Season 2, Episode 17
Building the Iron Wall
Vladimir Jabotinsky advocated for a Jewish “iron wall” to defend against Arab aggression. He believed that the Arabs would never accept a Jewish homeland, and thus the Jews would have to develop an impenetrable system of self-defense to make Palestine their home. His thinking is the foundation of right-wing politics in Israel today.
Vladimir Jabotinsky was born in Russia in 1880. Having witnessed firsthand the violent oppression of the Jewish community there, he was determined not to see the same fate befall the Jews of Palestine. He dedicated himself to building a strong Jewish fighting force for self-defense. He gained prominence during the 1920 Jerusalem riots, which led him to assume a leadership position in the Zionist movement. But pretty quickly he developed three serious disagreements with the movement’s strategy.
One: the nature of relations with the Arabs. Chaim Weizmann and the “mainstream” movement adopted a “gradualist” approach of patience, restraint, and collegiality with the British and relationship-building with the Arabs. Jabotinsky rejected this as unrealistic. In 1923 he wrote a manifesto titled “The Iron Wall,” arguing that the Arabs would never voluntarily accept a Jewish homeland. The only way they would accept it would be if the Jews were so strong that it would be impossible to defeat them.
Two: Jewish immigration to Palestine. Jabotinsky was a “maximalist.” He interpreted the Balfour Declaration to allow massive Jewish immigration that was neither gradual or limited. The goal was for the Jews to become the majority population in Palestine, so that the British couldn’t ignore them and the Arabs couldn’t defeat them.
Three: How much territory should constitute the Jewish national home. Jabotinsky was here, too, a maximalist. He insisted that the Jewish homeland should reside on the land where the Jews were indigenous and where their ancient kingdoms stood. That would include most of modern-day Israel, the West Bank of the Jordan River, today’s Jordan, and parts of Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt.
The Arabs have the whole Middle East in which to live, he figured, while the Jews in Europe were faced with destruction. And so the moral case was clear and urgent, and could not suffer any compromise with the rejectionist Arabs.
Unable to reconcile his viewpoint with the mainstream movement led by Weizmann, Jabotinsky broke off in 1925 and formed a separate Zionist tree branch: Revisionist Zionism. The goal was to renegotiate the Zionists’ relationship with the British to get the British onboard with his three major principles around the Arabs, immigration, and territory.
At the same time, he was open to the idea of bi-national state shared with the Arabs. “I am prepared to take an oath binding ourselves and our descendants that we shall never do anything contrary to the principle of equal rights, and that we shall never try to eject anyone.”
Vladimir Jabotinsky: One of the most influential Zionist leaders, he founded the right-wing branch of the Zionist tree. His perspective most clashes with the Arabs, most aggressively seeks as much land as possible for the Jewish state, and sets up antagonistic relations with other branches of the Zionist tree that Israel is still fighting over today. But from Jabotinsky we also get the Jewish self-defense movement to defend Jewish settlements and lives from attack. He was also an advocate for equal rights for Arabs, and for a social-democratic form of government in the Jewish state.
Yosef Chaim Brenner: early pioneer of Hebrew literature. Arrived in Palestine with the Second Aliyah. Aligned with the Labor Zionist tree branch, he maintained a pessimism that Zionism was the solution to the Jews’ powerlessness. He became a symbol of Zionist persistence and hope after being murdered by an Arab mob in 1921.
Chaim Weizmann: leader of the Zionist Movement. He was a moderate to Jabotinsky’s maximalist perspective, and believed in a more deferential relationship with the British.
THE BIG IDEAS
In 1923 Jabotinsky wrote that the Arabs would only ever accept a Jewish homeland “when there is no longer any hope of getting rid of us, because they can make no breach in the iron wall.” In other words, the Arabs will accept the Jewish presence in Palestine only because they have to, not because they want to. His “Iron Wall” essay espoused an organized system of Jewish self-defense that would see the Jews rely only on themselves for their security. Though aggressive, Jabotinsky viewed this system as purely defensive, not to be used to attack the Arabs.
The Zionist movement debated different ideas for the future territory of the Jewish homeland. If the goal was to be safe from anti-Semitism, then anywhere the Jews could establish a majority of the population to ensure their security would be good enough. The homeland could be anywhere in the world. If Palestine, however, is the essential Jewish homeland, then the territory should encompass the ancient holy sites, which are located in what is today the West Bank and parts of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. This would not include the coast, i.e. where Tel Aviv is located, because there is no real connection to Jewish history there. But Jabotinsky and his followers believed in territorial maximalism in which the Jewish homeland, under the Balfour Declaration, ought to include anywhere the Jews were indigenous and had sovereignty in ancient times, an area that includes not only modern-day Israel but also the Kingdom of Jordan and other parts of the Near East.
In 1925 Jabotinsky broke away from the mainstream Zionist movement, led by the Labor Zionists, to start his own tree branch called Revisionist Zionism. His intent was to revise the relationship between the Zionists and the British. He wasn’t against the British. He wanted them to interpret the Balfour Declaration as propounding his maximalist viewpoints on the Arabs, immigration, and territory. Revisionist Zionism became the basis for the political right-wing in Israel.
In 1903 the Zionist Congress passed a vote to investigate Uganda as a possible Jewish homeland. It was ultimately rejected, but other places considered were Libya, Iraq, Australia, Canada, and Texas. Ten thousand Jews went to Galveston before World War One.
In 1921 the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) pooled together various self-defense units into one central body called Haganah — which means, “the defense.” The Haganah formed the basis of the future Israel Defense Force.
In 1922 there were only 87,000 Jews in Palestine — and 650,000 Muslims.
© Jason Harris 2019