Memories of Ze’ev Jabotinsky
by Benzion Olsfanger
I joined the South African Betar movement in 1932, when I was studying engineering at the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. I well remember Jabotinsky’s two missions to South Africa in 1937 and 1938 respectively over a total period of some six months, on behalf of the New Zionist Organisation, of which he was the President.
In 1935, Jabotinsky and his Revisionist Zionist Party had concluded that the Zionist movement was so undemocratic that it was impossible to change its leadership and policy. They were convinced that under the leadership of the Jewish Agency, Zionism was being liquidated and Jabotinsky and his party seceded from the World Zionist Organisation. Some 700,000 Jewish voters gave them the mandate to found democratically the New Zionist Organisation and on the 8th September 1935, at a conference in Vienna, the fundamental principles of the new people’s movement were proclaimed. The membership of the New Zionist Organisation was mostly from amongst Jews of Eastern Europe. The Jews of Western Europe and the United States showed little or no interest in Jabotinsky or his movement. At the time of the rapid rise to power of the Nazis in the year 1933, Jabotinsky warned: “liquidate the diaspora or the diaspora will liquidate you” to the deaf ears of the Zionist establishment.
Jabotinsky described the lot of the Eastern European Jews as a “frozen stampede”; they wanted to flee, but there was nowhere to go because no state would welcome them. Therefore he propagated his Humanitarian Zionism, which comprised a ten year plan for their orderly evacuation from the zones of distress in Eastern Europe, mostly Poland, and their settlement in a Jewish State, with a Jewish majority, in Palestine on both sides of the River Jordan. There was no recognised state of Jordan in those days, but simply Trans-Jordan or Eastern Palestine, which the British had partitioned from Mandatory Palestine in 1922 and where they had installed the Hashemite Abdullah as its ruler. Likewise in 1923, the British had partitioned and handed over the Golan Heights to the land-rich French Mandate of Syria. Jabotinsky claimed these lands to be part of the Mandate of Palestine, which was granted into Britain’s care by the then League of Nations. The purpose of that Mandate was to establish the Jewish State in Palestine and not to hand over the Mandatory lands to Arabs. In his evidence submitted to the Peel Commission of Inquiry on Palestine in 1937, Jabotinsky suggested that if Britain was really unable to fulfill its Mandatory obligations, then it should give up its administration of the region and return its governance to the League of Nations. (These were very prophetic words, because prior to the actual foundation of Israel in 1948, Britain returned its mandate to the United Nations and then withdrew from the Middle East.) The Jewish State in Mandatory Palestine was vital for Jabotinsky’s plan to evacuate the millions of Eastern Jews locked up in the “frozen stampede”. He warned that the eleventh hour had come for rescuing the these Jews by implementing the ten-year plan, and that funds were urgently needed save the Jews from a certain genocide.
The New Zionist organisation lacked a steady and reliable source of funds and so Jabotinsky set out on fund raising tours. There was then in South Africa an active, strong and sophisticated Revisionist Zionist movement including the Betar movement, of which I was a member. At that time there was also great prosperity in South Africa due to a boom in gold mining, construction and industrial expansion. Indeed South African Jewry ranked amongst the largest contributors to the Zionist cause. With the local Revisionist Zionists functioning as a nucleus, Jabotinsky came to South Africa to raise money for the New Zionist Organisation as well as to increase its membership there. He addressed public meetings countrywide that were enthusiastically attended by the Jewish communities who generously donated to the cause. Many non-Zionists were so impressed by Jabotinsky and joined the New Zionist Organisation. However, the South African Zionist Federation that was comprised of the General Zionists, Religious Mizrachi and Socialist Zionist parties and affiliated to the World Zionist Organisation, opposed Jabotinsky, propagated a counter-campaign against him with the help of imported propagandists from abroad and condemned the Revisionists as “dissidents”. He initiated conciliation with the South African Zionist Federation to be negotiated at a proposed round table conference, but they rejected this. Nevertheless, Jabotinsky was well received by many Jews, Gentiles, the media and government circles and he was much sought after by Jewish societies who organised banquets, dinner parties and drawing-room meetings in support of him for the purpose of raising funds. There was also a flow of visitors to his suite in the old Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg.
I attended many of Jabotinsky’s public meetings and never tired of his spellbinding oratory. Listening to him speak was like attending a symphony concert. I particularly remember his first public meeting in the Johannesburg Plaza Theatre. His theme was “The Path to the Jewish State”. He meticulously prepared his delivery in programmed detail, even including the jokes, nuances and pauses. He stood on the stage erect and at ease and spoke fluently, clearly and audibly, in perfect, plain and idiomatic English for some two hours, using body language in imitative gestures to emphasise actions he was describing. He emanated a certain presence that focused total audience attention on him in a way few orators are able to do. He evoked images of people, places and events in a spellbinding manner. The packed audience sat still, silent and enthralled. They gave him prolonged and enthusiastic applause throughout and they donated generously.
In June 1937, in my capacity as the only car owner in the Betar movement, I was selected to accompany Jabotinsky and his colleague Eliyahu Ben-Horin on a touring mission to the Jewish communities in Northern Transvaal and adjacent Southern Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe). This was a tour of some 3,000 kilometres that included, on the way back to Johannesburg, a trip through the Kruger National Park Game Reserve that had been planned to give Jabotinsky a break from his strenuous work. At the Beit Bridge crossing over the Limpopo River boundary, between Southern Rhodesia and South Africa, Jabotinsky presented his Nansen passport to the Rhodesian customs officials. This was a League of Nations passport conceived by the humanitarian Polar explorer, Nansen, and issued to stateless Russian exiles, Jabotinsky’s birthplace being Odessa in Russia [current day Ukraine]. He became stateless in 1929 when the British Administration in Palestine arbitrarily exiled him from his home there, were he had been legally entitled to live. That same year, 1929, marks the year the Jews of Hebron were massacred by the local Arab population, unimpeded by the Colonial Office responsible for civil obedience in the region. Consequently however, Jabotinsky was not hampered by allegiance to any state or government in his selfless, single-minded, fearless, relentless and prodigious drive to achieve the Jewish State so that the Jews of Eastern Europe could escape from that “frozen stampede”.
Jabotinsky was a multi-talented genius. He was a statesman, prophet, orator, linguist, soldier, lawyer, poet, journalist and novelist. He used all these talents in his fight to re-establish in Mandatory Palestine the ancient Jewish State so that the Jews could have a safe haven from the impending genocide he had predicted. He earned his living as a syndicating journalist and contributed to his movement’s funds. In his book “The Story of the Jewish Legion”, Jabotinsky describes his successful three-year struggle to persuade the governments of Britain, France and Italy to agree to the formation in 1915 of the Jewish Legion (Ha’Gedud Ha’Ivri), that participated in the British conquest of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire and in which Jabotinsky was an officer. In his novel “Samson” which he amplified from the biblical narrative, he reveals his political philosophy. I remember seeing in the year 1952, Cecil de Mille’s movie “Samson” based on Jabotinsky’s novel, in which Victor Mature, Hedy Lamarr and a young Angela Lansbury respectively portray Samson, Delilah and Semadar.
During the tour of Southern Africa, I had the unique opportunity of observing Jabotinsky the private man at close quarters. I found him to be courteous, kind, sociable, likable, even-tempered, unassuming, as well as an alert and penetrating observer. He zestfully enjoyed the tour and sang when he was in a happy mood. He was devoid of arrogance, egotism and patronage. He did not hate his communist and socialist ideological opponents, even those who vilified, denigrated and abused him. Nevertheless, if interrupted in oration by provocative hecklers, he silenced them with harsh verbal whip-lashing. He had impeccable manners and was indeed the living embodiment of that “Hadar” which he propagated to his Betar movement.
In August 1939 the devastating and unforeseen Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and Communist Russia was signed after secret negotiations. This precipitated in the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, beginning with the joint Nazi-Communist partition and occupation of Poland. The eleventh hour Jabotinsky had predicted, passed by unnoticed by the world at large, but the “frozen stampede” remained, the Jews of Eastern Europe were trapped, facing the liquidation Jabotinsky had predicted.
Undaunted by the momentous task he had taken on, Jabotinsky traveled to the USA on a mission to propagate the raising of a Jewish army to fight against Nazi Germany. There was opposition to his efforts from USA government circles and the World Zionist Organisation. At that time the desperate Battle of Britain was imminent and the United States was neutral. Jabotinsky never realised his mission as he suffered a sudden fatal heart attack in New York in August 1940 at the age of 60. In his will drawn up in 1935, he directed that he was to be buried where he died, and that his remains be re-interred in the future Jewish State only by order of its government. He was finally reburied in Israel in 1965, 17 years after Israel’s founding and 36 years after his exile, by the order of the government of Levi Eshkol, who himself had been a soldier in Jabotinsky’s Jewish Legion.
Before his death, Jabotinsky wrote one of his last articles in New York entitled “Communism is Poison to Zionism” that proved to be prophetic during the period of the Cold War when communist Russia was Israel’s enemy.
I believe that Jabotinsky ranks amongst the great fighting leaders and prophets of ancient Israel. He left a legacy: his followers participated in the war of liberation, and afterwards formed an opposition party in the Israeli Knesset [parliament] which ultimately formed a coalition with other opposition parties to take over the reigns of power in the elections of 1977.
In his time, the historical circumstances were overwhelming against his ten-year plan. Nevertheless, he fought to the bitter end giving his life to save the Jewish nation. Catastrophically, the Galut was not liquidated and so the “frozen stampede”, was liquidated in the Holocaust.
1937 Archives of the “Eleventh Hour”, initial organ of the New Zionist Organisation of South Africa
1937 – 1938 Archives of the “Zionist Record”, organ of the South African Zionist Federation
Archives of the “Jewish Herald”, final organ of the New Zionist Organisation of South Africa
July 9 1938 Jabotinsky wrote to the author from Rome whilst en route to England from South Africa. He was then living in the London suburb of St. John’s Wood.
August 3 1965 Supplement to the “Jewish Herald” entitled “Ze’ev Jabotinsky 1880 – 1940” on the occasion of the reburial of his remains in Israel.
Pierre Van Paassen “The forgotten ally”