Season 2, Episode 24


Is This How Zionism Ends?

The Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 brought a Zionist reconsideration of Jewish self-defense. Many thought it was time to respond to Arab violence with Jewish violence. Calling themselves hayalim almonim (“anonymous soldiers”), Jewish militants from the Irgun began responding to Arab attacks with equally harsh reprisals. They are a legacy of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s break from mainstream Zionism, even though he himself was deeply ambivalent about their tactics. Israel still debates today the question of how to respond to Arab violence, and whether some acts of self-defense might go too far. The Irgun challenges us to think hard about the tradeoffs and sacrifices, and how some choices, even in retrospect, seem kind of impossible.


Vladimir Jabotinsky is perhaps the most influential leader of the Zionist Movement after Theodore Herzl, incubating the right-wing side of Zionist politics. He stood for a powerful Jewish self-defense with a Jewish majority in a maximum of territory within Palestine. His thinking led first to an ideological split with the mainstream Zionist Movement, then a political one, and, finally, by the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, a military one.

The ideological split happened in In the mid-1920s when Jabotinsky created his own Zionist tree branch, called “Revisionism.” It’s purpose was to work with the British to achieve this maximalist goal around territory and immigration. 

In 1935 came the political split when Jabotinsky formed a separate Zionist tree altogether, mirroring the institutions of the mainstream movements. It’s as if the Democrats in the United States were to set up their own separate federal government when the Republicans were in the White House. 

As part of this new Revisionist Zionist effort, Jabotinsky in 1931 had created a right-wing mirror militia to the left-wing Haganah. He called it the National Military Organization, or Irgun. The Irgun advocated for stronger defensive measures and, beginning in 1937, began carrying out retaliatory strikes in response to Arab attacks.

In 1938 Shlomo ben Yosef, an Irgun fighter, tried to attack a bus of Arab civilians in retaliation for an Arab attack on Jews. He failed but was caught by the British, tried, and sentenced to death. It was entirely political — the British wanted to show the Arabs that they would respond harshly to Jewish violence. His execution turned him into a martyr of Jewish resistance and symbolized the Irgun’s lack of restraint in promoting Jewish self defense and meeting Arab violence with Jewish violence. 

The Irgun launched a wave of violence in the summer of 1938, murdering dozens of Arab civilians in horrific attacks on markets and other public targets. It was a vicious circle. Each attack by an Arab against a Jew resulted in a retaliatory attack from the Irgun, and each attack by the Irgun resulted in another, equally cruel, attack by the Arabs. 

Ben Gurion and the rest of the mainstream Zionist movement were clear where they stood: unequivocal condemnation of the Irgun. But the Irgun argued that since Arab terrorism worked in persuading the British to take their side, Jewish terrorism would also work. But when the Arabs ceased attacking the Jews after the revolt ended, the Irgun also stopped their attacks on the Arabs. As British adopted the White Paper of 1939, even the Haganah began to appreciate the necessity of fighting back. It gave up its policy of restraint and both the Haganah and the Irgun began focusing on a new enemy: the British.


  • Vladimir Jabotinsky: the founding father of of right-wing Zionism, including the Revisionist Movement and the Irgun. His experiences with violent persecution in Russia during his youth informed his obsession with Jewish self-defense. But his experiences in the cosmopolitan west also informed his liberal views on equal rights, religious freedom, and democracy, which he also helped bring into the Zionist Movement.

  • Shlomo Ben Yosef: 24-year old Polish Jew who attempted to ambush an Arab bus, was caught by the British, and sentenced to death. His execution shattered Jabotinsky’s faith in the British and served as a rallying cry for the Irgun’s policy of retaliation.


  • Vladimir Jabotinsky, the “spiritual leader” of right-wing Zionism, held a complex mix of right-wing militant Jewish nationalist beliefs and progressive democratic ideals. He believed both that the Arabs could never accept a Jewish homeland, and that Arabs who end up in the future homeland should have equal rights and full citizenship. He believed that the Arabs should have a place in the future homeland and that the state should have a strong Jewish majority. He advocated strong self-defense, but with restraint. 

  • Jabotinsky’s views led him to a maximalist position on the goals of Zionism. Although the Zionist Movement wasn’t agreed on the goal of creating an actual Jewish state, Jabotinksy insisted that a state, with a Jewish majority, was essential for Jewish survival. The territory should encompass all of the historic Jewish homeland — what today would include modern Israel, the Palestinian territories, and parts of Jordan and Syria. This maximalist position was adopted by the Revisionist Zionist movement and was partially adopted by subsequent iterations of the Israeli political right, even today.

  • The Irgun’s retaliatory tactics against Arab violence in the late 1930s are familiar to us today: terrorism. Specifically, the kind of sensational violence that would instill fear and awe, and that lacked any particular military objective or self-defense need. In July 1938, the Irgun set off a bomb inside Haifa’s central market, killing fifty Arabs. The Irgun hoped the attack would “leave a long echo in the streets of the world.”


  • Both the Haganah and the Irgun were considered illegal militias under the British Mandate. Forced to operate underground, their consequent skills in secrecy and intelligence-gathering would later pay dividends as the Yishuv moved towards becoming a Jewish state.

  • Shlomo Ben Yosef’s last words were, “Let the world see that Jews are not afraid to face death. Long live the Jewish state! Long live Jabotinsky!”

  • During the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, the Irgun staged over 60 attacks against the Arabs, killing 250 people. 

© Jason Harris 2019


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