Geoffrey Wheatcroft: Ehud Olmert knows he must break with the political tradition into which he was born

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of ``The Controversy of Zion: Jewish Nationalism, the Jewish State, and the Unresolved Jewish Dilemma," which won a National Jewish Book Award.]

EVERY DAY BRINGS more grim news of the conflict in Lebanon and Israel, with a mounting death toll from Katyushas and F-16s. But Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, knows that beyond this conflict with Hezbollah is another, still more existential one with the Palestinians, and that this war in Lebanon only postpones-though it makes more urgent-the deal he must one day make.

Olmert also knows better than most that in the background is the climax of a different long struggle, more than 80 years old now, for the soul of Zionism. It is a struggle in which he-much more than Ariel Sharon, his immediate predecessor and the father of the strategy of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank-has an acute personal interest.

Like his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, Olmert was born into the political tradition known as Revisionist Zionism, founded by Vladimir Jabotinsky. A brilliant and intensely controversial figure, Jabotinsky split the Zionist movement in the 1920s, preaching a ``Greater Israel," with a Jewish majority outweighing the Arab population, to be won by force and guarded, in his famous phrase, by an ``Iron Wall." In the words of the former State Department adviser Aaron David Miller, Olmert is ``one of Likud's princes from a prominent Revisionist family." And if Olmert is a prince, Livni is a princess: Both are children of the Irgun, the armed rightists who followed Jabotinsky and fought both British and Arabs. Livni is one of the few prominent Israelis who can still quote from ``Jabo's" works, and her father's gravestone bears a map of that Greater Israel.

Jabotinsky did not live to see the creation of the Jewish state-which was not, in any case, the one he had dreamed of. And indeed the situation today is paradoxical. In his lifetime, Jabotinsky's appeal to his followers was his apparent realism and rejection of compromise, rather than the evasions and denial of other Zionists. As it turned out, Zionism found, like any other political movement, that realism itself means compromise, and that it may be better to accept what you can get rather than hold out for what you want. It will be a supreme irony if the ultimate compromise-and the final abandonment of Jabotinsky's ideal-is made by his direct ideological heirs.

. . .

No Israeli needs to be told about this astonishing man, whose shadow falls across the country to this day-his legacy is found in the names of sports clubs as well as the platforms of political parties-but even among those Americans who count themselves friends of Israel there are many who have scarcely heard of Jabotinsky. Born in Odessa in 1880, he became an ardent Zionist as a young man, and an immensely prolific journalist, historian, and novelist who wrote and spoke compellingly in Russian, Yiddish, German, Italian, Hebrew, French, and English. His translations (including the Sherlock Holmes stories) helped create the modern Hebrew language, and there are still Israelis who abhor his political legacy but admire his literary genius.

Before the Great War he had proclaimed Zionism not merely a political creed but a psychological remedy, to cure the Jews of the ``mutilations of history." In his blunt way, he said that degrading exile had made the Jews into ``Yids"; now they should become Hebrews again. In an article from 1911 entitled ``Against Excessive Apology," he admonished the Jews to stand up straight, to stop cringing and making excuses, and to tell the goyim ``to go to hell."

During that war, Jabo and his comrade Joseph Trumpeldor helped raise a Jewish Legion among the settlers in Palestine to fight with the British and drive out the Turks. While the campaign was underway in the fall of 1917, the London government (having also made inconveniently contradictory promises to the Arabs) issued the Balfour Declaration favoring the creation of a national home for the Jews, and after the war the British took charge of Palestine. Violence broke out almost immediately between Jewish settler and indigenous Arab, with the British ineffectually standing between, and continued until the ignominious British departure in 1948, not to say ever since.

In 1920, Trumpeldor died a hero defending his settlement against Arab attacks; three years later Jabotinsky founded Betar, whose name was a Hebrew acronym paying tribute to Trumpeldor. This militant youth movement was intended to instill discipline and pride, and maybe-so some Betarim hoped-to prepare for ``armed struggle." They marched in uniform, they forswore alcohol, and they kept fit. Their athletic tradition as well as their name survives in the Jerusalem Betar soccer club, which by no accident Olmert supports.

What distinguished Jabotinsky wasn't an enthusiasm for sports, but his forthrightness, or his intellectual honesty. From Theodor Herzl onwards, other Zionists had never been clear in public-or even in their own minds-about their objectives and how they could be accomplished. Herzl said more than a little optimistically that the existing inhabitants of Palestine would welcome the Zionists bringing progress and civilization....
Read entire article at Boston Globe

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Mike Schoenberg - 8/20/2006

Was it Olmert's fault that the military and Israeli intellegence had no idea of Hezbolla's build up? Of course we don't know if this was an action to show the world that there was this threat(rockets etc) and despite the U.N. and Lebanese army will probably still be aimed at Israel.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/17/2006

After what happened in Lebanon, Olmert knows that he's <to break> with the tradition of Greater Israel and fighting for Zionist cause?!
How high was the author, if not himself being a zealot of the same old tradition, writing this article?

Arnold Shcherban - 8/17/2006