested that there is an affinity between Jews and relatively liberal politics inasmuch as emancipation was usually a policy of the left in various countries. Ultimately, as we know, fascism produced the Holocaust. And so there is this popular perception that Jews are liberals in the present day, broadly speaking. There are some people like Norman Podhoretz who made such an argument, which in my opinion was definitely too polemical inasmuch as he was trying to say that Jews should be conservative. That’s why he made this argument, but he was saying this in a way that flattens the nature of liberal and conservative politics, which doesn’t stay the same over the course of 200 years. But I think the point stands that Jews, historically speaking, can be understood to be in a more progressive camp in various contexts. So in focusing on this one particular moment of interwar Poland, are you upending almost 200 years of commonsense understanding of Jewish politics?
DH: You had mentioned that, by and large, there is a popular perception that Jews are associated with liberal politics, that most Jews also adhere to liberal politics. I’m not sure that’s still the case, certainly in the American political imagination. So we might start there. But with respect to 200 years of Jewish history, I would say that it really depends how we define what Jewish politics are, and what modern Jewish politics are. Certainly, if we describe modern Jewish politics as the turn to creating Jewish political movements end of the nineteenth century which were designed exclusively for Jews, that insisted that a Jewish destiny would not necessarily rest in a particular state through emancipation, and it wouldn’t rest through messianic redemption or through religion. Then, OK, maybe we can say that, by and large, the movements that emerged—thinking especially of the socialist movements and certainly Zionism, or at least in the Zionist movement of Eastern Europe—trended towards the left. We might say that they are more likely than not to be at least left, or center left.
But if we use that as our definition, I worry that we then actually discount the political experience of the vast majority of Jews that lived, let’s say, in eastern Europe, in the Russian empire, people that didn’t necessarily ascribe to modern Jewish politics. It also leaves out a vast number of supporters of political organizations like Agudas Yisroel, political organizations that promoted traditional Jewish life and that were oftentimes quite suspicious of progressive political parties that were Jewish and found better allies, let’s say, among non-Jewish political parties that were on the center or that trended rightwards.
JL: I agree entirely with what you’re saying, I was presenting this popular perception of Jews on the left. And I think that, as you pointed out, and as a number of scholars including yourself have been pointing out, that this is not the entirety of the Jewish political experience.
DH: That’s my sense. And you had asked whether I seek to upend 200 years of commonsense… I mean, absolutely not, I try to keep my goals much more modest. But when thinking about the interwar period, I think what we can say is that this period between the two World Wars was a watershed moment for modern Jewish politics, and one in which we do see a growing number of Jews think about elements of right-wing politics that could potentially prove useful in order to achieve their aims.
JL: In this light, are you making a broader intervention through this case study about how Jews have associated with right-wing politics? Is it a story of a marriage of convenience, or is there something bigger here?
DH: I would certainly argue against the claim that anytime Jews affiliated with right-wing politics, that it’s simply a marriage of convenience. Certainly in the story that I’m telling about this group of young Jews that come to embrace right-wing ideas and behaviors, these are beliefs that are deeply held to, these are behaviors that they praise. In other words, the relationship between Jews and the right is, at least in the story that I tell, a love affair story. It’s not a marriage of convenience at all. It’s quite the romance.
JL: I can think of a number of other instances in which you can talk about the association of Jews with the right. Scholars in other areas have unearthed similar stories. For instance, Philipp Nielsen has written about German Jews, and traced a type of conservatism in that context, and even has focused on some Jewish figures like Hans-Joachim Schoeps, who was a Jewish scholar of religion who at one point actually supported the Nazi party. But there, Nielsen is looking at a relatively small set of Jews who, for the most part, ultimately gave up on their fatherland as having abandoned them. So, in what ways is your story similar or different to these other kinds of contexts?
DH: The story of Polish Jews and their relationship with right wing politics is different than the story of German Jews who might flirt with right-wing politics in two really key respects: The first is numbers. By the end of the 1930s, there were approximately 50,000 Jewish youth in Poland that belong to this youth movement, Betar, the right-wing Zionist youth movement. They were among the most popular Jewish youth movements operating in interwar Poland. And in Poland, youth movement culture was a critical component of a Jewish cultural and political life. They left a profound presence in the public sphere. Oftentimes they would appear in Jewish newspapers of every political persuasion, either praised or condemned, so I guess they are not outliers in the story of Polish Jewry.
I’d say no less important is the legacy of this group, Betar. One of its key leaders, and the leader who became the head of the youth movement in Poland in 1938, was Menachem Begin, who decades later would become the first right-wing Zionist prime minister in Israel. In many of the decisions that he took following his ascent to power, Menachem Begin claimed that he was following in the footsteps of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of right-wing Zionism and the leader of Betar, and that he was following this trajectory of ideas that he first encountered in the Betar youth movement. Now, Menachem Begin wasn’t alone—to this day, contemporary Israeli politicians claim to be the heir to Vladimir Jabotinsky.
JL: You had mentioned how in interwar Europe and in Poland in particular, many people were wary of democracy. They were not necessarily afraid of it, but they felt that authoritarianism was perhaps the more ideal way to operate a state. And they looked towards Mussolini’s Italy, for instance, as an example of a model to follow. One of the things that I find very interesting about all of this is that if you look at twenty-first century China or Putin’s Russia, there’s an attempt there to demonize democracy, to say that it fundamentally is an unworkable system of government. They point to whenever there’s some crisis in the U.S. or in another democratic country as examples of why authoritarian rule, regardless of the economic system that underlies it, is preferable in one way or another. Do you think that the examples that you’re looking at in terms of this question of Poland has anything to say about contemporary questions of democracy in some of these countries where democracy is looked down upon in some of the ways that you described, as “disorganized” or “chaotic”?
DH: That’s a tough question to answer in part because, as a historian, I’m fairly cautious and modest when it comes to commenting on contemporary political affairs. What I can say is that some readers told me when looking at the case of Polish Jews in the interwar period who come to embrace right-wing politics, that there is something about stepping into the minds of these people and also stepping into their experience to understand why democracy, from their point of view, simply didn’t work and why the prospect of authoritarianism was so compelling. I think one of the challenges to leaders in North America who might trend leftward, let’s say, is that their first reaction when thinking about authoritarianism is that it would obviously be abhorrent to most people that live across the world. That is simply not the case. And, dare I say, we’ve seen time and again authoritarian figures be democratically elected into governments. And that seems to be some proof to this point. So perhaps reading this book might get people to think about how others might conceive of democracy in less positive terms and why they may have a strong case, from their point of view, for having those feelings.
JL: The other major argument that you made was that, in talking about the development of right-wing Jewish nationalism in Poland, you also made a move to upend a widely held conception about the relationship between Zionism and the Diaspora. We often think of the Zionist movement and the Zionists as trying to “negate” the Diaspora. And of course there have been a wide range of scholars and have shown that in reality in, in the Yishuv, in the Jewish settlement in Palestine, and then in the state of Israel, the Diaspora was never really “negated.” Instead, in many ways the Jewish community and Jewish life and Palestine was very much rooted in the Diaspora experience and interest in the history of Jews in the Diaspora and so on and so forth. With that said, the Zionists still made a claim that they wanted to strike out on their own in Palestine, to differentiate themselves from Jewish life and Jewish experience in Diaspora, but what you really detail in your book are a number of ways in which the Revisionist Zionists in Poland actively participated in Polish nationalism too. What do you think is the significance of this?
DH: First, let me say a few words about the relationship of Betar to Polish nationalism, and then from there I might be able to talk a little bit more about its significant.
So, like many other Zionist movements that operated between the two World Wars, the Revisionist movement insisted that its prime goal was the creation of a Jewish state. And they insisted that part of the transformation that Zionism promised to its adherents was that Jews could shake off the negative attributes that they had accumulated over the course of centuries in Europe. This is really where the concept of the “negation of the Diaspora” comes to play such a significant role in Zionism. Zionism promised in a sense a rebirth, a transformation into a model of a human being, whether in their physical makeup—that is their physicality—or in the way they thought, in a way that they worked, etc., that would radically depart from the role of Jews or the behaviors of Jews in the Diaspora.
At one and the same time, most Zionist movements also looked to models of other nationalist movements in Europe at the time for how to believe, how to behave, etc. Now, the case of socialism has been poured over by scholars of Zionism, and it’s been made very clear that the ideas and that the models that socialist Zionists bring, first to Ottoman Palestine and later to Mandate Palestine, are directly linked, of course, with broader global developments and certainly with broader developments in the places in which they were born and raised and first encountered politics in the first place.
I’d say that what I’m doing is simply extending that sort of investigation to the study of right-wing Zionist politics. Right-wing Zionists insisted that they would negate the Diaspora. They insisted that future for Jewish life was in a future Jewish state with a Jewish majority. But what I found so utterly fascinating about this group was that even as the insisted on all these things, you could also find Betar members in their groups marching in parades alongside Polish scouts and soldiers. You could hear Betar members singing Polish patriotic songs. I found numerous documents in which Betar members delivered speeches pledging to defend Poland from attack, and also found numerous instances—whether in the periodical literature of the youth movement or in government reports written by Polish officials—describing their interactions with members of the youth movement, leaders telling their members to “act Polish” in some way. There was, especially in the 1930s, a substantial relationship that was developed between the Betar youth movement and the Polish government. Betar youth movement leaders appealed to Polish government officials, both at the local level and at the national level, to provide them with military training and assistance, with the idea that eventually they could use that in military training and assistance in Mandate Palestine, in their struggle to create a Jewish state.
So, then, what is the significance of all of this? I would say that the behavior of Poland’s Betar members can tell us a tremendous amount about Polish Jewish youth between the two World Wars. One of the things it can reveal to us is one particular aspect of their experience, which was this twinned experience of alienation from the Polish state, but also an acculturation with Polish language and Polish culture. Over eighty percent of Polish Jewish youth between the two World Wars at some point attended a Polish public school. And in these Polish public schools, they could spend many hours learning Polish, reading Polish literature, and also being taught to express some degree of loyalty to the Polish state. But it’s also in these Polish schools, and I detail this quite a bit in my book, that young Jews also encountered antisemitism of their peers or of their teachers. Many of them experience the sense of being torn between what they were being taught in school, as sort of love for Poland, and their experience of antisemitism.
The responses of Polish Jewish youth to this twinned acculturation and alienation was quite diverse. Some of them joined leftist political movements. In the case, of Betar, one of the reasons why the youth movement proves to be appealing to many Polish Jewish youth is that it looks and it feels like a Polish nationalist youth movement, both in its admiration of right-wing politics and also in the uniforms, in the choreography of the activities, etc. So in some ways, looking at their decision to join Betar, looking at their attempts through their ceremonies to actually blend aspects of Polish nationalism into their Zionism, is a way to look at the complex politics of nationality and belonging in the interwar period. It shows us that people’s national identity wasn’t fixed. That people were constantly trying to figure out who they were, where they belonged. I’d say that that’s probably one of the most important interventions the book can have.
JL: I think what you’re describing are really two interrelated phenomena. You’re talking about the way in which Zionists of all stripes borrowed ideas from the political environments in which they lived. For instance, you pointed to socialism as something that Zionists picked up on within the political and social discourse of Eastern Europe and elsewhere that they looked to as a model for how they would hope to create their state. The same thing is true of the Revisionists, in terms of looking at what was happening in the areas where they were living as well. Nir Kedar has a really great article where he writes about David Ben-Gurion and his whole idea of “mamlakhtiut,” a concept of statism that he developed primarily the 1950s, but he argues that it really comes from a Russian understanding of the role of the state in the shaping of society. I think you’re making a similar case here, as you pointed out, making a really interesting point about the close connection between Jewish nationalism and Polish nationalism. And what really comes to mind here, though of course it’s in a totally different context and on the opposite side in a certain way of the political spectrum, is Louis Brandeis’ call in the United States that to be a good Zionist is to be a good American. Is this what’s going on here in the case that you’re examining, that more or less these Polish right-wing Zionists believed that they also had to be good Poles in order to be good Zionists?
DH: Here, I really do stand on the shoulders of giants. As you know, many scholars have pointed out that Zionism is nearly always articulated in the local idiom of its followers. That means that when American Jews are trying to promote Zionism, they are joining the Zionist movement, they insist that to be a good Zionist is to be a good American, and that Zionism ultimately compliments American values, whatever they may be. So that is certainly the case when Revisionist Zionists say that to be a good Zionist is to behave like a good Pole. But for me the story doesn’t just stop there. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, when Betar chose to adopt Polishness as a model to aspire towards, whatever that might mean, there were tremendous debates within the movement about what that actually meant. In other words, what does it mean to be a good Pole? Does that mean to engage in a chivalrous fashion as a soldier, to exercise restraint? Does it mean to behave like a Polish terrorist? There are numerous models of Polishness that different members of Betar draw upon in order to promote whatever particular competing claims or arguments they may have within their movement. So to me, that was easily one of the more fascinating components of looking at their relationship to Polishness. No less interesting to me was the response of Polish government officials to Betar’s performances of Polishness. That is to say there are ceremonies in the street where they lay wreaths on the tombs of unknown Polish soldiers, or when they reach out to Polish officials to participate in their ceremonies. What I found completely fascinating is that there really isn’t a uniform response that we can find from Polish government officials, and in fact here we see the importance of a local context. That is to say that it is often dependent on the whims of particular Polish officials in towns or in cities with respect to how much, let’s say, military assistance Betar was granted, how frequently Betar was allowed to participate in Polish parades. There were some Polish officials that thought that it was a good idea for the government to promote Betar because it helps offset, let’s say, or bend against what they perceive to be the threat of Jewish communism or Jewish communists. There were others who worried that by arming Zionists they would, just like any other Jewish political movement in their view, pose a threat to the Polish state. And all of these debates about the meaning of Polishness, whether it from the vantage point of Betar’s members or the vantage point of Polish government officials, I spent a great deal of time looking at in the book.
JL: One thing that I was really taken by in your book was the dual meaning of the title. When it’s called “Jabotinsky’s Children,” it’s both about the actual children who were followers of Jabotinsky, the members of the Betar youth movement, and also about those who have claimed to carry on his legacy. What do you think is the importance of Jabotinsky, broadly speaking? Is it just how he is constantly invoked in Israeli culture and politics, or is there something bigger going on here?
DH: It’s a great question. Maybe for your listeners that are unfamiliar with Vladimir Jabotinsky, I’ll just spend a moment talking about who he was, just a little bit of a biography, and then we can speak more about the imprint that he leaves in contemporary Israeli culture and politics. So Vladimir Jabotinsky was the founder of right-wing Zionism, and he was described by his supporters and his opponent like as one of Zionists movement’s most spellbinding orators, one of the most brilliant writers, one of its most magnetic personalities, and certainly one of its most provocative activists. He was born and raised in Odessa. He was a prominent Zionist activist in the Russian empire, but he really gained his fame during the First World War when he created the Jewish Legion, which participated in the British Army’s conquest of Ottoman Palestine. Jabotinsky also achieved a tremendous amount of popularity among Zionists for the role that he played in organizing the Haganah Jewish defense network during the Jerusalem riots of 1920.
Now, eventually Jabotinsky breaks with the mainstream Zionist movement and he begins to formulate Revisionist Zionisms. In its essence, Revisionist Zionism called for a couple of things that really distinguished itself from the mainstream movement. The first is that it called for a much more aggressive approach to dealing with Mandate Palestine’s British colonial administration. The second is that it also called for a much more aggressive approach towards dealing with the Palestinian Arab population in Mandate Palestine. The Revisionist movement insisted that the Zionist movement state very, very clearly that they saw a Jewish majority in a Jewish state or Commonwealth that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the western borders of what would today be Saudi Arabia and Iraq. So here, actually the territorial aspirations of Revision Zionists were also something that distinguished themselves from mainstream Zionists. And what was really critical in terms of their attitudes towards Palestinian Arabs was that Revisionism insisted that there was only one way that Palestinians would be willing to yield to the demands of Zionists, and that would be only once Jews proved that they were an indestructable military force. So those are just some of the ideas that Jabotinsky brings to the fore in that serve as the basis for the foundation of the union of Revision Zionists is in 1925. Jabotinsky himself ends up being banned from returning to Mandate Palestine in 1930. His views are considered dangerous by British officials, by Zionists to the left, certainly. But he continues his activism albeit in Europe. And he gains a massive following, especially in Poland, and he’ll continue to try and advocate for his ideas until his death in the summer of 1940.
So saying all that, what can we say about Jabotinsky’s ideological legacy? It’s not just that right-wing Zionists invoke him as their founding father and insist that their policies have followed to the letter what Jabotinsky would have wanted. I would say that what is so utterly fascinating about Jabotinsky’s ideological legacy today is that he is invoked in so many contradictory ways by so many different people with different points of view. Zionists of practically every persuasion invoke his name to justify their views on a staggering array of issues facing Israeli society. It can include things like the role of the Rabbinate in legislating the lives of Israel’s Jewish citizens. It can include questions about the status of women in Israeli civic life. It can be related to questions about economic inequality in the state of Israel. But perhaps the most frequent time that Jabotinsky appears in contemporary Israeli discourse, of course, is around questions about Palestinians and certainly questions about the occupied territories. And right wing politicians use Jabotinsky in a whole range of different ways, often times a contradictorily.
Let me just give you one very, very small example. And this is in relation to the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories. So President Reuven Rivlin in Israel claims that he is inspired by Jabotinsky’s articles which promised the equal treatment of an Arab minority within the future Jewish state. As a result of being inspired by Jabotinsky, Rivlin insists that ultimately Israel should extend citizenship to Palestinians in the West Bank while they retrain Israeli control of the area. Contrast that with Avigdor Lieberman, a very well-known right-wing Zionist figure who describes his party, Yisrael Beitenu, as a national movement with a clear vision to follow in the path of none other than Jabotinsky. Lieberman has called for a two-state solution that would include a population transfer of Palestinians in Israeli and Jews living in the West Bank. When he tries to justify population transfer, he could easily turn to Jabotinsky’s musings in 1940 on the potential merits of Arab emigration from the future Jewish state.
So what does this mean? Why is it that Jabotinsky has proven to be so dexterous, let’s say, on the Israeli contemporary political scene? Why do we see him in some instances as a staunch defender of democracy, in other instances as a hawkish figure? I think it has to do in part with, what I at least believe to be, his political strategy between the two World Wars. And that was that Jabotinsky deliberately created ambiguous or contradictory messages to his followers. From its very founding, the Revisionist movement really aimed to appeal to a broad constituency, and collected a range of supporters with differing views. And one of the results of this was that by the 1930s, there was what we might call the more extremist factions within the Revisionist movement, many if not most of whom connected with were related to Betar, who advocated for what we might today call for more radical right-wing measures and that includes perhaps most prominently the use of violence against civilians.
JL: One thing to point out though, you mentioned Reuvin Rivlin, is that he was appointed under Likud government in 2014. So he also sort of representative of a right-wing political group. But one other thing to point out, very interestingly, about the way that you describe Jabotinsky in your book and the way you just did just a moment ago, is that the kind of internal contradictions that allowed him to speak to multiple constituencies. And that made it very difficult for some people to really determine what his actual views were on any particular issue. It seems very reminiscent of a certain American political figure.
DH: And which political figure would that be?
JL: That would be Donald Trump.
DH: So again, not only as historian, but also as a Canadian, I can’t speak with a great deal of authority on Donald Trump. I would say, likely, that Jabotinsky would’ve shuddered at the notion of being compared to someone of Trump’s background and education, despite the fact that, as we all know, Trump had the best education. Jabotinsky was a polyglot. He was an extraordinary writer. No matter what one thinks of his politics, he was truly a brilliant essayist and a serious thinker that people have to recognize, whether to praise or to hate him. But Jabotinsky certainly, I would say, is not alone in offering multiple and contradictory messages to his followers. I think this is just the stuff of politics in many respects. I think why this might be surprising to some is that because Vladimir Jabotinsky’s imprint on the legacy of the state of Israel has been so profound, when people invoke and they insist that they are invoking, in a sense the definitive Jabotinsky. That is to say, he is either the consummate democrat or he is the pseudo-fascist figure. What the sort of idealization of a leader does is that it flattens this person who lives through history, who was working with multiple constituencies, and who was responding to the immediate pressures of the moment, flattens them into a soundbite. One thing that my book really tries to do is to, rather than to to craft this pristine image of Jabotinsky as a philosopher, as a man whose ideas didn’t move with the times, as a man whose ideas and to speak to everyone in exactly the same way, I really try to historicize him, to not only watch his own views change over time, but also to know all of the tensions and the contradictions that can be found within his articles, or even within one article.
Something else I discovered when trying to understand the meaning of Jabotinsky, let’s say, is that it’s impossible to figure out Jabotinsky’s legacy without understanding how his early followers actually interpreted him. Much like today, where we see contradictory interpretations, what I found in Betar’s periodicals is that there were numerous and indeed at times contradictory interpretations of the messages that they were receiving from Jabotinsky from above. So that too is a really fascinating component of this story.
JL: So the other half of all of this is the focus on the children, the children of Jabotinsky so to speak, though as you point out in the book many of them were actually over the age of 18 which created a certain political reality in which members of the youth movement could vote in the various Zionist elections. With that said, what’s the importance of youth culture and understanding it? How do you think that youth culture is misunderstood by scholars and by the public, and how can studying it help us to understand why their issues?
DH: I think that there are a variety of ways in which to answer that question. The first is to talk about the profound importance that youth movements and your culture and you’ve had in the first half of the twentieth century on the shape of politics. Already by the nineteenth century, political activists, nationalists, socialists, and everything in between sought to court the support of young people in order to promote their political aims. In part, this is because they envisioned young people as the future members of their movements. But there was also another reason why they tried to attract youth within their ranks. And that is that the public display of young people marching in uniform or participating in their movement was great publicity. So already by that, say 1914, we see hundreds of thousands of young people in Europe participating in array of youth movements.
One might recall, for example, the British Empire’s Boy Scouts movement. It had a massive, massive following. Now, the Boy Scouts sought, in many ways, to prepare young people for military service. And indeed we see with the First World War, European political activists saw how critical young people were in shaping the political destinies of the continent. That is to say, young people on the ground served as soldiers and could make or break political realities, so in the wake of that new and in some sense terrifying and awesome knowledge, political movements between the two World Wars in Europe, really threw their efforts into trying to politicize and educate youth through youth movements.
There’s another reason why movements are proved to be so compelling in the interwar period, especially one of the key components of belonging to a youth movement, is that it’s meant to be a kind of totally immersive emotional experience. Everything you do, whether you are with your youth movement or not, is supposed to be in service of a political program. There is also something, how do I put it, simply emotionally thrilling about participating in the types of activities that were associated with youth movements: big bonfires, singing with your friends, etc. It’s remarkable to me that so many of these bread and butter activities of youth movements in the interwar period come to be part of a broader political culture throughout interwar Europe, that privileges emotion over logical reason, where the printing press is far less effective in trying to mobilize people and the politics of uniforms, of marching, of bonfires, of mass parades comes to be far more important. So that’s just the historical context for how important youth movements were throughout Europe.
In the case of Poland, Jewish movements were especially important. And this has to do in large part because of the very precarious nature of Jewish life in Poland between the two World Wars. Polish Jewry were a beleaguered minority, and they had little to no political power or meaningful political power to speak of. Youth movements, in a way, became one of the only avenues for young Jewish people to feel a sense of autonomy or a sense of power in their lives. With respect to the political activists that created these movements and supported them, the movements in a sense became a place to stage their ideal utopias, what the Jewish future might look like. And indeed, if you were to step into a summer camp of either a socialist movement, a Zionist movement, a socialist ZIonist movement, even an orthodox movement, like Agudas Yisroel or, in the case of my book, into a summer camp of Betar, you would see political activists trying to truly create a world in which their political program was the only mode of believing and behavior that ruled the roost. For all of those reasons, youth movement culture between the two World Wars in general, and of course among Polish Jews in particular, merits our attention.
JL: In today’s moment, I think that people often try to understand youth in a number of ways whether you’re talking about the the “puzzling” millennials, or simply in technological terms, which social media platform the teens are using, or whatever. So how do you think that studying youth helps us to understand the realm of politics as opposed to culture or work or technology?
DH: It helps in a variety of ways. One of them is, that’s for historians that are trying to understand political philosophies of any period. But let’s focus on the twentieth century. I would argue that it would be a mistake to exclusively look at the ideological proclamations of politicians that are directed towards adults. I think that you get some incredible information when you look at the pamphlets or you look at the activities and the curriculum that is designed for young people to ultimately adopt the political programs of these activists, because these political activists in a sense when they’re thinking about young people are trying to distill their political ideology into ideas that are easily digestible and that are attractive to young people.
For historians trying to understand what the popular political culture of a time looks like, youth movements and human culture and the historical evidence that comes with it is a really incredible way to try and get at some of that rich information about what popular political culture looks like. There’s another reason why I think that looking at the politics of youth culture is really important, and that has to do with the very conflicting and contradictory and changing ways that political movements across Europe actually defined who a “youth” was, and what their behaviors were. What I’m about to say will sound very familiar to historians who use the categories of gender or race or class in their work. This is sort of the classic trifecta over the past couple of decades when engaging in historical research on what unites all of these things is that, especially in the case of race and gender, is that historians have come to understand gender and race as social constructs, not as biological reality. Now, certainly there are biological stages of childhood, youth, and adulthood, but the concept of “youth” and who a youth is and what they should do, much like the concept of gender or race, has changed dramatically over the course of time. And we see that, certainly in the context of interwar Europe, and even within the context of the youth movement that I studied throughout the history of Betar, its leaders debated the question of how to define what a youth was, to what extent you should adopt particular types of behavior. What exactly is an idealized youth? So I think we have much to learn simply by historicizing concept of youth in the first place.
JL: To go back to something you had mentioned before, one of the things that this book speaks to is the malleability of political ideas, inasmuch as Josef Trumpledor, who is the namesake of Betar, was himself a socialist, but the Revisionists remade him to serve their purposes. How and in what ways do you think this is also true about Jabotinsky?
DH: In many respects, I think that my answer will probably tread on material that we’ve already spoken about when talking about the contradictory images that people have of Jabotinsky, and who claimed to be his heirs. I think that there are certain things that Betar members between the two World Wars would’ve agreed about when it came to Jabotinsky, some of the core tenets of the Revisionist movement that I described earlier. But there were certainly debates about what Jabotinsky had to say about the efficacy of democracy and what do you have to say about the extent to which Zionists should engage in violence in order to achieve their aims and whether that violence should only target soldiers or whether or not they should target civilians as well. And throughout the book I provide really fascinating evidence of Betar members in Poland saying dramatically different things about Jabotinsky with respect to these issues.
JL: Further, you also mentioned how Jabotinsky has an important place in Israeli politics and culture, broadly speaking, across the political spectrum. In what ways do you think that the work that you’ve done in your book helps to support or to undermine the way in which Jabotinsky is understood and otherwise put to use in the context of modern Israel?
DH: I would say I have very modest expectations of who would read this book and whether or not it will lead to any sort of lasting imprint or even put a dent in the ways in which people think about their political leaders. I think the only thing I can really say is that perhaps by reading this book, those that claim to be adherents or even the fierce opponents of Jabotinsky might begin to question one-dimensional portraits of this leader. Perhaps what I would hope from my readers is that they would give pause when trying to find some sort of essential definition of Jabontinsky’s worldview, that they might instead come to think of this figure as an immensely complicated political figure who’s prose had numerous contradictions and ambiguities. I think that maybe it might give some pause about the very quest to try and ask of political leaders that are considered the founding leaders of the movement to respond to contemporary events of the day.
This is the question that I always get when giving public talks about Jabotinsky. What would Jabotinsky say today? And what would he do today? It always baffles me, in the sense that we would expect someone who lived in a time period that was so radically different than our own, that we would be able to conjure up what they might say about it. Hopefully, folks that read the book will think of him as a historical figure, one that was a product of his time and who, like all of us, had points of view that changed over time, that could be contradictory.
JL: This is an issue that we see in politics in a very wide sense. People often ask, Republicans who see themselves as the party of Reagan, so to speak, they say, what would Reagan do in such-and-such a situation? They have elevated him to a certain kind of political pantheon, and then you can see this in any number of political movements or in any number of political parties, not just among right-wing or conservative parties. There is often a cult of personality surrounding some of these figures and I think that part of what you’re doing is to try to break that down in Jabotinsky’s case and to show him as someone who was very human, his political views were very much shaped by his followers.
If we could shift gears a bit, one thing that I hoped we could talk about was how you talk a fair bit in the book about the ways in which the Revisionists themselves were attracted and expressed their attraction to fascism as a political movement, in one way or another. Of course, calling someone or a group “fascists” is in some way the ultimate political slur.
DH: It depends who’s saying it. It depends where we are in the world.
JL: That’s exactly the point. Do you think that it’s appropriate or useful to talk about the Revisionists as fascistic in one way or another? What do you think are perhaps the pitfalls of that entire discourse in terms of trying to understand the history of Zionism and Revisionism, and also broadly speaking?
DH: The first thing we need to do in talking about fascism is to situate it within its historical context and to appreciate that if we ourselves are constantly wrestling with what it means to be a fascist, rest assured that even Italian fashions in the 1920s were asking that very question. In fact, most of the movements that would come to describe themselves as fascist, at least in the 1920s and early 1930s, were constantly debating what the term fascism meant. Now, this wasn’t an accident. Despite the fact that Mussolini very famously declared in Italian “Me ne frego” (“I don’t give a damn,” to put it politely) when it comes to creation of a fascist ideology, fascists themselves in Italy were debating what exactly it meant to be fascist. And ultimately they deliberately left it vague. Now what this meant for Jews in Betar when they just clear themselves fascist is that they, like pretty much every other right-wing movements on the continent at the time, also debated what exactly it would mean to adopt this worldview and what exactly fascism meant in the first place. So all of that to say is that, unfortunately, I’m not going to give a yes/no they were fascists or they were not fascist. I’m more interested in why they were drawn to the term and how they debated what it meant or what it didn’t mean, and that is really what the book explores. That said, what we can say very clearly is that there were a repertoire of ideas that most fascist movements adhere to. And when we’re talking about Betar, we can certainly ask to what extent they adopted this repertoire of ideas. So just to name a few of these ideas: One of them is the belief that society has to be organized along military lines, that the individual ultimately has to subordinate themselves to a nation, that they should be guided by a leader who often has a cult of personality attached to them, so they’re almost portrayed as omniscient. Oftentimes fascists insist that they can and they should use violence against their enemies. Enemies primarily are socialists or Communists, democrats, anybody that gets in the way, ultimately, of fascists’ goals. And so I take those are some of the core beliefs that that are part of, let’s say, this fascist repertoire. And indeed Betar does adopt many of these trappings of fascism. Whether or not they call themselves fascists or not, Betar members by the end of the 1930s were vehemently against socialism and communism and pledged to battle its presence on the Jewish street with full force. There was a robust cult of personality associated with Jabotinsky which was a really critical component of the Betar youth movements. Betar members also spoke about the use of violence against those that threatened the Jewish state. Their discussions primarily were about Palestinian Arabs, but in the early to mid 1930s, there were brawls that broke out in Mandate Palestine and in Poland and elsewhere between socialists, Zionists, and Betar and members of the Bund. And there, too, they were thinking about violence in order to suppress their enemies.
What you don’t see in the case of Betar that is different than other fascist movements is an aspiration towards the suppression of individual speech, the suppression of free speech. You don’t see in Betar imaginary dreams of a secret police to be founded in the future Jewish state. Those are really two very critical ways in which Betar doesn’t adhere to what we might call the fascist repertoire or fascist norms. I’ll add, some Betar members do insist that the economic models of fascist Italy could also be appealing to a future Jewish state. So there is an economic component here as well.
One of the things to say is that this changes dramatically, of course, with the rise of Hitler. Once he comes to power in 1933, most Betar members, though not all, but most members of the Revisionist party distanced themselves from calling themselves fascist and insist and declare their opponents of the Nazi regime.
JL: You also make, I think, a really interesting point about the way that political movements and political ideas transcend national and political boundaries. You talk about the way in which various ideas associated with fascism, but not all of them, will find their way into the Revisionist, as you said, political repertoire. And we see this today, as well, in the way in which certain leaders around the world are following the others’ playbook. In one case, we see how Benjamin Netanyahu is a calling certain news reports that he doesn’t like very much “fake news.” We can see the way in which Trump’s really unfortunate and problematic way of talking about the news is being adopted by people like Netanyahu. What does your history of the relationship between fascism and Revisionism tell us about the spread of political ideas and ideals, broadly speaking?
DH: It’s a good question. Whatever it does have to say about this topic, I’ll admit, is nothing particularly new or original in terms of the writing of political history. That is to say that it should in fact be unsurprising to students of European history that Jews or others might draw upon models that extend far beyond national borders. After all, so many of these borders are only created in the wake of the First World War. I would say, the thing that really did surprise me, if I’m being honest with you, when I first started my work and first started reading periodicals of interwar Poland, the daily newspapers in Hebrew and Yiddish and Polish—the periodicals of Betar were in Hebrew—is just how far of a global reach they had. Newspaper stories from practically every corner of the world. A really deep interest in the developments of non-Jewish politics elsewhere in the world. I don’t know why, but I just somehow presumed that the politics would be more local.
I’d say that, if anything, my book is really just one among so many others that demonstrate just how easy it was for ideas to circulate across the world. I think historians of Zionism will be especially interested in the circulation of ideas between Poland and Mandate Palestine. There’s a really fascinating history that’s yet to be told of how periodicals were circulated, oftentimes within days, from their publiations in either Poland or Mandate Palestine and back to one another. One of the types of sources I frequently used were telegrams sent by Betar members living in Mandate Palestine back to Poland. And there were all of these modes of communication. So what’s fascinating is what sort of information is transmitted and also what’s lost in the transmission, so to speak. And that’s one of these really big questions and I think that there’s much more work to be done on the topic.
JL: You talked about the complexity of fascism as an idea and about the problems of the terminology. What would you say is the importance of understanding fascism in historical context and in historical terms? Do you think that in any way that is useful to use the term to describe contemporary political developments in any way, or do you think that fascism should only be used in historical terms?
DH: I don’t think those two are mutually incompatible. I think that an understanding of fascism within its historical context, and situating fascism within the broader spectrum of right-wing politics, is critical for people to understand the world around them right now, in the rapidly shifting, right-wing trend of politics in so many places in the world. I’ll be frank, I think that one of my concerns about the constant conversation about whether or not Trump is a fascist, in the popular press or elsewhere, is that oftentimes people, when they think about fascism, they think of Hitler and they think of Auschwitz. Now, certainly the Nazi regime was a fascist regime. Certainly it’s horrors were, of course, just unbelievable. But one of the concerns that I have is that that is the point of departure. If that’s what people think of, that means that their threshold for responding to creeping authoritarianism and responding to other forms of right-wing politics that endanger their basic rights, that their threshold for action, the bar is raised so much higher, and that people really don’t sense that imminent danger and don’t feel compelled to action. Put differently, I just worry that the threshold for action is too high, if what fascism means for people is exclusively the Holocaust.
So part of what I hope this book does, or what it could do, is expand the vocabulary of comparison that people have when thinking about the contemporary situation and the right-wing politics of the past. I hope that more people will come to understand the nature of authoritarianism or even semi-authoritarianism, or even what we might call ethnic democracies—democracies that promise democratic rights and freedoms for particular ethnic groups, and repress other ethnic groups. All of these points of comparison, I think, would prove really helpful, not only in the sort of contemporary conversations about the United States, but quite potentially conversations about the state of Israel as well.
JL: Do you maybe want to clarify a little bit more what you mean when you say the threshold for action is too high?
DH: What I mean by that is that when people consider if they believe that fascism is exclusively these most horrific actions that we might conjure up of the twentieth century, than they might not be compelled to speak out when there are smaller, more modest infringements on the basic rights that most people who identify as democratic (small-D) believe. By looking more carefully at cases of right-wing politics that proceeded them, looking at cases of right-wing politics that might not be considered the most hardcore fascist but might be considered quasi-authoritarian, or creeping authoritarianism, whatever term you might choose, just by seeing all of those different models of what politics could look like, I think that it might make the comparison between the past and the present a little bit more clear and then might actually also help clarify modes of action for the future.
JL: So in the end, could you maybe tell us a bit more about the ways in which this history matters? How do you think that the history of Jabotinsky, of the Revisionist movement, of Betar, all helps us to understand the history of nationalism or Europe? In what ways is this history a necessary components of the broader histories of Poland and other contexts in which they are situated, if we want to understand them
DH: I’ll start actually with a personal reason for why it matters and something that really kept me at the study of Polish Jewry for as long I did. I was very lucky to have a close relationship to my grandmother, who was born and raised in Warsaw in the 1930s. She came from a family of ten, and she was the only one to survive the Holocaust. And one of the things that she taught me very early on was that her life was not simply a life of tremendous trauma and suffering, but that the life that proceeded the Holocaust was one that was dynamic and vibrant, and that’s despite the fact that Jews increasingly faced seemingly insurmountable odds. They refused to give up on their determination to define who they were and where they belonged in what their future held in store. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to write about Jewish culture in general and why it came to write about Betar in particular. I wanted to open up a world of Polish Jews in the 1920s and the 1930s that didn’t just see them as victims of the Holocaust. In the words of a famous historian of Polish Jewry, Celia Heller, whose book is On the Edge of Destruction, as if Jews were just waiting to be killed. And I should say no relation between myself and Celia. In my case, I wanted to see them as people whose lives were very much lives interrupted and lives where they really believed that they did have a role in shaping their fate. So on the most basic level, when you ask what’s the meaning of the book—why does it matter?—It matters because it hopefully, at its best moments, brings to life the experience in Polish Jews, especially Polish Jewish youth, on the eve of the Holocaust. So that in and of itself to me is a really critical component of the book.
Now, I don’t think that the history of Polish Jewry is important to remember just because we sort of need to preserve and restore that dynamism. I also think that the stories that we tell them about Polish Jewry have a striking contemporary relevance. And so the other reason why I think this book really matters is because I think that looking at how Polish Jews or some Polish Jews came to embrace right-wing politics and how that came to inform their Zionism really does have a striking contemporary relevance for today. That’s not to say that we should look at the ascendancy and— now I think safe to say—the triumphs of right-wing Zionism in Israel and see a perfectly direct genealogy to the Polish Jews that belonged to Betar and that were the most strident supporters of right-wing Zionists in between the two World Wars. That said, I think that one will still hear really interesting echoes when reading and hearing the voices of Betar members when they talk about how democracy needs to be suspended or pre-disposed for some people rather than others. When they talk about the sense that there is no other way to speak to Palestinians other than through bullets. This isn’t all Betar members, but this is a sizable number there. There are echoes, very strong echoes that we hear from their voices too.
The final major reason why I think this book matters is that I think it contributes to an important debate about the nature of Zionism and how practically every single ethnic nationalist movement on the map insists upon its uniqueness, that it’s somehow transcends all of the other pitfallss of nationalist movements. But I think that the very intimate relationship that Betar forges with ethnic Polish nationalism potentially might give some pause to some readers. When most readers think about ethnic Polish nationalism in the context of Polish-Jewish relations in the 1930s, they think about antisemitism. They think about the type of minority hatred, the type of xenophobia that was bred by Polish nationalism in this period. What exactly does it mean then, that a Zionist movement between the two World Wars, even as they rejected the antisemitic components of these groups, also saw them as models to aspire towards? And so the question of, to what extent Zionism itself and right-wing Zionism in particular might be seen as a part of this broader family of right-wing nationalist movements, whether in eastern Europe or elsewhere. I think the book does speak to that question quite strongly.