- A Rebel with a CauseHillel Kook, Begin and Jabotinsky’s Ideological Legacy
In May 1946, at the height of the Zionist struggle against the British in Palestine, Menachem Begin, the commander of the Irgun, sent a letter to Hillel Kook—the Irgun's maverick activist in the United States.1 At the beginning of the letter, Begin thanked Kook, "for all that he has done in true pioneering spirit and full devotion"; but after the warm opening, the tone of the letter changed. The Irgun's commander warned Kook to stop spreading rumors alleging that the American League for Free Palestine, an organization that Kook founded in 1944, was responsible for boats bringing illegal Jewish immigrants to Israel. Begin claimed that such rumors would only strengthen the Irgun's opponents and impede its activities in Israel. Moreover, Begin demanded that Kook concentrate his efforts entirely on procuring arms and ammunitions for the fighters in Israel, because, according to Begin, the future of the Zionist struggle for national independence lay in the military front and not in the campaign to bring immigrants to Israel. Lastly, Begin admonished Kook for insisting to refer to the Land of Israel as the Free Palestine State. Begin preferred that Kook use the name Free State of Eretz Israel; he felt that using the name Palestine without any identification with the Jewish people could prove to be very dangerous for the Zionist cause.
Begin's letter to Kook illustrates the deep tensions that existed between the Irgun's leadership in Israel and its chief activist in the United States; but more importantly, perhaps, it reveals the deep ideological schism that emerged between Begin, who became the leader of the Revisionist movement in the 1940s, and Kook, who saw himself as the true ideological and political heir of the movement's founder—Ze'ev Jabotinsky.
Hillel Kook had an extraordinary public career, but one which was relegated to the margins of the annals of Zionism. He began his political [End Page 87] journey as a member Jabotinsky's movement at a the time when the Zionist Right was marginalized by the dominant Labor faction; and then, after disappearing from the public eye for nearly three decades, at a time when the Right under Begin's leadership was emerging as the dominant force in Israeli politics, he found himself again outside the Zionist mainstream, proposing ideas and programs that were rejected by most elements (including the Right) of the Zionist ideological spectrum. Despite his marginality as a public figure, however, Kook's ideological journey provides a fascinating look at the incredible power, as well as the limitations, of the Zionist idea.
In this article, I will examine Hillel Kook's activities as the Irgun's representative in America in light of the ideological struggle that erupted between Begin and Jabotinsky in the late 1930s over the nature and character of Zionist Revisionism. I will then examine how, especially after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Kook's political ideals crystallized into a comprehensive critique of the main tenets of Zionism. Furthermore, I will show that both Kook's earlier activities in America, in which he used innovative techniques to publicize and advance the Zionist Revisionist cause, and his later ideological revision of mainstream Zionism were motivated by a unique interpretation of Jabotinsky's Zionist vision—an interpretation that made him one of the more controversial Zionist ideologues.
In a speech before the world conference of Betar in 1938, Menachem Begin, then the leader of Betar in Poland and a rising star among the younger generation of Revisionist activists, declared that the era of political Zionism had come to an end. According to Begin, the Zionist movement was entering a new stage in its struggle for national independence when it would be the military, not the political, arena would take center stage. Jabotinsky's reaction to Begin's words was unequivocal: he turned his back to his young colleague and said that Begin's words reminded him of the screeching sound on old door.
Begin and other members of the younger generation of Betar and Irgun activists were drawn to the Revisionist...